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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Players Using Poisons

There's a post on The Dungeon Fantastic about poisons, and whether player characters should be allowed to use them. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

The primary problem with players using poisons is the same problem we have with monster venom: most poisons shouldn't be of the instant death variety. Even the poison used by tribes that hunt with poisoned arrows generally takes a couple minutes to work. They use poisoned arrows so that they don't have to chase  wounded prey for hours, waiting for it to bleed to death. Certainly, the poisoned weapons in legend and literature don't seem to cause instant death, just wounds that never heal. However, we GMs are often lazy and just use instant death for everything, in which case we ought to apply the same rule to players using poison.

But the problem with that is that it seems to make player tactics super-effective, thus the attempts to limit the use of poisons, which often go too far. For example, poisons shouldn't last forever, but tracking the number of hits made with an envenomed blade is a bit tedious, isn't it? Definitely, there should be a difference between a rattlesnake, which constantly produces new venom while alive, and a sword with poison on the edge; but rather than making separate rolls to see if the poison gets wiped off or loses its effectiveness, it would be a lot easier to just say that when a victim makes a saving throw against the poison, the success is because the poison has finally been used up. In addition, the poison should only last a week when exposed to air, so that if a typical adventure crew makes weekly expeditions, they have to re-envenom their weapons every expedition. Did the players say "we put poison on our swords" and pay for any poison used? If so, they have envenomed weapons this week; otherwise, they don't.

The other notable restriction usually suggested for poisoned weapons is the risk of self-inflicted wounds or "friendly fire". This should definitely be an issue, since people who work with poisons do occasionally kill themselves and tribes that use poisoned arrows are extra careful about the arrows (as if, you know, they've had some bad accidents.) But again, the usual response is a whole bunch of extra die rolls. I think most of the time, you could limit the danger to characters who have been cursed (any miss with an envenomed weapon will automatically hit any cursed character whose near the victim.) Also, of course, the restrictions on firing arrows into a mêlée should definitely be in effect; you should probably apply those rules to blind fighters or fighting in darkness as well.

There are also the social effects of being a known user of poisons, but these are very role-playing-dependent and shouldn't take the form of automatic reaction penalties or guards spotting a poisoned weapon from a hundred yards away. So in short, I'd definitely allow poisoned weapons, but it would definitely be an added weekly expense with a few minor risks, not a cakewalk or a reason for continual punishment.


  1. Fumbles are a great way to limit the use of poisoned weapons in a normal fight. Also, who wants poisoned arrows that miss littering the battlefield?

    1. But that assumes you are using fumbles, or that you like fumble mechanics. An entirely different debate...

    2. I think they are worth tacking on if posion use become frequent.Forget knocking your pals left arm off by accident with your dagger, scratching yourslef or a friend with a poison weapon seems like a lot more to worry about and a balancing factor.

      I have folks make a saving throw to apply poison to weapons, weapons made for it alchemists and assassins get a bonus to the roll, miss that save and you have in fact poisoned yourslef.
      A 1 in melee...oops save vs poison.

      Cultures that used poisoned arms repeatedly are very careful about it and don't run about flailing tocix weapons in the dark.

  2. I just limit the types of poisons that players can make or get, unless they take them off super deadly poison monsters.

    I let assassins brew poison enough to envenom 1 weapon (for one use) per level with a poison that does 1D6/level and they have to roll a check to see if they brewed it right (and don't know until it doesn't work). Poisons taken off dead monsters aren't trouble as the players get only a few doses.

    Other option is that the poisons only effect creatures up to a few HD. Either way I don't really have much trouble with them.

  3. An entirely different point here and a different reply.

    I got rid of save or die poisons a while back and replaced them with save or die slowly poisons. Players get to decide how heroic they are while sufferring 1d6/round/turn or hour. There's more drama and posioning a baddie might indeed finish off a foe but not before that foes dismembers the poisoner.

  4. Thanks for the link, Talysman.

    You're right about the limitations (and I posted a whole writeup of limitations). You can't just let people use poison without any costs, difficulty, and/or with automatic success.

    I do think some of the objections are overblown, though, and often assume a carelessness and lack of competence to the PCs. Nicking yourself with a poisoned weapon (but it doesn't happen with your flaming sword, your sword of wounding, or your dagger of venom), hitting yourself on a fumble (but it doesn't happen otherwise), potentially poisoning yourself (but you never splash acid or flaming oil on yourself), potentially misapplying the dose (when you otherwise never check dosage on anything else when using it) . . . I just find that a bit weak, myself. It could be class restricted in D&D, and often is, but then I don't play D&D.

    Otherwise just make it expensive, make it of variable effectiveness, and make save-or-die stuff less available (save-or-sleep and save-or-paralyze, same thing), and make some things flat-out immune (dragons, say). If it costs you 1000 gp to force a save-or-die roll once and it is used up in the process, how much of a game breaker is that?

    Lucky for me, GURPS already has some "hits self" critical failure table results, so it organically handles the chance of an accidental self-whacking. It also has a Poisons skill, for whatever rolls I need to figure out if the PC is capable of doing what the player wants to do. But for D&D, I'd probably go with rolling a 1 and then confirming it in some fashion (a Saving Throw is fine - a Reflex save to avoid it using 3e mechanics, Poison in AD&D to shrug off the effects), at most. Just jacking up the cost is pretty effective!