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?