I wanted to try my hand at something different so we are starting a new segment I am calling “Spell School”. Here, we will discuss in detail a specific spell for the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition system, outlining what it does and how best to use it while adventuring. There are several spells that for various reasons I feel go under-utilized so I want to put a spotlight on them beyond some two sentence blurb on a community forum. With introductions out of the way, let’s get started.
Darkness is a second level evocation spell available to Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards, Druids of the swamp circle of the land, and any Tiefling or Drow Elf. Being so widely available, most adventurers are likely to either have access to it, or see an enemy use it from time to time. The spell creates a large orb of “magical darkness” fifteen feet in radius (6 squares across) radiating from a point anywhere the caster can see within sixty feet. “Magical darkness” is different from mundane darkness in that it is kind of the next step down the illumination ladder. A creature with darkvision cannot see in magical darkness, the exception being devils, we’ll get to them later. In addition, mundane sources of light cannot pierce magical darkness, they are effectively turned off. The end result is a total blackout for everyone in the sphere.
Darkness does not stop there, oh no. Darkness is not content with merely blinding everyone, it quashes out spells as well as hopes and dreams. Any second level or lower spell that produces light is instantly dispelled if their light comes in contact with the globe of all consuming void, and considering Darkness sticks around for up to ten minutes, that is a lot of potential dispelling for a measly second level spell slot. Now you might be thinking to yourself okay, that means light and the dancing lights spells go out. Those are just cantrips, that is no major loss, right? You know what other spells produce light and are second level or below? Faerie Fire, Moonbeam, Flaming Sphere, Continual Flame, and Flame Blade all produce varying degrees of light, just to name a few. I relish the thought of someone trying to explain to me how their sword literally made of fire does not produce any light.
So, the lights go out, and now nobody can see. What exactly is the benefit to that? Characters in darkness are treated as having the blinded condition, meaning they have disadvantage with attacks as they cannot see their opponent. Should they be able to locate a target to even attack, either through careful listening or flailing about madly, a target similarly in darkness would count as “unaware” and thus the attacker would gain advantage. Advantage and disadvantage in any amount cancel out, so the end result is just a straight attack. This might not seem like much, but it basically equalizes the whole field. Enemies who might have advantage, say an enemy in darkness that has dark vision and your torch just went out, are now losing that benefit, which is fantastic if you were going to be on the receiving end of their longsword. In addition, characters in the darkness will be free to move about without provoking attacks of opportunity. Even if you are not in the darkness itself, a bubble of darkness can block line of sight, preventing enemy casters or archers from attacking you easily. Now if only there were ways to see in this mess, then we would really be in good shape…
At this point some of you may be thinking to yourselves, isn’t this just what fog cloud does in a smaller area? Why should I use darkness, a second level spell, when fog cloud is a first level spell with a much larger area? Well hypothetical reader, I am glad you asked. Darkness has several major advantages over fog cloud, to the extent that with a little preparation it can frankly be overpowered for its paltry second level cost. First, darkness has a limited degree of mobility that fog cloud simply does not have. When you are placing darkness, you have the ability to attack it to an object that is either currently unattended or being carried by you. If that object is moved, the massive globe of screw you goes with it. This combined with the slightly smaller area allows for darkness to be used with a higher degree of finesse, putting the globe exactly where it is needed and getting the most out of that whopping 10 minute duration. Second, darkness can be covered up, kind of like a reverse candle. You put a basket or bowl or something over the source of the darkness and poof, the sphere of blackness is gone until it gets uncovered. There is a possibility you can get multiple encounters of use out of one casting. Thirdly, the dispelling we have already covered in some detail now. Lastly, sufficiently strong magical light, such as from a spell third level or higher actually illuminates through the darkness. This synergizes terrifically well with a heightened casting of Fairy Fire or Continual Flame, as now you have created a scenario where your allies can see and your enemies cannot. This is impossible to do with spells like fog cloud or hunger of hadar and will make almost any fight comically one-sided.
We cannot discuss Darkness without bringing up its antithesis, the Daylight spell. Daylight will dispel magical darkness of third level or lower, much like Darkness will quash weaker light spells.This means a basic Daylight will counter and dispel a basic Darkness. Heightening either Darkness or Daylight does NOT increase this effect. Daylight will only remove third and lower, Darkness only second and lower, at any level. So what happens if you put a 9th level Daylight inside a 4th level Darkness, as a completely ridiculous example? Well, the area where daylight and darkness overlap is illuminated, and the area where the do not, the darkness persists, just like any other source of magical light inside a Darkness spell.
A spell as nuanced and intricate as this is bound to have many ways to exploit it, particularly by people who naturally know this spell such as Tieflings and Drow, so let’s discuss some excellent strategies for using the Darkness spell to its full potential.
Warlocks make out like a bandit with the darkness spell. The imp from the Pact of the Chain, being a devil, is capable of seeing in magical darkness and the Warlock can spend its action to share senses with its familiar, or channel touch spells through its familiar on essentially blinded foes.
The warlock also has an invocation called “Devil Sight” which both grants them darkvision and allows them to see in magical darkness. While this makes for a truly tremendous effect and gives a lot of mileage from the Darkness spell, please try to remember your allies likely lack this ability. There are ways to work around this however.
The bat familiar from the find familiar spell, while not as impressive as the imp, can be obtained by a pact of the tome warlock or a wizard. It has blindsense and can be used similarly to the imp by sharing senses.
The Shadow Magic Sorcerer gains the ability at third level to spend two sorcerery points to cast the darkness spell, and if cast this way, they can also see in it.
two casters working together (due to concentration, it will have to be two casters) can light a group of enemies with a heightened third level fairy fire then blind them with a darkness spell. You can see them, they can’t see you.
Continual Flame can be prepared ahead of time, heightened to third level or higher. This is probably the best way you can provide your allies the means of seeing in the Darkness spell. I like putting it in a bullseye lantern to limit the area illuminated to a cone.
The spell Tiny Servant from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything produces an animated construct from an object. This construct has blindsense out sixty feet, the spell does not require concentration, and you can cast darkness on the object before animating it. This can be a very effective pairing, especially if you heighten Tiny Servant to make a small swarm of the critters.
Several summoning spells can call on creatures able to see in darkness. Infernal Calling makes devils which you may not have heard can see in magical darkness, giant spiders have blind sense out to ten feet and can be summoned with conjure animals, and Earth Elementals have tremorsense out sixty feet and can be summoned with Conjure Elemental.
You can cover the source of darkness with an object to allow for normal sight, then ready an action to uncover the darkness and release all consuming night after your allies have finished attacking if your turns are clumped together in the initiative order.
Casting darkness to be stationary so you can step out of it, attack, and step back in is a very viable tactic for a combat between two primarily ranged groups.