Originally published in Issue #1 of EN World Player’s Journal
By Kevin Chenevert and Don Chenevert, Jr.
Sometimes the dungeon crawl gaming session becomes a bit stale and predictable. The Dungeon Master vaguely describes the sequence of passages and rooms. Some dor sucker draws out the map on graph paper or the battle map if the DM is not nice enough to draw it for the group. The rest of the players stack dice into precarious towers between eating Doritos and licking the orange cheesy powder off of their finger tips.
No one really perks up until the DM begins to read the gray “boxed text.” With the change of tone in the DM’s voice, players begin talking over each other, “I draw my sword!,” “Hey, remember, I always have my crossbow notched!,” and “Why is my halfling miniature in front of the line? He always stays in the back!”
When the DM describes something in detail or reads the boxed text, the DM “telegraphs” that an encounter of some sort is about to occur. The players become alert and begin searching for foes or begin checking for traps, secret doors, etc. You can use this metagaming trigger as an opportunity to enrich the players experience, keep them alert, and still keep them guessing by adding additional detailed sensory encounters – Ambient Events.
Use Ambient Events to build suspense and to maintain the anticipation and adrenaline as you develop the plot and storyline. Ambient Events are a creative and imaginative alternative to the clichéd battles with random monsters that eat up precious gaming time without developing or advancing the storyline. You can use them as part of a linear or open-ended storyline, depending on your gaming style.
Sensory Rich Descriptions are the Key to Good Gaming
To be a good DM, you have to be a good storyteller. To be a good storyteller, you need to be as descriptive as possible. Consciously utilize all five senses as you describe an encounter. Whenever possible, describe what a character sees, hears, feels, tastes, and smells.
By using descriptive sensory words, you provide a more complete and accurate description of what each player’s character perceives. In describing an encounter, weave several different sensory adjectives into your narrative. For example, “The cold, dank tunnel drops off into an ink-black pit.” is much more sensory rich than “The tunnel dead-ends at a pit.” Another example, “The hot, sugar coated blueberry tart melts in your mouth.” is much to be preferred over “The pie you eat is sweet.”
Ambient Events go beyond the five senses. You can create additional atmosphere, or ambience, during an adventure by telling the player that their character “senses” something, has an “impression” about something or someone, “perceives” something, or experiences a particular sensation (e.g., “Your cleric feels a palpable sense of anarchy and utter disarray emanating from the russet, pock-marked stone altar.”).
As you use, modify, or create Ambient Events, remember that each player character perceives the world in a different way and that the player characters’ perceptions should affect your description of the Ambient Event. Tailor the events to reflect the race, class, skills, and personalities of the characters in the group. For example, a smell event for a Human Fighter may be “an acrid burning smell” while an Elf Wizard may perceive the same smell event as “the crisp smell of Tangi incense, often used by undertakers and necromancers to ward off scavenging insects from corpses.” A Dwarf Fighter seasoned with years of fighting racial foes may “smell the body odor of hobgoblins in the pile of rumpled clothes“, while the young Halfling Rogue will think that those old stained garments in the corner just “stink like rotten turnips“.
As a DM, you may use this article in several ways. First, you can use it as a quick reference during a gaming session. Simply substitute an Ambient Event for one or more random encounters from the adventure you are running. Second, you can use the extensive lists of sensory rich words in this article to embellish your descriptions of locales, creatures, and encounters in your adventure. Third, you can weave the following Ambient Events (or slight variations) into an adventure to provide subtle clues or to foreshadow upcoming set encounters.
Before running an adventure, scan through this article and then read through the encounters, events, and places in the adventure you plan to run. Look for long stretches of corridor and bends where something interesting may have collected or occurred. Jot down a few special descriptive words or phrases in the margins next to several encounters. Your notes will remind you to employ descriptive words when you describe the encounter; the words and phrases will trigger your creative juices. This will add dimensions to the adventure deeper than the statistic blocks and the maps provide.
If time permits before a gaming session, you should customize and adapt the listed Ambient Events to your adventure or create your own Ambient Events to flesh out the desired atmosphere for the adventure. For example, the Ambient Events for a recently opened tomb with dry, dusty undead will be very different in nature from the Ambience Events for an abandoned and partially flooded mine now inhabited by goblins. During a gaming session, glance back through the Ambient Events and select one or two to drop into your adventure.
Even with lots of preparation, however, players can throw you for a loop as they head off into unexpected directions and your storyline ideas fall by the wayside. Be spontaneous! Remember to allow the players’ actions to affect the storyline. A player’s investigation of an Ambient Event may set off an unforeseen chain of events, inspire you to create a new storyline, or reveal a clue.
The Ambient Events described in this article are designed to be used in a classic “dungeon crawl” environment reminiscent of the “Ruined Structure” and “Occupied Structure” settings described in the Core Rulebooks. The Ambient Event Table below uses the traditional “encounter” occurrence of 10% per hour. If the characters get into combat, make lots of noise, or dawdle as they investigate an event, roll more frequently or add a modifier of +5 to +25 to the roll.
