Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Poison (Final Thoughts)

Had a chance to review both the Little Brown Books and Holmes regarding their take on poison.

Holmes doesn’t include neutralize poison in his spell list…no surprise, really when you consider no one makes it past 3rd level. Meanwhile all monsters with poison attacks seem to be of the instant variety…snakes or spiders or medusa, if you blow a poison save in Holmes you’re dead. This certainly fits with the high mortality rate of this particular edition.

[I’m going to say a word or two about Holmes elsewhere…it deserves its own post]

The LBBs poison is all of the “instant variety” as well. However, the LBB DOES have neutralize poison in the clerical spell list. However, similar to AD&D neutralize poison will NOT save you if you’re already poisoned (i.e. DEAD)…as with AD&D there is no ten round “grace period” of writhing in one’s death throes during which time an antidote might be administered.

However, there’s no “Slow Poison” either…which means that poison is much more deadly in OD&D than even AD&D.

When viewed through this lens, I can't help but hypothesize that Slow Poison was a “fix” instituted for AD&D. This appears to be the case if we review the chronology:

#1 OD&D: Poison kills instantly. Neutralize poison can only detoxify objects, not “cure” poisoned individuals.

[interestingly, OD&D’s neutralize poison is the only version with a duration: 1 turn. This means that after ten minutes the item becomes toxic again? So even if you “de-poisoned” a corpse and raised it from the dead, it would need to make an additional save ten minutes later? Poison isn’t just deadly, it’s continuous and permanent with no means of curing AT ALL!]

#2 Holmes D&D: Poison kills instantly. No neutralize poison because clerics only go to 3rd level.

#3 AD&D:
Poison kills instantly. Neutralize poison only detoxifies. Slow poison (a lesser spell) keeps individuals from dying until that poison can be neutralized.

#4 B/X: Poison kills ten rounds after taking effect; i.e. a person blows their save and poison “goes off” instantly (giant snakes, purple worms) or after a delayed period (medusa bite, giant spider). “Going off” means the 10 round timer starts running. Neutralize poison cast within that 10 round span saves the victim, otherwise they’re dead. There is no “slow poison.”

#5 BECMI: Continues B/X.

#6 AD&D 2E: ???

#7 DND3+: Poison is nerfed of its “instant kill” effects.

Now, since I started playing D&D with B/X where “neutralize poison” actually cured individuals, I just carried that “cure” assumption over to my AD&D playing (I was 11 years old…give me a break!). In fact, the ONLY time I can recall using Slow Poison at all was when running the 1980 tournament module C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, in which Slow Poison figures prominently to the plot (interestingly, a plot that might seem to break with the use of NP…or not. I don’t remember…I know that more tournament points were awarded for casting Slow Poison).

Okay, I think I’ve written all I can on this particular subject. I know some people consider “instant death” effects to be a bit “un-fair.” The way I look at it? Getting chomped by a T-Rex or swatted by a fire giant and ending up with 0 hit points makes you just as dead. D&D is a game about people risking their lives (and often finding death) in pursuit of “fantastic treasure.” Dead is dead is dead…and D&D at least gives you some creative options for escaping death, INCLUDING spells like raise dead and neutralize poison. This is why I never sweated offing my players (we always found a way to “bring back” the ones we liked)…”killer DM” though I may have been, I was a always a softie when it came to cheap resurrection.

After all, I see death in the game as a penalty (for both bad luck and poor play) but it shouldn’t be a penalty that stops game-play completely, right? ‘Cause if play stops, well…so does the fun!

So anyway I always liked poison…and truth be told it rarely killed anyone in my games. Hell, people get saving throws after all, right?

