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5E Finding someone by scent in a city

Nareau

Explorer
My group (a 1st level party) is searching for a missing person inside a city. They've got a couple of good hunting dogs and an item that belonged to the person that carries her scent. I'd love to hear how you'd run the search. Specifically:
  1. Is it even remotely plausible that dogs could track down someone in a city like this based on their scent?
  2. Would the dogs track the path the item's traveled, or would it lead them straight to the person?
The party could certainly ask for help from various NPCs, but it's unlikely they'll be able to find anyone willing to cast 4th+ level spells for them at this point. No one in the party has Speak With Animals, so verbally coordinating the search with the dogs isn't possible.
 

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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I assume that after the dogs smelled the item, they would then have to run across somewhere the person had been recently or someone they'd been in contact with long enough. The dogs would then track the path if it was fresh enough. In any case, if the target took a carriage or crossed a stream or went through something really smell, it could mess things up.

If the dogs are trained to follow scents, I'm not sure why they'd need to talk with the dogs. (Until the dogs stop following because they lost the scent and the party wants to know why).

It looks like there is a difference between tracking dogs and air scent dogs. How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work Air scent dogs don't seem to look for a particular person.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I would just set up a combined exploration and social interaction challenge for this. First, I would establish that the dogs could be used for this purpose and will basically be the vehicle that takes them through the challenges.

Next, I would set up a series of obstacles (perhaps 1 per PC, so 4 or 5 maybe) in the context of the overarching challenge to overcome for which the hunting dogs may play a part. One by one I present the obstacle, the PCs say how they deal with it, then we move on to the next after it is resolved. Success in overcoming an obstacle means the PCs carry on at no cost; failure means they move forward, but it costs them something or makes a future obstacle more difficult. Once they've tackled all the obstacles, I would assess how they did overall and then narrate the result of their actions - if they mostly succeeded, then they find the missing person. If they mostly failed, then either they don't find the missing person or they find the missing person at a great cost or setback.

In no way would I spend much time thinking about whether or not the dogs could do this in the real world. That's not very interesting in my view.
 

Sir Brennen

Adventurer
A city is an incredibly dirty, smelly place, that will likely overwhelm traces of a person simply walking around. Not impossible but I'd set the DC very high.

I'd set the DC for tracking by scent (using Survival) as follows:
  • Outdoors, bare (stone, sand) - DC 5
  • Outdoors, wooded - DC 10
  • Village/small town - DC 15
  • City - DC 20
A dungeon setting is DM's call, but I'd take into account whether it's wet/dry, other inhabitants, obstacles, etc.

Anytime there's a multiple options of paths to follow, like a major city street intersection, or dungeon tunnels, I might call of an additional Survival check to stay on the path.

Increase DC by 1 for each hour that's passed. Increase as required for things like covering smells (target walked past/through a pig sty or sewer), rain, etc.

For a scent hound, I'd use the stats for a small fighting dog, and give it Advantage on Survival rolls related to tracking by smell.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
My group (a 1st level party) is searching for a missing person inside a city. They've got a couple of good hunting dogs and an item that belonged to the person that carries her scent. I'd love to hear how you'd run the search. Specifically:
  1. Is it even remotely plausible that dogs could track down someone in a city like this based on their scent?
  2. Would the dogs track the path the item's traveled, or would it lead them straight to the person?
The party could certainly ask for help from various NPCs, but it's unlikely they'll be able to find anyone willing to cast 4th+ level spells for them at this point. No one in the party has Speak With Animals, so verbally coordinating the search with the dogs isn't possible.

The shot answer is no; not in a city. That's the issue. The "scent trail" would be far too contaminated in an urban area like a city.

It is not remotely plausible.

Then again, it's a game, so you can make it all up.
 


I would say that if the dogs are trained to this task, and they have an item, then yes it works. Good solution to a problem. No dice rolls needed. All that's needed is some colorful narration.

The only question is if you want to throw some challenges in their path and give them a chance to do some more problem solving. If there's time pressure, then the obstacles (as per @iserith's suggestion) could mostly be about time delays. If there's no real time pressure, then ask yourself what the purpose/goal of the obstacle and the consequence are. If it's just, "Well, there needs to be some dice rolling" then skip it.

What I would avoid are any kinds of checks that don't involve conscious decisions about trade-offs. For example, it might be tempting to have a false scent, and the "handler" has to make a Wisdom:Animal Handling check to notice that the eager dog is now following a trail of bacon grease (or whatever). So let's say the player fails the check, the trail dead-ends at a bacon cart, and the players realize they've made a mistake. Except....they didn't really make a mistake, did they? They didn't face a choice and make a wrong decision. They were just told to make a roll, which they failed.
 

aco175

Hero
You may be able to handle it like a 4e skill challenge. You want to give the other PCs something to do and not just tag along with the PC controlling the dogs. Maybe someone is trying to throw the PCs off the scent and there is a fight to stop them. Maybe the scent goes through a bar and down a secret door where one PC needs to enter a drinking/arm wrestling/ darts competition to proceed. Things like a river or sewers make things more difficult and a NPC could have seen something allowing another player to get in with a bribe or intimidation. If you are not going to get all the players to buy in, you could just go with one roll and tell them that 4 hours pass and you get to ...
 

