From the Archives: Poisons, Pt. II

So tell me what you want, what you really really want..

Yes, I went there

In my previous post, we discussed some historical problems with poisons in the various early editions of D&D. How did my DM and I solve them? Well, we didn’t fix them all. But we did set up a framework, based on the spell/item-crafting rules, that allowed for more interesting effects. Keep in mind I was roughly CL 7 or 8 when we started doing this (1Rng/5+ Rog dual-class*), and I didn’t try to make the Beholder’s Wrath (you’ll see later) until I was around CL 12; some kind of level restriction would probably be good for other PCs.

*Curious about that dual-class? He was a half-elf, and the DM made us choose to favor one side or the other because there “were no” half-elves in his world – which later became a major plot point. I chose Human over Wood Elf. He “fell” out of ranger after being left for dead at level 1 by a genocide squad hunting for half-breeds (the party happened upon me and healed me up. Hell of an intro). It’s why Elthir’s Preferred Enemy was Elves, and he rocked the subsequent NE for most of his career.

Anyway, here are the general rules, taken from my own notes. I need to tighten these up, and I’m more than willing to listen to new suggestions for poisons to try to get my head around the system. Also, there’s more to follow when I start adapting the stuff I created for d20..

General information
• Both poisons and certain custom drugs fall under these rules.
• The full effect, method of application, and what effect a successful save has all affect the poison’s “level”. He never showed me his charts, but I’ll list below the given level for each poison that I successfully made, and things that I know affect the level.
• A correctly-formulated, “custom” poison can bypass poison resistances on a named foe or type of creature, although this raises the level of the poison. No, you still can’t poison the gods.
• The basic ingredients for the poison need to include a substance extracted from a creature or plant with a similar effect. The extracts are unstable, and decay quickly without a successful (blind)* Herbalism check+. Choosing higher-HD monsters as a source can make crafting the poison easier, or the end product more potent. Also, killing monsters will occasionally ruin their parts. I know this was a percentage roll, but not the exact parameters. I’d recommend a 20-50% chance that the venom glands survive in usable condition.
• The base cost to research is at least 1,000gp and one week per “level” of the poison, plus a fully-stocked alchemical laboratory in an ethically “flexible” area. Manufacture is 100gp/level plus cost of materials, and 1day per level.
• Research requires the use of living subjects to test the poison. Using animals of the same general type as the target, but significantly smaller (rats, small lizards, &c) means the final poison has a saving throw adjustment of +2. Animals of a similar weight and toughness to the target reduce this to +1. A test subject of the correct species/type confers no bonus. Note that, depending on the effect, the use of a sapient test subject may not be an evil act
• The DM is free to add an appropriate side effect, or alter the Fumble and other effects of the final poison – and need not advise the player until this effect occurs. The effect of a botched creation roll is likewise up to the DM.

*I’d use a floating-point skill check these days: player rolls and DM rolls, DM’s roll is “zero” and the player’s effective roll is calculated from that. So DM rolls a 15, and the player rolls a 4? The player’s roll is actually 9.
+ Not using NWPs? I’d suggest a DEX or INT-based check to preserve them, and your Spell Research/Learning percentage as the basis for research.

Level Guidelines:

• Does it duplicate a spell? How complicated is the effect? How esoteric is it? Cancelling magic usage is much more complicated than additional damage. Killing is harder than knocking out the target, which is harder than just making them drowsy. Basically, the longer the descriptive text, and/or the nastier the effect, the higher-level the poison is.

• Does the venom have a “combat” or “non-combat” onset time? Fast-acting, contact poisons are the most expensive, dangerous, and highest-level. Slow-acting injected poisons are the easiest to make.

• How safe is it to use? “Safer” venoms have less deleterious effects on a fumble, and may not affect the user at all. In general, the safer a poison is to use, the higher the level.

• How detectable is it? This is less important in a blade venom than a food poison, but an identifiable poison can make it much easier to treat a victim (or even tell that they’ve been poisoned at all) in combat. The onset time is part of the detection as well – a very slow-acting or cumulative poison may raise the level sharply because of this, and the general safety of use.

• How expensive or rare are the ingredients? Is the collection method non-destructive? Great effort spent in procuring the components reduces the level of the poison, but increases the final cost to manufacture. Anything that’s able to be cheaply, repeatably made with little risk should be higher-level

• Is there an easy antidote – one that an average adventuring party would have to hand, and possibly attempt to deploy? Iron filings, wine, magical healing, even cutting out the injection site could all qualify as possible options. If so, reduce the level slightly.

• Does the poison require a special save? Most are simple saves vs. PPD, but some might require PtPly or Spell saves.

• How broad is the target base? “Mammals” is much easier than “humans-only” (and easier and cheaper to test..). “Mammals and Reptiles” might not be as easy, but “Toxic to everything” is gonna be fucking hard. Hell, even dimethyl mercury doesn’t kill everything – and not everything you want to affect is alive..

