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On Greywulf's Lair, Lessons learned from Super Meat Boy, the author suggests:

Our dungeons should be littered with corpses of past adventurers (or parts of them, at least), and blood stains serve as mute warnings that Something Wicked This Way Came. The adventuring party is entering a hive of evil, not some sterile hospital corridor where Jermlaine clean up the mess and spills of dungeon life.

I love the suggestion of a history of failed adventurers and effective traps providing a real and gritty history in a dungeon.

However, the concern is that these suggestions are best executed in dungeon crawls. How can we expand these suggestions to wilderness play and other genres? What gritty details impart a tactile history to all the various environments we find in RPGs?

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Well, if you are looking for gore-type trappings, there is a problem in that the wilderness is big, and therefore can't be pervasively littered with corpses. However, you can have:

Battlefields of various provenances - recent with actual corpses, or less recent with marked mass graves and environmental damage (like the trees at Gettysburg, or say Full Metal Jacket), or still less recent with undead activity at night and "red flowers that only grow where someone has bled." Of course if you go the supernatural route you can have stuff bleeding all over the place, that's kind of a gimme.

Or killing fields - Vlad the Impaler style, people impaled or crucified or hung or whatnot. You don't have to have large amounts of volume to make it effective; I seem to recall a couple of these being effective in Willow, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a Solomon Kane graphic novel. Decapitated heads placed on a city wall to show their attitude towards crime or subversives.

Or a lot of smaller clues. I am a big fan of populating random encounter charts with things other than "fights." Take a normal chart and up the encounter chance, and then have 50% of the time the encounter be "afterwards" perhaps with different time ranges. Is this owlbear scat? A single grave marker out in the middle of nowhere? A dessicated corpse in a spider web (ever popular)? Many groups are used to those kinds of things being so rare that they must be a clue specifically placed by the DM, which is a warning sign about needing to add more organic feel to your game.

Effects on people. Maybe a lot of the populace seems to be missing a limb, or an eye or ear or something. Funerals - in progress, or just a thriving trade in them. We tend to show D&D villages as having mostly healthy people, mostly intact families, appropriate gender and child roles, etc.even though they are often in border regions that get attacked by goblins or monsters a lot. Have the town guard be staffed by 12 year olds (it was good enough for the Royal Marines when fighting Napoleon) - there's not enough hale and hearty adults (and it might make PCs think twice about just killing guardsmen). And mental effects, people will be jaded (again, Full Metal Jacket is a good example) when there is a lot of kill going on.

You can go subtle instead of requiring gore in large swathes. I had my PCs staying in an abandoned barn to escape a rainstorm. They searched and searched out of boredom and found a human skull under some debris. This kicked them into high gear, and after some investigation they determined the person had hung themselves from the rafters years ago. This really got to them for some reason, and I then immediately improvised and ran a horror scenario to take advantage of their mental state, and it worked out awesomely and became a recurring element of that campaign.

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First of all don't over do it. A well placed corpse is useful, every room having a corpse is overkill. For the wilderness play when you have an encounter don't just for example say that a pack of wolves attack, tell them that they come upon a pack of wolves feasting on the remains of someone. Bandits should not just materialize out of nowhere, they were doing something before the players came along, what was it?

Also don't knock sterile. By playing it right a sterile dungeon can be even worse then the blood splattered type. Go into detail how its so clean and emphasize how it lacks any sign of mess. Have the corpses of the monsters they slay disappear between when they leave a room and come back. Make any sign of change go away when they are not looking. Did they scorch the walls with a fireball? when they come back describe how pristine and perfect the wall looks. This could really crank up the creepy factor.

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Fun :) Thanks for the interesting insight into creepy-sterile. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 10 '11 at 9:43
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A lot of it would depend on the dominant predator in the area. Breathers would leave signs according to their breath type - rocks & vegetation that has been burned (fire), shattered (ice), split (lightning), or dissolved (acid) for example. Gazers might leave suspiciously-detailed statues in places where one wouldn't normally expect to find such artwork. Humanoid tribes might mark the boundaries of their territories with heads mounted on pikes, or crucified corpses from other tribes. Dangerous animals (lions, tigers, and bears - oh my) might leave signs such as scat or scarred tree bark that a ranger could interpret.

At the other extreme, a bandit gang may go to a lot of trouble to erase as many signs of their activity as they could, to avoid alerting future potential victims. The signs may still be there, but subtle - a PC with superior tracking skill, for example, may be able to see that a wagon drove to a particular spot, sat there while many booted people moved and fought around it, then disappeared - possibly levitated or teleported from the spot rather than being driven away.

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