Ambient Event Table:
|50-59||Smell & Taste|
|00||Roll again twice ignoring “Nothing”|
The results listed on the Ambience Events Table are divided into broad sensory and “extrasensory” categories and may be used to supplement or replace random encounter tables in a published adventure. When a roll on the main Ambience Event table results in “Nothing,” simply follow the adventure and use the set encounters. Of course, you are always free to select and insert an Ambient Event of your choice to foreshadow the next set encounter.
Creaking boards, distant screams, whispering drafts, crunching gravel underfoot, squeaking and scuttling vermin are some of the myriad sounds a party may hear in a subterranean environment. The Elf Ranger may recognize the chirp and skittering noise as that of “a harmless, but rather large and fierce looking giant millipede that is good to eat if you have nothing else”. The Dwarf Fighter with the smithing Craft skill may hear the distant metallic repetitive clangs and recognize it as “a hammer and anvil beating out adamantium.”
Direction of a sound can also be very important. A sound coming from behind the party may cause great consternation. Recurring sounds may increase the level of tension during the gaming session. Also, the complex acoustics within stone corridors and rooms may cause characters to disagree about where a sound originated. This may call for the DM to make some hidden Listen skill checks.
Sound Event 1:
|A caw sounds as your torchlight reaches a raven perched in a hollow crevice near the ceiling. In the flickering torchlight, its eyes seem to pulse red.|
Sound Event 2:
|A skittering of gravel on the stone floor sounds from behind (or ahead).|
DM Notes: It could be nothing, but repeats of this event will really step up the level of paranoia. Perhaps an antagonist spotted the party and is shadowing them. A further Listen skill check may be in order. Some relatively benign dungeon fauna may have been startled or perhaps a carrion crawler is shadowing the party until they enter combat. The creature will then strike a weakened combatant.
Sound Event 3:
|You hear a painful sounding yelp followed by deep, muffled laughter.|
DM Notes: Some poor critter or intruder may be caught by the wandering hobgoblin party ahead or perhaps that adventuring party of orcs are getting rowdy with one another.
Sound Event 4:
|A distant whisper in the air rises in volume to a wail then terminates with a clack, clink, and clack.|
DM Notes: Repetition of this event will raise tension. An air vent to the dungeon from above or below in the Underdark could open from time to time. Perhaps an old, harmless ghost rattles its shackles and decides to stay out of sight, but follows the party for a while before asking for assistance to free it. The ghost’s noisy stalking will make it difficult for the party to surprise other denizens of the dungeon. Alternately, the party could be hearing your standard dungeon prisoner slipping out of sanity and calling for help.
Sound Event 5:
|Puddles on the floor ripple with the constant drip of moisture from the ceiling. The sound of dripping water echoes before and behind you. A pink algae traces the floor, walls, and ceiling.|
DM Notes: Repeat this event in different forms a couple of times and the characters will have a very difficult time (DC 25) noticing the secret signal sounded by the ambushing troglodytes that sounds like water dripping. Also, watch out for that algae; those not accustomed to walking across slippery surfaces will need to make a Reflex save (DC 10) if running or engaged in combat.
Sound Event 6:
|A metallic scraping noise followed by a heavy “thunk” sounds up (or back down) the corridor.|
DM Notes: Most metal mechanisms in a dungeon will be iron and are rusty and creaky. Perhaps a door with rusty hinges is being closed and the wooden beam dropped to bar entry. Perhaps a trap was triggered or is resetting itself or is being tested. Maybe a flue to a hearth is opening and closing. Like other sound events, recurrence of similar variations on this event will raise tension and remind the players that their characters are intruders into an active and inhabited labyrinth.
Sound Event 7:
|A tortured wooden creak originates from the tunnel support timbers overhead and a few particles of dust fall pelting (whoever is first in line).|
DM Notes: Many subterranean excavations, even those cut through solid stone have timber truss or box supports. Typically, the original dungeon dwellers are absent and ongoing maintenance is minimal. Thermal and seismic forces, along with natural decay, will cause many timbers to become loose. Describe broken or collapsed timbers from time to time and mention the small piles of rubble beneath adjacent cracks to reinforce the dungeon setting. Even if there is no immediate threat of collapse or cave-in, your description should cause the players to think twice before loosing a fireball in the area. Dwarven characters may want to investigate this Ambience Event to declare warnings or reassurances, thus making them feel useful.
Sound Event 8:
|Above the sounds of your breathing and trudging boots, a sudden flurry of squeaks and skittering sounds erupt several dozen yards ahead of you.|
DM Notes: Have this event recur from time to time as the party drives a small swarm of disturbed rats ahead of them. The rats will stay just out of darkvision range (typically 60’), unless a character runs ahead to catch a glimpse of who or what is making the noise. The scattering rats may alert an antagonist or predator to the presence of an intruder. Likewise, if the rats dash back past the characters, the party may realize that something serious is heading their way. One of the rats may be a familiar or animal companion acting as a spy for the antagonist.