[case in point: when I was playing the cleric in our B/X on-line game last year, I went toe-to-toe with a giant spider while the other party members…um, were they cowering? No…I think I was just off exploring a cistern by myself or something. Anyway, the creature only hit me once or twice before I was able to squash it…and I made all my saves. Sure I was sweating the prospect of death a little bit…but at 2nd level you’re nearly as likely to be “instantly killed” by a good damage roll from an orc or ogre. Poison? Eh – no big deal]

Still, of all the versions of poison across editions, I do prefer the B/X. It makes more sense, it’s simpler, it’s fun…and there’s no confusion between slowing and neutralizing poison.

‘Course, when you think of poor Black Dougal writhing on the floor, foam coming from his mouth as his nervous system shuts down…perhaps still able to watch Fredrik the dwarf clean out his pack as his eyes glaze over…you can’t help but think his buddies were even bigger shmucks than you ever imagined. Couldn’t Sister Rebecca at least cover the poor guy with a blanket to ease his last few moments of suffering? Sheesh!

; )


  1. Instant kill poison is theoretically possible in 3.x, but from my experience it is rare. Poison, as you know, does ability damage. The only ability damage that can kill a character is Con damage, so a poison that could do enough to knock someone's Con to zero in one shot would be instant kill. However, from my memories of 3.x, most poison seems to target Strength or Dex.

    You guys are starting to make me rethink my stance on poison. I suppose there are few poisons in nature that instantly kill you, and I'm usually of the humor to give players one chance to save themselves from instant death in other situations.

  2. Why don't you actually look at the monsters that have poison as part of their attack?

    Cobra -- Save or die in 1-10 turns
    Pit Viper -- Save or die (apparently instantly)
    Sea Snake --Save or die 3-6 turns, 25% Neutralize Poison doesn't work
    Rattlesnake -- Save or die 1-6 turns

    B43 Spider,Giant

    Crab Spider-Save or die 1-4 turns
    Black Widow - Save or die 1 turn
    Tarentella- Save or Dance for 2-12 turns

    So most poisons take time to act, some don't.

    BTW Labyrinth Lord AEC has fully laid out rules for Poison. So, better!

  3. In AD&D 2nd edition, poison became a multifaceted thing, with poison types A-P. Each poison had its own onset time, ranging from minutes to hours, and its own range of damage done. The least potent poisons did 5 points of damage if you failed your save and nothing if you made it, the most powerful killed you if you failed your save and did 25 points of damage if you made it. There were also special paralytic and debilitative poisons.

    Slow poison extended the onset time; neutralize poison would prevent it from doing any harm if cast during the onset time. No mention made as to whether you would know you were poisoned before the onset time elapsed, nor whether you should roll your save immediately on exposure or when it started to take effect.

  4. @ Grat: I DID look at the monsters in B/X...see my earlier posts on the subject. I know I said purple worms and giant snakes had instant poison...the Pit Viper (with the instant die) is just the most prominent one on page B42 (not to mention I recently used it in, like, 4 encounters in my N1 conversion). I read the individual giant spiders (and medusa) taking longer than "instant;" the point of the post is that this is a NEW thing (compared to the older OD&D and AD&D), as is the wording of Neutralize Poison.

    Labyrinth Lord, being a retro of B/X, or course mimics all this (as well as the Neutralize Poison spell). There are no new or additional rules for poison in my copy of LL.

    @ Glaurung: is this letter scheme the same as the poison lists from the 1st edition DMG?

    I'll have to check out a used copy of the 2E PHB for the spell descriptions and compare.

    @ Ryan: : )

  5. Cool posts about poison! I really like the B/X way of handling poison. I was never really happy about it in 3rd ed and all this time it was handled the right way in B/X. Go figure...

  6. Hello from 2019 ;-)

    The letter coded poisons in the 1e DMG are different from the letter coded poisons in the 2e DMG - different damage, different onset time, different application (ingestive/insinuitive vs injected/ingested/contact). (Also, 1e has Ingestive A–E, and Insinuitive A-D, while 2e has just the one range of A–P).

    The 1e are poisons used by assassins (with prices), while the 2e poisons are the usual hazards encountered while dungeoneering.