• What is the stability of the poison? “Standard” half-life is 6 hours, shelf life 6 months. Shelf life is the amount of time the poison stays stable under reasonable storage conditions (dark place, room temperature). A common, reasonable condition under which the poison becomes unstable – such as room-temperature heat, cold, or exposure to bright light – reduces the level of the poison. Half-life is measure from the time the poison is removed from safe storage (I.E., after being applied/prepped).
*Once the half-life has expired, the target ignores the poison on a successful save, or suffers half the effect/duration on a failed save. For poisons cancelled by a successful save, the victim gets a +4 on their save. Doubling the dose applied may or may not have any effect on the half-life.
+Once the shelf life has expired, the poison becomes unstable, and is usually ineffective; the DM is free to concoct a surprising or undesired effect.


Intelligence/Herbalism-based blind roll. Failure could mean the batch is merely worthless, or that its effects have mutated violently. Here, again, testing it before you use it is a good (but probably also evil) idea.  Costs, as mentioned above, are 100gp/level/batch plus cost of materials and 1 day per level, although several batches of the same poison can be made in this time if the creator has sufficient ingredients. A “batch” is the number of doses per item listed under “ingredients”

Sample Poisons (all these were actually crafted at some point during my career. I have more somewhere, unless I lost that binder..):
Beholder’s Wrath:
Level: 8 (1-4000gp/dose “street value”, sells for 1000+/dose)
Stability: High, but volatile. Half-life is 4 hours. Shelf life of 1 year, sharply reduced by sunlight and close exposure to magic. Large bursts of magic in the area have a  chance to trigger the poison if unshielded, which will denature it and cancel the spell in a small area. This can cause damage to a character carrying the poison.
Type: Contact.
Onset time: 1d4 rounds
Duration: 1d6 rounds
Fumble effect: Save or suffer the full effects. Will soak into unwaxed leather and gradually evaporate; applying with gloves is not a sufficient precaution (I recommend using a brush, and discarding same by fire).
Identifiable: yes, easily. Causes a black “anti-glow” around the envenomed item, sucking up the light.
Appearance: Tarry black liquid, emitting anti-light.
Ingredients: The humors from the central eye of a beholder, carefully distilled. Each eye yields roughly 1d6 doses, depending on size and freshness. A dried eye, properly prepared, will create 1d3 doses that give +4 to the victim’s saving throws. This poison cannot be made using any magical means, ingredients, &c. and all such must be removed from the laboratory for the entire creation process.
Effect: All magical effects cast on the target during the effect fizzle. The affected person cannot use any active dweomer (+2 sword is still a +2 sword, but no wands, scrolls, invoked powers, etc.), nor cast any spells. All spells active on the target are suppressed for the full duration of the poison, but resume thereafter. Any item envenomed with this toxin completely ignores any and all magical protections, save those against poison; even aetherial or insubstantial monsters are hit Any creature or being with magic resistance can roll it to be allowed to use magic/spell-like effects.
If the poison is deliberately applied to a magical item, it must save vs. crushing blow or be permanently nullified. This process takes 1-10 doses, depending on the size of the item, and cannot be performed in a stressful situation.
WARNING: do not insert into a magically-produced dimensional effect.

Notes: My favorite poison, although harder than shit to find or make. Used occasionally as a protective drug (including once while I was going after a spellcasting party member), although I suspect the effects of dosing up heavily or frequently would not be pretty. On the other hand, jacking someone up with this shit until they became a magical Pariah could be pretty cool. I used to keep vials of it in packed in a lead-lined orihalcon chest. That little bastard and its contents were worth more than most castles.


Level: variable. Value is determined by potency and the free availability of clerics with power over the undead.
Stability: High. Half-life 8 hours, shelf life 12 months. Sensitive to heat and light.
Type: contact
Onset: Instant
Duration: none
Fumble effect: none, not toxic to the living
Identifiable: Yes. Discolors blade, dark red-brown/black stains.
Appearance: Deep maroon liquid with faint golden sparks shot throughout
Ingredients: The blood of a Lawful*, Good* being with power over the undead. Holy water. Ash from a blasted undead being, killed by turning, positive energy/healing spells, or similar effects. If the blood is given willingly, and the donator still living, 1/10th the amount is required per dose. The blood of a full-grown man yields 2d3 doses. The “level” is equal to half of the donor’s level, +2. Researching any level of the toxin allows more complicated preparations.
Effects: On a failed save, the being takes 1d6 holy damage per “donor” level. A successful save reduces the damage by half. Beings with more HD/levels than the donor take half damage, none on a save

Notes: Made this by bleeding out a priest of Tyr on his own altar (long story. I was not a nice person, and they were at war with the Assassin’s guild over a supposed “monopoly on Justice”). Needed to take on a Wight hit-team being sent after the party by the fascist dickhead in charge of the world’s Elves. I can imagine a similar poison effective against clerics, or daemons.