Sound Event 9:
|A muffled shout/squeak/squawk echoes down the corridor. A second voice seemingly answers from farther away.|
DM Notes: The party hears two inhabitants of the dungeon shouting to or at one another. Contrary to popular belief, dungeon denizens do not sit idle waiting for the adventurers to burst in and attack. Instead, inhabitants of the dungeon hunt, prepare and store food, gather slaves, seek to dominate their weaker neighbors, and seek to avoid confrontations with stronger foes. Oblivious of the party’s presence, wandering inhabitants may pass behind the party or be in an adjacent space or parallel corridor. Just to mix things up, have a few minor antagonists moving around to keep the players on edge and to reinforce a sense of urgency in their explorations.
Sound Event 10:
|A sudden scraping sound echoes down the passage toward you.|
DM Notes: Predators often mark their territories and sharpen their claws and horns on the stone surfaces throughout the dungeon. By studying the marks, an attentive Ranger who passes a Wilderness Lore skill check (DC 10) can identify the creature that made the sounds (or later, may be able to identify the creature by observing the scrapes and other marks left by the creature).
Sound Event 11:
|As you shine your light ahead of you down the passageway, a sudden flurry of squeaks echoes down the hallway and a cloud of twirping, flapping winged creatures careen past you in a blur of movement.|
DM Notes: The group disturbed the lair of nesting bats. The sudden, noisy departure of the bats may alert an antagonist or predator that intruders (i.e., the adventurers) are present. While most bats are not infected with rabies, some are. Any character that blocks the bats’ escape or attempts to strike a bat in mid-flight may be bitten and may contract a disease.
SMELL & TASTE
Since these two senses are so closely related, they are addressed here together. Smell comes into play more often than taste, but try to work tastes into the game session when possible. Extremely powerful smells are sometimes detectable on the palate. Potions and dried rations are also opportunities to bring the sensation of taste to the forefront. After weeks away from civilization, characters will be extremely tired of hardtack, brackish water, beef jerky, and moldy cheese. Reminding the players of their character’s suffering and privations will add depth to the gaming session.
Remember that the archetype dungeon in the dungeon crawl is home for a wide range of flora and fauna. Rotten vegetable and fungal matter, rotten flesh, and body odor are just a few smells one expects to encounter in a dungeon.
Without plumbing and regular garbage pickup, the sanitation level in a typical dungeon is extremely low. Air circulation will be poor except in subterranean dungeons built by sophisticated tunnelers such as Drow and Dwarves. A large amount of clutter, refuse, and offal will accumulate throughout the normal life cycle of a dungeon. Also, consider the biological processes taking place in a space or area. Based on its depth and geography, decide whether the dungeon is dry or moist and hot or cold. More often than not, the dungeon will be cold and moist. If there is moisture and heat, algae, bacteria, and fungi will flourish. Exceptionally dusty or moldy areas may make a character investigating a space sneeze if he fails a Fortitude test, alerting a sentry around the corner.
Odors: acrid, aroma, aromatic, balmy, dank, evil-smelling, fetid, fetor, foul, fragrant, fusty, gamy, ill-smelling, malodor, musk, musty, noisome, odor, perfumed, poignant, pungent, putrid, rancid, redolent, reek, rotten, scented, smelly, stagnant, stench, stinky, tang, tangy, unsavory
Sweet: candied, honeyed, nectarous, sugar-coated, sugared, sweetened, syrupy
Sour/Bitter: acerb, acidic, astringent, luscious, rancid, sharp, sour, vinegary
Bland/Flavorful: flat, insipid, mild, plain, tasteless, unsavory, aromatic, briny, delicious, delectable, flavorful, peppery, piquant, pungent, salty, savory, sharp, spicy, tang, tart, tasty, toothsome, zesty
Unripe/Rotten/Spoiled: bitter, brackish, curdled, green – unripe, hard, rancid, soured, turned, unsavory
Smell Event 1:
|A faint citrus scent is in the air and blows past the party.|
DM Notes: Without sunlight, subterranean humanoids often lack vitamin D that they require. Surface fruit will often be brought into the lair. With a successful Search skill check, the characters may discover some fresh peelings tossed aside in a side niche off the corridor. In the alternative, subterranean molds and fungi may be an underground source of vitamin D or subterranean molds and fungi may use their citrus scent to lure prey within range…
Smell Event 2:
|A powerful fecal stench wafts across the party and weighs heavily as the air stills.|
DM Notes: Sanitation is often wanting in most of the common foes encountered by characters. The adventuring group’s senses may be overwhelmed as they round a corner, open a door, or smell a foul odor carried to them on a draft. Characters must make a Fortitude Check (DC 15) to avoid retching or vomiting.
