When it comes to RPG systems, I’ve found that the five senses are usually either lumped together into one score (D&D 4e, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds), or parceled out for sight and hearing (Call of Cthulhu, D&D 3.5). Advantages and disadvantages generally only deal with sight and hearing as well and, even when the other senses are touched, it’s rare for them to actually matter in play.

I’m guilty of this at my own table. When it’s time to call for a notice/perception check, I always go to the “starters” of the senses line-up first, asking for sight-based or sound-based rolls. It takes a bit more effort to think of uses for the other senses unless it’s specifically hard-wired into the adventure (e.g. a monster known for its stench). That said there are a lot of ways to use the other senses.

Touch: Ever try to pick something up with a mechanical claw? You compensate with sight, but even then you tend to either use more force than you need, or too little force, so that the held item falls out of the claw when you try to lift it. Now imagine how it must be for cyborg/robot/golem characters. Dialing a phone, texting, and typing are much easier if you don’t have to look at what you are doing, and your sense of touch enables you to navigate your way through a dark room or search a bag or drawer without turning the lights on. And which sense do you think you are using when you’re trying to untie yourself with a blindfold on and your hands bound behind your back?

In more general RPG terms, your sense of touch can affect almost any Agility/Dexterity check you can think of as well as perform checks when your sight is impaired. Touch can also be used to determine whether an object is strong and stable before you climb or walk over it (or whether its a “false wall”). Finally, it’s your sense of touch that tells you when the temperature significantly changes.

Smell: Ever walk into a house and know what’s cooking in the kitchen? Ever smell a gas leak the moment you walk into a house? Have you ever reacted more favorably to someone because he or she smelled nice or been repelled because the cologne or perfume was too potent and not to your liking? And why do you sometimes pop a breath mint before talking to people? Your sense of smell can also tell you whether something is what it purports to be before you use it. It also works hand in hand with Taste for most foods; a stuffy nose can seriously impair your enjoyment of a particular dish.

In more general RPG terms, your sense of smell can affect many social rolls. It is also a useful sense when searching for something; smells tend to linger even when the perpetrator has left. It can also be used to determine when something is “off” about a particular dish or potion. In a fantasy game, some magic items, especially oils, ointments, and poultices, may give off scents that tip an observer off – imagine an invisibility oil that can still be detected by scent.

Taste: If Sight and Hearing are the starters and Touch and Smell are the second string, then Taste just wants a chance to play. Of all the senses, this is the one I rarely rely on and it’s a shame; like the others, taste has several uses. A good sense of taste may allow you to tell whether you are about to imbibe a poison before the damage is done (remember all those cop shows where an officer tastes a tiny bit of the suspicious white powder)? It can also allow you to “test” a magic potion without imbibing enough to cause the magical effect.

In more general RPG terms, your sense of taste can substitute for other senses in particular situations. If searching a dark room through touch, taste can help you determine what is in a bottle. It can also tell you whether something is fresh or stale and what particular ingredients were used in a dish where sight and smell can’t discern it. It may even be possible for you to taste foreign particles in the air.

Obviously, there are many more uses for these senses then I could hope to put in a single article. Hopefully, I’ve gotten your creative juices flowing on how to bring out the other senses in your campaigns and maybe even inspired a skill check modifier, advantage, or disadvantage.

How about you? Do you use the other senses regularly in your campaigns? Have you ever gotten called on it when things went badly (“I couldn’t taste the difference?”)? Have you ever used the other senses to particularly good advantage?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.



10 Responses to The Other Senses

  1. In Rolemaster, at least Fantasy or Standard System, you have separate skills for all the senses, even extra talents to improve them or hide your own smell. In my experience these skills got rarely used, which leads me to the conclusion that it is more a problem of GM’s or players not thinking about it. I always want to put more emphasis on different senses but I fear I’m not very good at it. Perhaps it would help if more examples of different uses for other senses than sight or hearing would appear in published adventures and other books.

