December 15, 2009

The Five Senses

In an earlier post I made mention of immersion and how it can be used to make an adventure seem more real. One of the ways this can be done is by allowing the players to use all five of their senses; Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste. The five senses are methods of perception and thus ways to communicate with the players. Anytime you can reach more than one sense something becomes more real and the players become more cognizant of the setting.

The trick is to figure out how to target and utilize all these senses. Hearing is the most commonly used sense at the gaming table and it misleads us into thinking we are including other senses, when in fact we are not. Describing a room in detail can cause a player to create a vision within their mind of the room. This can help visualize the room, but we are still only using the sense of hearing. Same with describing the smell of a monster or the feeling of a wave of fire.
Vivid descriptions of what a character's senses are relaying to the character can help tremendously, and is an excellent start. A player will remember a similar experience and that memory will enhance the encounter, even if it is just a verbal description. However, the other senses can be used if we expand our toolbox of GM methods.

I'm going to look at each sense and give some ideas of how you can get a player to use them. Note that we are again trying to target the players with these techniques, moreso than the characters.
As already stated hearing is the most common sense used while running an adventure. It is used in every description we give. It is used during combat as we relay attacks and effects. The way to make Hearing more memorable is to enhance it. We've all heard advice on using the voice of the NPC. If the NPC is a gruff soldier, use a gruff voice. Adding such things as a persistent cough will make the NPC more believable, as well as sending the unspoken message that the NPC is sick in some way.
Make Hearing important. Give the players a reason to pay attention to what you are saying. I once had an NPC in my Feng Shui game, Hugo, who could only speak one word, his name. From there I had to use inflections in my voice to convey what Hugo was trying to say. I made his name sad when he was upset, timid when he was scared, boisterous when he was happy. This forced the players to pay attention; it became less about what he was saying and more about how he was saying it. They became invested in the NPC because they had to put effort into the NPC.

The easiest way to include sight is to use miniatures. They are a visible representation of what is going on with the characters. The players see the battlemap and it is easier for them to imagine how the scene looks. Verbal descriptions miss things; sight can clarify things.
However, don't stop with miniatures. Think outside the box. Is there an easy item you can include as a visible prop? Running a Shadowrun game I wanted a certain NPC to be memorable and put the players off a bit. I have never smoked anything in my life and all my friends know this. I borrowed some cigarettes from a neighbor and whenever I played the NPC I made sure to have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. The players could easily identify when I was playing that NPC and it was so odd seeing me with a cigarette in my mouth it was instantly memorable.
To take the concept a step further; look at your adventure and think if there is an easy way to bring a real-life version of an item in the adventure to the table. Make it relevant to the adventure and do not go expensive, but do look at everything. Is there a note the players come across? Write it up beforehand. Is there a riddle on the wall? Write it beforehand and hand it to the players.
Another easy to find and use visual prop is a picture. If the characters are going to find a magical sword in tonight's adventure, go online and find a picture of a cool looking sword. This can be done for virtually any object or place the characters will come across. Some companies provide a small booklet of pictures depicting the places within the adventure module. They do this for a very good reason. You can do the same with some simple web searches and a printer.

Similar to Sight, miniatures are an excellent source of touch. The players move their figurine around the battlemap and by a subliminal attachment feel close to the action. How often have you heard a player say, "I move myself to the left to gain a flanking advantage". The act of touching and moving their figure brings them closer to what is happening.
Also in the same way props can help with Sight, props allow players to touch the items within the adventure, thus making it more real. Describing the liche's phylactery is not as cool as touching the bottle. A map of the region that the players can bring out whenever they have a question is better than being told.

Together with taste this is one of the hardest senses to bring to the table. Describing a hideous stench is all well and good but bringing a rotting piece of meat to the table is going a bit too far (trust me, I know). Instead go for subtler ways. Incense, or even a simple air freshener, can bring alot to the table. There are different types and they can be used to invoke different settings. Something like a pine air freshener can remind a player of the outdoors. Perhaps an NPC can be associated with a certain scent; whenever Black Delilah, the ultra-spy, enters a room the players can smell the perfume she likes to wear. If done correctly, the players will know she is closeby simply by the smell.

At first glance this seems almost impossible to implement. While it is true it will be done rarely, this is mostly derived from the fact the characters will not be doing much tasting and therefore there is less opportunities to include the sense. However, it is fairly easy to add in whenever the characters are using the sense.  Anytime they are in a tavern or banquet it is possible to include some food. The Brown Surprise could be a batch of brownies you cooked up ahead of time. Entice the characters into ordering the Brown Surprise and give them the brownies. Characters having rations while on the trail? Give them some beek jerky strips to munch on.

So, remember, we are assaulting the senses of the players and by doing so it will enliven and enrich their game time.
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