Tracking Trash

Use More Garbage in Your Games

When describing dungeons, do you remember rubbish? Does the odor of an opponent factor in when players are chasing down a challenger? Where do the Mind Flayers dump their muck? Did you think about what clues the cyber-corporation might leave in their back-alley bins? You should – the details of dregs can make for some interesting additions to a living, breathing, excrement-dropping world. One man’s trash, as they say…


In the language of Garbology. a heap of trash is called a midden.  Archaeologists can glean a great deal of information from piles of preserved filth, far beyond simply what those folks ate. Learning about what a populace discards can be insightful in many ways – telling observers in another time what they had in excess and what they didn’t value, which hints and what they probably did value. And middens are left behind even if the people have to pack up everything of worth and move away, so they usually remain just as they were when they were abandoned.

What should a midden, trash pile, or junk heap look like in a gaming scenario? What should it contain? In a non-civilized setting such as a monster’s lair or a savage wasteland, garbage will probably be either left exactly where it fell when it was deemed unworthy or piled up in the nearest convenient spot. In a setting where there’s at least some level of organization – a tribal village, a goblin cave, etc., the group in question will probably go to the trouble of moving their filth away from the living areas, at the very least. They may dig a midden pit, burn the refuse, or otherwise have a dumping grounds of sorts that is far enough away not to become an obstacle but not so far as to create too much work.

Civilized societies often have to ramp up their rubbish management – even a small town may quickly find itself in danger of disease, flies, scavengers, and even blocked roads if they don’t truck their junk down to the shoreline and toss it in the ocean every so often. And the larger the city, the more complex the operation becomes.

There are a few settings where sewage supervision becomes truly essential – sailing ships, spacecraft, and large enclosed structures like mega-dungeons and arcologies. The mobile vessels are essentially working machines that, if not kept clean, will cease to be effective at what they were designed to do. Couple that with isolation and small spaces which means that decks need to be swabbed and air filters need to be scrubbed on schedule, every time. Enclosed city-like dungeons and futuristic arcologies are also at risk because of their confinement. Trash build-up could block essential service-ways in a very short amount of time and would be similar to an arterial blockage in a body – the superstructure would lose functionality and eventually die.


Trash can be used in storytelling to show evidence of the recent use of a room or the passage of an enemy. If you need to indicate to players that someone or something has been active in an area, you can simply add a description of their garbage or waste while verbally painting the room or region. Players who find discarded, smoldering torches, fresh apple cores, or drops of sweat should be able to deduce that they are not necessarily alone. And the stench of a monster may linger long after it has shambled elsewhere.

Finding trash is the same as finding tracks insomuch that a perceptive character (or one skilled as a tracker or investigator) can start to draw some limited information in an instant. The first and most important question to ask is “how long has this been here?” For some garbage, this question is easy to answer – a hot pile of dung means only moments have gone by since the dragon did his business and the party needs to get their weapons out. A pile of dusty bones shows that much time has passed. For other clues, like paper litter, more investigation may be required to figure out how long ago it was deposited. But it is important to a good player experience that they get to do some of the brain-work – describe what they see but not what it means and let them puzzle it out. “The sun-bleached newsprint contains a partial story about a new telegraph line being built” is better than “You find a scrap of newspaper from the 1800’s.”

And if your protagonist players are being pursued, you can use their trash against them in the same way. People generate a lot of waste, especially on a journey. Food wrappers and food waste make an easy trail, and adventurous types may leave behind all manner of junk in their wake – sewing scraps from clothing repair, bullet casings from a battle, old bandages, used-up wands, poorly-cared-for campsites, latrine pits, and even strands of hair – all of them, to the right pair of eyes, sure signs of heroes on the move.


You can learn a lot about your enemy by digging through his trash. Finding your foe’s junk pile can tell a savvy investigator what they’ve been up to lately, and potentially reveal strengths and weaknesses. Below is a list of suggestions for items that might be useful to a scrounging scout looking for clues.

  1. Broken bottles with traces of the foe’s favorite potions or poisons.
  2. The corpses of slain enemies which reveal what kind of wounds killed them.
  3. Scraps of leftover material from the manufacturing of certain kinds of weapons, traps, obstacles, or armor.
  4. Used bandages and other medicinal supplies that suggest what ailments they’re fighting off or healing from.
  5. Spoiled pages of copied spellbooks that contain hints at the type of magic an enemy might employ, or bits of material components for spells or crafted magic items.
  6. The cast-offs of their favorite, foraged foods, which may be combined with knowledge of where that food comes from to set up an ambush or to poison the food source.
  7. The remnants of ruin excavations, construction projects, or doomsday-weapon-building attempts that reveal the nature of their goals.
  8. Scraps of correspondence from allies or associates that lay out clues about the enemy’s motivations and resources.
  9. Blueprints or other sketched plans that have been discarded after the completion of whatever was being built.
  10. The solid or liquid waste of whatever beasts of burden or monsters that occupy the lair.

So, don’t neglect your scraps and sewer lines when planning out your next plotlines and drawing your dungeon maps – they are an essential part of life, even if they are overlooked and underappreciated.

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