Scent of a Doll

Between high school and college, I spent a year abroad.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t started LARPing yet, it was probably the best  year of my life. On our last night, one of the staff members of our program gave everyone a tiny bottle containing something lemon scented (lemon extract, maybe) with a preserved lemon blossom inside. (The bottles are placed over the buds before they bloom, creating a ship-in-the-bottle effect.) He said scent is one of the most powerful triggers for memory and that he hoped the scent inside the little bottle would remind of us our year abroad.

I have the blossom-in-the-bottle tucked away in a drawer. And when I open it and sniff it, it takes me right back to that hotel function space where we spent our last evening of the year, sitting on the floor, talking about our year, creating some kind of art projects to commemorate it, and listening to music with nostalgia-themed lyrics (“Summer of 69,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Glory Days,” etc.)

I’m getting all misty eyed here.

The point is, that particular lemon scent doesn’t just trigger a memory. For me, it triggers a strong sense of being in that other place, in that other time, with all the emotions that came with it. Of being that person who has just had the most incredible year and wants to hold on to it forever, someone who is trying very hard to remember the Dr. Seuss quote, “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” That effect of the scent is very difficult to describe. It’s unquantifiable.

And it’s an effect that I think could really enhance a LARPing experience. I know several LARPers who are into Black Pheonix Alchemy Lab, or BPAL as it’s commonly known, a company that lets you order and sample a variety of geek and esoteric themed scents by mail, and match specific scents to their characters.

So after getting some recommendations from fellow LARPers, I visited a store in Salem, MA called A Beautiful Corset. (Corsets being their primary merchandise. I thought about asking to try one on, but they actually only do that by appointment.)

Inside A Beautiful Corset

The lady at the store had worked with LARPers before, so I told her a bit about Quill, my Cottington Woods character, and she gave me various scents to sniff and combinations to try. I knew I wanted something that both evoked the youthful, girlish idea of a doll, as well as its mechanical, artificial nature.

The ingredients of the perfume ended up as follows:

Almond oil and apricot oil as the base-I picked these mostly because I liked them better than the other bases, and they were subtle, light, clean smells, which is what I usually prefer.

Black tea and white tea – these were heavier, slightly smokey scents that smelled a bit like I imagined a workshop where Quill was first built would smell. I also associate dolls with little girls hosting tea parties. It’s sort of built into Quill’s nature to enjoy tea parties.

Lime – a tiny hint lime scent made it smell a bit more clean, like soap, which sort of evoked the artificiality of the character. Also, I just liked the way it smelled in combination with the tea.

Pink – this scent was designed to evoke cotton candy. It smells very sugary sweet and youthful.

I kinda forgot that I originally wanted a scent reminiscent of  old books with leather binding, because that would probably be a scent that was very familiar to my character; she worked in church libraries for awhile, learning to read and illuminate books. Luckily, I think the black and white teas create a somewhat leather-like smell, and the vanilla in the pink might evoke that old library books smell, especially when combined with the hint of acidic lime. I read an article online that the old book smell has been described as ““a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” But maybe I’m just projecting what I’m hoping for onto the actual perfume.

Altogether, I like the final scent a lot, though it is a bit heavier than what I would normally choose to wear. Which is probably a good thing,  because this isn’t meant to be my scent, it’s meant to be my character’s scent.

Eau de Quill?

They had fancy little perfume decanters for sale, but I decided not to get one because they couldn’t be sealed, and I need this perfume to be able to travel easily.

I dabbed a bit on my wrists and the nape of my neck twice at the Cottington Woods event, and found myself sniffing at my wrists now and then. I was pleasantly surprised with how long the scent lasted. Since it has only been one event so far,  it doesn’t yet have the strong association with Cottington Woods and trying to put myself in my character’s persona yet, but if I can convince myself not to sniff the bottle’s contents between events (and, ideally, not need too much bug spray during events,) it will hopefully develop that strong, specific association.

I suppose I should give the perfume a name, maybe something besides just “Quill” but I don’t know what. Someone suggested, “My Little Golem” but to me that’s a bit non-specific. There are several golems in game. (Including a scarecrow, by the way, who smells like hay, grass, and dirt.)

Anybody else ever try to use scent in LARPing?

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years, in all different styles. I love trying out all different styles and genres and formats. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serving as a board member of NEIL, and a member of bid com for the British convention Consequences. I was also the coordinator of Festival of the LARPs in 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I've also served as an editor for Game Wrap, NEIL's publication about the art and craft of LARP, and served on Intercon staff in various roles over the years.
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18 Responses to Scent of a Doll

  1. Philip Kelley says:

    This is one of those ideas where one thinks “Sheesh, that sounds pretty…” and you trail off into a thoughtful silence. Especially if you read Dreampark in your formative years.

    Do you wear it to help be in character, as a subtle “reminder” of your character, or is the intention that it be a subtle aspect of your character that other players perceive, but don’t necessarily notice? Might not be so useful for one-shot larps, but for chronicles, it’s got interesting potential. It’ll be interesting to read feedback on further Cottington Woods games, and if/whether this has an effect.

    • Fair Escape says:

      My primary intention is for it to help me be in character. I think it would be great if it became a subtle aspect of my character that others picked up on subconsciously, but I suspect no one else can actually smell it. My cabin mates might come to recognize it if it were in spray bottle, but it’s not. Then again, I do know a LARPer who will be at Cottington who has an extremely sensitive nose…
      I know some LARPers who use it for one shots. I was under the impression it could be used to convey information about the characters and help people get into character. I’m making a mental note to actually ask people what they feel they get out of it.

      Never heard of Dreampark, but now that I’ve read a brief online summary, I’m intrigued.

