One of the oldest fears of man is of the dark. What lies out there in the darkness beyond the fire's light? It's a primeval fear that remains with us regardless of time period or technological advances. In fact depending upon the historical era, what man feared in the darkness seems to have changed. Whether from wolves or witches, bears or bandits, the darkness has birthed many a monstrosity both real and imagined.
Man's battle against the dark is a never ending one. From protecting one's kith and kin against what may come in the night, to creating method's of pushing back the darkness by creating new ways of making light. We still today bar doors and windows despite our homes, streets and cities being flooded with light...yet the darkness still clings to the corners and edges, never truly defeated-only at bay.
There is a brilliant "history of darkness" entitled At Day's Close by A. Roger Ekrich which looks at man's historical relationship with the dark: what did man do when his available light was limited and how did he live with the dark in ages past? What were his fears, real and imagined, and how did he combat and defend against them? It is a fascinating journey into our relationship with the darkness. When light is only a finger flick away, why do we still fear the dark? And if there is nothing to fear from the dark, why do we try so desperately to light every corner of our homes, streets and cities?
I will be the first to admit, as a product of a technologically advanced society, I never truly used the darkness properly when gaming. When every switch or knob in the modern home is in effect a "light spell" how can I effectively portray ancient tombs, dusty dungeons, and overgrown graveyards? In gaming terms, it was simply dark-then someone cast a light spell, fired a torch, or lit a lantern and that was that. I have a new found respect for what darkness means in an age when fire for light and warmth could as easily mean burning down your house or city. Where a farm or house with lights on stood out as a beacon and invitation those who rely on the darkness to prey on others. Where the night watchman was as likely to be a participant or look out for crimes in the dark as he was to be a protector or at least early warning system.
What use is archery in the dark? None! You have to close upon your enemy and meet them at a sword's length. When you are weaker than your opponent (goblins? kobolds?), darkness serves to at least even the odds if not give you the advantage. A light in the darkness tells me where you are, but further blinds you to where I am.
I think too often I have failed to properly handle light and darkness in a dungeons depth. You have to see to fight...and if your opponent does not need to use a light to see...then those that do are at a complete disadvantage. The party will be ambushed, and their light provides a target for an archer to fire at. If that light is lost...they become lost as well. We see this today as night vision armed military units are able to decimate at little loss to themselves an opponent who must rely on light to see. I never liked the trope of playing by candlelight, but am considering doing so if only to illustrate what darkness and light mean.
How do you approach darkness in your games and settings? Are your players afraid of the dark?
...they should be...