Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"What do you smell? Man-Flesh!" Scent, Wind Direction, and a Curious Gap in Encounter Procedures

Critics still remember the 1985 Schwarzenegger film Commando for its artful cinematography, its understated acting, and its profound interrogation of the human condition. Wait, sorry, they don’t. Not at all. What *I* remember from that movie is the scene when Ah-nuld tells off a soldier assigned to protect him during an ambush:

Ah-nuld: Remember, you’re downwind. The air current may tip them off.
Soldier: Downwind? You think I can smell them coming?
Ah-nuld: I did. 

Smelling the enemy is not just a Hollywood idea; scent discipline is a real feature in modern warfare (though, if my understanding is correct, it tends to be most important in the close conditions of jungle fighting; since contact may occur with hidden enemies at very, very close range, human smells and especially detergents, tobacco, etc. could alert a concealed threat). 

Detecting an enemy (or a predator, or prey) is far more important in the Animal Kingdom. Although I’m not a hunter, I’ve spent much of my life near wilderness and/or around hunters. I learned one of the fundamentals as a kid: if you want to have any chance at stalking an animal, you must pay attention to the direction of the wind. Approach from upwind, and you have no chance. But again, I’m not a hunter - so don’t take my word for it. Take these folks’ instead. 

“Nothing gets past a deer’s nose … And it’s easy to forget about scent. Sure you notice obvious odors, but you simply don’t realize how much you smell like a human being when you’re in the bush. You may think you’re scent-free, but to any downwind wild critter - save a skunk - you smell big and bad. … Remember, if there’s one golden rule of deer hunting, it’s never to get caught upwind.” 

Also from Outdoor Canada
“So, if you want a guaranteed way to foil your [moose] hunt, ignore the wind and call from an upwind position. Even worse, wear hunting clothes that reek like smoke, bacon, and other camp smells. In either case, you can say adios to your moose roasts.” 

From RealTree:
“Researchers at Mississippi State University found that a deer’s sense of smell, like a dog’s, can be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times more acute than a human’s. Furthermore, scientists say that whitetails have thousands of sensitive receptors in their nostrils, which they use to sort out up to six smells at one time. For more than 50 years Leonard Lee Rue III … has done more to educate the American public on the ways of whitetail than anyone. Rue observes that [on a day with] ideal scenting conditions for a buck … ‘a deer could detect a human’s scent from at least one half-mile, or more.’ … How do you defeat the whitetail’s awesome nose? You can’t. You can only stay in the game by playing the wind and practicing good scent control on every hunt.”

To be clear, it’s not just prey animals that can find you a long way away with their noses. Not all predators are whiz-bang sniffers; tigers, for example, don’t particularly rely on scent for hunting. Bears, however, can smell 2,100 times more effectively than you can; they can “detect a carcass that is about 20 miles away, and polar bears can follow a sexually receptive sow’s scent over 100 miles.” Stacked up against the competition, then, human sense of smell is pretty measly. They can smell us a looooooooong way away. 

Ok, now let’s translate this to the fantasy-gaming table. You have a party of footloose adventurers crossing, say, the Isle of Dread, or some other wilderness area. They smell strongly of human, not to mention every campfire they’ve sat around on this journey...not to mention the seasonings in the food they’ve been munching on the journey...not to mention any other unpleasant things that have spattered on them in recent combat encounters. And they are traversing a wilderness that is full, our Monster Manuals assure us, of things much, much scarier than whitetail deer and even grizzly bears. Nightmare creatures that want to find them and eat them.

Sniff sniff ... where are you, PCs? (Source)

One might rightly expect, therefore, that scent control and wind direction would be very important at the gaming table. 

Indeed, scent and wind direction play a prominent role in OSR discussions of encounter design. For example:


Oh wait, scent and wind direction don’t play much of a role in our conversations, at least as far as I can tell. Ok, to be fair, it’s not the case that there isn’t any consideration of it; for example, my B/X Essentials Monsters entry for Cave Bear notes that such creatures have poor eyesight but a good sense of smell, and elaborates that ‘when hungry’ they will follow a blood trail by smell. Contrast that with the entry for tigers; surprise, on a 1-4, in woodland, due to camouflage. But there is little sense here that scent detection, dependent to some extent on wind direction, is going to play a major role in shaping the likelihood of an overland encounter with a bear (let alone something much worse), the likelihood that the party may be surprised by that encounter, and even the direction from which a creature’s attack comes. And honestly, after doing some poking around, I don’t see much discussion about scent within the OSR at all.  

