Simple, Deadly Poisons

Mr. Yuk says POISON BAD!
Mr. Yuk

In appendix 1 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, a number of poisons are listed. Each poison has a bunch of attributes under their fancy schmancy names. The type indicates how the poison gets inside the body. The onset is how long it takes for the poison to begin its work, while the frequency is how often the poison’s effects will repeat, and for how long. The fortitude save varies by poison, and may be attempted each time the poison’s effects repeat. Normally a single save at any point will cause the poison’s effects to end, but sometimes multiple saves may be required (noted under “cure.”) To be fair, most of these poisons can be deadly, but they don’t really suit my needs when I’m designing a trap.

Poisons highlight a problem I have with Pathfinder: the numerous opportunities to save. It’s an excessive amount of rolling which seems designed to give players a better chance to resist whatever effect is directed at them. But I don’t see why. I prefer a game where an effect either happens, or it does not. A save is either passed, or failed. Allowing 6 saves for a given dose of poison just means that poison won’t be a very large threat to players, because they’ll almost always save within their first few rolls. And the one time that the odds are against them and they roll poorly numerous times in a row, dying because of it, they’re going to feel cheated because their fate was left up to random chance. Survivability from poisons should come in the form of the player’s ability to avoid becoming poisoned in the first place through intelligent play. It should not come in the form of an increased number of die rolls. Many effects, such as enchantments and diseases, suffer from this same problem.

For my own use, I’ve devised a simpler system for poisons which are much deadlier, and simpler to remember. Instead of being enumerated individually, poisons are created by the GM according to these basic guidelines. I don’t find that it’s important to identify the method of contraction, because that’s implied by the delivery method. If the poison is in cloud form, then its inhaled. If it is delivered by a needle, then it needs to be in the bloodstream to work. If it’s in food, it’s an ingested poison.

Most poisons belong to one of six types. These correspond to the six ability scores.

Strength poison weakens the muscles of the victim, and can eventually stop the heart. Constitution poison causes nausea, and makes it difficult to breathe, eventually leaving the victim too weak to swallow food, leading to death. Dexterity poison afflicts the victim’s control over their limbs, and can eventually leave the victim paralyzed. Intelligence poison causes the victim to lose focus, and can eventually leave them in a vegetative state. Wisdom poison tampers with the victim’s connection to reality, and can eventually drive them mad. Charisma poison is rare, and expensive. It saps the victim of their cheer, and personality, leaving them ill-tempered and prone to lashing out at their companions. Eventually Charisma poison can drive a person into such misery that they will wish to kill themselves.

Each of these poisons is available in five levels of potency.

Very Weak poison is old, and may have largely dried up. The save to resist it is 12, and it deals 2d4 damage to the indicated attribute.
Weak poison may be watered down, or perhaps not enough was applied. The save to resist is 15, and it deals 2d6 damage to the indicated attribute.
Normal poison has a save to resist of 17, and deals 3d6 damage to the indicated attribute.
Strong poison may be fresh, or taken from a particularly potent source. It has a save to resist of 20, and deals 4d6 damage to the indicated attribute.
Very Strong poison may have been refined by a master alchemist. It has a save to resist of 24, and deals 3d10 damage to the indicated attribute.

The five levels of potency scale nicely with the levels of character power in a given attribute. Weaker poisons are deadly if the character has a very low score for that attribute, while the stronger poisons are deadly for characters who have high scores in the given attribute.

Screenshot of Ability Score Damage by Poison Strength. Graph created using AnyDicea

Graph made with AnyDice

If the save is failed, then the poison will run its course unless an antidote is applied. The first die of the poison’s damage is rolled immediately when the poison is contracted. Every 15 minutes after, another die of the poison’s damage is rolled, until the damage has been dealt in its entirety. If the character takes strenuous action which gets the blood pumping (such as running to get the cure) then the poison may act more quickly (a die rolled every 10 minutes) while a character at rest may be able to hold out longer (a die rolled every 20 minutes)

If the poison reduces the character’s attribute below 0, then the damage is permanent, and the character suffers the fate indicated by the attribute the poison afflicted: death for Strength, inability to eat for Constitution, paralysis for Dexterity, vegetative state for Intelligence, insanity for Wisdom, and suicide for Charisma. If the poison ends its run (either naturally, or because the antidote was applied) before the character’s ability score reaches 0, then the score will regenerate at the standard rate of 1 point per day of rest, until it returns to its previous state.

Non standard poisons may exist, such as poisons unique to a specific creature. But when stocking a dungeon with traps, these six simple poisons in 5 different potencies are varied enough to be interesting, and deadly enough to make players think twice before they open a door with their bare hands.

The only flaw I see in the system is that since the poisons do not have names, players can’t seek antidotes for them. But that’s simple enough: give them names, and have shops sell antidotes for them. Or, better yet, come up with specific plants which can serve as antidotes for them, so players can learn those plants and search for them if they’re poisoned and don’t have any antidote on hand.

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10 thoughts on “Simple, Deadly Poisons”

  1. I like this a lot.

    I might change charisma from suicide to deformity, as charisma should be about how others perceive you more than how you perceive yourself (I would consider suicide to be more related to insanity and wisdom). Have you seen Skyfall? The villain has something I would consider to have been permanent charisma damage.

    I also think the ten minute turn would be a better basic measure of progression, as that is the unit everything else in dungeon exploration relates to (in trad D&D, at least). Any finer granularity than that, I am unable to track personally.

    1. Glad you like it!

      A die roll every 20 minutes for standard activity, 30 minutes when the character is at rest, and 10 minutes if the character is involved in heavy activity? That could work easily, yeah.

      Pathfinder took Charisma in a different direction than previous versions of the game. The simplest way to say it is that Charisma is a measure of a character’s soul. Which is why a number of classes (paladin, sorcerer) now use Charisma as their primary spellcasting stat. So I think an internal affliction makes the most sense for Pathfinder. But in an oldschool game where charisma’s role is a more traditional one, an external damage would probably make more sense.

      Was going to see Skyfall yesterday. Had to cancel, but hoping to make time for it next weekend.

  2. I have never seen a player in AD&D afraid of poison, it’s always assumed to be just a minor inconvenience that means a bigger payday in XP; this would completely change that. One of my players is playing an Imp (with some minor reworking to make it not overpowered as a pc, as the reworked version is already LA-2) and she was very excited about being a poison tail-using assassin, and she thinks she’s much more badass than she really is (not that I’d tell her that). Using your brilliant idea maybe I could talk to her about implementing it as a scaling system. At low levels she would have a very weak poison, and at various stages (every 4 levels perhaps?) she would level it up to the next stage till she is able to ruin someone with her poison around level 20.

    1. That has always been my experience as well, that poison is not dangerous.

      I’ve come to be of the opinion that players should be terrified of traps.

      1. After my last session as a player I am definitely terrified of them. The first character I ever created was killed after triggering a trip wire that released a spiked wall a few days ago, and it was not at all an enjoyable experience.

          1. Weirdly enough, my DM discourages 10ft pole usage: “And just where are you keeping that on your person?”

  3. I really do like how deadly poisons seem this way, and I’m going to implement it because of last week’s game. In a group with three potential trapfinders, not a single one bothered to check for traps. Well, the next scything blade coated in ankheg bile is gonna be a doozy!

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