RPG-a-Day 2021: Day 2 – Senses
Welcome back to RPG-a-Day 2021, a month long series of prompts from Autocratik and Casting Shadows to encourage creativity and conversation in the TTRPG community. You can see the full calendar and a little more discussion of what RPG-a-Day is in our post on the first prompt, Scenario.
On weekdays, the prompts offer multiple choices and suggest rolling – I’m going to eschew the rolling of the dice and just select one of the alternate prompts and select to write about Senses today. Let’s talk about how to use the senses to expand your description and immerse your players further in the world.
Generally, it’s assumed a character will have five senses. This doesn’t account, of course, for those who are hearing and/or visually impaired, which present their own challenges and advantages here. I would suppose it is even possible that a character could be smell or taste impaired as well – or, perhaps, there may even be those characters who have no sense of touch as well. But – for the core concept of the article, I’m going with the assumption that most characters are going to have four to five of the following senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
Sight is the first of the senses we’ll talk about – but it also will likely require only a cursory go over. Most game masters have a fairly good grasp of describing visual elements in a scene. My thought is that this comes because – for a large percentage of game masters – visual is the first (and often only) sense that comes to mind when you’re asked to describe something. There are additional elements you can add in aside from basics – describing the visual elements of textures on an object can extremely far to help the imagination and doesn’t require a large amount of effort to add in.
So, let’s step away from sight and on to the other four senses and how we can use them increase immersion in the world.
Let’s start with the other commonly described yet often ignored sense – hearing.
If you only want to focus on adding one sense other than visual to your descriptions, it one hundred percent should be auditory. Barring those characters who are hearing impaired, the addition of audible elements to your descriptions add so much characters (and players, of course) can work from. As an example, let’s completely remove visuals from the picture – your character, unable to see the dark, is stumbling through a space and can’t see anything to determine the area. Here are a couple auditory only descriptions that evoke entirely different spaces:
- The air around you is completely silent aside from the echo of your footsteps. Suddenly, a screech echoes from somewhere distant…
- The wind whistles past you, cut occasionally by the sound of distant water dripping into pools. A low guttural growl comes from the darkness to your right…
- Each of your footsteps is dulled and muffled. Somewhere nearby there is the squeak of rusted hinges and the resounding thud of a slamming door...
Each of these descriptions describes and evokes a different space, entirely without providing any visual descriptions. When accompanied by visual descriptions, they would help build out a more thorough imagining of the space the characters are in. In short, stop and think about the sounds of the location the characters are in and use them to help paint the canvas of their imagination.
The third sense most often used by game masters is, of course, olifactory – smell.
Of all the senses, I perhaps believe that smell might be one of the most underused senses when it comes to description in tabletop games. Pretty much everyone agrees that smell is, without a doubt, the strongest memory sense – more than seeing a reminder of our childhood, a familiar scent from your childhood can bring those memories flooding back. I think most people are well aware that smell is one of the strongest senses we link with many places but often fail to be able to accurately describe those scents when the time comes.
In reality, you don’t need to provide a really verbose description to invoke feelings from scents. Simple words like damp, musty, dry, sweet, or (I’m apologizing in advance) moist with regards to smells often can evoke the responses you want. To get a little more complicated, you can use short phrases to draw out specific feelings – when the characters come to the water’s edge, be sure to describe whether they get the salt-and-fish smells of the ocean on the breeze or the dank-and-rotting smell of an overgrown bog in the stagnant air.
Now, let’s move in to the two lesser used senses: touch and taste.
Very briefly – taste is often considered very hard to work into your descriptions. However, so much of our perception of smell comes from tasting the air. Many of the same descriptions that could be used to invoke odours can easily be used as taste descriptors to a degree as well; if you find your scent descriptions overwhelmed, experiment with transferring those to taste – often times, you’ll get an even stronger reaction from your players with regards to taste than you will to smell, even with the exact same words.
Last of the five senses is touch. Touch can be used to great effect when your players cooperate and have their characters actually physically touch objects. Is the surface of the table they just touched smooth or rough? Does the forest floor yield slightly under their footsteps or is the soil hard (this differentiation alone can say so much about a forested area in very few words)? Is that strange object hot or cold? Are the walls of the cave dry, damp, or slimy? Is the fabric of the newly found magical garment scratchy, silky, or soft to the touch? Take some time and add a few touch descriptors to as many objects and surfaces in your world as you can – when the characters have to touch things, they’ll add another level to how your players imagine the thing they’re interacting with.
We’ve discussed the five senses of humans – but in many roleplaying games, non-humans are a staple or there are other senses developed by virtue of the setting. Things such as tremorsense and blindsense are, in a way, extensions of the existing senses – you feel (touch) the vibrations and movements of other objects remotely. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other more unique possibilities. For example, consider a character who is able to sense the magical pulse of the world – how does that manifest and what words could be use to describe it? Is it experienced through ones of their five “regular” senses – do they see the magical auras of things? – or perhaps through an innate understanding of how magical auras interact to paint a new picture of the world in their mind? It doesn’t hurt to think about these alternate senses even if, sometimes, descriptions for them can be incredibly difficult.
Well, this has been day two of RPG-a-Day 2021! Be sure to check back in tomorrow when I talk about Tactics.