Smell Event 3:
|You notice an almost intangible buttery smell. The smell gets stronger as a light draft blows past you. If the characters continue forward, read on, The smell seems to come from thin winding veins of yellow-orange lichen on the wall.|
DM Notes: Reacting to the characters’ body heat and the heat from their torches or lanterns, the lichen spontaneously blooms. As the characters watch, they see small pea-sized sacks swell and burst with a small puff of saffron colored spores. Characters within 5’ of the lichen will sneeze a few times unless they pass a Fortitude Check (DC 15). The sound of the sneezing may alert nearby denizens. The spores may be harmless or, if the DM wishes, they may be a stimulant that temporarily (1d4 hours) increases each character’s perception(adding a +1 to Listen, Spot, and Search skill checks).
Smell Event 4:
|Drifting up the corridor is a savory smell of roasting meet.|
DM Notes: This may be the residual smell of a dinner cooked here several days ago or it may be a haunch of meat currently turning on a spit. If the meal is already over, you should note the grey and black soot, the bits of black charcoal, and the gnawed bones and discarded scraps. If the meal is still being cooked, you should note the crackling sound of the fire and the sizzling sound of the grease as it drips onto glowing orange coals. Repeat this event in various forms for other fruity or food smells at appropriate areas.
Smell Event 5:
|A rosewater perfume smell lingers in the corridor as if someone just passed.|
DM Notes: The evil Wizard is disgusted by the bad body odor of his loathsome minions. He keeps up his own hygiene, though. Have his smell linger in corridors where he passed recently.
Smell Event 6:
|A damp, smoky smell fills the air. Wisps of smoke cling near the ceiling.|
DM Notes: Dungeons typically are not well ventilated. Nonetheless, denizens build fires to cook their meat and to ward off the damp chill usual in dungeon environments. Adventurers and other dungeon inhabitants use old bits of cloth, scraps of wood, discarded bones, fungus, and dung to feed their fires. Industrious characters may be able to trace the smoke to its source.
Smell Event 7:
|As you round the corner, a sharp smoky smell of tar becomes intense.|
DM Notes: A Dwarf or character with the Cooper Craft skill will know that tar is used to waterproof and to protect wood exposed to moisture. Tar or Pitch will be quite common in areas subjected to high humidity, especially if the current dungeon tenants are maintaining their abode by protecting important structural beams and column support elements.
Smell Event 8:
|Among the foul odors of the dungeon, a pleasant aroma of fresh cut wood pervades your senses.|
DM Notes: From time to time, good stewards or even mediocre ones will replace shoring and damaged support structures. Also, after moving in, new tenants may renovate by installing new doors, flooring, and furniture.
Smell Event 9:
|A barely perceptible, tangy odor reminiscent of rotten onions suddenly becomes nauseatingly strong as you enter the room.|
DM Notes: Sweaty, unwashed humanoids will begin to leave a clingy smell at their guard posts and sleeping quarters. Mention other musty, moldy, and fetid smells at other appropriate locations.
Smell Event 10:
|A strong ammonia or urine smell threatens to overwhelm you as you pass a wooden shoring beam.|
DM Notes: Judging from the stains on and around the beam, it appears that several creatures use this spot to mark their territory.
Sight focuses on light and dark; color or lack of color, small or large. Remember to take into account that low-light vision or darkvision that may reveal things otherwise unnoticed by those without special sight abilities.
Sight events typically involve inanimate items while “Benign Encounter” involves animate items or creatures. If you do not wish to role-play it out, a hidden Search skill check may be called for to get more out of the event. The initial Sight event should just happen however.
Dungeons are filled with all sorts of natural and “man-made,” mundane and fantastic sights not mentioned in the text of the adventure. Consider the accumulation of detritus and wear and tear caused by the inhabitants and visitors of an underground complex. A strange rune, a broken shackle, chicken bones, snail shells, torch sconces, bits of rope, shards of glass and pottery are just a few sights one may encounter in a dungeon. The rune on the door may be meaningless to the Wizard but tell the Cleric that followers of a Nerull death cult have used the room for sacrificial ceremonies. A Ranger may recognize the rune as a secret sign meaning “Warning-Aberrations”.
Descriptive “Sight” Words and Phrases: Engage the visual capacity of the players’ imagination. Following are some more meaningful variations of some basic descriptive words.