Arvok

Explorer
Dogs' sense of smell is hard for us humans to really comprehend. They can detect and discriminate scents that humans can't even notice and ten times the potency. It would be quite easy for a dog to pick out a scent from an item and then follow the person's scent through a city. There are some differences between ground and air-based scent dogs, but the most important factors are:
  1. How long has it been since the scent was left?
  2. What has the weather been like since then?
  3. What kind of item are the dogs using to acquire the scent?
  4. What kind of handlers do the dogs have?
  5. Are the prey trying to hide their scent tracks?
1. Obviously, if the scent is a week old, it's pretty much impossible (years and years ago, the record for a bloodhound successfully tracking a fugitive by scent was something like 4 or 5 days; that record might have been beaten, but probably not by much at all).

2. If it's been raining continuously for 12 hours, that's probably just as bad as dry weather for 4 or 5 days (and in a city, there can be all kind of things that have effects similar to weather).

3. If the item the dogs are using as their basis for the scent is something like a pillow piece of clothing (something soft and porous), it will be much easier for them than if it is something like a wooden cane.

4. If there are experienced handlers, they can help the dogs re-locate the scent when they lose it say, crossing the street (assuming the waste runs down the center of the street like in many medieval cities). Experienced tracking dogs will eventually be able to pick up the scent on their own, but the handlers are smarter (one would hope), and can make an educated guess as to where to re-acquire the scent, thus saving time and keeping the trail fresh. This could be a Survival roll on the part of the handler. The number of rolls and what modifiers the handler gets to use are up to you.

5. If the people being hunted aren't expecting tracking dogs to be used, they're unlikely to think about things to throw off the dogs. They might change their clothing to avoid visual detection, but never consider taking a thorough bath.

As for the Rule of Cool, if the PCs are trying something new and creative, I would give them a reasonable chance of success if the scheme isn't too far-fetched.
 

Agree with @Arvok. In the real world dogs track people in urban settings all the time. These dogs are trained to do so and the handlers are trained to lead them as well. They can do so for days after the person has passed through the spot and they can pick up a scent from dozens of feet away (farther in cleaner scent environments).

Now, how to transfer that to the game? First, Rule of Cool this should be possible. Second, but don't let the whole scene be dictated by a pet. Its dangerous enough letting a scene be dependent upon a single character, and having a whole scene focused upon a pet is less desirable.

I would use something like a 4E skill challenge. And I would make sure that it requires skills from all the characters, not just one. Whatever is going to be fun, go with it.
 

Tonguez

Legend
Dogs' sense of smell is hard for us humans to really comprehend. They can detect and discriminate scents that humans can't even notice and ten times the potency. It would be quite easy for a dog to pick out a scent from an item and then follow the person's scent through a city. There are some differences between ground and air-based scent dogs, but the most important factors are:
  1. How long has it been since the scent was left?
  2. What has the weather been like since then?
  3. What kind of item are the dogs using to acquire the scent?
  4. What kind of handlers do the dogs have?
  5. Are the prey trying to hide their scent tracks?
1. Obviously, if the scent is a week old, it's pretty much impossible (years and years ago, the record for a bloodhound successfully tracking a fugitive by scent was something like 4 or 5 days; that record might have been beaten, but probably not by much at all).

2. If it's been raining continuously for 12 hours, that's probably just as bad as dry weather for 4 or 5 days (and in a city, there can be all kind of things that have effects similar to weather).


As for the Rule of Cool, if the PCs are trying something new and creative, I would give them a reasonable chance of success if the scheme isn't too far-fetched.

Its important to remember that dogs following scent trails are Trailing scents and dander in the air NOT Tracking spoor on the ground.

2. the idea that rain is bad is actually not true, scent particles tend to be hydrophillic and the large particles Dander (skin fragments, sweat and saliva) are attracted to dampness. Rain actually helps to settle dander on the ground and that allows the dog to trail it better.

Dry windy weather is worse as it disperses scent over a greater area and thus means the dog needs to take longer to explore the trail. Thats where a skilled handler who understands how scent works helps, as they make judgement calls of patterns of dispersal and can direct the dogs into shaded areas where they are more likely to pick the trail up again.

Time and wind are the issue, but in a medieval city I think trained dogs with a skilled handler could find a recent trail easily enough.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
How long ago was the trail made? How far? Was the person being tracked distinct in any particular way from normal?

Once you get close to the target, the tracking dog could be useful, but there will be a lot of smells to distract the dog along the way. If you're ever in a situation where people are using dogs to track you is to head to the most crowded/smelliest place you can find such as a supermarket or gas station.

