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D&D Burgoo (3.5): Harpies have bad B.O.

Third Edition D&D designer Jonathan Tweet wrote an adventure for Dungeon magazine (Issue No. 89) entitled “Wedding Bells,” which in addition to featuring the wonderfully whimsical artwork of Spiderwick co-creator Tony Diterlizzi, has fixed in my mind a particularly vile image of the harpy.

Yes, the harpy, a classic villain with a particularly nasty ability: a captivating song that it uses to lure victims —  usually hapless travelers, and of course, adventurers — to their doom. 

But Tweet did something else to the harpy not described in the Monster Manual. He gave it a tell-tale stench, completely in keeping with the malignant nature of the monster. And it was following a trail of this vile odor that enabled the PCs to track the creature to its lair.

Cool, huh?

Just one problem. Strictly speaking, PCs can’t detect odor. There is no mechanic to cover the tracking by scent, unless you hire a trainer and employ a bloodhound.  Monsters can do it, PC races can’t.

PCs can be overcome by stench. Fail that saving throw and you’re gagging and who knows what else. But track? The only hint in the rules that PCs can do it is a reference in the Monster Manual to “creatures” using Wisdom to  Track by scent. 

Now, as DM, that’s good enough for me. If sight (Spot) and hearing (Listen) are keyed to Wisdom, it’s a fair enough assumption that smell (Scent) can be detected by the same ability. And for the sake of the adventure’s description, the scent was strong enough that detecting it wasn’t necessary.

While your average PC is unlikely to detect smells with the same verasity as a bloodhound, I think it’s a good idea to have some way for your PCs to follow their noses. It adds color, and more than a bit of flavor to your storytelling to occasionally offer up something pungent.

If it’s not perfume, it’s something putrid. Or maybe that Gnome Stew over the fire.

Either way, think about how you handle smells in your games. Any suggestions on how to effectively convey it?

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): Harpies have bad B.O."

#1 Comment By LesInk On July 21, 2008 @ 7:25 am

I’m assuming you are looking for a mechanic here that makes sense more than “DM Rule 0”. In short, if no one has a specific skill, class ability (Ranger Track ability), or racial feature (various races have the above mentioned Smell capability) that applies, then go to the fall back — ability check.

Players do smell, they just don’t have ‘super natural’ smelling ability. For lesser “basic” smelling, I would just use a Wisdom check since most nature checks tend to go to that side and one may have to “intuit” what they were were smelling and direction of the wind, etc. Everyone may smell the odor equally, but only the person with experience or wisdom can determine the type and source.

Logic for using a Wisdom check: A skill check is just an ability check that players have put extra emphasis in. If a player does not have specific training in that area, they effectively have zero ranks, thus, they are doing a simple ability check.

The rest is a matter of setting DC (15 to 20 for a harpy far away, lower for closer) and if you want them to make multiple checks as they get closer to the source (lowering the hidden DC as they get closer) — effectively “following their nose”.

#2 Comment By Idran On July 21, 2008 @ 8:24 am

Do I get any credit for pointing out that Pathfinder’s replacement for Listen, Spot, and Search – Perception – encompasses all five senses including smell? 😀

#3 Comment By fkewl On July 21, 2008 @ 9:00 am

Have a month-old Gorgonzola under the table.
Now, leave it for incentive to find the harpy..


#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 21, 2008 @ 11:00 am

Savage Worlds and 4E both have Perception instead of Spot/Listen. They also both have Stealth instead of Hide/Move Silently.

Sensory consolidation is a great idea; I’ve never understood why a Barbarian can have awesome hearing, but be otherwise ‘sense-less’.

Actually, now that I put it that way, it makes sense. (*rimshot*)…

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 21, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

Idran: You must have rolled a 20 on your Spot check. The Perception description in the Pathfinder rpg rules alpha test does indeed include detecting smells.
I had thought about adding that little bit to the post, but decided against it since it’s discussion of the 3.5 rules as written. But good spot on that.

Lesink: Yes, straight Wis checks are a logical alternative, and certainly within a DM’s purview to go that route.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 21, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

That snippet buried in the MM is an oblique reference to the Scent feat, which if memory serves is somewhere towards the back of the DMG. Many monsters, especially animals, have Scent, and all it does is let you use Track by smell.

I agree that a straight Wis roll is the way to go in D&D 3.5e, and that’s what I’d be likely to grant if it became important.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 21, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

I’m all about the oblique reference … 🙂

#8 Comment By Omnus On October 14, 2009 @ 10:01 am

Consider the system. My favorite system, GURPS, does have “Acute Taste/Smell”, and “Alertness” which also covers taste and smell, as advantages.

However, I think the omission in D&D suggests that they want a delineation from being able to track by scent (the Scent feat or ability) against the range of smells that a human customarily has, which would usually be covered by the flavor text of an adventure. If a smell is powerful enough that a character can sense it, then they do. Figuring out where it is stronger would probably easiest be handled with an easy Wisdom check, or not even that, if it’s really obvious.