  2. While I agree that more senses need to be engaged, when you are describing things on the fly it is very easy to fall into our own bias. We are primarily visual creatures with good hearing. Our smell and taste are nothing compared to many other animals. Touch something very difficult to handle because it varies greatly from person to person (heat tolerance, callouses, etc).

    Most adventures and GMs follow the bias that we do in normal life, we don’t really consider smell, taste, and touch in every day scenarios.

  3. This is right up there with such irritating skill splits such as “hide/move silent”, or the old ars magica split of weapon attack and defense being separate skills.

    Narratively, yes, use all senses. They are important. Vital even.

    Mechanically? Ack! Ptewy! Hisssss! Its just rules bloat and adding that many more things that need more skill points.

    Sharp senses are no cure for stupid. Keen observers have a greater understanding of the data their senses give them. They are not necessarily better at smelling, tasting, ect. They just know how to interpret the info more effectively.

  4. As a GM, I fall into the same trap in my descriptions and even my thinking about our game encounters.

    Thankfully, we’ve adapted our gaming system, which is a modified pre-GURPS RPG called The Fantasy Trip, to include the following talents for player characters to choose if they like: Acute Hearing, Alertness, Sensitive Smell, Skilled Touch, and Discerning Taste. Any character can put one or more IQ points into these skills, creating a nice character hook in the sense that their character is more effective in this particular realm. This is often a benefit, of course, but can also work against the player (as in the case of a player with Acute Hearing who is standing next to the great brass gong when it’s struck).

    The benefit for me as the GM is that the character will often smell/taste/touch/listen for things I hadn’t thought of, forcing me to either respond quickly to their question or (even better) think ahead myself as I plan encounters for these often overlooked senses.

    Does D&D or other systems incorporate such skill opportunities for the players? I’m just wondering if it should be more their initiative rather than the GM’s to ask questions about these “other” senses. Just a thought.

    Dan

  5. Well, as I said, Rolemaster has options for all senses and talents and flaws to make them more important.
    What I was just wondering though is how much our neglect of most senses is influenced by the way we consume stories. TV and movie are very popular and they only engage our two primary senses. Since many of us engage with games as “movies in our heads” it would be easy to leave out smell or touch in such cases. Just a thought.

  6. Walt Ciechanowski

    @Tomcollective – I just noticed that I typed “other skills” when I meant “other senses” in the second paragraph.

    I’m not necessarily advocating the splitting up of the senses into separate skills. In games with a single “Perception” score I often assess penalties for sight or hearing without thinking about the compensating factors of other senses. I also don’t tend to think about how a PC could use her Perception score in other ways.

  7. If I remember correctly there is a Psionic ability in 3.x/Pathfinder called “Synesthete” that allows you to use your sense of touch as a backup sensory organ to replace both visual and audio input. It seems as if these senses have not entirely been forgotten, but I feel as if one of the above posters was correct when he suggested that you absolutely use all of the senses for narritive but dare not burden us with multiple skill splits. Mechanically, I love “perception”.

  8. I like the idea of using the other senses in feats. I wouldn’t make the feat something like “+2 to perception checks involving this sense”, as that is unlikely to come up too often. What I would do is find other skills that could benefit from an enhanced sense of smell, touch or taste.

    For example, enhanced smell could provide a bonus to Tracking and Persuasion, for the reasons listed above in the article. That seems much more useful in character building than a “+2 to smell perception checks”. Any PC who took this feat would then likely get the creative juices flowing, and come up with more uses for an enhanced sense of smell in-game.

    Furthermore, when creating your own races, it would be fun to play around with heightened senses other than sight. Think of the implications of a sentient race with an excellent sense of smell; how would their society change to accommodate it? For one thing, I’m sure they’d place more emphasis on bathing :)

    I’m not sure it’s even worth creating a feat for taste, unfortunately, as it just doesn’t seem like it would come up in most games. It’s got the shortest range of any sense, in addition to the least information.

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