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An Adventure in All Senses

Written by Nicholas - Published on September 26, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

We don’t appreciate our senses enough, particularly when we game. Often the Dungeon Master will explain the most obvious sights and sounds, but how often will he describe the touch of the iron door as you open it? I want to teach you to engage five senses (the classic five, I’m not teaching you to engage proprioception). There are two ways to do this. The first is the simpler, just describing the sense. Next is taking it a step farther, actually using that sense for the player. I’ll give you examples and tips for doing both. Obviously you don’t want to spend half an hour describing every room and building your players walk into, but used in moderation these techniques can add imersion to your game.


Sight is the primary description in D&D. When you walk into a dungeon the DM will described the crumbling walls, the passages extending out and eventually come around to the foul creatures huddled in the dim torchlight. Most DMs do this part well enough. I could write a dozen articles on how to improve your descriptions, but for now I will just say not to leave your best descriptions in the dungeon. What makes this blacksmith’s shop visually different from all the others? Perhaps an old war trophy hanging on the wall, a faded sign with a coat of arms painted on it or his use of a magical green flame. What pattern is own the local hedge wizard’s robes that make him recognizable later.

Going a step further is easy for the visual sense. Provide the players with maps, landscapes and portraits of what their characters are seeing. Don’t fret if you have no art abilities of your own. The internet is an amazing resource. A quick search on google image search or own of the many fantasy art sites should yield something close to what you envision. You should also encourage players to get in on the act. They can provide character portraits, pictures of their notable equipment and their homes and homelands.


Touch description is somewhat overlooked and ill defined in the classic defination. It encompasses a lot, but still underused. Often a DM will say something looks slippy, but how often does he describe how your boots slide on the wet stones? Touching descriptors are generally reserved for the extreme cases, but they don’t have to be. Common things can be smooth, rough, a bit cold or warm, be heavier or lighter than they appear or all sorts of mundane desciptions which give the players a better sense of what their characters should already know.

Going further for touch means bringing in physical props, which can often be combined with other senses. If your story calls for a vile potion, that is not a hard thing to provide. You can get a glass flask from a dollar store, fill it with a foul smelling liquid and keep it inĀ  the fridge so it feels oddly cold when the players pick it up. Not only will this signal the importance of the item, but your players will know exactly what the characters have.


This smell often in D&D, but they always smell bad. Trash, waste, rotting flesh and troglodytes all polute the air of the our adventuring space. Of course, even most D&D settings even the towns probably smell of horse dung. But we don’t often talk about things that smell mundane or even good. Does the tavern the party enters have the wafting scent of sizzling bacon from the backroom or does the stench of stale vomit hang in the air? That distinct alone will tell the players what sort of establishment they have come to without the need for anything more explicit.

It is said that scent is the strongest sense for evoking memory. You can use that in your games. If you burn a particular scent of incense when the players venture into the Feywild, they will be reminded of their old adventures there and snap into the feel of the plane.


Sound is explained whenever something is happening, but what about when nothing is happening? Characters might hear the soft murmer of the town, the baying of animals, the chords of a minstrel playing for coins, the bubbling of an underground river or the mundane banter of enemies who have yet to notice the players approaching. There’s a whole world of noise out there.

Sound is an easy thing to add to your game, especially if you are running from a laptop. The biggest question is if you want to favor sound effects and realistic noise or include a thematically appropriate musical sound track.


Dice are delicious.

Seriously though, how often do you hear about taste or even eating in your game? The DM can draw a contrast between the warmth of even a crude tavern meal in a town and the bland iron rations you are forced to eat in a dungeon. It will encourage the players to enjoy the comforts of a town instead of just being endlessly adventuring automotons.

Bringing real taste to your game is tricky. If you want to go all out you can start cooking mutton legs and making trail mix before your sessions, but somehow I doubt that. The easiest way is through drinks, particularly potions. Maybe your potions taste like grape soda (or an adult beverage of your choice). Everytime a character downs a potion the player has to drink from the real world equivilent. I wonder if they can do it in a minor action too?

Sense Memory

Once you have used this technique enough, players will develop connections. A patch a familiar fabric, the scent of a monster or the taste of a potion will reveal information to the players without the need for explict exposition.

