When we're talking about senses, touch and taste often get overlooked because they're so very personal. But, when we're describing things for horror, that can be exactly what we want.
Horror is often transgressive, whether that's violating Victorian social norms in Gothic stories or the flesh itself in something from Cronenberg. Like with all good horror techniques, it takes some knowledge of your audience to pull off just right, but we have a tremendous advantage in most tabletop campaigns of knowing who we're scaring.
The most basic touch in horror is probably the shiver, the sensation of sudden coolness that doesn't have any obvious cause. The "sudden chill" of ghost stories and hauntlings are a good example there, but I'm sure we've all had that moment of bodily panic for no discernible reason. Or that itching like you're being watched. That tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.
Basically, you know, anxiety symptoms. That's not a coincidence or anything, obviously. The same feeling I get having a pleasant conversation with a stranger is what scores of movies every year try to tap into and what we're trying to bring to the players.
It helps that these signs are things that don't always have an obvious source and are considered something our bodies are trying to tell us. In a world with magic and monsters, those can be a vital source of information and things the players should be paying attention to, even trying to discern the reasons for.
And if the paladin doesn't notice, well, maybe it's a low-grade magical fear effect. Even if it's not enough to give the shaken condition, aren't those the kind of sensations you'd expect from a low CR haunt?
Moving beyond the basics, touch is an important vector for immersion. Whether it's the crunch of autumn leaves or the crunch of waves of numberless cockroaches, it's not only visceral but can also help players think of the other body on the far side of the game rules.
Touch, in particular, can be a great pay off for paying attention to the character's gear. Certain gear, like armor, has its own sensations associated with it: weight, friction, and all the pinches after it gets bent in battle. But even something as simple as a staff is an extension of touch as information vibrates back up. And that's without getting into the wonders of magical items.
Paying that off is another way to help players feel a bit more through that other body. The hulking fighter in plate mail should experience the world differently from the thief in their leathers and, by taking a moment to consider that during Perception checks or boxed text, we make it easier for the players to think as their characters.
Come back next week for another touch of nightmares,
Landon Winkler, Shadows over Vathak Line Developer