Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Perfume

This is part of my perfume collection, before I recently bought more perfume. Perfume is collectible.
This is part of my perfume collection, before I recently bought more perfume. Perfume is collectible.

Scent is a powerful thing.

Have you ever approached your domicile and smelled the tantilizing aroma of your favourite food cooking? Inhaled the spicy, sweet fragrance of a rose? Buried your nose in the neck of a loved one? Opened something to discover the putrefied odor of something long dead? Walked outside just as summer rain hits hot pavement? Poured apple cider vinegar into a smoking hot pan?

I’m sure many of you were able to evoke some kind of memory. The tongue can pick up 5 different tastes. There are 4 kinds of light receptors in your eye. The human nose has ‘about 40 million olfactory receptors that detect up to 10,000 different odors’ (taken from Wikipedia). The olfactory bulb is located super close to the hippocampus, a part of our brain that deals with memory so again, I say, smell is a powerful thing.

We don’t think about smell TOO much, these day. Smell is thought of as one of our baser senses and as humanity has marched through time and built more and discovered more we’ve relied on our other senses to bring us there. Still, there are our noses, sticking out of our faces. Sensing particles in the air, helping us taste things, keeping us out of bad situations and getting plugged with boogers when we’re sick. People can smell things beyond just coffee in the morning or onions frying. Studies have shown people can detect compatible DNA in other human beings to find mates, detect their own children or even smell illnesses.

Smell affecting us as it does, it seems only logical people tries to acquire the smells of the captivating smelling plants and animals they came across. Masking ones odors, trying to put oneself in a certain mindset or trying to smell more appealing to those around you has driven the science behind extracting scents from the natural world or replicating them synthetically. The person considered the world’s first chemist was a perfumer by the name of Tapputi, who used the oldest referenced still to make perfumes from flowers, cypress, myrrh, balsam and more. With many of the most sought out and intriguing materials for perfumery native to or easily accessible in the Middle East, the methods used to extract the aromatic compounds were developed there. Distilled oils were useful for medicine as well as for cosmetic and religious reasons, used in salves, purification rituals and other topical treatments, with two Arabian chemists Jabir ibn Hayyan and Al-Kindi establishing the perfume industry. Resins, woods, flowers, seeds, barks, stems, roots, all subject to water and fire to give up their aromatic components and applied to the skin. Perfumery, chemistry and alchemy overlapped. From the Middle East, like many things, the science and existence of perfumery travelled to Europe where it was first established in Hungary before spreading to the rest of the continent.

Fragrance Wheel displaying different classifications of fragrances.
Fragrance Wheel displaying different classifications of fragrances.

Different kinds of scents have been popular or used over the march of time and their components have been sought out. Resins like myrrh, copal and frankencinse come from trees that grow in warm climates. The most coveted sandalwood comes from India, with Australia and a few other other locations. Oakmoss is gathered from trees, flowers grown in gardens. Ambergris and civet are taken from animals. Extracting their aromatic components is no simple task and yet people do it. They travel to far lands or obtain access to them, hunt the animals that produce the substances, carefully cultivate and pick the buds, leaves and flowers desired and then carefully blend top notes, middle notes and base notes to create harmonious, intriguing smells, carefully guarding their methods and formulas. Royalty and even divinity has demanded pleasing fragrances be made for them and even today, perfume’s ethereal and aromatic qualities can stop us in our tracks.

Why not engage all the senses of your PCs and bring the nose into the game?

For GMs

  • What is the role of perfume in the culture? Who uses it? For what purpose?
  • What carrier is used for the perfume? Oil? Alcohol? Is it rubbed onto the whole body or only certain areas?
  • What kinds of scents are popular? Why are they popular and who are they popular with?
  • What perfumery components are indigenous to the area? What must be brought from elsewhere?
  • What does the perfumer’s house look like? Who do they work for? Who is allowed inside?
  • How did the study of perfumery come about? What other disciplines are related to perfumery? Chemistry? Alchemy? Astronomy? Theology?
  • What is perfumed? The body? Clothing? Personal items?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs must forge a letter from an important individual in order to get certain things in motion. However, the person the letter is supposed to be from is known to have a certain scent all their correspondences also carry. The PCs must acquire enough of the individual’s signature perfume in order to make the forgery believable. How will they go about getting the scent? What does the scent smell like? Is it the stationary itself that is scented or does the paper just pick up the scent from the person writing the letter?
  • A chemist claims to have found the secret to turning lead into gold. However, the day they are supposed to perform their demonstration for the court, they have gone missing. Their entire lab has been cleaned out, the only thing left a single vial of unlabeled perfume. The PCs are sent to find the chemist, their only clue the vial of aromatic oil. What is the scent? Can anyone recognize it? Is it a clue to their whereabouts? Or something unimagined?
  • The Head Perfumer keeps an extensive garden within the palace grounds. When all of a certain type of plant dies and it’s scent is needed for a very important blend, the Head Perfumer hires the PCs to bring back a usable sample of the plant as well as cuttings so they can resupply their garden. What died and how? Where do the PCs have to go? What is the perfume in question needed for and are the PCs on a time limit?
  • Someone is selling a less expensive version of a perfume popular and coveted among the elite in society, turning a once captivating scent into a noxious fume, overtaking the city. The PCs must find who is making and selling the knock off and stop them. Who is making the perfume and how are they making it so cheaply? Why are people insisting upon wearing it even when it is overpowering all other scents in the city?
  • The Court of the Celestial Hunter is allowed to wear the Sacred Scent of the deity of the hunt on the first full moon of winter but first they must hunt down the components for the holy ointment. One of the ingredients is from a beast that resides deep within the woods and the PCs must obtain it without killing the animal to complete the right and be honored among their people. What does it mean for their standing in the community if they pull it off? What kind of animal must they approach? How do they get the substance?

For PCs

  • What do you smell like?
  • Do you wear any scented cosmetics? For what purpose?
  • What kinds of scents do you like? Do you hate? Florals? Resins? Herbal scents? Earthy smells? Aquatics? Foodie smells? What do they remind you of? A relative? A situation? A place?
  • If you were  given the opportunity to be paid in a custom made perfume, would they take it? What substances and scents would you choose?
  • What smells are comforting to you? What smells make you want to throw up?

What say you? Does scent play a role in your game? What’s your favourite smell?

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