Sounds of the Underworld
To build more suspense in your campaign and give your players a greater sense of accomplishment, consider turning up the volume in your encounters. Describe what the PCs hear, not just what they see. A well-presented sound or two can give valuable clues while increasing tension. The scraping, slithering sound in the next room could mean many things, but players tend to imagine the worst.
Typical players listen at a dungeon door before opening it, but otherwise it’s up to you as the DM to call for Listen checks. Most of the time this happens when your players are unaware of a threat and are likely to hear it before they see it (for example orcs approaching through twisted tunnels, or an invisible stalker tracking its prey). But a Listen check can apply to environmental dangers as well. Does the party hear the rush of the waterfall up ahead of their boat or the creaking and snapping of the beams holding up that |leaning statue?
In the case of the approaching orcs, it’s easy for the DM to make an opposed check between their Move Silently skill and the PCs’ Listen skill. But if the two parties are unaware of each other, are the orcs really trying to move silently? And is anyone in either party really listening? Assuming both groups are walking and talking normally, the base DC to hear them is 0 or less, and the Move Silently skill does not apply. Are they in forest terrain or bad weather, where background noises make Listen checks more difficult? What armor check penalties apply?
If a party is trying to remain silent, whether it’s your players or a group of lizard-riding kobolds waiting to ambush them, there is still more to consider than just the Move Silently skill. A failed Handle Animal check might mean the mounts are restless or noisy. A wizard or sorcerer casting a spell with verbal components (and no Silent Spell feat) or a bard singing or playing his instrument brings the Listen difficulty down to a normal conversation (DC 0) or worse. Birds may fly off and cry out in alarm at the party’s approach. The PCs may have to open squeaking doors or pull levers that grind gears that haven’t been oiled in centuries.
Listen checks shouldn’t just apply to creatures. Try incorporating them into your traps. When the ceiling in the vaulted chamber begins to crumble and drop bricks on the party, declare anyone who fails a Listen check to be flat-footed for the ensuing attack rolls. When the door of the shrinking room locks behind your PCs, check whether anyone in the party hears the bolt click into place. If they succeed, give your rogue an extra round or two to open the lock before the walls start moving in.
Sounds can be used as alarms. Common alarm sounds range from guards at the dungeon entrance yelling when an enemy approaches to the barking of dogs tied up at the edge of a bandit camp.
Natural alarm systems are perhaps the simplest, and they can provide opportunities for a druid or ranger to shine. There may be shriekers growing in the sacred grove, or noisy bat swarms living in the unused back tunnel entrance to the castle. While a sorcerer sleeps (and possibly snores) his screech owl familiar may be watching, ready to cry out when its keen eyes spot strangers.
Magical alarms can be more reliable and more selective about who sets them off. An alarm spell enhanced with permanency warns of strangers like an automatic doorbell. A glyph of warding that triggers shatter or sound burst makes plenty of noise and can be limited to specific creature types or alignments.
Traps can also double as alarms. Even though they are primarily designed to harm their victims, they can also make considerable noise. A trespasser falling into a pit of spikes could be very loud, especially if they’re wearing heavy armor. A portcullis dropping into place or chunks of masonry falling from the ceiling ought to be enough to alert any nearby intelligent creature that visitors have arrived.
Besides alerting PCs or monsters to the presence of others, sounds can also provide information about their source, A good Listen check may reveal distance or precise direction. A character may use a relevant Knowledge skill to recognize a distinctive sound. Is that hissing coming from the snakes on a medusa’s head or the acid dripping from a black dragon’s jaws? Is that barking
and yipping coming from a pack of dogs or a small army of gnolls planning an attack? Often, the noise a creature makes can tell you if it is moving, wounded, or sleeping.
Think carefully about the encounters in your adventures. What do they sound like? Do the giant’s footsteps echo through his castle and shake the walls when he’s on the second floor but not the first? Is а flight of harpies quiet when they think there is no prey nearby, or do they argue and fight over the little meat they have left? Does the lonely gynosphinx talk to herself, possibly giving eavesdropping rogues clues for an ensuing round of riddles?
Sounds can also be deliberate. A magic mouth could inform the player who just drank poison where to find the antidote. A bard held prisoner in a cellar could guide the PCs to his prison with whispering wind spells. A magic device could provide clairaudience at the location of a hidden treasure, emitting the roar of a waterfall and a croaking sound that a druid or bard might recognize as the call of a rare type of toad.
Though sound provides valuable information to those who are alert and discerning, it can also be used to misdirect. Have your players ever drawn guards away from their posts with a Bluff check and a ghost sound? Haye they diverted enemies with ventriloquism or the clatter of an object dropped by telekinesis?
Distracting sounds can work just as well against the PCs, especially if they must earn the misinformation with a Listen check. A ranger out foraging might follow the voice of a friend or the call of a wild turkey, only to find himself face to face with a green hag. A crafty dragon might defend her lair by luring greedy PCs into a trap using a ghost sound of coins clinking. She might also have a magic mouth that lies to the PCs about her sleeping patterns.
Even if you have no specific information to convey to your PCs with sound, use sounds to build atmosphere in your descriptions and bring your encounters to life. The steady plink of dripping water could echo through every chamber of an underground lair. Laughing and snatches of conversation might be heard in the vermin-infested sewers below a tavern. The merchant who hires the PCs as bodyguards might have a cart with a squeaky wheel that alerts every creature they pass along their journey.
The important thing is not to forget about sound. Picture yourself in each encounter—what do you hear? Play mood music during your game sessions. Imitate the sounds of every spell and every creature and use props if necessary. Let’s hear it!
BY RUSSELL BROWN
ILLUSTRATION BY JIM ZUBKAVICH