Darkvision 5e: How It Really Works & Common Misconceptions

Alright everybody, gather ‘round the torchlight. It’s time to talk about one of the most heated topics in D&D 5e: darkvision.

Is it some magical ability that lets you see everything? Do too many playable races have it? For Moradin’s sake, what’s the point?

Don’t worry, we’ll answer all the questions you have, a few more that pop up along the way, and some you didn’t even know you wanted the answer to. Without any further ado, let’s get into it.

What Is Darkvision in 5e?

Darkvision is a special sense that allows a creature in 5e to see dim light as if it were bright light and to see in darkness as if it were dim light, up to a certain listed radius. It does not allow you to see in magical darkness. 

Below is the official text for darkvision as it appears in the stat block for the Owlin playable race. Notice that it gives a specified range of 120 feet.

Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 120 feet of yourself as if it were bright light and in darkness as if it were dim light. You discern colors in that darkness only as shades of gray.

There’s a lot to unpack here. In order to have an educated discussion about darkness, we need to understand the three categories of light and how they affect players.

There are some important terms mentioned above, and as I attempt to define those, some more will come up.

Below, I’ve put together a little glossary that will help us throughout the rest of this article.

  • Darkness – Darkness creates a heavily obscured area. Night, even most moonlit nights, are considered to cast full darkness as do any areas with a lack of bright light sources.
  • Dim Light – Dim light creates a lightly obscured area. This is often used to describe the hazy area between bright light (as caused by a torch or other light source) and darkness. Twilight, dawn, and even the light of a full moon are all considered dim light.
  • Bright Light – Most creatures can see normally in bright light. This is a well-lit room, a sunny day, the area closest to a light source, etc.
  • Heavily Obscured – Darkness, as well as things such as thick fog or dense foliage, cause an area to be heavily obscured. In these areas, creatures suffer from the blinded condition.
  • BlindedA blinded creature can’t see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight. Attack rolls against the creature have advantage, and the creature’s Attack rolls have disadvantage.
  • Lightly Obscured – Areas that are lightly obscured cause a creature to have disadvantage on perception checks that require sight.
  • Passive Perception – If a creature has disadvantage on perception checks, that creature takes a -5 penalty to their passive perception score. (We’ll discuss passive perception and how it relates to darkness, but check out our full article for more info.)
  • Magical Darkness – Magical darkness is any darkness created by a spell or other magical effect.

Alright! So with that, how about we look at the definition again?

Darkvision allows creatures to see in dim light as if it were bright light and darkness as if it were dim night.

This means that in dim light, where a normal creature would be at disadvantage, creatures with darkvision take no penalty to vision.

It also means that in darkness, where normal creatures would take quite a few penalties, a creature with darkvision only has disadvantage on perception checks that require sight.

Who Has Darkvision?

Darkvision is an extremely common bonus that playable races and monsters of all types might have in their stat block.

There’s even a chance you’ll pick this up through your class if you manage to pick one of the few races that don’t have it as a racial feature.

Starting with playable races, we’ve compiled a table below of all the playable races in 5e and whether they do or do not have darkvision. 

Items, Subclasses, and More Ways To Get Darkvision

Now, like I said, a race isn’t the only way to get darkvision. Below are a few more ways you can add this ability to your character sheet. 

