Quick Tips: GMing with Taste, Touch, and Smell
One of the most challenging jobs of a GM is to serve as the describer of everything the PCs experience in the fictional game world. This is especially true when the GM wants to convey information through those descriptions–it’s one thing to say a tavern smells stale, and another to say the stale mix of herbal sachets on the walls and sawdust and straw scattered across the floor can’t quite cover the lingering coppery scent of spilled blood, watered-down mead, and urine that permeates the main room.
Lots of advances in gaming have been made with visuals and soundboards. Between being able to do internet searches for interesting visuals and great sound-effect programs designed specifically for ttRPGs (such as Syrinscape, who I love but have no association with), it’s pretty easy for a GM to be able to skip needing to describe sights and sounds. But what about taste, touch, and smell? Just a single extra description for each major element of an encounter can go a long way to both adding immersion, and conveying clues the PCs have a chance to pick up on. If you link any unusual sensation to a specific element within your game, players will often pick up on it and use it as another clue to use to experience and understand your world.
Taste: The most obvious time to describe taste is when PCs eat or drink something, and many ttRPGs have more than enough potions, oils, and magic cupcakes to make this a useful sense to think about in advance. A GM can make the identification of some potent potables easy by deciding healing potions all smell like honeysuckle and mint, or that ungol dust has a distinctive acidic bite in the back of the throat. If the GM doesn’t want to be that easy and consistent, it can still be fun to add taste elements to specific kinds of potion — perhaps potions made by clerics tend to have a strong medicine taste, those made by druids are usually overwhelmingly herb-flavored, and those made by alchemists tend to have a powerful saccharine-sweetness to them. That doesn’t tell PCs exactly what a potion does, but it does become an interesting piece of information that can help the game world feel more well-rounded.
The other fun use for taste is for things that impact the PCs to impact their sense of taste without being directly connected to eating or drinking. Maybe a mummy’s curse makes you constantly get a taste of dust in your mouth, or getting a serum of invulnerability injected into your system causes you to feel like you are licking oiled steel. Powerful smells can be tasted as well, so the rotting meat scent of the zombie bloom may also cause those near it to taste raw mushroom flavors in the air, or the choking smokebomb actually tastes like black pepper.
Touch: PCs don’t often rub their bare skin against adventure site walls and monster hides, so things like smooth, rough, sharp, fluffy, and sticky may not come into play often. But touch can also express things like temperature, and feedback from hitting things with weapons. One of the most successful descriptions of a foe I ever gave noted that while the creature seemed to be a hunched humanoid under a ragged veil and cloak, when a PC hit it with their sword, it felt like chopping into green woo. There was give as the blade chopped into the creature’s flesh, but it was far tougher than any human or even monstrous skin, muscles,and tendons.
Similarly, if touching a glowing sword makes a chill run down a character’s spine, or grabbing a Xorarcan plasma-lance makes any other humanoid’s fingertips tingle, that can be great descriptive information. If a character makes a saving throw against a gaze attack that makes their eyes itch, the player has reason to suspect a failed save results in blindness. If even approaching the stone archway covered in glowing runs makes it seem like the ground it tilting away from you, it suggests the gate may be tied to movement of some kind.
Smell: In many ways smell is just taste at a greater range, so all the taste notes apply here as well. But smell is also one of the most powerful senses for evoking primal fears–we evolved to know that the smell or rot is bad, the smell of blood is dangerous, and the smell of smoke calls for caution. Smell can be used to give clues to some kinds of deception–the high ghoul illusionist can make herself look like a human, but needs to use heavy perfume to cover the scent of the grave; the stench coming from the locally feared Troglodyte Clans Cave is bad, but not THAT bad; the bandits in the tavern smell like chili peppers, ebcause they infuse their boots with pepper oil so guard dogs can’t follow their scent.
Smells can also be fun because they can carry varying distances depending on local conditions, and what they promise is not always what they deliver. If the scent of fresh-backed pastries wafts tantalizingly through the woods, are the PCs about to stumble on a halfling village, or a giant baker that literally grinds human bones to make his bread? Is the smell of honey just a pleasant spring scent, a warning sign of giant paper wasps moving into the dense wilderness, or the smell of an undead mellified man about to round the corner and attack?
Conclusion: You don’t have to go crazy with secondary senses, but adding the description of a single noteworthy taste, touch, or smell in each major encounter can help round out the sense of what your game world is like.
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