From the Archive: Poisons, Pt. III

Or “Finally, the RULES”.
In Part I we discussed the impetus for the rules, and in Pt. II the immature form from my 2e days (plus fed you some examples). This post dissects the actual rules that I’ve derived from them, and a few additions to make the system playable.

My rules assume the 10-second round and the 6-turn hour. 0 HP = unconsciousness, -HP = dead and possibly maimed. I also use the Silver Standard. Convert all SP notations into GP.


“Poison” can be anything from alcohol to henbane, from dimethyl mercury to opium and the Black Lotuses in the stinking pits of Telele’li.

Players may use poisons, but this is never an honorable act, and rarely good. The GM should also be reminded that activities which do not expose the character to significant danger do not grant XP. Poisoning a well and stabbing a man in the back with a venomed dagger both offer similar levels of danger, and should be treated similarly…

A DM-created poison has the following game characteristics (Poisons used or created by PCs have more; see the appendix* for full information). They are listed in order.

There are four basic types of poison: Injected, Ingested, Inhaled (gas), and Contact. Some poisons may be dangerous if eaten or injected, yet have little to no effect on contact with unbroken skin; others might have beneficial effects in one form and do deadly harm in another. Most blade and trap poisons are inhaled or injected. There are also two subtypes: catalyzed and cumulative.

Injected. The poison must enter the bloodstream to take effect. Eating or touching it has no effect. Most blade and arrow poisons are of this type. Real-world example: Curare
Ingested. Must be eaten or drunk (or administered as a suppository/into the ear, you sick fuck). Injecting may or may not have an effect. Real-world example: Strychnine, alcohol.
Contact. The most dangerous of all poison types. Simply touching the stuff puts you at risk, as the poison is absorbed through the skin. Real-world examples: Dimethyl Mercury
Inhaled. The poison is a gas, and absorbed through the lungs. Real-world example: Ether, Hydrogen Cyanide
Catalyzed. The poison has little or no effect unless administered in combination with/triggered by another chemical. This can be as simple as water… Real world example: Military-grade tear gas. Until the surface gets wet, you’re fine. Don’t blink.
Cumulative. Up to a certain point, the poison will have little or no effect. It builds up in the body until an overdose is achieved. Real-world example: Most metallic poisons (copper, selenium, mercury)

Onset time
How long does it take for the poison to take effect? Keep in mind that most “real-world” poisons won’t kill you instantly. Even some of the deadliest – cone-snail, cyanide, dart-frog poison – still take about 2d6 rounds (a minute or two) to incapacitate you and several more to kill you – as much as 20 or 30 rounds!

For a “Death” poison the “onset” time is the time it takes before the character’s HP are reduced to 0. The character may live past that point far a few minutes, and a Neutralize Poison spell has a chance of bringing them back to life (roll for resurrection survival). Yes, permanent CON loss applies: I’ve been near-fatally poisoned personally (with Digitalis), and I can tell you, I lost a frigging point of Con!

How long does the poison have an in-game effect? Secondary effects are just flavor, but should be noted in the “effects” section.
Deathly poison’s effect is usually permanent.

Pray that this is the case.


The accidents of the usable form (s) of the poison. Iocaine powder, for example, is “odorless, colorless, tasteless, and dissolves almost instantly in liquid”.

What happens when saves against the poison are passed and failed. Includes both primary (game effect) and secondary effects of the toxin. Secondary effects have no in-game effect, but can serve as a roleplaying stimulus. They can also last much longer than the primary effects, and may assist in identifying the toxin (for example, nicotine stains the teeth and beards of users, and produces a characteristic smell: certain alkaloids permanently discolor the teeth and tongue of habitual users). It’s not impossible for an encounter with a magical venom to leave a character with a glowing blue bullseye rash around the injection site for the next year and a day, but it’s not a “Primary effect”.