  • Shadow Magic Sorcerer – 120-feet darkvision at 1st-level along with the 3rd-level ability to cast Darkness and see through the magical darkness if you use sorcery points.
  • Gloom Stalker Ranger – Either 60-feet darkvision or an increase of 30 feet to a racial darkvision feature. Additionally, you are invisible to creatures who use darkvision to see in darkness.
  • Circle of Twilight Cleric – The first-level feature eyes of night gives you 300-feet darkvision! You can even share this darkvision with a number of creatures equal to your wisdom modifier for 1 hour. Once you’ve shared your darkvision in this way, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest or expend a spell slot of any level to use it additional times.
  • Devil’s Sight – This eldritch invocation is available at 2nd level in warlock. It allows you to see normally (as if in bright light) in both normal and magical darkness up to 120 feet.
  • Ghostly Gaze – This 7th-level eldritch invocation allows a warlock to use an action to see through solid objects to a range of 30 feet and have darkvision in that range. This lasts for 1 minute or until their concentration is broken.
  • Belt of Dwarvenkind – Grants its user darkvision up to 60 feet if they don’t already have it, along with many other abilities.
  • Helm of Underwater Action – While wearing this brass helmet, you can breathe underwater, you gain darkvision with a range of 60 feet, and you gain a swimming speed of 30 feet.
  • Robe of Eyes – This robe grants you 120-feet darkvision as well as the ability to see in all directions, to gain advantage on perception checks relying on sight, and to see invisible creatures and objects out to 120 feet. Keep in mind that since any stacked instances of advantage and disadvantage cancel out, the advantage offered by this object effectively allows you to see normally in darkness. 
  • Wreath of the Prism – This legendary item is far more impressive than just darkvision, but it does give its wearer 60 feet of darkvision (either as a base or as an addition to a pre-existing feature). The rest of its abilities allow you to cast Dominate Monster, which will likely be the main reason you use it.
  • Goggles of the Night60 feet of darkvision (either as a base or as an addition to a preexisting feature).
  • Axe of the Dwarvish Lords – This is a +3 axe that also grants all the benefits of a Belt of Dwarvenkind, a Dwarven Thrower, and a Blade of Sharpness.
  • Shadowfell Brand Tattoo – This magical tattoo grants you darkvision up to 60 feet, advantage on stealth checks, and the ability to react to damage by turning insubstantial, halving the damage.
  • Dragon Masks – These masks come in different colors, but all grant you 60 feet of darkvision, either as a base distance or in addition to another feature you have. They also grant a slew of other abilities, including blindsight, an increased natural-armor class, damage absorption, and a breath weapon corresponding with the color of your mask.
  • Verminshroud – Darkvision of 60 feet, either as a base distance or added onto an existing feature. Many other abilities, including the ability to cast Polymorph
  • Silken Spite – This is a +1 sentient rapier that gives you darkvision of 60 feet, either as a base distance or added on, and gives you access to several abilities, including essentially being under the effects of the spell Spider Climb.
  • Orb of the Veil – This is a cursed item that increases your Wisdom score by 2, grants you 60 feet of darkvision, and gives you advantage on perception checks to find hidden doors and paths.
  • Darkvision This 2nd-level spell grants 60-feet darkvision to a willing creature you touch. The effects of this spell last for 8 hours. 

So clearly there are many ways to learn how to see better in the dark.

Of the above options, the one-level dip in Circle of Twilight Cleric or Shadow Magic Sorcerer are probably the best when you can’t get your hands on a magic item. 

After those two, the warlock invocation Devil’s Sight is definitely the next best option. In fact, it’s a better feature – it’s just set back by being a two-level dip.

What’s interesting about Devil’s Sight is that it actually doesn’t give you darkvision; it just allows you to see normally in regular and magical darkness.

This eliminates the problems darkness causes, but it makes dim light an ongoing issue. If you stack Devil’s Sight with a good-distanced darkvision, then you can actually see normally in all lighting conditions. 

Monsters With Darkvision

The adverse effects of darkness are going to impact your foes just as much as they will you, so knowing when you’re up against other creatures with darkvision will be extremely helpful.

As a general rule, any humanoid enemies will have darkvision if their race was listed above with a yes next to it.

Aside from that, many creatures who dwell in darkness have this sense to contend with.

In fact, there are almost 1,200 creatures that have darkvision out of the 2,120 creatures currently published.

That’s a little over half, which puts the odds pretty high that a monster you’re going up against can see at least somewhat in total darkness. 

Here’s a little chart I threw together showing what percent of each creature type has darkvision.

