A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



The Ubiquitous Sunrod

Many posts have been written about the single most common magic item in D&D 4e: the sunrod. Now it's my turn.

I was recently writing up the last area in Chapter One of my campaign The Coming Dark, and it involved rain. The atmospheric effects were somewhat inspired by the conditions in and around the setting in the Last Breath of Ashenport published in Dungeon #156, July 2008.

In that module there are very specific conditions in every outdoor encounter:

Rain (within Ashenport): Rain reduces visibility. All creatures more than 1 square distant have concealment (-2 to attack rolls). Perception checks take a -2 penalty. The rain automatically extinguishes any unprotected flames. At the end of every full minute (1o rounds), characters carrying protected flames, such as lanterns, should roll a saving throw. If they fail, those flames are extinguished as well.

Thunderstorms (outside Ashenport): The combined effects of precipitation and wind reduce visibility dramatically. Adjacent creatures have concealment, while creatures more than 1 square distant have total concealment (-5 to attack rolls). Perception checks take a -5 penalty. The storm automatically extinguishes any unprotected flames. At the end of every round, characters carrying protected flames, such as lanterns, should roll a saving throw. If they fail, those flames are extinguished as well.

The important issue above is the concept of "unprotected flame". First of all, it doesn't make a distinction between natural flame and magical flame. But is a sunrod a "flame"?

I assumed that it wasn't, as do most others on Twitter... but I have a tendency to be thorough, so I decided to look it up and see for myself.

For an item that every character has (two of them are included in every Adventurer's Kit), there isn't a whole lot of information about it. I couldn't find it physically described anywhere within the D&D 4e core manuals.

It's first appearance in 4e is in the Player's Handbook, under the section "Adventuring Gear" on page 221:

Sunrod: This minor magic item sheds bright light to a radius of 20 squares for 4 hours before burning out.

That's it?!? The single most common magic item in the entire game and it only gets a non-descriptive, one line blurb?  You don't know if it looks like a torch, a glowstick, a candelabra, a human bone... Nothing. The only thing we know is that it's a "rod" that sheds light. For the record, the Compendium entry says the same thing, adding that you buy them in sets of two for 4 gp.

The only other mention in the core manuals that I know of is in the Dungeon Master's Guide under the "Fantastic Terrain" entry of Ember Moss (page 67):

Ember Moss
This strange Underdark moss is a useful ingredient in creating everburning torches and sunrods. It is highly flammable and burns bright. A character in a square with ember moss takes an extra 5 damage from all fire attacks and takes a -4 penalty to saving throws to end ongoing fire damage.

By that description alone, one would think that sunrods are fire-based, but again: nowhere is it mentioned that sunrods are actual flame.

So I decided to try and go a little farther back. In the D&D 3.5e Player's Handbook, it appears under the "Special Substances and Items" section (page 128):

Sunrod: This 1-foot-long, gold-tipped, iron rod glows brightly when struck. It clearly illuminates a 30-foot radius and provides shadowy illumination in a 60-foot radius. It glows for 6 hours, after which the gold tip is burned out and worthless.

It also appears, described as such, in the d20 SRD and in the "Goods and Services" and "Exploration" sections.

That description is significantly better - it sounds like a road flare - and one has to wonder why that text was left out of 4e. Also, it is worth noting that not only is the 4e description open for interpretation in many ways, but it is also arguably much more powerful: it illuminates an area 200' wide - over six times the width of the 3.5e sunrod - with bright light for four hours.

I'm having a hard time thinking of a modern day equivalent that could illuminate that much. To put it in perspective, here are other light sources listed in the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide on page 67:

Candle: Dim light in a Radius 2 (10'), 1 hour duration
Torch: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25'), 1 hour duration
Fireplace: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25'), 8 hour duration per load of fuel
Lantern: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50'), 8 hour duration per pint
Campfire or Sacrificial Brazier: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50'), 8 hour duration
Small fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25')
Medium fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50')
Large fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 20 (100')
Sunrod: Bright light in a Radius 20 (100')
Bright light in a Radius 40 (200')
Huge/Gargantuan fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 40 (200')

So in comparison, the common torch only illuminates an area 50' wide for one hour and a campfire only illuminates an area 100'. There are only two things listed in the DMG that outshine a sunrod: a volcano and "large/huge/gargantuan fire creature".

A sunrod must be like a signal flare; an area 200' wide is over half a football field. That's a lot!

Also, theoretically, sunrods cannot be extinguished by normal means; although I cannot find any place where it is discussed, many of the people I've asked online have stated that sunrods could conceivably work in high winds, pouring rain and even underwater.

With all that, why would anyone ever use a torch? You don't even need it to light things on fire: the Adventurer's Kit comes with flint and steel. And, if that doesn't work, there's always things like the wizard's Prestidigitation power (which explicitly states it can be used to light torches) or any other spell with the word "fire" in it that the resident sorcerer is just dying to cast.