Most poisons are only effective against a limited group of targets: slimes, incorporeal beings, undead, and constructs (plus a number of other edge cases I’m no doubt forgetting) are almost universally immune to poisons, but some things may still be “toxic” to them. Holy Water, for example, has very notable toxic effects against the undead, and nitric acid gas is high on the list of things a construct should avoid. The intended target should be listed here: the GM should rule as to what other types of creatures are affected, and how badly (saving throw modifiers, &c.). Also, creatures are almost universally immune to their own poison.

Using poisons in your game
There are a few general types of poison to consider when crafting your own poisons.

But first, it’s important to draw a line between natural and unnatural poisons. Natural poisons follow rules and logic; they are creations of Law, and part of the fabric of the universe. Unnatural poisons blow all these generalizations out of the water; Chaos can craft terrifying effects at its whim.

Natural poisons fall into a few fairly simple categories: Paralytic/catatonic, irritant, and lethal. All exist to efficiently end a fight. Paralytics remove the victim from the fight by sapping its physical ability (HP or stat drain, actual paralysis). Lethal poisons are simple – usually HP or Con damage on a passed save, killing the victim on a failed one. Irritants make the victim not only want to leave the fight, but never enter another similar fight again. They are as much psychological tools as weapons: as such, look for effects that hinder the characters, rather than necessarily damage them. The easiest way is through penalties to dice rolls, but summoning other monsters or otherwise “marking” the party in some way can cause them a much more lasting and satisfying paranoia.

A natural animal’s poison can be offensive or defensive (although animals with “offensive” poison are usually quick to use it in their own defense). Offensive venoms are mostly lethal or paralytic. Animals that can avoid their prey will swoop in, sting/bite them, and retreat immediately to wait until it’s safe to approach again. Ones that cannot will fight on the defensive until the target is overcome, or “stack” poison on the target until it succumbs. Paralytics are preferred for harvesting nesting material.
Most offensive poisons are Injected.

Defensive poisons tend to irritate rather than kill: their owners will use them as cover in their fight or flight.
Defensive poisons are usually inhaled or contact types – it does you precious little good to warn off your attacker after he’s eaten you, after all.

Plant’s poisons run the gamut of effects: many are merely unpleasant (or even beneficial) in low doses, but rapidly become lethal, paralytic, or catatonic when concentrated.
Most are ingested or contact types, and almost all are defensive poisons.

On the other hand, a true “monster” is also a being of Chaos and there are few rules to their behavior. You can use this to reinforce the Weird in your game very easily. What, after all, is the Yellow Musk Creeper but a plant with an offensive toxin? Even those that follow the “rules” can flout them with the poison’s effect – the Gorgon breathes a petrifying gas, a Tarantella leads a horrifying dance, the Dispas’ bite causes unquenchable thirst. Why do they do it? I don’t know, I’m just the sick bastard that created the universe, not these abominations. And of course, there’s always the Carrion Crawler…

Trap poisons have no half-life or shelf life. They are stabilized by unknown means until deployed: some will wipe off once triggered, other traps are reset and renewed by unknown means.

For the players & GM alike:
Using poison can be dangerous. The shit is NASTY by design. There are general handling precautions, but some poisons may bypass these. When dealing with an unknown poison, the character can make an educated guess, or roll against Wis/Herbalism for suggestions as to the type of an unknown poison. Intelligent beings using a poison would be wise to carry an antidote regardless..
Some suggested delivery methods and their potential complications and precautions:
• Injected poisons are often used as blade venoms. These wipe off easily, reducing the half-life: each dose of the poison applied has a 25% chance of being removed following any swing, and a 100% chance of being lost on a hit. Blowgun darts, another common method, are.. inadvisable to use with contact or ingested poisons. This type of poison is fairly safe to handle, but waxed and armored gloves, or the use of brushes and dipping will make incidental nicks less likely.
• Gaseous poisons are very dangerous, and “best” handled as a pressurized concentrate in a stoppered glass or ceramic container. These are quite fragile (that’s rather the point), and must be handled with the utmost delicacy. Catalyzed gases do exist, but are exceedingly difficult to stabilize. The odds of setting a gas globe off by accident go up drastically once you enter combat: preparing & hurling them immediately is usually the best policy.
• Ingested poisons are the safest to handle – as long as you wash yourself early and often. These often come as a powder or liquid, and inhaling the substance is usually a bad idea. Heat and dilution can make these worthless, and you want apply them as close as you can to the consumer anyway – don’t want to poison the maid who’s sniping a bit of the pig if you can help it.
• Contact poisons are insanely dangerous but very useful. So much as handling a poisoned weapon can get a player in trouble. Waxed leather gloves and an apron (when applying the poison), plus a sealed scabbard, are usually useful  here.

