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I had an interesting thing happen in my last session of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.

My players' characters are in a dragon-heavy adventure. A player tried to do a Perception check to detect the scent of lilacs. Normally, whenever a character wants to do a Perception check, I just tell them to go for it, though this time I asked them why. It seems that he heard somewhere that a dragon in human form smells of lilacs.

I had never heard of this before. Clearly there are at least 3 relevant questions:

  1. Do dragons in human form have a smell that they can be identified by?
  2. Are there actually any dragons in human form in the room? (This one I know the answer to.)
  3. Even if dragons in human form do have a smell, then how would the character know this? You would think that dragons would want to keep this a secret.

Have any of you heard of anything like this before?

I did not allow the check because he couldn't show how his character would have come across this knowledge. Though I was tempted to have him preform the check only to notice that the room was lined with lilacs.

Their are a few ways this can play out,

  1. If there are no dragons, then they can't find one no matter how hard they look.
  2. There is someone who smells of lilacs, though if they are or are not a dragon is another matter entirely.
  3. There is no way that they should have heard this, so I don't allow the check.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Which edition is this about? \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Jul 16 at 16:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @J.A.Streich It looks like they're just asking about general lore, but still a good idea to focus on a specific addition for at least part of the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 16 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! You tagged this question with [dungeons-and-dragons] which is used to indicate D&D across all editions. You state you are playing 5e. Does this mean that you are interested in lore from any edition or would you prefer just from 5e? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Jul 16 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is a player asking to roll a perception check normal procedure at your table? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 16 at 16:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ So is this the player saying at the table that he heard that dragons smell like lilac, or is this an in-character claim that the character says he heard that? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 16 at 17:18
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Disclaimer: This answer was written before the addition of the 5e tag. The content below may not be applicable to that specific edition of D&D.


D&D 3.5's Draconomicon actually has several examples of dragons having specific smells. It seems to vary by dragonflight color:

Black - Smells like rotten vegetation and foul water.

Blue - Smells like ozone and sand when upset.

Brass - Smells like hot metal and desert sand.

Bronze - The smell of the sea.

Copper - a "stony" odor.

Gold - Safron and incense.

Green - Chlorine.

Red - Sulfur and pumice.

Silver - The scent of plot devices rain.

White - Couldn't find anything about its scent.

From the classic species, none of them has the smell of lilac. More so, from what is possible to see, it seems that every species of dragon has a different scent, so I would say that no - in general, dragons don't smell like lilac.

Keep in mind: Those are the scents for their regular, dragon form. I wasn't able to find anything regarding their scent either changing or remaining the same when turning into a human.


A bit extra: I was curious about a possible link between lilacs and dragons, and I went on the web to search more about it. There seems to be quite a few references of both "lilac" and "dragon" appearing together, but most of them are irrelevant to this context. There seems to be some fanfic regarding either the species of "lilac dragons" or a character named "Lilac", which seems to be a dragon, from the game Freedom Planet. Most of those links were also tagged with "Sonic", "Romantic", or "Vampire" so I was somewhat scared to click anything.

Bad things usually happen when you follow links to fanfic sites.

Very bad things.

Strange fanfics aside, I was able to find a mild link between dragons and the the scent of lilacs on the series Ultimate Magic, by T.A. Barron - The dragon Basilgarrad seems fond of that scent and he seems to be able to produce their smell out of thin air at a given moment. I don't own the books and I was able to check just an excerpt of it, so I don't know the relevance of this.

The Lavender Dragon, by Eden Phillpotts, has a dragon which smells (suprisingly) of lavender. Not quite the same as lilacs, but it somewhat fits the theme.

Flight Rising has a relatively large thread dedicated to what each user's dragon would smell like. This thread contains a lot of very different designs for dragons, going from traditional ones to things that don't look at all with a dragon, but is a very interesting read with a lot of pretty pictures. Very colorful regarding descriptions of why each dragon smells like they do.

Caught By the Dragon: Maiden to the Dragon by Mac Flynn features a very... off-brand novel about a shapeshifter dragon that creates the perfume of lilac to seduce a female human. This one was catch up by @A C.


I'll keep an eye out for more flowery-scented, purple-colored, dragon-related content, and update this answer again if I end up finding something else interesting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Draconomicon 1 & 2 from 4e also provide a number of scents for both chromatic and metallic dragons, none of them lilac from what I saw. \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Jul 16 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mentioning those fanfic links has gotten me curious... \$\endgroup\$ – Pyritie Jul 17 at 9:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pyritie A bunch of them are "that type" of Sonic fanfics. Still, if you want to bet your sanity, go ahead at your own risk. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jul 17 at 12:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's another one for you, @Pyritie \$\endgroup\$ – A C Jul 18 at 5:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AC If you don't mind, I added that one to my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jul 18 at 5:20
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I won't elaborate here on a dragon's human form odor. This has been largely debated, and admirably documented in the other answers.

