From the Archives: Poisons, Part 1

“Oh no! Pansy! The Problem!”

Last post I mentioned poison & disease rules. The “post” has developed into a series’ worth of material, so I’ll be working through it a little slower. I’ll talk about poison first, since I first confronted the issue back in the ’90s, as a player. By contrast, disease has only really interested me as a system for a couple years, even though we occasionally ran into it in games. Yet the rules spring from the same root problems…

Oh, and hold onto your butts kids, this is a history post. This means that I’ve got a half-dozen books open in front of me and 5 more on the shelf in reserve. A healthy part of it’s is personal recollection, and observed tendencies: YMMV, but think about your past games as you read it.

Now, D&D has always handled poison poorly. That’s because, as a system, D&D isn’t really meant to deal with casualties: it prefers death. There are some disablements laid out in the DMG: Level Drain and Encumbrance (and who really actually tracks that 95% of the time?), paralysis. The others are all quick, almost ad-hoc entries under various spells and monster attacks – blindness, insanity, deafness.

You notice something about that list? A lot of absolutes. You have to really dive into the monster manuals to find effects that hinder the characters without killing them or taking them completely out of the fight. And most of the non-monster effects that do cause a partial disablement are left entirely to the DM, with wildly varying levels of danger. Curses? Oh hell yes, they can be incredibly inconvenient. Is there a primer for using them? Depends on the edition. The guidelines for them in 1e are so rough, in fact, that a great many DMs I have known through the years have straight-up ignored Cursed scrolls when they’re rolled as part of a treasure. The suggested scroll curses in 1e have a full 55% chance of basically assured death (25% of dying within the hour due to disease, 25% chance of polymorph to a monster and attacking the party, 5% of turning into a puddle of water and “draining away”: both of the latter cause a system shock roll).. Holmes basic is very lethal (turned into a toad, attacked by a “random monster” in an edition featuring medusae and 3rd-level characters..); Mentzer just hits you with a monster ability, steals a magic item, or turns you into a toad. 2e is more dickish, but less lethal, and the guidelines are better: it’s actually the best out of all of them at inconveniencing the party without fucking murdering them.

What the rules call “Poison” is part of that boat: monster poison = save, or die. The Rules Cyclopedia has an interesting alternative system, where monster poison does 1d6 damage per HD, and half on a save, and there’s hints through the other books that that system is being considered, but it’s never made explicit.
AD&D Typed poisons tried to change the “or death”. In 1e they’re limited to HP damage (death against most 0L-Men or characters under 3rd level) and… Death. Weak poisons are simulated with adjusted saving throws. Now, I’ve never seen a GM-created monster with a “typed” poison, and most of the “Type” poisons are pretty crap. For example, the only paralytic in 2e (which is the first edition to have player-available poison that does something other than HP damage or death) has an onset of 2-24 minutes and is a fucking injected venom. The only debilitating poison takes 1d3 hours. Tell me how that works for a PC in the midst of an infiltration mission and I will personally give you a hearty handshake. That’s 2d12 bloody MINUTES, in an edition with 6-second combat rounds, of the person running around freely.. free to raise alarms, free to shout his bloody head off, free to come fuck you up – and as an injected venom, your best hope is to nail him with a crossbow or longbow, which stand a good chance of just murdering the poor sod.

Now, there are a handful of monstrous venoms or “poisons” with non-death effects, such as the Gelatinous Cube and Carrion Crawler’s paralytic slime, the Violet Fungus’ affliction, Green Slime, or the aforementioned Trog-stank. But each of these is given an explicit system in the MM, and not called “poison”. There’s nothing sinister about it, it’s just that “poison” has been given a very specific role in the game (Holmes, trend-bucker that he is, considers paralytics to be poisons as well, when no other edition does). That colors player and DM perception of what “poison” is, and I think it’s for the worse.

Anyway, I’m not gonna argue that Save-or-die is somehow wrong, there’s definitely a time and a place for it. It’s true to the source fiction, it adds a great deal of tension, and it lets verminous monsters be a serious threat in swarms for a very long time. But having only one effect for poisonous monsters leads to monster creators including the ones at TSR and WotC using it inappropriately when modelling poisonous beasties, and it makes for a lazy solution to something that could be very colorful

There’s a second problem with poison.

Poison isn’t supposed to drop you instantly – Slow Poison being exhibit A; the 1e DMG says that even the universally lethal monster poisons will only kill the character “in a minute or so”, and recommends that some Poison potions take effect after 1d10 hours or some such to conceal the origins of the player death.

How many of you have played with a GM who remembered this? Most I’ve encountered made monster (and by extension trap) poison save-or-instantly-die (Type D in 1e parlance).

2e implies that this is the way it works, while the (shitty) rules for treating it as soon as the injury occurs reinforce the impression; the “typed” poisons are also implied in the DMG to be the ones monsters use, yet there’s no listing for what uses what, and almost all the MM entries are still SoD “standard” poisons with 1 to 1d6 round onset times.

Finally, how players are “supposed” to make and use poison is handled very, very badly.

In Basic, Holmes mentions poisoning weapons without attaching any warnings or moral values to it. Mentzer says they “shouldn’t”, and the Rules Compendium has detailed rules for using blowguns and certain other poisoned weapons.

1e makes it hard, unlikely to work, and annoying. The rules for making venoms and the like are much more forgiving than spell creation – if the character is an assassin willing to let their character get taken out of play for several months in-game. There’s also a “shit’s unfair” section at the back of the PHB recommending that the DM punish players for using, but this assumes that all poisons kill instantly – and ignores the perfectly valid desire to knock out the guards without killing them in, say, a heist. The DMG, meanwhile assumes that the players will be using poison, but the stock varieties given are almost invariably less-efficient than just whaling at the target for the full onset time with a dagger. While it suggests the possibility of salvaging and using monster poisons, it doesn’t really give much in the way of details, and gives none for making them, including costs &c.

How does 2e deal with player creation and use of poison? It fucking doesn’t.

Well, not in the core books, anyway. One throwaway line in the Herbalism proficiency mentions that players can make their own, but leaves even the vagueness of the magic item creation rules (which read, and I distill for effect, “make some shit up, and make it really fucking hard”) far in the dust for vagueness. The DMG section on poison? word-for-word quote of the PHB entry until it gets to poison types. No mention of monster venom use, no discussion of backfiring or going wrong. Antidote rules crop up in the Complete Thief’s, but they’re not particularly easy to use or understand (and I played a fucking assassin – by profession, not class – for about 5 years. I actually had a motivation to learn the bloody rules). They have very restrictive rules in the same book, but also add soporifics and fun with gasses to the list.

All that’s nifty, but how did it work?

Now, I’m not arguing for detailed rules: I want flavor. I wanted to concoct specialized, mystic/exotic poisons that have support effects, instead of making the mans fall down. I also want to incorporate some of the nifty stuff from the later editions while not dealing with the wall of cruft infesting them.
Fortunately, I had an accommodating DM back in ’99, and we sat down to hash out the rules together. Those will follow shortly,  but this post is already too damned long, and it’s past 2 in the morning.


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1 Comment

  1. This is promising. A finally coherent version of your poison rules.


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