Thursday, 20 May 2010

All poison should be lethal

The more I play D&D - and I play every week almost without fail - the more I experiment with bits and pieces of it. My combats are quite well known amongst my players for featuring bizarre creatures from all editions of D&D despite the ruleset I'm using being a mishmash of Labyrinth Lord and AD&D (essentially, I use Labyrinth Lord as the base and expand with 2nd and 3rd edition spells). I even throw in a few I have made up myself.

What happens is that various pictures of creatures emerge from different editions. In general, these are in line with what you might expect. Most creatures from basic D&D have far fewer hitpoints and limited damage ranges compared to creatures from 4th edition, which make for good boss creatures and leaders. However, despite the apparent deadliness of the monsters on paper, a lot of enemies I field at the players from later editions seem to have had the lethality drained out of them. By this, I am of course referring to poison.

When poison is save or die, there is real drama at the table. A character may have 50 hitpoints (quite a lot for Labyrinth Lord) and yet, here is a single damage point and the potential for instant death. And it all hangs on a die roll... That creates major panic. Its nullified somewhat by the party cleric keeping neutralise poison memorised and having a raise dead and a resurrect scroll... but everybody seems to understand that these resources are finite and the danger is there. It just doesn't have the same effect when the poison simply is inflicting hitpoint damage per round, and nor does it when I play a game like the Bard's Tale.

So, I may upgrade every single poision wielding enemy to the save or die type. My group has generally very nice poison saving throws on their characters, do have some antivenoms on them and there is the cleric too. I normally give an hour, when someone is infected by lethal poison and collapses into unconsciousness, before they will finally die of it. In that hour, panic rises...


Sniderman said...

I read an interesting article in Dragon years ago about the various lethalities of poison. Some points I recall:

1. Not all poisons are made alike. An alchemist with a bunch of chemicals will whip up something more lethal than, say, the goblin who smears cobra venom or poisonous mushrooms on his blade. So the lethality of the poison should reflect who came up with it. Historically, some cultures smeared dung (ick) on their weapons knowing that a non-killing blow may instead become infected and eventually kill the poo-poisoned folks.

2. If a goblin applies Instakill poison on his blade, what's to keep him from accidentally offing himself if he nicks his thumb while sharpening it, applying the poison, or simply putting it away? Deadly mega-poisons can be just as dangerous for the weilder as it is for the victim. So weaker poisons may be used to keep the weilder from killing himself instantly.

3. There are very few naturally occurring poisons that are save-vs-poison-or-die lethality. So if you're up against a monster with fangs or an evil druid or a sub-human humanoid, odds are good that any poison encountered will only be the make-you-damn-sick variety.

The Recursion King said...

All good points.

I tend not use blade venom on enemies (although I have no problem with the players using it against said enemies), so almost everything I talk about applies to natural enemy types.

The problem with doing a direct comparison with nature and saying that not many poisons in nature kill, and therefore ones in fantasy games shouldn't either, is that you're ignoring a critical aspect that so big its staring you right in the face: almost everything in fantasy is a giant version.

If a tarantula could make you seriously ill in real life with a simple tiny bite, how bad do you think the venom in a gigantic version like Shelob might actually be? Considering it might prey on elephants, or something equally large, it could be staggeringly powerful. So the creatures we're talking about are often gigantic and size and would likely have a poison effect far deadlier than any normal version from our own world.

Of course, all this is up to you and the rules of the world you adventure in. Perhaps you do not have giant giant frogs that can swallow halflings whole or spiders that devour sheep.