Spooky action at a distance

Maintain the Light

A way to handle light in modern and sci-fi horror games. Contrary to the shining spheres of torches or lanterns, flashlights are focused beams. I was inspired by Marcia’s blog post where she talks about the differences between old and modern light sources. She notes that because of the long lasting property of flashlights, it would be interesting to introduce other complications when using them. Since I’m always looking to spice up my sci-fi horror games, here are some ideas.


Lets start with the basics. How can we mechanise the directional quality of flashlights? Assuming a party travels through a corridor, there are three areas a light can be pointing at:

Forward. You probably want to know where you are going.

Back. Check if anything is following you. Useful if you are escaping a chase.

Sides (includes walls, ceiling and floor). Encounters appear from vents, secret doors or jump down from the ceiling. The spookiest option.

When an encounter check is rolled, each player declares if they are carrying a flashlight and which direction they are pointing it towards. If a direction is lit, it guarantees that the party will see incoming threats. If a direction is unlit, they will be surprised when it attacks, or even miss it entirely. We will come back to encounter checks in the next section.

A graphic showing PCs 1 and 3 holding flashlights. Moving to the left, they illuminate their forward and back directions respectively.

       1=PCs  <=light  .=lit area   _=10m

             ...... 41<......  60m total  →
             ......>32 ......  200 feet   →        
          encounter that surprises them

Quantifying movement to this level of detail is not really needed (though it’s nice to visualize the concept). Flashlights would illuminate most corridors, so an abstract room-to-room movement will be easier to track. If a corridor or a room is particularly large, use several exploration turns.

In a modern setting where torches are also available, flashlights can help cover larger distances (since a character will be able to see further on their path). You might represent this by increasing the exploration rate by 2 when carrying flashlights. It can be a useful perk for the flashlight’s drawbacks (directional and conspicuous).

If the players want to illuminate an entire room at once, they can use flares. Traditional flares only last about a minute, but I’d say one exploration turn of light would be fair. Flares can be useful in combat—they can be thrown on the ground to free up one more hand. But remember that flares are a limited resource and may attract (unwanted) attention.

Speaking of which: why wouldn’t the players just use as many flashlights as possible to illuminate every single corner? There must be some risk or penalty to overusing light sources. Of course you can limit the amount of battery power the players have, but that will defeat the purpose of differentiating between torches and flashlights. Instead, we can adjust encounters based on how much of a light footprint” the players leave behind.

use a shoulder light if you need to carry something in your hands


The more flashlights used, the more likely an encounter will be. This can be resolved with making an additional encounter check for every flashlight after the first one. Alternatively, pick the lowest result after the same number of rolls on an encounter table (pairs nicely with the derelict die, assuming the encounter table is sorted by danger). Using weak light sources like penlights or glowsticks might reduce encounter check frequency by half, but you will only be able to see what’s right next to you.

The more flashlights used, the more details the characters know about the encounter. The more lights you have the clearer your perception will be. The players might at first see a human silhouette… but then oh no! It’s the thing!

All in all, the party will have to balance encounter likeliness with covering enough directions and gathering enough information.

Encounters from ahead, around and behind are lit by forward, side and back light respectively.

To determine the direction from which an encounter appears, you can roll on this d6 table:

Distribution Behind ← Around ↕ Ahead →
Balanced 1-2 3-4 5-6
Classic 1-2 3 4-6
Chase 1-3 4-5 6

There are three ways you can adjust the encounter probabilities based on the situation at hand:

Balanced. Makes more sense for large halls and rooms.

Classic. When the party is moving forward, they are likelier to encounter something in that direction.

Chase. When the party is being followed, encounters are skewed more towards the back.

An extra detailed table if you want more granularity:

Direction behind above below left right ahead
Roll 1 2 3 4 5 6

What if there is an encounter from the sides, but there are only walls on the location’s map? There are two ways you can deal with this. One — is to ignore that result. Not fun. Two — is to think of the dungeon as a mythic underworld. Vents, secret doors, traps can appear anywhere. The dungeon plays by its own rules. Nowhere is safe.

In the case of a derelict spaceship — mythic overworld? offworld? underspace?

Playing more with the idea of a mythic location, the player’s lights may periodically malfunction. Players might lose light for an exploration turn, or a round of combat. You know how in horror movies flashlights never quite work and the person has to shake it a few times? That’s the vibe.

Overall, this is a very niche case procedure for flashlights and doesn’t fit every single game/module. But I think it can be fun to try out once or twice. Use it in key moments when you want light to play an important role in building tension and horror.

Published on February 20, 2022.

Tagged: mechanics   osr   light   modern   space  


Spooky action at a distance is a blog run by emmy verte, to muse on sci-fi, fantasy location exploration and short fiction. You can donate to support Ukraine here.