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A question that usually props up at my table is "If we start a fight in this room, will we attract any attention?" I guess usually this refers to the noise and din of combat. So, say the party is fighting in a stone chamber, and about 50 feet away there are some guards, and the door isn't closed. How should I determine if the guards can hear the fight?

The system I am using is 13th Age. It offers no rules or guidelines for such cases, though I guess if I ask the authors they might answer "whatever the narrative requires". I'm not looking for a high-fidelity answer based on physics, but something that's reasonable will do.

Edit: The reason I am asking is because the players are concerned about this - they keep pointing out how others would hear them if they start a fight now. What are some ways I can assure them a dungeon crawl is not a suicidal mission because of the noise issue?

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This would probably render 90% of most dungeon crawls out there moot. –  Extrakun Jul 9 '13 at 16:42
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Man, I wish my players were as careful and engaged with the fictional realities as yours are! Do try not to hand wave their imagination of the reality away—that might just break their investment in your game. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 9 '13 at 17:17
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Why not go for a workaround, and ensure that there's a lot of loud and/or white-ish noise in most of the critical areas? Add pulsating magic, snoring dragons (in the distance), hissing and booming and clanking steamworks and machinery, roaring waterfalls, grinding, giant chains and so on... –  OpaCitiZen Jul 9 '13 at 19:31
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Tunnels get stuffy without ventilation, and moving air = noise. Also, carpets, drapes, wall hangings, and other similar things dampen noise quite a bit. Add more of them to your dungeons. –  Mooing Duck Jul 9 '13 at 20:05
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Depending on the nature of the dungeon, sounds of combat may not be unusual. For example, an orc lair would probably have frequent bouts of combat between orcs. Sounds of limited combat in the next chamber may not raise other orcs' curiosity... unless they want to go watch (and bet on) the fight. –  GrandmasterB Jul 9 '13 at 20:56
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6 Answers

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You can use your players' intuition that the sound of battle should be important without squashing their imagination of the dungeon, while also serving your GMing need to keep the whole dungeon from going "on alert" and dogpiling them at the first clash of swords. You do this by making sound weird in these strange, underground halls, and then telegraphing to your players how sound works in this dungeon by describing what they hear.

There are two standard ways to hint that fight noise will not normally carry, without simply revealing the man behind the curtain and showing that it's just a game and they "shouldn't" care about this.

The dungeon deadens sound

The hush of the tomb is expected, but there's something more to it. As you proceed down the corridor, you realise you don't even hear your footsteps echoing back at you. Conversation from the tail of your marching order sounds like thin, unintelligible whispers only yards away at the head. The very air itself seems to swallow sound.

Variations on this have been mentioned in various comments: muffling tapestries, loud or white ambient noise that masks the sounds of the party's incursion (machinery, noisy rituals, rushing water or air), and the like. Deadening sounds comes in a variety of forms, but they all have in common that a brief description of how the environment interferes with the party's hearing will let them know that fight noise is not going to travel as far as they would normally fear.

The location's acoustics confound the ability to tell where sounds come from.

This takes a bit more work. The best way to show (not tell) this is to insert random noises, screams, and whispers into the game. Creating a list and randomly rolling on it every in-game chunk of time is the traditional means.

For example:

Atmospheric Dungeon Sound Events Table
Roll 1d8 every 30 in-game minutes:

  1. A scream, suddenly cut off, echoes from somewhere deep in the dungeon.
  2. Mutterings that sound right behind your shoulder that slowly fade away.
  3. The noise of battle, seemingly coming from directly in front of the party, where they can plainly see there is nothing.
  4. The sound of dripping water, as if from very far away, but it follows the party without growing louder or fainter for several minutes.
  5. Growls echo down the hall (1–3: ahead, 4–5: behind, 6: both)
  6. A strong but quiet winds blows, but it seems to snatch away any attempt at conversation, carrying the party's words who-knows-where.
  7. No event
  8. Roll twice and combine, rerolling results 7–8.

(This is just am example. Expand as necessary before, between, or even during sessions.)