White or colorless: achromatic, anemic, ashen, ashy, blond, bloodless, cadaverous, colorless, creamy, doughy, faded, fair, fair-skinned, ghastly, light, monochromatic, pale, pale faced, pallid, pasty, sallow, wan, washed out, waxen, whey- faced
Gray: shen, cloudy, columbine, dapple-gray, dove-colored, drab, dun, foggy, hoary, iron-gray, leaden, misty, mouse-colored, pearl-gray, silver, slate-gray, taupe
Black or dark colored: black, blackish, dark, darksome, dusky, inky, jet-black, murky, obsidian, pitch-black, raven-black, sable, somber, sooty
Blue: aquamarine, azure blue, baby blue, beryl, beryl blue, cadet blue, cerulean, chrome-blue, cobalt, cyanic, damson blue, dark blue
Deep Blues: dusty blue, eggshell blue, greenish-blue, hyacinth blue, indigo blue, lapis lazuli, light blue, madder blue, marine blue, midnight blue, mulberry blue, navy blue, pavonian, peacock blue, periwinkle blue, powder blue, reddish-blue, robin’s egg, royal blue, sapphire blue, sea-blue, sky-blues, slate-blue, steel-blue, turquoise blue, ultra-marine, wisteria-blue
Red: apricot, blood red, blossom, blush, burgundy, cardinal, carmine, carnation, carnelian, cerise, cherry, claret, copper, coral, crimson, crimson, dahlia, flesh colored, florid, flush, fuchsia, fuchsia, gridelin, heliotrope, hellebore red, hyacinth, lilac, magenta, mallow, maroon, mauve, murrey, orange, peach, pink, puce, rose-colored, rosy, ruby, ruddy, salmon, scarlet, solferino, tangerine, tea rose, tea rose, terra cotta, titian, vermilion, wine-colored
Yellow: amber, apricot, bisque, blond, brimstone, brownish yellow, buff, canary, carbuncle, chrome, citrine, citron, citrus, cream, crocus, flaxen, gold, greenish yellow, jaundiced, lemon, ochre, orange, peach, primrose, reddish yellow, ruset, saffron, straw colored, sulphur, tawny, tea rose, titian, topaz
Brown: amber, auburn, bay, beige, bronze, brunet, burnt almond, burnt umber, chestnut, chocolate, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, copper, dun-colored, ecru, fawn-colored, hazel, henna, hyacinth red, khaki, mahogany, nut-brown, ocher, russet, rust, rust-colored, tan, tawny, toast
Green: apple green, aquamarine, callow, shamrock green, chartreuse, emerald, fir green, jade, moss green, olive, olive drab, pea green, peacock green, sea green, verdant
Purple: amethyst, damson, gridelin, heliotrope, lavender, lilac, magenta, mauve, mulberry, orchid, perse, plum, plum-colored, solferino, violet
Small: baby, bantam, cramped, diminutive, dwarfish, fine, frail, lean, little, meager, miniature, pocket-size, petite, poky, puny, pygmy, rare, runty, scrub, scrubby, slight, slim, smallish, stunted, teeny, tenuous, tiny, undersize, unsubstantial, weak, wee
Medium: average, common, everyday, intermediate, normal, ordinary, regular, run of the mill, standard, typical, usual
Large: ample, big, bulky, burly, capacious, cumbersome, great, hefty, husky, immense, imposing, large, massive, mighty, monumental, ponderous, spacious, strapping, substantial, titanic, towering, tremendous, unwieldy
Sight Event 1:
|At the edge of your torchlight, you see a small pile of debris containing what appear to be tarnished metal straps and pieces of splintered wood.|
DM Notes: A few minutes investigation and a successful Search skill check (DC 8) reveals that the pile of debris is a small, crushed wooden coffer with a small piece of parchment hidden in the now destroyed lid (overlooked by the previous looter). Perhaps the parchment is a scroll containing a cantrip or a faded diagram of how to disarm a difficult trap found in another part of the dungeon, or a cryptic word that may be the command word to the magic wand that was in the coffer. Hmm, who has it now? The current owner probably does not know the command word.
Sight Event 2:
|At the edge of your vision, you notice a quick flicker of rainbow colored light.|
DM Notes: A crystalline structure in the stone wall ahead reflects the torch or lantern light into rays of rainbow colored light. The light show may be harmless in this instance, but in other areas, the sparkling light will alert guards farther down the passage. Mention the flickering a time or two more and see if the players get the hint to cut their own light sources or to take other precautions.
Sight Event 3:
|A light mist hangs just above the floor. The wispy fog swirls around your feet as you walk down the corridor.|
DM Notes: The humidity in some parts of the dungeon, especially near water sources, may form fog. In some areas, the fog may become dense enough to reduce visibility fifty percent or more and to provide cover for combatants, stairways, pits, or other hazards.
Sight Event 4:
|As small wisp of smoke lazily drifts up from the charred remaining torch stump in a pitted iron wall bracket.|
DM Notes: Mention torch brackets often so that when one turns to open the secret door or wall compartment, it will not be obvious. The recently used torch should remind the party that they are not alone. Also, use of a torch may infer that the recent occupant does not have vision adapted to darkness. Perhaps another adventuring party is nearby.
