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.
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?