Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thinking About Poison

This morning, while waiting for my laptop to finish some updates, I read Poison: From AA to XX in Best of Dragon vol. II (originally appeared in issue 32, December '79).

The gist of the article is that:

1) Among humans, only alchemists can make poison
2) It can only be purchased from the Assassin's Guild 
3) PCs, other than thieves and assassins, may only use type S (sleep poison).
4) Locksmith's can use poison as part of setting an appropriate trap.
5) AA is the weakest of the poisons, XX is the strongest, and their costs reflect that.
6) Poison gas (one of my favorites) is generally used only to guard the most valuable treasures.

It also gives info on coating blades, damage, etc. 

It got me thinking about The Ever Expanding Dungeon (which I will get to play this week, so help me!), and my other dungeon crawls, and the frequency of poison needles and gas traps.

Are all of those poisoned traps set by the humanoids currently in the dungeon or are they holdovers from the past?

If they aren't holdovers, how are the humanoids making or acquiring poison which is essentially XX? That's really potent stuff, extremely expensive, and unlikely to be easily obtainable in such quantity that every few doors and chests are trapped with it.

Plus, I have been treating them all as Save or Die, with no other damage - so no 1/2 damage on save, and no chance of non-lethal traps. Is this a way to reduce the lethality of the dungeon in a manner that easily fits the narrative without my having to show any undo favoritism to my PCs?

As you probably have guessed, I'm working on a table to randomly determine the strength and type of poison, as part of my revisions of how traps are generated in The Ever Expanding Dungeon. 

I hope to have a draft ready by the next session.


  1. Well, I think you know some of my feelings about lethality in dungeon crawls by now. ha ha
    One thing that has always bothered me in any game is when there is something that is quite arbitrary and simply comes down to a roll of the dice, fail and you're dead. Game over. Especially if hours of character creation, preparation and game play, can basically be made redundant by a single die roll with no recourse. Of course, if that's the sort of game someone wants to play and they enjoy I have no problem with that. I'm just saying it's not something I enjoy.
    Having said that, it seems reasonable to have less lethal variations on the "theme". For example, some poisons might lose potency over time, so maybe some of those old traps aren't as lethal as they might've been. There's also the question of what the traps were designed for in the first place - to kill intruders, discourage them, render them unconscious or weaken them so they could be taken and/or killed by guards? Who designed the traps? Who built or maintains them? Are the traps able to reset themselves or, once sprung, are they rendered harmless (or do you still have to be careful of pointy bits with poison)? What can adventurers do to protect themselves - like carry some sort of antidote or curative, wear protective gauntlets, carry (and use) a long pole to probe ahead (maybe at the cost of slowing their movement down)? Just scratching the surface here, as it were.

    1. Hi Fitz-Badger,

      I'm working on a set of tables now that I hope to use to account mechanically for some of the narrative issues you raise with your questions. I intend to make poison just one of several options for a trap, as I would do in a social game, but also randomly determine the potency, with X or XX being considerably more rare.

      That said, some of the poisons deliver so much physical damage that for low level characters they are instant death, but I'm OK with that, as I'll be minimizing the hazard overall, and in a way that I can weave into the narrative if I desire.

      Ideally, I hope to end up with something I can use in solo and social games.


  2. The lethality of the poison is probably proportional to what it is guarding. If you already have an idea of what is behind the door, you could apply a multiplier less than one (i.e. a percentage) of the treasure and then use that as a rough guideline of what poison is on the door.

    It's a bit harder if what is behind the door is randomly generated after the fact. This percentage would probably increase as you go deeper into the dungeon (or approach important areas).

    1. Hi daveb,

      I like the method of scaling poison or traps in general, to what the traps are guarding, and I think that would work great in a social game. Unfortunately, I do it the harder way: generating what's behind the door after the fact, when I play solo.

      Increasing the potency of poison the deeper the party goes into the dungeon is something that I think I can use, even not knowing in advance what's there.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. One of the ideas I've used with social games is to give each character "9 lives" in the form of 9 points of "Luck".

    Players can use up a point of Luck any time they want to re-roll (or have me re-roll) any roll of the dice . . . but once a point is used it is gone forever . . . so players quickly learn to use them only in "life or death" situations.

    I also often ask characters to "save vs half your Luck" to spot things . . . so using up Luck hurts in other ways too.

    Now I wouldn't really suggest this for solo dungeon crawls; but it is a good way of smoothing feelings in a social game . . . of course often times using up a point or three of Luck still doesn't work . . . but the Player doesn't feel like he/she was treated unfairly (except by the dice).

    -- Jeff

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I'm a fan of the Luck point method. I think for GMs who might otherwise fudge a roll, it gives them an opportunity to put the results back in the player's hands and give them control of their fate (at least until the dice leave their hands).

      USR, which I'm using for a social game right now, includes a Narrative Point that let's the player make changes to the scene in someway or re-roll a die. Like Luck points, it's great in a social game, but difficult to implement in a solo.

      That said, your idea has me thinking that perhaps allowing a Save vs. Constitution where a success staves off death at the cost of one CON point might work in a solo (or in a social game for that matter).