Crime Scene Sunday: Poisoning

mryukOne regular feature of this Web log is Crime Scene Sunday, in which the author examines some form of criminal activity, considers how a villain may use that particular crime in a Dungeons & Dragons game, and provides one or more examples of that particular misdeed in a D&D campaign setting. As the name implies, one such entry is posted each Sunday.

This week’s crime is poisoning. The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary defines poison (the verb) as, “(1) to injure or kill with poison, or (b) to treat, taint, or impregnate with or as if with poison.”

Sadly, and in a marked departure from prior editions, the fourth edition (4e) Dungeon Master’s Guide addresses the topic of poison by only considering its use in circumstances of combat or dungeon exploration, i.e., when a creature possesses a venomous attack, when combat is applied to a weapon, or when a poison is used in a trap. Veterans of the earliest editions of the game will recollect several other applications for these toxins, and the dreaded words, “Save versus poison or die.”  Players familiar only with the current edition of the game will be woefully unprepared for the villainous applications about to be discussed.

This posting will focus on these “officially forgotten” uses, by examining the dangerous villains who, by virtue of their own abilities or those of subordinates, infiltrate opposing organizations and poison foes who could otherwise never be overcome. By its very nature, this type of poisoning is a covert, appropriatelyvillainous activity; history is filled with examples of leaders being poisoned, and many rulers actually had servants taste their food before they themselves ate, to ensure their meals weren’t poisoned.

Arguably, the edition best-suited to handling poison in this way is the second edition (2e) of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragonsgame, which was supported by TSR Hobbies from the late 1980s through the 1990s. Its Dungeon Master’s Guide set forth 16 different classifications of poison, with various strengths, methods of administration, onset times and effects.

The methods of delivering poison in the 2e game included injection (the 4e game basically describes this use only), ingestion and contact. Like other editions, 2e poisons were ascribed onset times, and most had damage figures for passing or failing a saving throw against their effects. A handful of these toxins induced paralysis, debilitation and death instead of damage.

Although most villains would use injected poisons in combat situations if possible, our attention will be directed toward the ingested and contact applications: the skulking, sneaky type of poisoning that can drive an adventure’s plot and stymie heroes that seek to solve problems only by swinging at them with weapons.

Ingested poisons usually imply tainted food or drink, although inhaled poisonous vapors technically belong in this group as well. Classic first edition modules, including Against the Cult of the Reptile God and Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, used this sort of poison to incapacitate the entire adventuring party, who later awaken as prisoners, stripped of possessions.  While there’s nothing particularly heroic about being poisoned by a faceless villain, players usually forgive the use of poison in favor of enjoying the new challenge of escaping their environment, recovering their equipment, and finding / punishing the poisoner.

Another method of using ingested poisons in the game involves poison gases, used to give non-breathing monsters an advantage in combat. These gases would be considered traps or hazards in the 4e game, but not in the “the trap avoids the bad guys/the bad guys know how to avoid the trap” way that seems to be the 4e default.

Instead, such a use is the result of a knowing villain employing troops unaffected by the gases, such as constructs or undead. Skeletons can fight through immobilizing gases with ease, but the gases can certainly present problems for the heroes.

Contact poisons, while their efficiency decreases with time after application, are a favored method of protecting valuables and sensitive areas. These poisons are absorbed through the skin, and touching an item coated with the stuff will trigger an instant attack against the fortitude defense of the ill-fated explorer doing so. Most villains use non-lethal poisons for this purpose, just in case they forget that their door handles/treasure chests/magic crystals are poisoned. In such cases, contact poisons that induce deep sleep or paralysis are common. Undead villains, however, are largely immune to poisons and have no qualms about using fatal poisons for this purpose.

An interesting variant on uses of poison involves splitting heroes’ exposure to the toxin into two or more administrations of inert ingredients, which only become toxic when all are combined within the heroes” bodies. Such uses of poison are far more difficult to detect, and should only be available to villains who are or have access to an alchemist or apothecary.

Imagine the heroes’ surprise when their favorite inkeeper serves them their favorite ale, after which their heads swim and they awake as prisoners of the villain. Their feeling betrayed is soon supplanted by anger against the villain, when they learn that the villain’s agent placed inert elements of the toxin in their food and in contact poison on their tankards, and that it was the alcohol in their otherwise harmless ale that triggered a chemical reaction to create the poison in their own bodies.

It is advisable for the dungeon master to use these applications of poison sparingly in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, as a game will quickly slow if the players suspect that every bite of a meal could be poisoned. It is also important to use covert poisoning only as a means to drive an adventure forward; players will accept this villainous act if they must race against time to neutralize a poison or uncover a spy, but they may feel punished by the dungeon master if poisoning from unknown sources becomes a frequent occurrence not related to adventure plots.

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2 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Poisoning

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    I know it’s not addressed in gaming in general, but even today humans accidentally poison ourselves daily. One or two house wives die every day from chlorine gas they themselves accidentally manufacture. Each person reading this will suffer minor food poisoning two or three times this year, though they might not notice. Toddlers are forever getting into thing in the cabinet.

    The reason beer is so popular is that the water in “olden times” and in much of the third world today would poison you if you drank it. Just getting the wrong, yet innocent looking mushroom into your soup could end you. If you’re looking for some realism in a medieval world, add in some good-ol’ environmental toxins. There’s a reason the mere rumor that tomatoes were toxic cause much of the western world to avoid eating them for centuries.

    What I’m getting at is that there are some real results for failing that woodcraft roll. Or that Alchemy roll. Or Cooking…. etc…

    • Alric says:

      You know, Max, that aspect of Medieval history completely escaped me. And it may escape a lot of players, too, so using them might make players think they were intentionally poisoned, when it was really just bad mushrooms. Brilliant.

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