      • Philip Kelley says:

        A suggestion, use it in a game or two, and only then ask if anyone noticed it.

        For one-shots, it might be something that gets intentionally overlooked. Ever been in a situation where player A did yadayada *in character*, but player B disregarded it, figuring it was not an in-character thing? (I’ve been both player A and B too many times…) In a chronicle, now, they might notice the recurring pattern.

        Dreampark was a book about larps before there were larps (well, pretty close). The people who founded IFGS licensed the name from Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, as per, though they don’t seem to have the Engineering class of adventurer.

        • Fair Escape says:

          That’s true- if I didn’t know out of game that certain LARPers were into BPAL and choosing particular scents for characters, I probably would have just assumed they were wearing whatever their personal perfume/cologne was.

          Speaking of which, I find it very interesting that masculine and feminine are concepts so widely pervasive in our culture that we can identify smells as being masculine and feminine. I think next time I’m crosscast, I will try using some very masculine smelling cologne and see if that has any effect on how I roleplay.

          • Philip Kelley says:

            Based on what you wrote, I was thinking of it more as something to accentuate an aspect of whatever character was being played. Someone who worked with horses a lot, or worked in a foundry, or–as you are doing–to suggest non-human origins.

            • Fair Escape says:

              Well, if I was to be very honest with myself, how strong the suggestions of particular aspects are (mechanical, feminine) might be mostly wishful thinking. That the tea blend smelled a bit like a smokey workshop, for example, is probably a stretch that most people wouldn’t make on their own unless someone suggested it first. (As the lady in the store did for me.) The sugary sweet, girly Pink scent is, admittedly, pretty sweet and girly smelling, but that’s not terribly specific- many perfumes are.

              I think if I had chosen one very specific and obvious scent (like… if the beekeeper character used a honey scent) it might suggest an aspect of the character, but that’s not really what I did.

              In practice, probably any scent would have as much of an impact so long as I consistently use it for Cottington Woods and nothing else. My year abroad had nothing to do with lemons, but that lemon scent still puts me back on my last night there because I smelled it at a moment when emotions were running high and haven’t smelled that particular version of lemon anywhere else.

  2. Well, you know that I have quite the BPAL collection, and select individual scents for my one-shot characters, mostly based on what I have lying around. (And for campaigns, too! For TBC, Milady de Winter’s scent is BPAL’s Blood Countess–“Corrupted black plum, smoky opium and crumbling dead roses covered by a deceptive veil of Hungarian lilac, white gardenia and wild berry”).

    … and I just discovered this scent has been discontinued 😦 Well, drat.

    Anyway! I do this mostly for my own benefit. My philosophy of perfumes is not to apply them so heavily that other people can smell them. But the act of picking out the perfume, applying it, smelling it as a play… all these contribute to my experience of teh character.

    That said… when I played in Port Hidalgo, I did have one awesome moment where I approached Kelly MacD’s character and smelled a distinctive marshmallow scent that I recognized. OOC, I said, “… are you wearing Aunt Caroline’s Joy Mojo?” I would have been really embarrassed if I was wrong, but as it turned out, I was right! And it was totally appropriate for the the character, too, who was a voduniste.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I was kind of hoping you’d comment on this post. ^_^ I hadn’t given much thought to the process of picking a scent out from a collection, though now that you mention it, I wonder- do you find the name of the scent and/or the intention of the people who mixed it to be a strong influence on what you pick? Or do you mostly go by your own impressions? “Blood Countess” sounds just so perfect for MIlady, but I’m sure they don’t always match up.

      • Hmm. That’s a good question. As I usually don’t have time to order new scents in the time period between getting a character and playing it, I often have to pick stuff that exists in my collection. Given that, I’ll *try* to pick something inspired by the name or the intention of the creator, if I have it, but I have often resorted to scents whose notes I thought embodied the character. Something that smells like wine (Zadok Allen Vineyard), or a martini (Twenty One), or blood and smoke and rusty nails (Agnes Nutter) can have many uses in larps, aside from their references to Lovecraft or Good Omens or the poems of Dorothy Parker.

        (Incidentally, Zadok Allen Vineyard is the perfume Matt plays when he plays Johann in Cottington, because smelling like a vineyard makes sense for the character who’s a brewer).

        • Fair Escape says:

          That’s another excellent idea- picking up unusual scents that would have broad applications in LARPs. The Agnes Nutter one sounds like it could be used for lots of dangerous and/or militant characters.

          Also, I will add Matt to the list of people I should make a note to smell at Cottington.

  3. Also, re-reading… as far as an old books smell goes, BPAL’s Miskatonic University is supposed to evoke that smell–“The scent of Irish coffee, dusty tomes and polished oakwood halls.” Personally I think it smells like caramel corn, but I gather not everyone has the same impression. Scent is very personal.

    Anyway, it’s a favorite of ours, and if you’d like to sample it for Quill, I’d be happy to let you try it. If you’re coming out for the party, that would be the perfect time.

    And sorry it took me so long to reply to this! I’ve been bad about keeping up with blogs lately!

    • Fair Escape says:

      I wonder if the caramel corn smell comes from the vanilla-ish aspect of the dusty books? I’d love to take a sniff of Miskatonic University some time, the dusty tomes and oakwood halls sound like what I originally pictured, and I guess since I drink a lot of coffee to get myself up Saturday and Sunday mornings at the LARP, Quill does, too.

  4. And because I apparently can’t stop talking about perfumes, the most perfect correspondence I had was wearing BPAL’s Anne Bonny (“A blend of Indonesian red patchouli, red sandalwood, and frankincense”) while playing Anne Bonny in Devil to Pay 🙂

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