9 Species of Darkness

What is this?

POST TYPE: Supplement
CORE CONCEPT: Mechanics for making darkness an active, and dreaded, adversary
SYSTEM: D&D 5e, conversion-friendly

   If this sounds like a rip-off of the 12 types of dark from Veins of the Earth, it's because it is. I even paraphrased my favourite Veins line for the Rat's Shadows description below; the book is evocative as hell. That said, I am but a creature of mud and cannot do such abstract concepts justice at the table. I needed something at least a little more concrete. Here, ready to be whispered about by miners and drow, or simply plopped into your next cave, are 7 magical area traps and 2 'moods' of darkness designed to discomfort.

Descriptions & Mechanics

    "How dark is the dark down there?"

In mining towns and underdark cities, this question is as common as asking the weather. Most such folk can agree on at least the following 9 species of darkness:

  1. Rat Shadows
  2. Rogue's Cover
  3. Straw-dark
  4. Sirenshade
  5. Well-gloom
  6. Maidendark
  7. Dark-with-Teeth
  8. Mind-murk
  9. True Dark

The mechanics of these species (except Rat Shadows) are detailed below, and all are bound by the properties that follow. Probably.

Insubstantial: Darkness cannot directly inflict damage.

Protected by Light: A creature is immune to mechanical effects of a species of darkness as long as their entire body fits within the radius of their light source.

Dark Identification: Characters inside an area of darkness, or within a lantern's range of one, can roll a DC 15 Nature check (DC 10 if trained) to identify its species. Consider Rat Shadows the default darkness.

1. Rat Shadows

"You give that torch a good old swing and those shadows have no choice in the matter."

Core Concept: Everyday darkness

 If the darkness underground is the sea, rat shadows are its puddles. They skitter around ruins and cellars sheltering all manner of beasts and traps, yet skitter away from lanterns and can only sulk at the edges of darkvision. Stil, they are the most prolific darkness; neither above nor below will ever be rid of them.

2. Rogue's Cover

"You so much as scratch your nose and you'll find an empty scabbard waiting when you're done."

Core Concept: Merciless mischief

 Friend to cut-purses and escapees, this darkness delights to whisk away the spectacles left on the desk, or the lantern that sputtered out beside you overnight. It is quick to flee with its loot too. Deep below, a lost lantern is deadly enough, but on the surface, its danger lies in who it shelters.

Thievery: Roll under Passive Perception on a d20 or lose an unsecured item.

Sneaking In: Any 25+ Stealth or Sleight-of-Hand check will convert nearby darkness to Rogue's Cover for as many minutes. The character who made the check is immune to this instance of Thievery.

3. Straw-dark

"Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop..."

Core Concept: Safe rest

 This is the peach-coloured dark of your eyelids, the folds of a straw mattress after a long day, the quiet breaths of those kept closest at night. It is almost exclusively found at the surface as there is little comfort in rest underground.

Respite: Effects of negative mental conditions are postponed in areas of straw-dark. The sufferer is not cured, but will not suffer further mechanical harm or deterioration.

4. Sirenshade

"Isn't this the way we came in?"

Core Concept: Kidnapper in disguise

 Many plunge into Sirenshade with less than a day's worth of food and oil, having mistaken the less intense darkness for simple rat shadows or straw-dark. If they are ever seen again, it is after months, or even years, of journeying home. Sirenshade stretches itself across the world like a lounging cat; it needs only a wisp to lure you away to wherever, or whatever, would be fun to watch you discover.

Misled: Characters exit an area of sirenshade at a place of its choosing.

5. Well-gloom

"Mind your step around the pit or it'll be your last."

Core Concept: Black hole

 The cold, patient gloom that gathers, or is born, in the sinkholes and cracks of the world promises a smooth descent to the curious or unwary. Ascent however, is anything but.

Gravity Well: All movement away from the deepest part of an area of well-gloom is difficult terrain. Characters suffer a level of exhaustion for every hour spent here.

6. Maidendark

"Lights off, and step gentle. No need to be startling maidendark."

Core Concept: Cornered animal

 Deep in the earth lives a dark that has never conceived of light. When first approached, its curiosity wars against its wariness. Bright, burning lights may trigger a mutation into a more deadly form of dark, but an understanding soul can avoid a struggle, or even make an ally.