I’m still working out charts for rolling up poisons “on-the-fly”, which will be published when I feel like it ™


* Player-created poisons: The new characteristics were covered in Pt II of this series. More to follow in another post.


More new poisons (All levels are tentative, once I create enough of these I’ll start to sort them more efficiently)

Iocaine Powder

Level: 6-10, depending on the existence of an injected form.
Stability: Unknown: Shelf life of at least 6 months in powdered form (the user had carried it on a ship from Australia to Italy), and probably closer to 2-5 years.
Type: Ingested (with the solubility, one assumes an injected form exists as well)
Onset Time: 1d4 rounds
Duration: Deadly
Identifiable: No.
Appearance: A pale crystalline powder, a clear odorless liquid.
Ingredients: Unknown, probably the inner bark or roots of an Australian plant.
Fumble Effect: If the user has open wounds or eats without washing scrupulously, they will be exposed to a lethal dose of the poison.
Creatures without a circulatory system are unaffected. Most effective on mammals.
Passed: The victim suffers from euphoria and a rapid heartbeat; they become violently livid (bright crimson blush over the entire body, shading to purple in some areas).
Failed: The victim becomes livid after one round as above, then suffers a massive cardiac arrest at the end of the onset time.

Special: A dose is a matter of grams. Size of dose does not affect the save; if you’re going to die, your time is up.

Level 5
Stability: Very low. Half life and shelf life are but 6 hours: The shelf life can be extended to a week by keeping the poison in a tightly-stoppered electrum container, a fortnight if it is made of silver, and 28 days if the container is platinum. Exposure to a dimensional incursion causes the sample to save vs. disintegration or immediately dissipate (use the container’s saving throw).
Type: Injected.
Onset Time: 1 round
Duration: Immediate, no duration: see “Effects”.
Identifiable: Very. A thick, black fog surrounds the poisoned surface, “dripping” upwards and evaporating a few inches out.
Appearance: an extremely viscous black gas, perpetually seeming to writhe and crawl in its container. It behaves like a liquid.
Ingredients: The ensorcelled blood of the mysterious living shadows. Extracting this material requires Aetherial lab equipment as well as specially enchanted silver or silver-plated tools (manacles, lancets, a cage, gloves, etc.), totalling at least 4,000sp. If the researcher does not also plate the room in a thin layer of silver (or otherwise dimensionally isolate it), they should always work in bright light, and ALWAYS count the shadows from that day forth…
Fumble Effect: As normal.
Effective only on that which knows heat, life, and laughter..
Roll of a “20”: No game effect.
Passed save: The creature feels a violent chill, and loses 1d4 HP.
Failed save: The victim feels an icy hand squeeze their heart, and loses 1d8 HP. They must also save vs. Petrification or lose 1d3 points of Strength.
Roll of a “1”: The victim is subject to an immediate level drain. A single shadow somewhere within 1 mile will develop sentience and 1HD, but have no memories and an insatiable desire to feed.
In any case, the wound site will become pale and chilled, and not warm until all damage from the wound has healed.

Special: does not adhere to the noble metals. The body of any being killed by this poison will slowly evaporate, only to reconstitute on the Plane of Shadow 1d100 days later as a free animate shadow with a murderous grudge against its creator. Creating or using this poison is an explicitly evil act.

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