Sight Event 5:
|On the side of the corridor just past the turn (or intersection), a wooden chair with a broken back leg is propped up on a stone.|
DM Notes: That lazy sentry set up a chair to sit on thus easing the pain from his gout. As a dungeon is pillaged and lived in over time it collects all sorts of junk. Scan or roll on both of these tables a few times and place these items at various locations. More often than not, items in odd places will be broken, while working items will be found in places logical for their use.
Sight Event 6:
|A skeletal hand inches its way along the stony corridor, intent on some unknown destination.|
Sight Event 7:
|(An appropriate character in the party notices), “A small round stone catches your eye.”|
DM Notes: The stone may stand out because of its color (see Descriptive “Sight” Words and Phrases above) or its placement or shape that contrasts with others around it. A diagram or rune etched into the stone communicates to one or more of the characters in the party. Tailor this event to a character’s traits. It should communicate some helpful hint (e.g., the stone may be a warning of some type). The warning may relate to hazards or foes that no longer exist.
Sight Event 8:
|The remnants of a small fire are scattered against a far wall below a crevice in the ceiling.|
DM Notes: If investigated, fragments of partially burned paper may be salvaged from the ashes.These could be parts of a journal or map. This would be a good opportunity to point the party back in the direction of something they have missed.
Sight Event 9:
|Seemingly discarded on the side of the corridor is a:|
1. Pair of Interlocking Rings: Part of a Gnome Bag of Tricks (DMG at 210).
2. Glowing Red Marble (5’ radius): Perhaps the marble glows brighter or blinks in the presence of chaos or evil. Maybe the marble will explode into a blinding flash when shot from a sling.
3. Magnet/Lodestone necklace: Add +5 to the wearer’s attempts to determine direction.
4. Metallic Cube that clicks steadily: This could just be a timing tool from some wizard’s lab. Alternately, a hard to discern inscription may be able to be read in moonlight. Reading the command word will release a fiendish creature trapped inside who will immediately flee when released and terrorize the countryside until the PCs recapture or destroy it.
5. Insect inside an amber sphere: This may be just a bauble or perhaps when shot from a sling, it will explode creating a swarm of biting, stinging insects as the spell Insect Plague.
6. A 3” diameter glass magnifying lenses in a thick leather case. The belt loop of the case is broken, but the lens is undamaged.
Sight Event 10:
|Sparkling motes of light dance through the air ahead of you.|
DM Notes: The glimmering sparkles are an after effect of a spell cast in this area. The sparkles light up this portion of the dungeon as a Light spell. The motes of light will fade out in the next 1d6 hours.
Other sight items:
The hackles raising on the back of your neck, that heavy feeling in your stomach (or is that just gas?), paranoia of someone following you, a twitch in your eye as you approach the purple stained door, are some of the unexplainable events picked up by the characters. Rogues may especially be tuned into hunches or bad feelings about certain courses of action. A Ranger may suddenly think that the tracks he is following look strange, kind of artificial… Sorcerers and characters with Psionic abilities are especially perceptive of “extrasensory” disturbances and feelings. Clerics and Druids are also often privy to positive or negative energies related to their focuses or their deity.
Strange Feeling 1:
|Everyone senses acold, heavy sense of foreboding.|
Strange Feeling 2:
|(For one character in the party) In a startling flash, you experience déjà vu.|
DM Notes: The flash may be remembering this exact event from a fragment of a dream last night. The tunnel, the marching order, the bad taste in your mouth, is all the same. Around the next corner is a door with a (DM’s choice) waiting for you to enter.
Tailor this to fit the adventure and the character. Dreams can be a good tool to help assist and guide the characters, especially on quests or mystical and religious adventures.
Strange Feeling 3:
|The humidity or dripping condensation of the last few days has soaked everyone to the bone.|
DM Notes: All of the sweating and tramping around in the wet and mud have taken their toll. Characters notice that their metal equipment is tarnishing or rusting and that pieces of their wooden and leather gear are beginning to warp and crack. Also, clothes may begin to chafe unless a Fortitude Check (DC 10) is passed. If chafing occurs, characters cannot move at double move for running and charging. Cure spells can heal the chafe or an Alchemist, Herbalist, or Healer can make a balm. Also, drying out and resting for a day can clear up the problem.
Strange Feeling 4:
|(Next time the character take a break): Your rations seemed to have gotten wet and the dried beef looks a little white and puffy.|
DM Notes: If the character proceeds and eats the spoiled rations, read the following about an hour later. Your stomach does not feel so good. That puffy piece of jerky that got wet yesterday might not have been good to eat.Let the character roll a Fortitude Check (DC 10). If the check fails, the character will burp for a while and be nauseated causing a –1 on all rolls for the next 1d6 hours. This mishap could have been avoided by use of the Purify Food and Drink spell.
