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Tracking via scent in 5e: how to handle the shift-and-sniff

A few times in my home game, I've struggled to referee correctly a particular situation involving a druid PC. Essentially, sometimes the party wishes to find someone they've previously encountered, and the tactic the druid has adopted is to wild shape into a creature with the Keen Smell feature and attempt to track them via scent (AKA the ol' shift-and-sniff). In the past, I've been able to come up rulings on the spot, but neither the PC or I are particularly satisfied with how ad hoc the rulings have been. I've since spent some time ruminating on the issue, and I figured I'd share my thoughts and ask how you might handle this situation.

TL;DR: The Keen Smell feature doesn't provide a good mechanical grounding for tracking via scent for multiple reasons. Even though it goes against certain design principles of 5e, having this feature provide a flat bonus to Wisdom checks to track via scent (I suggest +10 to +15) better aligns with player expectations than if it simply confers advantage on the ability check.

Some Setup

First off, let's establish some background. Most importantly, the Keen Smell feature reads:

Keen Smell: The creature has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell.

Several low CR beasts have this feature, and so it becomes accessible to a druid via their wild shape class feature at level 2.

Next, I want to lay out my priorities in determining the best means of handling this issue. I'm sure not everyone has this exact same list in this specific order, but I don't think any are so alien that we can't see eye-to-eye.

Priority #1: I want to be a fan of the PC.

My player came up with an interesting yet sensible way to tackle a problem using their class abilities, and I'd like to reward them mechanically. And in my mind, "just give them inspiration" is both (a) lazy and (b) not really that effective, as we'll see below.

Priority #2: I value game balance and narrative stakes over simulation-ism.

A 30-second Google search suggests that a properly bred and trained dog can track a scent over 100+ hours and 5+ days. A 15-minute Google search suggests that there are plenty of factors that can reduce those faculties. I have almost exactly zero interest in researching and then gameifying the mechanics of scent from a scientific point of view (e.g. how the hydrophilicity of certain aroma compounds impacts their longevity in the rain, etc.) I just want a method of calling for checks and setting DCs.

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I'd prefer that tracking not be entirely trivialized in my game by this single tactic.

I'd prefer that a feature available at 2nd level and usable at-will not outperform a very common use of the spell Locate Creature available at 7th level and usable for a few hours per day (at the cost of spell slots).

Priority #3: As much as I can, I want to stick to the RAW and the design principles of 5e.

So, when possible, I'll use advantage/disadvantage over floating modifiers and try to keep everything in line with bounded accuracy.

The Problem(s)

Now let's actually identify what doesn't work with the rules as they currently stand.

Problem 1: Keen Smell and tracking are incompatible by the RAW.

By the most literal reading of the rules, Keen Smell provides advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks whereas tracking relies on Wisdom (Survival) checks. Now, in my opinion, this is clearly an area of overlap between the two skill proficiencies, so I'd generally lean towards giving the player the benefit of the doubt and let Keen Smell apply to Wisdom (Survival) checks as well (Priority #1 ☺). But we have indeed deviated from the RAW (Priority #3 ☹).* Stealing from Pathfinder 1e offers another possible solution: Perception or Survival can be used to find tracks, but following them falls solely under Survival.

Problem 2: Advantage doesn't realistically accomodate what Keen Smell is trying to model.

Say we allow Keen Smell to improve our chances of tracking via scent. To determine whether a creature can track via a smell, a natural workflow might be:

(a). Determine the difficulty of the task for an "average" creature, i.e. one without Keen Smell—this sets the DC of a Wisdom (Survival) check. Then, if a creature has Keen Smell, they make this check with advantage.

The issue arises when you actually try to estimate what an "average" creature (i.e. those without Keen Smell) can do with their nose. For example, how hard is it for a human to follow a trail a few hours old via a scent in a forest? At least very difficult, but probably closer to nearly impossible, so let's say DC25+ on an appropriate Wisdom check. But maybe humans aren't really representative of most creatures in the monster manual in this regard; for example, sheep and cows don't have Keen Smell, but have better noses than humans. So let's just round that value down to a nice and simple DC25 for our example.

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But now the design philosophy of 5e really bites us in the butt: at best, advantage on a roll doubles our chances of success on that ability check. And this just doesn't do justice to the vast difference in how well creatures with Keen Smell should perform comapred to those without (e.g. a dog vs. a human). Sticking to our design principles is ruining our verisimilitude; we've hit an invisible wall at the edge of what 5e was designed to handle. And our druid PC is (in the best case) bummed that their idea didn't pan out or (in the worst case) inundating us with Wikipedia articles describing just how good a bloodhound is at tracking, thereby proving our ruling "wrong" (Priority #1 ☹).

The Solution

So rather than approach (a), we might consider the following instead when a PC attempts to track via smell

(b). Determine the difficulty of the task for a creature with Keen Smell—this sets the DC of a Wisdom (Survival) check. Then, the check is done without advantage.

Essentially what we've done here is converted the advantage conferred by Keen Smell into a flat bonus on the check. Say we take the previous example of a tracking through a forest via scent that was very difficult without Keen Smell (DC25). We might rule that Keen Smell translates to a +15 bonus, or equivalently, the task is only DC10 for a creature with this ability, i.e. it's fairly easy.

Why a +15 bonus? I don't know—because +5 is too small and +20 is too large. More truthfully, it's because that comes pretty close to what a wolf could do in 3.x, and that's where a lot of my TTRPG intuition comes from. And if we're going to bastardize 5e Wisdom (Survival) ability checks with the flat bonuses of Survival skill checks of yesteryear, we might as well bring in the whole scent mechanic as well, which will give us some ideas of how extenuating circumstances might affect the DC, e.g. +2 to the DC for each hour passed. This means that while there are certain instances when "mundane" tracking via wild shape might be more effective than a spell like Locate Creature, there are very clear circumstances when it is not: the track is several hours old, there are several competing scents, etc. A savvy DM could certainly incorporate these factors into a scenario to challenge a PC too reliant on the ol' shift-and-sniff tactic (Priority #2 ☺)

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As a final note: could we instead use a method (c) in which we calibrate the DC of the Wisdom (Survival) check for a creature with Keen Smell (or equivalently, added a flat bonus relative to the DC of the check for a creature without the feature) such that the ability check is rolled with advantage yet still matches our game expectations for the chances of success as in method (b)? Yes, we could have, but this just seems so much more complicated that it's not worth the effort simply to retain some aspect of the Keen Smell feature close to the RAW (Priority #3)—remember, we have to go outside the RAW for Keen Smell to apply to tracking anyways.

This is what I'd do, bur I'm curious; how would you handle tracking by scent in your games?

*Not to go off on too much of a tangent but is there any way that Survival is not completely redundant with Perception and Nature? Under what circumstance would you accept a Wisdom (Survival) check and not either a Wisdom (Perception) or Wisdom (Nature) check? In 3.5e there was a much cleaner split between Spot/Listen and Survival, and 4e had only Perception and Nature; from here on out, I'm strongly considering simply eliminating Survival from my 5e games entirely.


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