Storytelling For The Five Senses

As a DM, when I describe a scene to my players, I generally start with what the PCs see.  Unfortunately, I often stop there as well, assuming that my visual description is enough to draw the player into the scene.  This is a problem because when we enter new environments, our bodies give us a lot of sensory input that is non-visual.  In order to truly draw the player into the scene, we need to play to these other senses as well.  So we ask the question: how can we start to describe scenes more fully?  I’ve begun using a “blind characters” approach.  By that I mean, assume that the characters are entering an environment with their eyes closed, and at the end, they open their eyes.  With that in mind, I describe the visual last.  By filling in all the other sensory input before giving the full visual picture, I am forced to think about what the characters experience rather than what they see.  It’s a useful distinction to make.  In order to make sure I have all my bases covered, I use the palindrome mnemonic STHTS to help me remember the order in which to describe the environment; or if you prefer, Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Here’s how it works: First, look at the picture below.  How would you describe this scene to players?

Photo by Troy Lilly via National Geographic's Weekly Wrapper

A visual-centric description would focus on the vibrant green, the waterfall, and the odd concentric circles in the pool (what’s about to pop out of that?).  It’s an ok starting point; I admit it’s necessary to give players a frame of reference before filling in the rest of the sesory input, but we can’t stop there.  Instead, this is simply a setting of the stage with a quick visual sketch before adding some easy, vibrant detail for the rest of the senses.  You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool.  The stage is set; we’ll fill in other visual details last.  Let’s use our mnemonic to flesh out the scene for the other four senses first.

SMELL

We start with smell because that’s one of our stronger sensory inputs, and probably one of the most neglected when describing a scene for players.  Smell can trigger strong memories, and the emotions tied to them.  While it’s difficult to actually bring a scent to the table, you can usually pinpoint a scent pretty well. The air smells fresh and wet. If you want to get more detailed: The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.

TASTE

I will admit that there is rarely a chance to describe taste to your players.  Unless they’re eating something, there really aren’t many opportunities.  However, there is a strong reaction tied to smell that makes this sensory input a logical one to follow.  Even if the characters aren’t eating anything, are the smells described likely to induce hunger, nausea, are they neutral?  In this case, I’m going to say there is no “taste” reaction, so we’ll leave this out.

HEARING

What do the characters hear?  Is it eerily silent?  Is water dripping somewhere?  This is a chance to create a little mystery because we can often hear things that we can’t see.  You can also set down some communication barriers as well – is it too noisy to hear others?  How will they commnuicate nonverbally?  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering and a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound…

TOUCH

Like taste, we might be tempted to say that there isn’t much chance to bring touch into the equation.  Unless PCs deliberately handle or touch something, there is no texture or weight to describe.  Let me disagree.  The human body is surprisingly sensitive to temperature and air movement.  If PCs touch or pick something up, by all means, describe away.  However, even if they do not, you must answer the following questions:  What is the temperature, and is it uncomfortable? Is it a normal temperature for where the characters are?  What is causing the temperature?  What about air movement?  Is the air still or active?  What is causing the air movement?  Will the answer to any of these questions make the hair on the back of the character’s necks tingle? …and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  (Note the word “may.”  As the DM, it’s unfair to dictate character action, though I’m not opposed to suggestion)

SEE

Finally, we will fill in any visual details.  This is not hard to do, looking at the picture.  It’s helpful to describe color (or lack thereof) and any details that the characters may find relevant.  It’s perfectly fair to layer the relevant information in pure fluff.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

Now, let’s put it all together.  If we were only describing visuals, we’d have this: You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

And that’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.  But this is better:

You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering as a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

I should note that most of the “relevant” details in my description are in fact visual (the disturbance in the water and the cave opening).  It doesn’t have to be so.  I noted ways in which you can give players cues that are non-visual – sounds, smells, abnormal temperatures – and I would encourage you to do so.  For example, we could have used one of these for our picture above:

  • The air is filled with a strange ozone smell -or- …filled with the smell of baking bread.
  • The sound of ticking clockwork comes from somewhere.
  • There is an unnatural chill in the air.

At first, describing scenes so fully may seem a difficult task.  You will generally find yourself writing out the scene ahead of time to make sure you hit all the details.  With practice, however, you will begin to describe for all five senses with ease, and eventually will be able to do it off the cuff without even thinking about it.  Just remember STHTS – smell, taste, hearing, touch, see.  Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Let’s practice.  Describe the following scenes using our new technique:

Photo by Flora Liu via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jack Paulus via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jennifer Cortright via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Luis Bermejo via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

All the images featured in this article are courtesy of National Geographic’s Weekly Wrapper webpage, where you can download any of them as desktop wallpaper.  Also, thanks goes out to the Dice of Doom podcast, who first got me thinking about this, and practicing it.

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11 Responses to Storytelling For The Five Senses

  1. The Id DM says:

    Excellent article. I was just working on campaign material last night, and I now have a mental note to ensure I’m describing things in more detail other than what the players can see. Sometimes it is challening to address the other senses, but working on that also gives me ideas for the room or encounter.

  2. Kilsek says:

    Tremendous article! These techniques promote evocative descriptions and immersion, something that 4e’s earliest products were very thin on. After playing since Basic and 2e, it’s hard not to develop a fondness for those inspiring details that your basic senses gather for you. And today, it’s easier than ever to present this in a multimedia way. Monsters, magic items, and any physical locations or encounter areas need more of this exact type of attention!

  3. Gregwa says:

    Will those practice photos show up on the final exam?

    • Benoit says:

      Only one of them, plus three new ones. I will expect a full paragraph for each of the five senses, as well as four adventure hooks built in for each photo. Or you could just give me $10, and I’ll give you an A.

  4. RupertG says:

    This is an excellent extrapolation of the ideas that we had discussed in our podcast (thank you for mentioning it). I really like the exercise at the end too. I found myself trying very hard to apply a Five Senses Description to all the photos… Good post! 🙂

    • Benoit says:

      Thanks. I don’t know who it was in that podcast that described crisp fall day with the baby crying two streets over and the letter sitting in front of you on the table, but that image has (obviously) stuck with me. It’s a very powerful technique, when done properly. Not that I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination, I just needed a concrete technique to help me remember to do it… and this is what I came up with.
      (If anyone else wants to know what I’m talking about, the discussion starts at the 26:43 mark of this podcast, and the actual description is at the 39:00 mark)

  5. Pingback: An excellent post on Five Senses Description in GM'ing RPG's | Dice of Doom

  6. Pingback: The Sound of Silence | The Id DM

  7. Noe483 says:

    The cavern picture is breathtaking. Truly amazing what wonders this world holds.

  8. Pingback: Favorite site of the Month: Sept/2011 | STUFFER SHACK

  9. Pingback: Gloomwrought’s Final Destination | The Id DM

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