A quick aside: please do not interpret anything here as a criticism of B/X Essentials (not to mention the original B/X) or the wonderful work that Gavin is putting out these days. Nor am I trying to attack anyone else. Rather, I’ve just stumbled on something that I think is a noteworthy gap in our conversations as a gaming community, and I’m hoping either that you will all school me in the comments and show me that this is already taken care of or doesn't need addressed because it's not worth gaming out - or, instead, maybe we can think together about how to harness monstrous sniffers in helpful, fun ways…

If we move beyond the OSR specifically, we see a little more engagement with scent and wind direction, though not (IMHO) to full advantage. Some random examples: 

+ a 3.5-era entry on playable Minotaurs granted them keen scent which would allow them - upon reaching 4th level - to detect creatures by smell up to 10 feet away, or - oh, the power! - up to 20 feet away if the creature was upwind. That’s massively underwhelming compared to ‘run of the mill’ animals in the real world. 

+ I've seen some discussions about characters with keen senses being able to detect invisible foes by smell, e.g. gaining Advantage on rolls to perceive such enemies. I also found a reddit post discussing what a dog-as-player-character would be able to smell. 

+ Lots of attention to wind intensity as part of the weather, mainly for traveling by sea or for its effect on part endurance. Notably, just going off what I've found myself online, the RPG hobby appears to have invested more ink in the random likelihood of a tornado hitting the party - and the Fort save DC should that occur - than the likelihood that a monster would stalk them from downwind. Surely I must be missing something? 

+ Even…yes…personal fragrances (as in cologne and perfume, yo) matched with the classic character classes, or scents-as-special-effects. 

What I don’t see - and again, please do point it out if I’m just not seeing what’s already there - is any prominent, useful generalized treatment of how and when to include wind direction as a normal part of the wilderness encounter process. So - step 1, tell me in the comments if I’m wrong; step 2 - assuming I’m not wrong; what might we do about it? 

Personally, I have no interest in creating mechanical complexity just for the sake of verisimilitude alone. Hyper-simulation isn’t my preferred cup of tea. I’m interested in harnessing scent and wind direction where they increase fun and especially where they increase meaningful tension and player choice.

To that end, here are a few possible approaches; I invite readers to add other ideas in the comments. 

IDEA ONE: develop a perfectly tuned, hypercrunchy simulation of wind direction, scent, monster scent-gland sizes, etc. Nope, not for me, for reasons stated above. Maybe someone else would like this. 

IDEA TWO: Hand-wave it. Turn scent and wind direction into flavor text. The party managed to evade a random encounter? Tell them it was because the Ranger stealthily led them downwind from the thing she’d tracked. The party gets hit by a surprise encounter? Mention the wind blowing in their faces right before you describe them getting jumped from behind. This would work, but it doesn’t add meaningful choices.  

IDEA THREE: Incorporate scent and wind direction only where you know its effect on player choice, mainly as a tactical puzzle in fixed encounters. For example, your players are rushing to rescue a local official abducted by hungry humanoid foes. You tell them that they’ve tracked the baddies to a camp on a bluff overlooking a river. The wind is blowing up the gentler slope into the enemy camp; any direct assault or incursion from that direction will face a steep chance of detection by keen humanoid noses. If the players want, they could try to sneak around and climb up the steep riverbank bluff instead, which would be risky but would put them in the camp from downwind. Or, they can wait and roll every hour to see if the wind direction changes - but hope the captors don’t eat the prisoner before the rescue can happen ("What about their legs? They don't need those, do they?"). That’s 3 different and meaningful tactical choices all dictated by the fact that their humanoid enemies can smell “man-flesh.”