    Further, above that 1e DMG table is this: "The poison of monsters, regardless of its pluses or minuses to the victim's saving throw, is an all-or-nothing affair. That is, either they do no damage, or they kill the victim within a minute or so".

    So, a casting of slow poison/neutralize poison might be possible. Maybe.

    Wait, no .. casting of Slow Poison can be done even after the victim has keeled over, "causing a supposedly dead individual to have life restored if it is cast upon the victim within a number of turns less than or equal to the level of experience of the cleric after the poisoning was suffered". That gives the group at least 5 hours to transport the doomed PC to possible safety.

    However, in 2e, Slow Poison must be "cast upon the victim before the poison takes full effect. (This period, known as the onset time, is known to the DM.)"

    Bonus factoid: in 1e, the spell Feign Death says this: "Any poison within the system of the spell recipient is effectively slowed so as to cause no harm whatsoever for the duration of the spell." It's 2nd level for Druids, 3rd level for Clerics. And much shorter duration than Slow Poison.

    In 2e, it's a 3rd level spell for Clerics/Druids/Wizards, while Slow Poison is still 2nd level. And mostly sucky duration to boot.

  7. This is a bit of a tangent but I always kind of liked the ability damage in 3.X and have thought about backporting it to BE D&D many times. It's good for taking PCs out of the fight without killing them, or, failing that, at least bringing their efficiency down a notch. Plus (anecdote warning!) I can never forget the time my usually AWESOME dwarf fighter with practically endless hit point, huge AC and an overpowered artifact axe was brought down literally on the first round of a battle by charisma damage of all goddamn things. (He had a grand total of 4 charisma so it wasn't too difficult.) In retrospect, my DM should've used that trick more often.

    Having written all that, it does seem kind of silly to tie all that to poison. Constitution damage I get, but why the hell does, e.g., a centipede's poison make someone clumsier (by inflicting dex damage)?

    1. Ability damage from failed poison saves *was* a "thing" back in the days of AD&D (see troglodytes as one example), but I'm not convinced it's the best design choice. Better to have the PENALTY one wants (for example, a -1 or -2 to attack rolls or AC) to represent a character's weakness, dizziness, nausea, whatever.

      Actual damage to ability scores in old edition games is too "swingy." A B/X character reduced from 12 to 9 (-3) faces no detriment at all, whereas one reduced from 18 to 15...or 6 to 3 ends up with a HUGE decrease in effectiveness. And in AD&D characters the swingy-ness actually has the potential to be worse.

      Again, this is an old post...twelve years and my thoughts on poison have changed somewhat. My two major considerations are:

      #1 game play-ability, and
      #2 modeling specific "world" effects

      ...in that order.

      In reality, few things poison a person such as to drop dead instantly a la a James Bond film or a Robert Howard story. Sickness, pain, seizures, weakness, blindness, diminished equilibrium...lots of suffering prior to actual expiration possible (if expiration happens at all).

      Saving throws are binary switches (yes/no) to facilitate fast-paced game play. Ability damage is a method of modeling more of the variation that occurs in real world toxins/venoms...at the expense of playability. But (in 3E at least) it functions better (not "well") because of the linear nature of ability score adjustments.

      For me (these days) I'm fine with the binary switch because I realize Gygax was trying to model a certain heroic pulp fiction in his game. There are plenty of ways to make poison less penalizing...and more interesting...by adjusting the specific effects, rather than simply hinging everything on a character's ability scores.

      I prefer to de-emphasize ability scores these days.

    2. @JB: thank you, that was a very thoughtful and also educational reply. I'm going to have to think about it, especially the parts regarding having the desired effect, the swinginess of ability scores, and keeping the game playable. Now... how *would* one model pain and seizures in D&D..?

      Oh, and have a happy 2023! It should soon get there, too.

    3. Thanks Tipi…back at you!
      : )