I'd rather shed some light on the issue of:

  • A player putting the party actions on hold:
    • Debating on rules that apply to the game he plays right-now.
    • Arguing with the DM to allow his character to use knowledge that he, as a player, acquired outside of the current game.

You as a DM should usually try to avoid such situations:

  • It is disrupting to the game immersion.
  • It is annoying for other players to have to wait for the debate while stalling the actual action.
  • Dealing with dice rolls as asked by the player for a mundane action of smelling a scent is also needlessly slowing the action.

Although staying positive with the player is a good way to cut this kind of undesirable debate (at least during a game), it does not proscribe such discussion off game.

So be positive to the player:

  • Agree to perform the scent check, because the character may indeed believe that the odor of lilac is the odor of dragons in human form. Even if, for the sake of consistence and because you can not verify the fact right-now, or don't want to introduce rules with unforeseen consequences; the quest started without dragon smell in human form, it can continue this way. Then keep it false.

People are full of wrong beliefs anyway. It is not a problem if the character's beliefs are wrong.

Accept the roll, but do it yourself behind your panel so the player does not know on what characteristic/ability it is.

I'd split it like this:

  1. What is the character's knowledge of nature? I mean is he actually able to know the smell of lilac?
  2. Are there lilacs/lilac bushes near-by?
  3. Fact you know or decide as a rule: Dragons in human form have no special scent.
  4. Don't contradict the player. He is telling you his character's story and belief. Provide the answer his character deserves to get. The player should not be allowed to pretend his character has a knowledge of dragon smell in human form if this knowledge is not backed by previous quests or campaigns and added as a note to his character. However, a player can legitimately expand his character's background (not change it). So, for a positive interpretation, the Player tells you his character believe dragons in human form smell like lilacs. This is ok.

If you want to be helpful in your good day and other players are not impatient to continue the action:

DM:

So character name you think that dragon in human form, smells like likac?

Player:

No, I read it somewhere, but I can not remember where, but it is a fact I know.

DM:

I was talking to character name, not you player name. But since you talk to me, I'll ask you:

  • character name did not read the game documentation, because it does not exist in his world. So, player name, can you tell me how or when character name acquired this knowledge or if it was some kind of saying of his people, his friends, like a background of character name's story?

...

DM:

Ok, do you confirm character name checks if smells lilacs?

So you do, then:

Roll the perception behind the panel, because player need not know the success or failure of it, or on what ability you did the roll, or if you made-up the outcome entirely. (The attitude of the player may legitimately influence the outcome)

  • If player succeeds and has enough nature knowledge, the answer is:
    No, it does not smell anything like lilac.

  • If player fails reasonably, you may answer that:
    Yes, it indeed smells like lilac.

  • If player fails aggravated:
    It smells lilac without any absolute doubt.
    Like there are bushes full of it very near.

  • If player epic-fails:
    Without doubt it smells lilac, the exact lilac smell that reveals dragons in human form.
    Player may acquire a paranoia on lilac smell for a good while.

Playing with confirmation bias can be fun and a good role-play.

On a DM perspective: Driving players nutty in their own mud is incredibly fun too.

Believe me when a player fools himself breaking immersion, and his role-play, to cheat his character with meta-knowledge from real-world documentation, he gives you the recipe for a good deserved spicy trap.

  • Laugh while player drawn in his own mud.

  • Laugh again when player realize how much time he lost by his own fault.

  • Laugh once more time, when the other characters are angry at him because he fooled the team in the wrong direction.

And if he fails the smelling of lilac really hard epic; it could even reinforce the character's wrong belief and, or turn into a paranoiac fear of lilac smell, for the whole campaign or permanently as an annotation to a shadow character's sheet profile you may maintain as a DM.

If the above happens: Then add actual lilac in the next quests or campaigns, just to enjoy his character cringing that there are dragons in human form near-by.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer, assuming that dragons don't actually smell of lilacs, but the OP also needs to know whether dragons actually do smell of lilacs or not. This answer doesn't provide any evidence either for or against that claim. \$\endgroup\$ – David K Jul 17 at 19:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the question if dragons in human form actually smells like lilac is accessory when you consider the player invoked real-world knowledge from some documentation. The discussion between the player and the DM was out of role. DM is king in driving the story line. I answered the player abuse perspective. The dragon smell question already had a pretty well documented answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Léa Gris Jul 17 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you mind some copy-editing? Your sentence structure reads like a translation from another language, which makes following it hard, but the content is great. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Jul 18 at 14:02
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As DM, you can decide whether or not dragons have a distinctive smell or not; even if it is written in a book somewhere, you are free to change that.

As DM, you can decide how to determine whether or not a given character would know whether or not a dragon has a distinctive smell, and if so what that smell is. I suggest that, in this case, your best course of action is to treat the suggestion that dragons have a particular smell as the player asking “does my character know of any way to determine a dragon in disguise?” and then ask for an Intelligence check. Which Intelligence check is unclear—unlike previous editions, D&D 5e does not define which Intelligence check covers knowing things about dragons. In previous editions, that would be Arcana, but 5e defines Arcana as dealing with creatures from other planes, so perhaps Nature would be more appropriate. Personally, I would probably let players use either, since dragons are natural creatures that yet have a great deal of arcane relevance, so people trained in either might well know things about them.