By giving a dungeon unusual acoustic properties, you can leverage how your players are already intelligently thinking about sound, making them aware in a natural way that the sounds of battle can't easily be used to locate them, unless the listener is already very close (and perhaps even not then). You also reward your players' engagement with the world by responding with in-world details about something they've shown interest in, making their investment deeper rather that fighting against it. As a bonus, it gives your dungeon more character and makes it a more unnerving and unnatural environment.

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I love this answer. It gives plausibility as to why the party could fight in one part of the dungeon, and could still explore other parts without being harassed. –  Extrakun Jul 9 '13 at 18:36
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Also, let them use sound against their opponents - they should be able to figure stuff out by sound themselves. –  mxyzplk Jul 9 '13 at 22:39
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Fights are noisy.

(Disclaimer: I do not have much experience with IRL combat, so this answer is not entirely experience-based, but I've rolled in the contributions of someone who has.)

REALLY noisy. Metal against metal goes CLANG. Gunfire goes BANG at least. People shout to intimidate their foes, to communicate over the din of combat, or just to give themselves courage. Bones break: SNAP! Objects are knocked around and thrown: CLATTER CLANG SHATTER. People scream when they're wounded --animals even more so, so if you've got horses or animal companions or the like, keep that in mind. Even cut throats gurgle, so unless you're armed with garrotte wire there's always going to be SOME noise. And if you are trying to be stealthy, loss of subtlety is always a single mistake away.

Unless the group is working very hard to keep things quiet, I'd say that a fight can easily be heard at least fifty meters away, environmental factors notwithstanding (fog absorbs noise; stone makes it echo; sound carries further over water).

How hard is it to keep a fight quiet? Harder the longer it lasts. Specifically, the instant someone has a chance to shout for help, he will unless given VERY good reason not to. Unless the party can successfully ambush a guy using quiet take-down techniques, I'd expect everyone within at least 150-200 feet to know something's going down.

This is inconvenient.

Especially for the GM who doesn't want to dogpile a whole fort's-worth of soldiers on the party in a single fight. This is why "realistic" fight noise levels are generally ignored.

There's not much I've ever found to justify this in-game, it's just a tradition: If it were treated realistically the party would wipe, so the GM assumes noise levels occur at the decibel of plot. If you can be consistent in what that means, the players will be appreciative because then they know what to expect. Otherwise, it's basically up to you as the GM to be worthy of their trust in this matter.

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Having been in combat IRL, in the middle of a fight, you're not to worried about ambiant/background noises, as you are usually dealing with the threat that is most immediate/dire to you/said person. But combat is extremely noisy, and despite Hollywood BS, a slit throat gurggles and isn't all that quiet in the immediate vicinity. Metal on Metal is quite loud, and unless you're going for the stealth approach, subtelty is always a strike away from going out the window. Unless you're carrying a garrote. So most of that ninja stuff is fake. Sorry. –  Jersey Jul 9 '13 at 18:37
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In addition to what @SevenSidedDie said, I would add a couple of other options:

  • Have different dungeon areas physically disconnected from each other - instead of walking through a door directly to the next room, they can walk a few miles of twisty cave passages between rooms, or go through portals, or ...
  • Figure out some way to render all the baddies deaf. This could be a massive explosion that happens near the beginning, an effect of being exposed to demonic magic workings, the servants having been made mute and deaf so they can't hear or tell any of their master's secrets, or even something as simple as a disease.
  • The dungeon can have some sort of background noise that renders hearing impossible, like big factory machinery (they could all be wearing hearing protection, too), volcanic activity, or the magic ritual they are trying to stop. (Who says that magic is quiet? Rituals can be noisy, everything from overpowering high-pitched cosmic resonations, to the blood-curdling screams of infernal demons, to explosions and earthquakes and illusory battles and armies and ...) If you want, in keeping with the 'show, don't tell' theory, you could make the players roll a saving throw (or the equivalent in your system) to avoid taking some adverse effect from the noise (applicable effects might include deafened, stunned, distracted, etc).
  • Let the PCs use some sort of spell/ritual/magic item to isolate an area, or just mute all sound within the zone (one may even already exist, although I don't know for sure).
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This kind of thing always depends on the players, but I wouldn't make a hard-and-fast rule. There's more drama if the players don't quite know if they're going to have extra company or not.