Strange Feeling 5:
|You feel as if you are being watched (or followed).|
DM Notes: This could just be the character’s imagination. Alternately, some creature could be tracking or scrying on the party. Either way, repeat this Ambient Event from time to time for effect.
Strange Feeling 6:
|You feel as if you passed through a warm wall of air.|
DM Notes: This could be some magical air lock or the lingering effect of a mighty spell cast here long ago. Maybe a magical dimension door to some warmer (or hellishly hot!) place opens here.
Strange Feeling 7:
|Every time you look up, (the NPC in your party) is staring at you.|
DM Notes: Repeat this Ambient Event for effect. Perhaps the NPC has bad manners or does not like the PC or has never interacted with Gnomes, Elves, etc. Maybe the NPC is a secret agent of the antagonist or a competing organization and will double cross the party at the opportune moment. Maybe it’s all in the PC’s head.
Strange Feeling 8:
|All of the smoke, dust, and mold are starting to get to you and you develop a slight headache.|
DM Notes: Have a random character in the party roll a Fortitude Test (DC 10) or begin having severe headaches. A day’s rest topside a healing spell or a curative concoction from an herbalist will straighten things out. Until then, the character will have a to pass a Concentration skill check (DC 10) to cast spells and will suffer a –1 on any skill that uses Intelligence as its Key Ability.
Strange Feeling 9:
|(Next time the characters take a break, unless one or most of the character have some wilderness or survival skill or have specifically indicated they keep their water supply topped off, they will be running short and need to find a source of fresh water)|
DM Notes: After being in the dungeon for a few days, the party can ealisy run out of clean water. A human consumes approximately 1 gallon of water per day which wieghs slighly over 8 pounds. Obviously, only a few days of water can be carried at a time. The exertion of exploring a dungeon requires a great amount of water that is impossible to carry. If the players use a local source like a pool or stream there is a good chance (especially in a dungeon) it will be contaminated and lead to stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Each character must make a Fortitude check (DC 10) to recover. Characters who fail their Fortitude check feel miserable, move at half their normal movement rate, and suffer a –1 on all rolls for the next 4d6 hours. This mishap could be avoided by use of the Purify Food and Drink spell.
Alternately, the characters may suffer dehydration. See this SRD link and scroll down to Starvation and Thirst.
Strange Feeling 10:
|A feeling of euphoria and invulnerability courses through your sore, travel-weary body. You feel strangely refreshed.|
DM Notes: Traveling down the passageway, the party inhaled microscopic spores that enhanced their energy levels and vitality or perhaps a druid or cleric will detect that some forgotten elder god or spirit wishes to aid the party on its endeavor . Each PC regains 1 hit point (up to the character’s maximum hit points).
This encounter is not directly dangerous to the characters. It could be a colorful mushroom or a rotten dog carcass. If the players eat the mushroom or disturb the dead animal, however, it may not be so benign… A hidden Spot skill check may be called for to provide more information to the character(s) but the initially the event will just occur.
Benign Encounter 1:
|A flicker of movement on the left hand wall catches your eyes. (pause) Three obsidian colored centipedes as large as your hand scamper up the wall and into a crevice near the ceiling.|
DM Notes: The centipedes are harmless if left alone but this and similar events with large spiders, ants, termites, beetles, roaches, crickets, snakes, frogs, salamanders, skinks, and other small exotic inhabitants in the dungeon will help the players visualize and appreciate the dynamic environment of the dungeon. It will also keep them on edge.
Benign Encounter 2:
|What appears to be a wrinkled, russet cloak with a shining metallic brooch lies piled in the corner.|
DM Notes: Anyone observing the cloak will note that the cloak is damp and a bit mildewed. However, a horde of fleas will swarm all over anyone who touches the cloak or attempts to remove the brooch. The flea infestation will be difficult to rid oneself of by normal means until the character leaves the dungeon. The infestation will soon spread to others in the party, 20% chance per hour. Those infested with the fleas will soon have numerous fleabites and itch insanely (receiving a –1 on all dice rolls until the infestation ends). The fleas may carry bubonic plague.
Benign Encounter 3:
|An emaciated carcass of what appears to have been a dun colored dog lies in a heap in the middle of the corridor. (As PCs approach to investigate or pass within 5’) The carcass twitches and writhes as the canine head rises to regard the party. Maggots crawl out of the decayed nostrils and tumble out of the slack jaw. A strange greenish glow flares and shines out of the eyes and the gash in its bloated belly, lighting the corridor for a 10’ radius.|
DM Notes: After a moment, the swollen, misshaped head falls back to the floor as several foot-long, glowing green beetle larvae crawl out of the eye sockets and belly. The larvae have wicked looking mandibles and prickly legs projecting from their soft glowing green skin, but they are harmless. If left alone, the larvae will inch their way to the nearest crevice or pile of refuse to hide. If captured, the larvae can be used as a light source for about two weeks (illuminating a 20’ radius). The larvae live off offal and decaying matter. In two weeks, the glow will begin to fade as the larvae weave a cocoon. After another week, a large, but fairly harmless, 18” beetle emerges.