Do you engages all of your player’s senses? What do things taste like in your campaign world?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



9 Responses to “An Adventure in All Senses”
  1. Grov says:

    My group and I recently started the Enemy Within campaign for WFRP.
    As Ive run it before I had some thoughts of doing things different this time around. For starters the introduction has been heavily modified and merged with an excellent fan-created scenario. In this scenario theres this drawbridge over a river, which is down and stops the players riverbarge from continuing.

    To really punctuate somethings odd with it, early spring, and its all cowered in flowers of all kinds, I bought a colourful potted flower and together with a montagepicture of flowers put it on the gaming table. Excellent effect.

    More on this will be documented on my site, an excellent topic as this is.

  2. Hawksong says:

    In my game the party spends most of their time in the city, dealing with intrigue and threats to the citizenry. They spend a good bit of time in taverns around town and at the tables of the wealthy.
    We got taste involved recently because the group’s fighter decided to take a skill point in Craft: cooking. She and I decided to “dramatize” this choice by having a short but amusing scene where the cook (the party wizard owns a nice house) comes charging out of the kitchen, very upset over the mess that’s been made there. Turned out that the fighter had decided to make her very first dish by herself, and had apparently wrecked the kitchen while doing so…but the food she produced was quite tasty!! We always have a meal at our games, so this particular session I just made stew (something simple which a beginning cook could manage!) and let everyone think the fighter’s player had cooked it.
    We used scent for a wedding scenario – I set out potpourri in a suitable scent and added a couple tall taper candles to the table. The wedding feast was set near the sea, so I also added a sound-effects track I happened to have. Then one of my players and I set out special “terrain tokens” representing the decorated tables and the dance area and what not. Altogether it made the whole session feel like a really special occasion!
    One thing I’ve yet to pull off is potions at the table. I have several props that function for potion bottles but they remain sadly empty. What I’d really love is to be able to fill the bottles with strange looking liquids – but I have no clue how to make a liquid that fits my idea of “strange potion” because what I envision is cloudy purple stuff or silvery viscous looking fluid. Anyone have ideas about how to do THAT? :)

  3. jcdietrich says:

    For potions, assuming you are ok with “adult” drinks, check out the wonderful world of shooters. Here are some examples of what is possible:





  4. Nicholas says:

    @jcdietrich: Wow, those are great! Thanks.

  5. BlackHat11 says:

    In one of my adventure’s i ran a suspense horror campaign set in an Inn called “The Three Lemons”. Everything in the Inn had a slight hint of lemon zest. The sent of lemon still haunts my players. It’s become a running joke in my games that if its lemon scented it’s probably evil. One of my favorite campaigns ever.

  6. Hawksong says:

    Wow those are pretty cool!
    I also discovered that if you use vegetable oil and certain spices (turmeric) or even just food coloring, weird stuff ensues.
    And adding a bit of same oil to regular acrylic paint makes it not dry up, meaning your “potion” stays fluid a lot better.
    Obviously I don’t want my players drinking THESE. But it made some really cool looking concoctions!

  7. DandDGuy says:

    Now that’s bring reality to your game!!

  8. WhitDnD says:

    Wow, those Shots are great.

    Be a nice way to test the players. Sure it is easy to get your character to drink the vile looking potion but when you have to do it for an in game result that could be really interesting.

    Adding Potion Shots to my New Years Eve game!

    More importantly, Thanks Nick. I often forget there is more than sight and sound once i’m behind the DM’s chair.


  9. Vladimiravich says:

    This may see kinda cheezy, but I find the Neverwinter Nights (one and two) to be really useful for my DnD games. They have a toolset/map editor in the game were I can access all of the games music, ambient sounds and ambience. Nearly any sounds or ambient noises can be found in the NWN toolset, they have many different variations of zombie/ghost moans, random tavern babbleing, rain storms, military base chatter, bubling couldrons, screams, forest sounds, ect… the list goes on and on.

    The only problem is that the list of sounds (although very organized) is so damn big that it can become hard to find a particular sound. So its a good idea to have them prepared before hand, or to prepare them minutes in advance before your players enter a certain area.

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