* I’m not strictly sure that both were necessary: as a GM I’d knock down the effect of the final product if one of the factors was missing

The Hellfire Itch
Level: 2 (never attempted to buy or sell)
Half-Life: standard
Type: Contact
Onset: 2d6 rounds
Duration: 2d3 turns
Fumble effect: The character receives a partial dose (successful save) or full dose (failed) in their hands. A partial dose will render the character incapable of wielding any weapons after 1d4 rounds as the Itch runs rampant for 1/2 duration. A full dose has the usual effects.
Identifiable: Yes, very strong acrid smell (75% to notice unless applied inside constantly-worn armor, where chance drops to 15%)
Appearance: Yellowish greasy paste. Dark yellow crust/stain when dried: resembles a urine or sweat stain.
Ingredients: Carefully diluted and treated venom from a Giant Ant, Wasp, or Bee. Ester of Nettles. 2 venom glands produce 1d3 doses.
Effect: Activated by contact with water, such as sweat or blood contact.
The target begins to itch violently one round after contact: a group of bright red vesicles springs up at the contact zone. Removing or casting away the source (if it’s only been touched) allows a second save, and a failed save will only have the effects of partial exposure (use common sense based on location for exact effects). If the save is successful, the itching will continue; it will, however, have no game effect unless the onset time is completed and the victim fails its saving throw or throws. Once the venom has taken hold, the slightest pressure on the victim (including clothing, holding tools or weapons, &c) will cause most intolerable and violent itching and rashes: all rolls but saving throws taken by the victim are subject to a penalty of 4/20% unless they are nude and performing a task which does not require physical contact or activity. Spellcasting is of course impossible.
The duration is only the length of time the venom has an in-game effect – secondary effects (mild but disconcerting itch) will linger for the remainder of the day. Dosing armor may require as many as 5-10 doses depending on size.
Antidote (special): Applying a basic solution or acidic solvents (scrubbing with soda, ash, or certain plant juices, washing with wine) to the affected area will reduce the itching to a tolerable level, as will any magical healing spell.

Notes: Mimics Irresistible Dance and Uncontrollable Laughter. Designed to be applied to armor, weapon hafts, doorknobs and the like. Jumping into water to attempt to cool the poison’s itch is a very poor idea, as is attempting to wash off the strange, stinking grease-palm you’ve acquired.. I would frequently dump a vial of this stuff into a bag of caltrops and a stone or two with reversed Continual Light, then flip the contents down a hallway to discourage pursuit. The commonly-available antidotes and easy cure strongly lowered the level, as did the ability to keep fighting (albeit at a penalty) when affected.

May be used as an alternate to “standard” Giant insect poisons.


Eric’s Inestimable Aid:
Level: 1. Street price: 50gp per dose, I would usually sell for ~10-15 as a drug.
Type: Ingested (an injected form exists: this is level 3, costs ~750gp per dose, has an onset time of 1d4 rounds, and a duration of 10-60 minutes)
Stability: Low. Half-life 4 hours, shelf life 3 months
Onset: 2d6 minutes
Duration: 1d3 hours (see below)
Fumble effect: save or full effects.
Identifiable: Yes. Faint acrid taste and scent (30% chance to notice in food, lowered in acidic/strongly flavored foods like wine or lampreys). Radiates weak magic. Leaves a salty crust on treated weapons or tools (injected form)
Appearance: Lavender powder or small pentagonal lavender crystals. Injected form is a paste.
Ingredients: Herbal mixture including nightshade. Fairie juice (this is acquired in a completely non-destructive, if potentially somewhat distressing manner. Watch Dragon Pink, episode 2, for further details. Also for a Water Weird being very naughty). Injected form requires diluted Black Lotus instead.
Effects: Elves are immune. Half-Elves receive a +2 to their save. Failed save: Causes intense drowsiness 1 minute after ingestion: the user falls into a deep, dreamless sleep thereafter. If used as a sleep aid, ensures a full and comfortable night’s rest of 8 hours. Passed save: the user becomes drowsy and euphoric for 1d10 turns, receiving a -2 to all rolls that require alertness or dexterity including surprise rolls. Slapping the victim vigorously or attacking them will wake or otherwise rouse them for 10 minutes, after which they again succumb until the full duration has elapsed.
Side Effect: The drug has a 1% cumulative chance to send the user into a permanent, nightmare-wracked coma (Heal, Neutralize Poison will cure) for each consecutive day it is used. “Days off” reduce this chance by 1% per day.
The injected form does not have a coma chance: effects are otherwise identical.

Notes: I used to sell this in my guise as “Eric the Faithless” wandering alleged bard extraordinaire, to fund his nefarious activities (and occasionally in the commission of the aforementioned nefarious activities). Because hey, Pixie girlfriend/henchwoman (she hid in my lute a lot). Lost her in the transfer to Silence’s world, whose DM did not, apparently believe in henchmen. Or fairies.

Bastard. I bet he never clapped during Peter Pan.

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1 Comment

  1. “Bastard. I bet he never clapped during Peter Pan.”
    I doth heartedly lolled.


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