Influence: Roll a d6 on the table below using the appropriate column depending on if the party approaches gently or harshly. This determination is DM's judgement but any inclusion of burning, hurtful light should render the approach harsh.

Gentle Approach Harsh Approach Maidendark Mutates into...
- 1-2 Darkness-with-Teeth
- 3-4 Sirenshade*
1 5 Well-gloom**
2-3 6 Rat Shadows
4-5 - Rogue's Cover
6 - Straw-dark

*New Sirenshade will only try to thrust the intruders out and away from itself as fast as possible.

**New Well-gloom will immediately flow to the lowest point in the area. The resulting flood creates the Gravity Well effect in its direction of flow with an Athletics Check DC 17 vs being swept along 30ft by the floor (repeated every round).

7. Darkness-with-Teeth

"I ain't stepping one foot away from this fire 'til it finds someone else to slobber over."

Core Concept: Cannibalistic hunger

 Rancid and hot like the inside of a mouth, this darkness bleeds hunger into everything it touches, driving good folk to foul deeds. Its only redeeming quality is a gnashing aversion to even the weakest lights. For this reason, or perhaps because of it, it has never leaked above ground.

Ravenous: A creature's food requirement doubles when they enter an area of darkness-with-teeth, and doubles again every hour they remain. (Veins of the Earth includes a nice, punishing set of hunger rules to ensure this is a concern.)

8. Mind-murk

"Tell me you saw that too."

Core Concept: The lies we tell ourselves

 Like maidendark, this is a curious darkness, but it has had years to learn. It starts small - the whisper at your ear, the rustle of scales behind you - and it observes. It is only a matter of iteration until your fears of future and past are all screaming down your neck as you crawl through a tunnel that you swore was twenty feet high when you entered. Only when you're jammed in too tight to turn around do they leave you to starve.

Shapes in the Dark: Areas of mind-murk can be made to change their form as if the darkness cast a Dream spell (disregarding damage) with spell save DC 17.

Obfuscation: Rolls against physical hazards in an area of mind-murk are made at disadvantage. If a harmless result occurs when rolling on a random table, use the nearest harmful result instead.

9. True Dark

"If you ever find true darkness, I'm afraid you have journeyed quite beyond the help of taxonomy."

Core Concept: Fear of the unknown

 True dark laughs in the face of that oh-so-human compulsion to map and classify and understand. Opinions differ on whether it is the exception to the no-direct-damage rule, or if those it swallows are still alive.

Impenetrable: True dark is treated as a solid when determining visibility and immune to Protected by Light (below).

Swallowed Whole: A character that comes into physical contact with true dark is no longer available for play and leaves behind no trace if the true dark recedes.

DM's NOTE: True dark is best glimpsed from a distance or fled from in a panic after fumbling some other encounter; consider rolling a d8 for species of darkness. It can be nerfed by adding counterplay to Swallowed Whole but at that point you're making a different species of darkness.

Last Bits

Strategies for Pesky Lights

  • Spread parties out of their best light's radius using wide chasms, steep climbs, and long, thin tunnels
  • Invite them to get lost longer than their oil supply lasts
  • Have denizens offer weapons, quest items, a diamond for their freshly-dead friend, etc. in exchange for fuel
  • Let players be the ones to invent Dancing Lights, flaming weapons, etc.
  • Grant some species of darkness the ability to override light (like in the Darkness spell)
  • Describe the party's lightsources dimming to half-strength once they sink past some invisible depth, like air thinning out in high atmosphere
  • A shitload of true dark

Discovering More Species

My process for making darkness traps:

  1. Immerse - Watch a scary movie, sit in a dark bathroom without touching the walls. Generate unease and follow it back to its root for a core concept (5 words or less).
  2. Nurture - Close your eyes and creep through a cave of this stuff. What might jump out at you? What might you step in? Can you hear anything?
  3. Crunch - Convert those data-points into trap mechanics. Reference similar spells and items but break away from DPS. Look into crowd control; you are essentially fighting the map.
  4. Solidify - Re-read your core concept. Rephrase it. Condense the nurturing into 3 or fewer sentences. 1 of those 3 should directly allude to your new mechanics.
  5. Name your darkness.
  6. Test - throw it at a party or tell a friend and see if they start taking notes or start talking about how save-or-suck hazards just suck. Iterate, but don't pick at it forever like I'm doing now.