Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Light Sources

I cast Magic Mushroom on the darkness!

One of the issues that has plagued man and and adventurer alike is the issue of: light. Light or a lack thereof dictates what the diurnal human can accomplish. Because of the biological composition of our eyes, the night can be frightening and holds terrors seen only in our minds, as well as many a thing that would love to eat us.

Fire was the answer for a long time. Able to pull double duty, it could keep the monsters at bay as well as make curly fries. People could gather around it or destroy enemies with it. And therein lies the issue.

Fire good. But fire hot. Fire needs fuel, it needs to be watched, it makes noise, it can make smoke, it consumes oxygen. On the village level most of these aren’t issues but if you’re going to get the drop on some of your enemies, being announced by torch glow might not be conducive to not being pumped full of projectiles from a few yards away. Fires need to be put out. In addition, some cultures consider fire to be sacred. Fire by its very nature of dealing both life and death must be treated with respect.

So, what are some pre-industrial age alternatives to the wily fire? Or ways to better harness its light?

In some settings lamps are a better option, especially if the region has access to oil bearing plants or animals. Different oils burn in different ways and have different smells. Sperm whales were harpooned and many an olive orchard planted in the hopes that they would yield their precious oil. And regardless of whether the oil comes from a plant or an animal, something must be destroyed in order for it to be given up. And lets not forget the currently festive candles, made from tallow (rendered beef fat) or beeswax, which require wicks. Not demoted to simply decorating cakes or ‘setting the mood,’ candles were a way to light a room and both candle and oil had their own receptacles made of a variety of materials.

Of course, there are other ways to keep the lights on. One of them is obviously magic. Depending on what system you’re using, magic can be as easy as having the right item or saying the right words. But there are some non-flammable items that aren’t magic that can show the way.

Bioluminescence is more prevalent than one might think. An astounding seventy-one species of fungus ‘glow’ in some way, some more strongly than others. Fungi show up of their own accord and afford a kind of mysteriousness themselves, since they reproduce via spores and not seeds, as well as their seemingly random propagation to anyone not paying close attention. Mushrooms and fungus come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from the familiar stalk and cap to carpets, even teaming up with algae to make lichen which can grow in the toughest of terrains.

A wide variety of critters, terrestrial and aquatic glow. Some shiny-butted bugs might have caused a swath of destruction in a certain movie where the lead protagonist was a nerd voiced by someone from Family Ties *wink wink*. Fireflies, glowworms, squids, corals, certain species of fish…all of these animals give light to varying degrees. Light that humans want to harness perhaps? A little water, perhaps a few fish flakes and you could have a living light. And if things get bad, hey, it doubles as dinner.

And for those of you who like to play it unsafe let’s not forget: radium. People didn’t know that radium’s harmful effects until the late 1800s/early 1900s and till then, it was used to paint clocks, dials and all sorts of things because of its green glow.

Much like fire, light has its own significance in many cultures. Does the eternal flame on the altar have anything in common with the cold glow of a mushroom in the forest?

For GMs
*What is the main source of light in the campaign? In the city? In the country? What light sources do various cultures use? Is it imported or is it indigenous?
*What religious significance does light/fire play, if any?
*Are there areas where more bioluminescence occurs? What kind of reputation does this place have? Many creatures use bioluminescence to attract prey, mates or signal to other of their species where they are….

Plot Hooks
*The local oil bearing animal or plant has been subjected to some kind of blight/disease. The PCs must travel to another location to obtain rootstock or branches to graft/plant in order to counter the ravage of the disease.
*The PCs must gather certain samples for a magic user/monarch for their collection/menagerie/plans to illuminate the city/secret evil plans. However, said item has religious significance to a certain culture/religion/group. How would the group react knowing that their holy item is being used for curiosity/entertainment?
*A ‘ghost’ has been reported in a village; the ‘seeds’ that it is sewing are causing the fields to have a strange glow. In addition, the villagers are starting to grow ill. What is the ghost sewing into the fields? Why? And what is the prognosis for the villagers? Is it contagious?

For Players
*Are some light sources better than others?
*What are the merits of light? Of dark? Of artificial light?
*Some things that glow can also be applied to the body with frightening/impressive effects. War paint? Meditation? Ink? A reading light when you have to keep watch but don’t feel like staring off into space?

I’m trying really hard not to make a terrible pun about lighting or illuminating. WOW.

What say you? Any BRIGHT ideas? BWAHAHA!

6 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Light Sources

Add yours

  1. “She once gave her 3.5 elf druid ‘Skill: Basketweaving’ just so she could take the spell, ‘Beget Bogun.”

    HAH! I loved that character! I’m still working on that world, and hope to run another game in it in the future.

    P.S. The above described Druid Elf set a forest fire… Just sayin.


  2. A lot of DMs prefer to handwave such things, but I think light (and light sources) are an issue worth focusing on. Adventurers need light to see. The amount of light (a flickering candle to a light spell) affects how readily the group can detect secret doors or other subtle details. Many monsters do well in low light and use it to their advantage. When DMs handwave the issue of light, these monsters lose their edge. It’s nice to see an article focusing on this issue.


    1. Light definitely affects tactics. And in a dark location, light is a dead giveaway as to where you are. It’s a quick yet effective way to up the difficulty of a dungeon without just throwing in more monsters. Being stalked by a monster in the dark is definitely something to get the blood pumping. Extra points if you can get your players to feel the pressure OOC.


  3. I ran across another interesting light source recently, in Greg Keyes’ Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series. There were some underground cities in the setting that had populations of witchlights. These were essentially like will o’ wisps. Except, instead of luring people to their deaths, they simply floated about, providing light. They were drawn to living creatures, especially people. So, when you were in the area, you always had light. But, you could also always tell where people were, because there would be witchlights nearby, which made sneaking around tricky.


    1. That’s really awesome in and of itself, let alone the fun a person could have with that!

      *adds that series to my “to read’ list*


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