Scent and Memory

I spent a year abroad between high school and college. Best year of my life. (And I hadn’t even started LARPing yet!)  At the very end of the program, one of the staff gave everyone in the program a tiny bottle of a lemon scented liquid with a little white lemon blossom preserved inside. (They put the bottles on the buds before they bloom and let the flowers grow inside the bottles- creating a ship-in-the-bottle effect.)

The staff member who gave it to us told us that scent can be one of the most powerful triggers of memory, and that he was giving us a little piece of the land to take home and smell and let it remind us of our year. Every now and then I take out the little glass bottle and uncap it. For me, it triggers memories of the year ending, not the year itself, but the effect is still remarkably powerful. One sniff and I feel like I’m right back in that hotel function space with the other kids in my program, working on some sort good-bye art project and listening to a mix CD of songs about friendship and life moving on. (Is it me or is Glory Days one of the most depressing songs ever.)

For me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true of many people, the memories scent triggers aren’t specific  details, things people said or wore… It’s more like a very visceral feeling of being in a certain situation. (And the details may come a bit later.)

Of course, I mention all of this because I wonder how it can be used in LARPing.

I’ve heard of scent coming up in discussions of setting the scene for a LARP and trying to invoke all 5 senses. But logistically, it presents a lot of difficulties. I think theater style LARPers are concerned with bothering players with allergies or sensitive noses (and they don’t always take place in well-ventilated places.)  Boffer style LARPs tend to be more permissive in terms of risking physical discomfort… but often take place outdoors (or in “mod buildings” that aren’t wind-proof) and any attempt to provide the players with a scent may well be totally lost.

Which is a pity, I think, because I remember walking around the flagship Yankee Candle store, and being blown away by the sheer variety of scents, and how evocative they were of various environments. (I almost bought the campfire scent- campfire smell without an actual campfire!)

But I haven’t given up on using scent in a LARP- maybe it just has to be on an individual player basis. I know of a few LARPers who like to wear a particular perfume or cologne depending on their casting. There’s a company called BPAL that creates an insane variety of themed scents, designed to evoke all kinds of crazy concepts, with a business model  that allows people to try many without buying whole bottles.

Me, I own exactly one bottle of perfume, and that was a gift. I don’t know if I have enough interest in perfume to start a BPAL collection of my own, so I probably wouldn’t try to come up with a scent for every theater LARP character I was cast as… but I can definitely see myself buying one for a campaign character to be used several times  a year. I think having one scent strongly associated with being a particular character in her (or his… or its) particular home environment… using that visceral effect scent can have might be a huge boost in the effort of getting into character. Another dimension to costuming, if you will.

Hmm. Now the issue is figuring out what kind of scent my various character concepts for Cottington Woods would have…

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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5 Responses to Scent and Memory

  1. Scent is very powerful – trufax. I am still trying to figure out how to use it as a scene-scetting element in larps, but I am determined to manage it someday! I have an idea that might find its way into Cracks in the Orb, but I guess we’ll see.

    One concern I have is that a lot of people are allergic (or think they are allergic) to perfume. I honestly don’t believe anyone is allergic to ALL perfumes; and I’ve met very few people who have problems with essential oil perfumes, but you want to be cautious.

    Incidentally, there are all kinds of small indie perfumers out there – BPAL is just the best known. And usually I don’t go out and buy a new perfume for a game, just use whatever is in my stash. Of course, my stash is kind of HUGE. I might buy a new scent just for Cottington, though…

  2. Fair Escape says:

    I figured perfume would be non-problematic because me wearing it shouldn’t trigger a reaction unless someone is trapped in a very small room with me or their face is right up against my neck. (For… some reason?) I like to think I don’t wear too much on the rare occasions I have worn it?

    I saw BPAL had a booth at a convention, which would be nice for trying them out before committing. Maybe I could come by and smell some of yours before Cottington starts?

  3. JakeG says:

    Demeter Fragrance also makes a wide variety of scents, including some pretty unusual and specific stuff. I’d love to see (smell?) a character make an impression using some unique fragrance. Demeter makes a scent called “paperback”; assuming it’s as good as advertised, it would be really cool for an old wizard or similarly bookish character. Smells of smoke and fire for an Efreet, etc.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Thanks for the info! I’m definitely going to look into Demeter Fragrance. I actually have already been looking through BPAL’s website for something inspired by an old library in case I play a priest, since Cottington Wood’s religion is all about the Written Word, recording stuff, etc. That paperback scent might be exactly what I had in mind.

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