So I'd run it at as a series of skill checks, but the dog can't do all the work. They may be able to help here and there, but I would run it that they lead to an area with one or more clues that leads to another area they can track again for a little bit. Make the dog useful, don't let it be an automatic win.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
So I asked google "can scent hounds track in a city".

I got this:
In a “concrete jungle” like in the city of downtown Vancouver, summer searches can be difficult after more than a few days. We will generally treat it more as a long lost pet search and strike out looking for fresh scent, as often after 48- 72 hours in a busy, hot, sunny area, a trail on cement is rather tough to follow. In a more residential area, with grass, shrubbery and shaded areas, the scent is protected for a greater length of time, and our hounds are much more likely to catch a trail.
From a "use scent hounds to track your lost pet" website:

So there we go; a scent that is 2 to 3 days old is probably going to be too old, but a fresher scent is trackable.

Remember, we turn a noisy jumble of electromagnetic energy bouncing around a room into coherent high resolution pictures that lets you determine properties of materials on the other side of the room, or even 10s of km away (I can see the glint of water or metal in the far distance in the desert; I'm detecting the electron-binding properties of molecules by how they interact with photons sent from a star almost a billion km away, then bounced to two small openings in my skull, focused by flexible organic lenses, hitting chemical photoreceptors, processed by neural networks, then delivered to my consciousness. It is ridiculously implausible). Our ability to see is miraculous, and would be implausible if it wasn't commonplace.

Scent hounds are like that, but with scent.
 

Arvok

Explorer
Its important to remember that dogs following scent trails are Trailing scents and dander in the air NOT Tracking spoor on the ground.

2. the idea that rain is bad is actually not true, scent particles tend to be hydrophillic and the large particles Dander (skin fragments, sweat and saliva) are attracted to dampness. Rain actually helps to settle dander on the ground and that allows the dog to trail it better.

Dry windy weather is worse as it disperses scent over a greater area and thus means the dog needs to take longer to explore the trail. Thats where a skilled handler who understands how scent works helps, as they make judgement calls of patterns of dispersal and can direct the dogs into shaded areas where they are more likely to pick the trail up again.

Time and wind are the issue, but in a medieval city I think trained dogs with a skilled handler could find a recent trail easily enough.

You and I might be thinking of different things when I say a 12 hour rain. If it dumps rain for 12 hours straight (like it does from time to time where I live and we can get 4 or 5 inches in that time), it's a lot different than if there are spotty showers or a light drizzle. Medieval cities were designed, in part, to take advantage of rain to wash away all the filth that accumulated, so a good, hard rain would likely make it harder for the dogs to trail.

I think I'm starting to go down a rabbit hole here, though. We seem to agree that under reasonable conditions hunting dogs should have a fairly good chance of finding their quarry.
 

My group (a 1st level party) is searching for a missing person inside a city. They've got a couple of good hunting dogs and an item that belonged to the person that carries her scent. I'd love to hear how you'd run the search. Specifically:
  1. Is it even remotely plausible that dogs could track down someone in a city like this based on their scent?
  2. Would the dogs track the path the item's traveled, or would it lead them straight to the person?
The party could certainly ask for help from various NPCs, but it's unlikely they'll be able to find anyone willing to cast 4th+ level spells for them at this point. No one in the party has Speak With Animals, so verbally coordinating the search with the dogs isn't possible.
Since the party has the hunting dogs they should be trained enough to do this, provided less than a few days have passed. No coordination is required, as the hounds will simply do what they're trained to do, which is follow the direction of the scent until it inevitably leads to the mark (or it loses the trail). The downside of doing it in a city is distractions: mixed scents (red herrings), crossed paths (where they've gone multiple times), and other animals (especially during mating season!).

I'd suggest throwing a few encounters along the way that might distract the dog or the characters (check out the chase rules for a few ideas). If you don't want the players to succeed in this way, I'd simply have the dog lose the trail fairly early on, allowing the players time to pursue another option. You could also simply say it works and move on to the next part of the adventure.
 

GSHamster

Adventurer
I say you let it work. At the very least have the dogs take the PCs to an area where they can find eyewitnesses to keep them going on the trail.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Rule of Cool > Simulationism

IMHO, not if "Rule of Cool" means "bypass all challenges without any risk of failure". In some cases, PCs should be able to play the "I win" card, but if they can always pull that card I think the game loses something.
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
I agree with a few of the comments here:

The party was smart enough to use dogs to solve a problem. That should enable them to do a search in the first place when a search might not have been possible. It might enable them to do a search with some kind of advantage if a search without a dog was possible.

If you want to make it exciting and put in challenges, then do so. Giving one or more of the PCs an opportunity to overcome a challenge would be fun.

If you want the story to progress and want to reward the party for using a creative solution and, possibly, using resources to hire tracking dogs, then segue straight to the location of the person.
 

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