And then, as DM, you can decide how hard whatever “tell” they know about is to actually detect. This will probably be a Perception check, since it’s all about recognizing something in your environment, but the DC would be up to you (you could probably make arguments for other skills but most of those are probably not going to be things you can just do inconspicuously when you find yourself in a room of strangers.

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Relevant Questions

  1. Do dragons in human form have a smell that they can be identified by?

If you like - there is nothing in the 5e rules to say dragons smell of anything in particular, either in their natural form or their (for good dragons) Change Shape form.

The broader question is, can a dragon be identified as a dragon through Wisdom (Perception)? Again, that’s up to you, the rules are silent. If you decide they can then it makes as much sense as anything else that it’s through their odour.

  1. Are there actually any dragons in human form in the room? (This one I know the answer to)

Enough said.

  1. Even if dragons in human form do have a smell, then how would the character know this? You would think that dragons would want to keep this a secret.

Because they grew up in a world where dragons are real.

I live in a world where giraffes are real and, despite not living in Africa and having direct exposure limited to zoos, I know a fair bit about giraffes. Certainly enough to know a giraffe when I see one and not to confuse it with, say, a grasshopper.

In a world with dragons (or giraffes), people tell stories and write books (and in world is with giraffes, make nature documentaries) about them. People who live in such a role can know a lot of stuff without being directly exposed to it.

Dragons probably would want to keep it a secret, however, once the secret is out you can’t put the lilac back in the vase. Dragons probably know that people know and may choose to use rose scented perfume if they want to avoid this way of detection - disadvantage on the check perhaps?

Naturally, a lot of other things smell of lilacs. Lilacs, for example. A clever dragon might weave lilacs in their hair or heavily subsidise the production of lilac scented perfume so everyone smells of lilacs.

Of course, what people know to be true may not actually be true - everyone knows dragons smell of lilacs but dragons know the smell of snapdragons (obviously).

How I would play it

  1. I would decide if dragons can be detected at all by Wisdom (Perception).
  2. Assuming they can I would set a DC.
  3. I would ask the player how their character knows about the lilac smell. An answer like “everybody knows” or “my father told me” etc. means that they know this.
  4. I would decide if their knowledge is true. If so, I’d give them advantage on the check. If not, I’d give disadvantage. I would probably sow doubt from an NPC: “Lilacs! You don’t believe that old wives tale? Next, you’ll be taking us on a giraffe hunt. Ha, ha, ha.”
  5. I would decide if the dragon has taken countermeasures. If so, I would use a contest of Disguise versus Perception.
  6. I would decide who else (if anyone) smells like lilacs.
  7. Player rolls and is told what they perceive.
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Lore

Do dragons in human form have a smell that they can be identified by?

As far as I am aware, there is no lore in any version of Dungeons and Dragons I've played that indicate a dragon polymorphed or not has a distinctive smell. More specifically, I'm am certain there isn't any game mechanics in 5th edition that allows a polymorphed dragon to be identified by smell.

Game Settings

The game system is setting independent, even if the setting your player has read about did have lilac or lavender scented dragons doesn't mean that your setting has to. Currently, the 5e rules were written with Forgotten Realms in mind; but expansions have made with Ravnica, Ebberon and Barovia (in Ravenloft)

RAW

Even if dragons in human form do have a smell, then how would the character know this?

If it did (and even not), the DM could ask the character have to make a history (Do you know the lore), Nature (Do you understand the nature of Dragon anatomy) or Arcana (Does draconic magic have scent) check (your choice) if they think the character might know this information. They would do this before they do the perception check you ask for.

Note: Players shouldn't ask to roll checks. They tell you what they want to do, and you tell them if a check is necessary.

Fun with Meta

I personally, would love using the meta belief to my advantage as a DM. "Roll a history check." They roll poorly, below the DC you set on that information. "Yes, you are positively convinced that dragons smell like lilac." They make a perception check, to see if the person smells, and succeeds.

  • If they aren't a dragon, I make them smell like lilac, so the character thinks they are.
  • If they are a dragon, I make them smell of overly burnt sandalwood incense.
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    \$\begingroup\$ History is a very strange choice here; it should be Arcana or Nature. Moreover, failure on Int checks is “you don’t know,” not “you know this fact that isn’t actually true.” Your “fun with meta” suggestion changes the definition of knowledge skills and unless it has been established up-front that this is how they behave in your games, is only “fun” because the DM is basically cheating the players of what they have been given to understand is the way the rules work. Furthermore, personal experience tells me it just causes strife and bad feelings, while doing nothing to improve the game. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 16 at 17:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the character is convinced that dragons smell like lilacs, a better (less messing-with-the-player) use for the knowledge check would be to determine if they're right. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 16 at 17:03

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