Have the PC's make stealth rolls (however those work in 13th Age) at appropriate moments. Have the NPC's they are fighting in the room try and sound the alarm (e.g. ring a bell, or blow a whistle). You can also throw-in some fun moments such as "You stab the orc and he dies instantly, dropping his heavy metal shield, make a dexterity check to try and catch the shield before it hits the ground and make a ton of noise".

If the PC's fail miserably at any of these point, the guards hear and come running.

Lastly, never forget the Rule of Cool - if 'attracting attention' would add more fun to the situation, then do it. This isn't supposed to be a 100% realistic simulation, it's supposed to be fun.

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I don't know 13th Age, so I may be giving you a useless hint.

Having said this:

a) you as the GM have to decide if, depending on the "room description", and what kind of opponents are in there, it wouldn't make sense for the PCs' opponents to actively cry for help. This leads to...

b) ask the players what kind of tactics they want to try and minimize this risk. Do they charge hoping that surprise and bloodlust will be enough to dispatch/incapacitate everyone in just one round? What about magic? having decided that...

c) make your party or the party leader, or whatever makes more sense in 13th age try a Luck Roll (assuming there is something like that in the system). The difficulty will depend on (a)+(b).

d) finally, in case of any fumbles by a PC, you may substitute any normal ill effect with another luck roll (possibly with increased difficulty) to see if the fumble causes so much noise that other enemies are alerted.

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The question is more about the usual noise a fight would make, more than whether the enemies would cry for help. –  Extrakun Jul 9 '13 at 16:42
    
Then skip point (a). I understood you wanted some easy way to adjudicate the result... –  p.marino Jul 9 '13 at 16:44
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Any real life battle would be very noisy indeed and nearly impossible to conceal. You are not talking about real life, as the DM you get to make the rules about what attracts attention and what doesn't.

I would not focus too much and making the situation realistic. Don't let other enemies be aware of the party simply because they need to/want to fight something. This possibility makes the players analyze the situation too much, taking their minds off track from the objective and wasting time that could be spend doing something much more enjoyable.

If you do want the possibility of a fight alerting other people, build it in somewhere else. Maybe a guard has a horn on his belt that he could blow for help, and unless the party stops him in one turn he will sound it. Maybe there's some other type of alarm such as a large bell that a guard would have to run to to ring. In any case, I think you should always give the players a chance to stop the alarm from sounding if possible to do so.

For example in one of my DnD campaigns (I have no experience with 13th Age, but this is not a question specific to it) I had a trap in a hallway. Triggering said trap would release a cascade of rocks onto the head of whoever was under it, resulting in damage and a very loud sound (I hinted at both of these previously when they saw the same type of trap already triggered). Had they set off the trap not only would they have taken damage, but the goblins in the next room would also have been alerted to their presence. However, since they bypassed the trap, they were able to take the goblins by surprise.

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I firmly believe that players will guide themselves in what they enjoy. It could very well be that this party prefers the details of combat, and that is what they enjoy; players are good at finding what they enjoy in a campaign. Additionally, very often complex fights and scenarios are extremely engaging, if the group is engaged with the fight. –  Emracool Jul 9 '13 at 19:49
    
I agree, a complex fight with many elements to consider can always be very engaging. Hence why I say a DM should build the possibility of an alarm into the battle. Furthermore, I find the idea that combat noise will attract attention severely limiting to many characters. I rogue may be able to sneak around chocking enemies and slitting throats, but what's a fighter going to do? Charge the enemy and hope they're frightened speecheless and then try to ignore any noisy armor they're wearing? I think the alarm mechanic just makes the fight more viable for everyone. –  Mitharlic Jul 14 '13 at 3:18
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