Narrative Concept: Synesthesia

First, let’s have a definition so we’re all on the same page.

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. For example, chromesthesia (sound to color).


Hello. It’s me. I can do that. It’s nifty. Simple sounds look like this. Cool, right? Let’s talk a bit about that!

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Let’s start with a question: how would you represent this kind of sensory experience in a tabletop system of choice?

As a rule, most sensory things in a story that aren’t specifically tied to a stat are used to drive narrative descriptions. For example: things you can see if you have good night vision, superhuman hearing, or have latent psychic abilities.

How do synesthetes function in the world? Is it a thing the world is aware of or largely ignorant of? How does it manifest? Mind, there are several ways that exist in the real world. Here’s a few:

  • Chromesthesia (!!!)
  • Grapheme-color synesthesia
  • Spatial sequence synesthesia
  • Auditory-tactile synesthesia
  • Ordinal linguistic personification
  • Mirror-touch synesthesia
  • Lexical-gustatory synesthesia

There’s a lot to play with here, but as with most things that explore sensory data, there aren’t many things that explore things that exist beyond the ability to see and hear. There’s some unfortunate ableism there, but aside there are also not many rules that explain how sensory stuff works beyond things are light/dark/greyscale and are able to be hear things from a certain distance away.

What if we add some dimension to it by applying some thought to how we explain and express this stuff as players or DMs?

Making Sense of the World

What if we had a ranger whose after a particular type of creature and they have chromesthesia? Imagine them as he hunts, looking not just for sound, but for color as they go. Do birds leave a trail of color behind? Does the sound of wind leave shimmrs where it goes? Does not seeing any color concern them? How would they train that skill and notice patterns?

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What if we had a wizard who became a prodigy because the words were rainbows, making spells and equations easier to process? What if they were able to taste the spells they studied and could recall that when casting magic? Is healing sweet? Is evocation bitter? What does necromancy taste like?

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There are hints of these in concepts like “Divine Sense” from D&D where “good” and “evil” have different sounds and smells attached to them, but that’s only for that one class and associated to it specifically as a trait of the divine and not as a trait of that person.

Imagine a bard being able to combine their synesthesia with an illusion spell to do this? How do we do that? What does a community look like where people are made away that this sort of thing happens?

A Possible Scenario

A city council meets a person with chromesthesia for the first time. They are entirely unsure of what to make of them and create a series of tests. Many of them occur blindfolded in order to find out what this person sees. The terran language is orange. Another person speaking is a specific shade of teal. A faint hint of another color permeates the room as everything down to the turning of a page adds color. This faint color is lavender. It comes from a place outside of the testing area.

The synesthete is asked to follow it and it leads to… nothing. It’s a large, empty clearing in the woods that no one remembers seeing and in seeing, nothing is here. The stranger insists something is here, the lavender now far more saturated in hue. It is a large swath of the color.

A wizard humors themselves with the thought of casting a dispel magic in the area to appease this stranger. A mountain appears. They stand at the foothills.

What’s in there?

* * *

A bard walks into a small home in a settlement two days’ journey from one of the major cities. They’ve come to meet an instructor. It has been said this instructor is quite peculiar and gives odd instruction, but produces some of the most brilliant bards of the age; each one they’ve trained could make most hardened warrior weep.

What they are missing, however, is an apprentice to which they can pass on their full knowledge. When they are asked why, the answer is always the same, “I can teach others how to make someone feel, but I cannot teach them how to see.”

The student pulls out a viol and a bow and begin to practice.

“No, that’s the wrong color. You’re playing in orange, but what we need here is a smooth, rolling green. Try again.”

“I’ve… I’ve been meaning to ask you about that? How do you know which is the right color?”

“I… hm. I’ve not had someone ask me how, but I’ll humor this question as it interests me. This tone makes a nice rolling green.” He hums in F-major for a few seconds.

“That is… well…”

“Out with it…?”

“It’s… purple. That is a beautiful purple, but it’s quite purple.”

The teacher’s eyes narrow for a moment.

“Oh, is that so? Very well. Then play it for me.”

The student plucks at the viol nervously and mutters to themselves for a few moments before playing the exact tone hummed moments before. The room is alive with silence.

“You… you can see…”

“Why yes, I have eyes, but… oh. Oh that. I didn’t think it was a real thing at first or that I was imagining it, but it’s how I’ve remembered things and I… well….”

“You brilliant, brilliant boy. We have much to discuss!”

What happens now? What does he learn? What does the instructor teach him that he hasn’t been able to teach anyone else?