In the long history of Dragon Magazine, there have been hundreds of issues, which in turn contained dozens of articles, and plenty of useful advice, creatures, and ideas for playing various roleplaying games – mostly Dungeons and Dragons. Some are great, while others are only so-so. Issue # 81, published in January 1984, is one of the fantastic publications.
The issue had no special theme, unlike some issues. Its special focus was The Ruins of Andril, a high-level one-shot adventure. But it also featured several other long articles, including resources for running chariots, an NPC (Cu Chulainn!) that uses them, ideas for material components and where to get them, and plenty of book reviews and releases. But the true highlight of the publication was the first article in the magazine - Taking the Sting Out of Poison: Another View On How to Use Toxic Cocktails, by Chris Landsea.
You can read the entirety of the article here: Dragon Magazine Issue #81
The Ideas and Content of Taking the Sting Out of Poison
While the title of this article claims that it will take the sting out of poison, for modern players it might just have the opposite effect. It begins by discussing several earlier articles from Dragon Magazine, which also took it upon themselves to expand the relatively unexplored use of poison and toxin in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook. Those articles, it explains, either make poison too expensive and too difficult for players to use while not being realistic, or maintain realistic onset times but don’t consider exactly how the characters are going to get their hands on the stuff.
In place of these systems, Landsea offers a system that will “…include a detailed but easy to use explanation of the five different groups of poison, instructions for obtaining and using monster venom, a method of throwing ingestive poison, a comprehensive plan of antidotes, and a suggested plain for poison usage by the characters…”.
And it fairly well succeeds in this aim! The whopping 10-page article goes through each of those points, elaborating on holy water, ingestive, insinuative, gaseous, and contact poisons, monster venom, antidotes, and even poison potions. Each of these are given tables with types and effects as well, giving any DM a truly massive variety to work with.
Types of Poisons Explained
This article takes the general concept of ‘poison’, ‘holy water’, and ‘toxin’, and spreads them out into a more realistic variety of substances that your players might encounter or make use of on their adventures.
Holy and Unholy Waters
Straight out of real-life religion, holy and unholy waters are those that have been either consecrated or desecrated for religious purposes. These are usually harmful to creatures of great good or great evil, respectively.
When you think of poisons, you probably think of a bottle with a skull on it. This is that poison – delivered in the form of a liquid or a powder, and dangerous only when it is swallowed. These poisons are common, and inexpensive, but often require some time to take effect. After all, they have to be digested first!
While ingestive poisons are dangerous when devoured, insinuative poisons are dangerous when they enter the bloodstream. This means that users most commonly apply them to weapons before a battle, which gives them a boost to damage. These take effect immediately, but make accidentally nicking yourself on your blade infinitely more dangerous.
Poison gases start off as poison liquids, which are evaporated to create clouds of gas that deal damage when breathed in. Usually these are wielded by carrying the initial liquid in a small vial, and throwing it to break open the container, causing it to become gaseous in the air. But a good quality container for these poisons shouldn’t break easily, lest it break accidentally in your bag. Getting it to actually work in combat might then take some planning.
Contact poisons are those which don’t have to enter the body to cause problems. These are used by application to an item (like a doorknob or gold coins) that is likely to be touched by bare skin, usually on traps or for the purposes of assassination. Of course, there’s always a pretty big risk that your target won’t touch exactly where you need them to, or that someone else will touch the item first.
Monster venom is not usually bought and sold in a standard market, but can be harvested from monsters with venomous bites and attacks, like wyverns, toads, scorpions, or snakes. If you want to harvest this venom, you’ll have to be careful – massively powerful spells and strikes are pretty likely to damage the venom sac, and lose you the valuable resource.
This article doesn’t go too far into poison potions. In a general sense, this can mean any liquid poison that is sold in a flask. In a more specific sense, it can be a magical potion that causes damage to the ingester – possibly needing magical healing instead of standard care.
If your character has met the business end of any of the above items, they’ll need something to counteract the damage (if they even notice that they’ve been poisoned at all). What does this is an antidote. Usually, antidotes are applicable only to one specific type of poison, made out of a specific type of ingredients, which counteract the dangerous substance. These can be pricey, but are best kept on hand in case of accidents.
Is the Article Still Relevant?
This is absolutely still relevant to modern D&D players.
Like previous editions of the game, 5e has a fairly loose set of rules for poison, toxin, and antidotes. There are no real specifics given as to the types of poison, how much they vary, and how to counter them. So, if you want to use something a little more intimidating or complex than just ‘a bottle of unspecified poison’ in your game, this article is a great place to start looking for inspiration.
How to Use this Content in a Current Campaign
The high number of tables and lists in this article make it supremely usable for a current campaign, as well as one using the AD&D rules that it was written for. Of course, you can’t use the exact rules for detection, which uses a percentile to indicate how likely it is for a character to notice the poison. But the rest of the rules, such as the cost of the poisons, the amount of damage they deal, and how difficult they are to resist the effects of, are all still usable.
Of course, this might be overpowered if used in addition to the poisoned condition rules that are the standard for D&D 5e. But I think it’s a great idea to use the condition status for standard poison, which might be relatively common for use among adventurers (not intended to kill, just weaken, in nonlethal circumstances), while these lists of poisons might come into play at the hands of serious threats. Or you can double them up, and force your players to start thinking before they trigger traps, eat at banquets, or try and make friends with a giant snake.
Have you ever used additional rules for poison or venom in your Dungeons and Dragons games? What rules did you use? Are you going to look up these options, and maybe apply some of them in your next game? Let us know in the comments below!