This just tells us that when dealing with beasts, celestials, oozes, and plants, it’s not too likely that we’ll have to worry about them contending in the dark.

Of course, the disclaimer I give with all charts applies here: the raw statistics mean little when it comes to making the DM’s decisions.

If the DM wants to have a horrifying plant encounter in the dark, they’ll probably use some that have darkvision or some other helpful sense like Blindsight.

The Gift of Sight: How Good Is Darkvision?

With the definition cleared up and an awareness of how common this sense really is, we can discuss just how helpful it is.

When darkvision is used properly, it can be an incredible tool for both players and DMs to experience more immersive play when dealing with any light condition other than pitch darkness.

Darkvision has a huge impact on two of the three pillars of gameplay in 5e: Combat and Exploration.

I also think it has a large impact at the intersection of these two – stealth.

“How good is darkvision?” is a really subjective question, so I’ll lay out the benefits and downfalls, and you can be the judge.

Darkvision in Combat

Normally, fighting in full darkness would give all attackers disadvantage but also give all advantage to attacks made against creatures who are in darkness.

The effect of this is nothing since they just cancel out. This does mean that no one can have advantage in full darkness and that no one can have disadvantage in full darkness.

Without darkvision (or other senses) each creature would always be on an even playing field when the lights are out.

If we think about a class like the rogue, who relies on advantage for their sneak attacks, this is a pretty rough break.

On a more general note, it means that any special ability providing advantage is just nullified, which is devastating for anybody who has one.

In fact, the only people benefiting from full darkness are spellcasters with spells that don’t require them to target someone – spells like Fireball that just launch in a certain direction and deal damage on failed saving throws.

If you have a team of casters, this would be pretty cool, but that’s not what we want to worry about here. We want to worry about everyone that could be on the battlefield.

Without darkvision, most creatures and characters don’t get to benefit from cool abilities. As soon as darkvision enters the game, we have a diverse spread of people on the battlefield, some of which can fight normally.

Remember, since darkvision treats darkness like dim light, we don’t have any issues that directly relate to combat.

So, in combat, darkvision is actually something that stops the battlefield from being leveled and can be either a huge benefit or a huge problem, depending on whether or not you are the one who has it.

Darkvision in Exploration

When it comes to exploration, even dim light can cause problems.

A creature without darkvision is going to be at a disadvantage on perception checks for traps or anything that requires sight, which is at least marginally better than the automatic fail that would happen in full darkness.

This makes things really interesting. If we’re looking for traps without darkvision in even dim light, we’re going to have a really hard time.

If you have a torch, you’re going to be able to see for 20 feet and dim light for another 20. Outside of that, it’s just darkness. 

Darkvision essentially gives you an effective radius for the torch of 40 feet and puts anything else within your darkvision range just at disadvantage (dim light/lightly obscured).

This is a huge benefit, giving you enough time to see most traps coming – but not all.

Where this really gets interesting is how it affects your passive perception.

Darkvision and Stealth

Even if you have darkvision, you still have disadvantage on perception checks relying on sight in full darkness (which is treated as dim light).

This reduces your passive perception score by 5, which is probably pretty significant.

Unless you have a ridiculously high passive perception through something like the Observant feat, you’re probably looking at a score that’s around 10 or lower when you’re in darkness. 

It’s not hard for creatures to roll a stealth score that beats this, so even if you have darkvision, you still might miss a group of goblins or kobolds trying to sneak up on you in the darkness. 

If you’re blinded though, as you would be if darkness were treated as darkness, your passive perception would just drop to 0, meaning you would never catch those stealthy foes.

So darkvision is still a benefit, just not an insanely powerful one when we’re actually using it properly.

At the end of the day, darkvision is a really incredible ability that changes so much of how we interact with darkness when we play D&D.

While there are certainly plenty of characters that have access to it, it isn’t so powerful that it makes darkness obsolete; rather, it adds new elements for us to explore.

I hope this has shed some light on the concept for you, and as always, happy adventuring!