Furthermore, even the Everburning Torch seems like a waste at this point. For the price of one Everburning Torch (50gp), you can buy twenty-five sunrods and get 100 hours of uninterrupted illumination in an area four times as wide as the torch. Does the torch seem practical at this point, especially considering you have to carry it around with a free hand?

So there's this magic item that is dirt cheap and far superior to all the other items that have similar function within the same price range. And from the moment every PC straps on their armor and weapon they already have two of them in their possession. And... There's no description? It's existance is glazed over as if these things would never be used by anyone. What happened?

When I brought up the subject of sunrods online, the DMs of the world pretty much agreed on the same opinion: they hate sunrods. And, when you think about it, you do have to agree with them; sunrods subvert pretty much everything:

  • There is no need to worry about having one hand free to hold them. You can fasten them to your shield or tape them to your own body if you like. You can put one in your hair for all we know; without any guidelines on how they work, there's no way to determine what risk they may have (after reading the "Dangers" section on glow sticks in Wikipedia, it sure is tempting to come up with something).
  • There is nothing you can do to plunge the party in to darkness. Lighting of the area becomes a null issue (although it might upset the drow in the party).
  • With such a massive area of illumination, there's little chance of a monster hiding in some shadowy corner. Then again, some will argue that using a sunrod is telegraphing the party's position, as if to say "Hey, monsters! Yoo hoo! We're OVER HERE!!!"

As a result, I've heard many DMs effectively ban the use of sunrods, or at least make them extremely rare.

Me personally? I don't give lighting much consideration. Sure, if a room is dark I'll let the drow in the party have his fun and sneak around, but once the encounter begins I don't concern myself on whether the humans can see well in dim light or not. I have enough things to keep track of in combat.

But back to the issue at hand... Nothing indicates that sunrods are fire, so rather than have a very heated debate with the players I have no choice but to exclude them from the effects of the weather. I'll have to find some other way to make them miserable.

I have decided I really don't like sunrods in the manner they are presented (or lack thereof). I am tempted to take the advice of the people on Twitter and make sunrods extremely rare in my campaign setting.

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  1. I got rid of them in my game. I’m running a fairly old school vibe campaign, and magic glow sticks just didn’t fit. Plus the fact they’re much more effective than anything else and can’t be blown out just really took away a lot of the fun of torches and lanterns for me.

    It was as simple as saying “Your adventurer’s kit has 2 torches instead of 2 sunrods.”

  2. I’ve been debating banning them… they make it impossible to have a dark atmospheric setting.

    Also: 20 squares is 100 feet, not 200. Squares are 5ft across. Still ridiculous, but not ridicustupid.

  3. I’m one of the ones that makes them extremely rare. They just trivialize any sort of darkness, whether it’s intended atmospherically or as an environmental element for a combat encounter. You can’t have a creepy tomb if you’ve got what is basically daylight for 100 feet in every direction. It makes it hard to use sneaky lurker enemies in combats. Ultimately it removes tension from the players. There’s no sense that danger could be just out beyond the torchlight with a sunrod around. So although I haven’t banned them, I’ve made them rare and hard to come by. I’m likely going to tweak Everburning Torches as well in my game, though I don’t see them as being as nearly as frustrating as sunrods.

  4. I too am one if the many who has written on sunrods. My post The Science of Sunrods ( http://standardaction.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-science-of-sunrods/ ) explores what a sunrod might look like on todays market, as well as exactly how many lumens and lux a sunrod would create. It’s pretty ridiculous.

    • Ooooo… Great summarization. I considered doing that level of math, but at work I simply didn’t have the time to crunch the numbers. Thanks! 🙂

  5. I never use sunrods in 4E. The duration and extent of the light just kill the tone. I use torches with a reduced radius. If lighting matters, then I now have control over the scene and can give the players that fun experience. If it doesn’t matter, then there can be magical lighting or we simply speed through the descriptive part of the exploration.

  6. I remember in our old 2nd edition games, we would create something resembling a flashlight using continual light on a coin and a scroll case. Mounting a lit coin onto a bullseye or shuttered lantern was also judged to be fairly effective (less ‘ghetto’). 🙂

  7. Sorry, but if you depend on lighting to set the tone, you fail. Pick up a Sunblade (starts at level 4) and you’ve got what amounts to an everlasting sunrod that can be adjusted for brightness and range. Light spells are also quite common, and lowlight vision is universally available (by race, or via feats).

    You know those movies where they drag in all the crime scene lights and turn them on, and things are 10 times worse with the lights on? Yeah, THAT’S how you set the mood…

    If you want limited visible range, plenty of things will do the trick and can be just as “scary” as darkness; smoke, dust, silt (underwater), mist, clouds of insects, jungle foliage …

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