Benign Encounter 4:
|On the ceiling above, your torch illuminates the red eyes of a couple dozen bats watching you. The guano on the floor below the bats is crawling with maggots and white flies.|
DM Notes: The bats are probably harmless unless the antagonist has his familiar among them or has cast an enchantment on them. Also, picking around or digging in the guano will probably be unhealthy and fruitless unless you decide to place a goodie in the muck. If the characters provoke or attack the bats, members of the party could get bit and be exposed to rabies.
Benign Encounter 5:
|An electric blue mold zigzags its way up the wall in fuzzy strips.|
DM Notes: Repeat this event often mentioning all different flavors of molds and lichens. From time to time, a character with the Alchemy, Heal, Knowledge (nature), Spellcraft, and/or Wilderness Lore skills may recognize a variety with useful properties.
Benign Encounter 6:
|A rather bold, fat black rat with yellow teeth charges toward you, chirps loudly, then turns and runs away.|
DM Notes: Dungeons are often filled with rats. This event should be repeated often for effect. Sometimes, the party may encounter whole packs of rats foraging on litter and corpses and other decaying matter. The rats will not attack unless they are cornered. They may have rabies or carry bubonic plague.
Benign Encounter 7:
|A translucent red blob, the size of a small melon inches along the edge of the corridor.|
DM Notes: The slime is harmless and only feeds on lichen. This event can indicate that the environment is good for other, more malignant slimes to live here. Repeat the harmless slime a few times before introducing the party to a mean slime.
Benign Encounter 8:
|With a backward glance, (player x), notices a constellation of ruby points of light on the corridor walls and ceiling as far back down the corridor as the eye can see.|
DM Notes: Slugs on the walls and ceilings glow red for an hour when exposed to light. The light provides enough illumination for 10’ of sight in the dark and double the normal distance for lowlight vision. The slugs are harmless, but may alert other dungeon denizens to the presence of the intruders. A character with herbalist or alchemy skill may realize that the slugs are the primary ingredient in a mixture that provides 5 points of damage reduction against fire-based attacks.
Benign Encounter 9:
|Small reddish vines wind along the corridor floor, walls, and ceiling. (If watched for a minute or two) The vines twitch and move slowly toward your feet|
DM Notes: If the characters continue to watch, the vines will become more dense. A larger vine drops down from the ceiling, unlooping itself onto a character’s shoulder and slowly creeps around his or her arm. These vines are a weaker species of another carnivorous vine. It is activated by heat. With a little care, these vines are harmless and can be shrugged off. However, if the character is distracted, does not pay close attention to the vines, or sits still for more than a minute, the vines will entangle a character that fails his Reflex save (DC 10). Foes nearby will try to bull rush or push opponents into the vines. Avoiding entanglement and tripping by the vines is a little more difficult while in combat and causes a –2 on all attack rolls and a Concentration check (DC 10) to cast spells. Ignoring the vines while in combat or casting spells will result in the above-mentioned entanglement and trip unless a Reflex save (DC 15) is made. Creatures or characters immobilized by the vines and wounded and captured by the vines will suffer constriction damage of 1d8 per hour.
Benign Encounter 10:
|Bulbous clusters of ochre pods line the ceiling corners and crevices.|
Use the adventure’s encounter table or have a creature/encounter come out of its set location. Perhaps the characters can pass a Spot skill check and then act to go unnoticed. Alternately, the characters may be surprised and ambushed or the enemy alerted to the intruder’s presence.
Conclusion, Keep them Guessing:
Dungeons are filled with many sights and smells from past and present residents and visitors. Keep mentioning lots of junk and see how often the players explore it. However, be careful not to overuse these events, especially “dead end” Ambience Events that do not develop or advance the adventure storyline. If you do, game play may slow down and players may become fatigued.
Characters closely investigating every bit of detritus will waste time, makes noise, and distract the characters. Make additional random encounter and/or Ambience Event rolls as the characters tap and sniff at everything you mention. Players may assume that while their character is rooting around looking for that special tidbit, someone else’s character is keeping guard. Have that inquisitive 5th level Barbarian ogre dispel that notion by surprising everyone and shaking things up a bit!
If you like this article, please leave a comment. If this article proves useful and inspiring, submit your own Ambient Events. We welcome your feedback and constructive criticism.
Don Chenevert, Jr.
Kevin is an architect and lives in New Orleans , Louisiana with his wife two sons, four cats, two hens, a dog, and a rat. He enjoys role playing games, drawing, as well as collecting, painting, and sculpting fantasy miniatures.
Don lives in Peoria, Illinois . A lawyer during the week, Don enjoys wandering in the woods on the weekends. On occasion, he and his son join forces to rout out the brigands and Orcs who dwell nearby.