[Side-Note: I used exactly this method last time I ran a game, although I simply rolled a d12 as a clock face to find the wind direction. But I was GM’ing for kids and they got distracted by an argument over whether or not to shoot flaming arrows into the woods, hoping that a forest fire would flush out the hobgoblin bandits waiting to ambush them. :-) ]

IDEA FOUR: Make scent and wind direction a key component in random encounter rolls and overland travel procedures, but without loading it down with crunchy simulationism. I am not yet quite sure how I’d want to do this, and I should give all of you a chance to shout me down before I invest too much thought into it. Maybe your random encounter table for a given landscape should note which creatures on the list have particularly keen smell. If you roll an encounter with such a creature, immediately roll 1d12; “1” is the direction in which the PCs are currently traveling. If the d12 shows a wind direction coming from anywhere behind the PCs, past them into the land they’re moving into, then the encountered creature automatically knows they are coming, and the very best the PCs can achieve is to not be surprised themselves. But how to introduce some tactical choice here? 

Maybe this calls for something in between the "spoor/sign" encounter result and the actual encounter - a little minigame that gives the party a chance to outmaneuver the wind and a suspected monster - or to spend a resource, like time, to hide in a cave until the wind changes, or pick a longer alternate path that is less exposed to the wind. Or to just bull through, and fight the owlbear that's looking for lunch when it inevitably catches them. 

Hmmm. Let me know what you think; good ideas here, or does it all just smell? 


  1. I dunno. I feel like this is already baked into the surprise roll cake.

    I'd just give bears, etc. a reduced chance of being surprised and a better chance of successful foraging and hunting.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I slightly refined what I'm trying to say, below, but in short - yeah, unless you're trying to add some new element beyond what's already in the surprise roll, why bother? I still think, though, that there can be something new here to add when it's useful.

  2. Getting a lot of thoughtful comments too over at

    ...so I thought I'd paste here my comment to that group there.

    Thanks, folks, for all these responses so far. Seems there is a real array of opinions, ranging from those who've tried something like this and quite enjoyed it, to those who find wind direction unnecessary beyond flavor describing what we already have in the encounter/surprise rolls. And thanks to u/theteaoftriumph for spelling out such a detailed mechanical way to handle this in terms of passive perception - you're way ahead of me (and downwind, too! :-).

    I see why this might not be all that useful or fun as part of a regular encounter roll. Ok, but chewing on why many of you don't find this appealing has helped me refine, or hopefully just articulate better, what could still be helpful. Don't overlook the usefulness of what I called Option 3 - setting up tactical encounters that make scent and wind direction part of a fixed encounter. u/teaoftriumph's comments on hunting would work just as well for launching an ambush of your own against enemies in a rescue operation, for example. And I keep coming back to the idea of using wind/scent only when it adds meaningful tension and choice, and maybe when a monster is almost guaranteed to detect you if you get caught in that upwind zone.
    I'm inclined to think of the wind-scent problem the same way that Chris McDowall, author of Into the Odd, thinks about traps; there's actually nothing very interesting about rolling some dice, looking up, and informing a player "sorry, but you just got impaled by a hidden spear trap. Sorry." Instead, Chris favors making a trap's presence pretty obvious, but requiring hard choices and player skill to figure out how to respond to that trap. That means that traps have no point unless they complicate something else; if you can just walk around it, don't put it in your encounter. And if it's just an automatic die roll that doesn't involve player choice - don't put it in your encounter.
    Wind/scent complications could work the same way. If they clearly offer no choice/interest to your players' current situation, then yeah, just don't waste time with it. Reserve it for flavor text. But if the existence of a crosswind pointing in a certain direction relative to a threat would present hard, meaningful choices, then grab that thing and play it to the hilt. It's about more than just choosing to walk downwind of a threat; there's no difference between that and choosing to walk around a trap you've discovered. Again, if you can just walk around the trap, don't include the trap...
    It's those times when you need to get somewhere in a BIG hurry - or when you really prefer to keep OUT of the Fireswamp, thank you very much - when choosing to maneuver to take account of wind direction means you have to accept some other compromise, whether that's delay, or a longer path that burns up more resources, or just the likelihood that something else and maybe worse but maybe not will see you on the other side of the ridge - it's those situations when suddenly, like a giant trap in the wilderness, the wind becomes much more interesting. Especially if the players are pretty sure that the Dire Wolves/Owlbears/Horror-Noses from Time Beyond will definitely detect them...if they get caught by the wind. THEN it all becomes a balancing, gambling act, about choosing which risks to push and for how long.

  3. Another thoughtful post, thanks.


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