The Scorpion and the Adventurer: Envenomed Blades for Fun and Profit

Moving down to the edge of the leaves, he reached the spear up and carefully thrust the blade through one of the Apples of Derketa, drawing aside to avoid the darkly purple drops that dripped from the pierced fruit. Presently he withdrew the blade and showed her the blue steel stained a dull purplish crimson.

“I don’t know whether it will do the job or not,” quoth he. “There’s enough poison there to kill an elephant, but—well, we’ll see.”

—Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails”

In old-school D&D, poison is nasty stuff! There’s none of this “1d6 temporary Strength damage” business you see in later editions. No, back in the day poison was second only to level drain in how thoroughly players feared it. Fail your save and bam! Dead. This made giant spiders and poison needle traps into scary threats for low-level parties that lacked access to helpful magics like neutralize poison and raise dead.

Naturally, this only serves to encourage PCs to acquire poison and use it for themselves. But there’s no rules for using poison in Red Box! So how do we handle characters that carve open every cobra and giant brown recluse for their sweet, sweet venom glands?

The OD&D core says nothing about poison use by PCs. In the Blackmoor supplement, however, we first encounter the assassin class, who “may freely use poisoned weapons, but there is a 50% chance each turn such a weapon is displayed that any person in viewing range of it (10’ or less) will recognise the poisoned item and react with ferocity, Le. attack with a +4 chance of hitting and a +4 points of damage when hitting occurs.” (p. 3)

The Mentzer Companion rulebook (p. D22) deals with the problem by making extracted poisons lose their potency after 1-10 rounds of exposure to air, while an intact poison sac only lasts for 1-10 rounds times the Hit Dice of the monster. It also suggests legal sanctions against poisoners.

The AD&D 1e Player’s Handbook likewise indicates that poisoners will have trouble with the law. This goes double for characters not of the assassin class, as the Assassin’s Guild will view them as rivals to be exterminated! Moreover, onlookers have a 10% cumulative chance per melee round of spotting venom-crusted blades—unlike Blackmoor, no range is listed—which leads to their calling for the watch and/or attacking the poison-user. (p. 29) In addition, it’s suggested that the DM check to see whether characters using envenomed weapons accidentally nick themselves (p. 107).

The AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide adds a list of poisons that can be purchased and used by PCs (p. 20). These tend to be weaker than monster poisons; their victims receive bonuses to the save vs. poison, and most purchased poisons inflict a set amount of damage—only the most expensive versions automatically kill the target on a failed save.

“Black Dougal gasps ‘Poison!’ and falls to the floor. He looks dead.”

Gygax’s thoughts on the matter are summed up in the 1e PHB:
• “[Poisoned weapons] make it too easy for interesting play. Imagine: party sees red dragon, party discharges a volley of poisoned missiles, monster dies, and party seizes dragon hoard.”
• “Keep in mind the principal reason for restriction of the use of poison — the game must offer challenge.”

I feel the same. Poison, like the old adventurer’s stand-by of flaming oil, is uninteresting if it’s a cure-all solution to every problem.

Moreover, old-school D&D is as much an emulation of sword and sorcery tropes as it is a simulation of such a world, and while Conan and his ilk occasionally envenom blades and arrows, they don’t make a common practise of it. If a rule pulls the game away from one’s intended play style, the problem lies in the rule, and it’s the rule that should give way.

12 Responses to “The Scorpion and the Adventurer: Envenomed Blades for Fun and Profit”

  1. 1 Naked
    August 10, 2010 at 2:42 am

    Scorpion PC?

  2. August 10, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Personally, I don’t think non-sentient creatures are PC material. Your mileage may vary.

  3. 3 Naked.
    August 10, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Smart Scorpion PC?

    For a real response… instadeath poison is one thing that disturbs me about OD&D but it feels such a constituent part of the game it is hard to know how to change it (or why). By way of contrast, disease is not very important because it has long-lasting effects and effects things that do not really happen within the rules part of the game universe. Long-lasting effects are almost anathema to a game that seems to lack a scope for events that take place outside the character sheet.

    Instead the game works this way: 1) have you survived the encounter? 2) good, then mark down the changes and move on. History is the character sheet (with xp applied at the end of the session); anything other than instantly fatal poison does not work.

  4. August 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Instead the game works this way: 1) have you survived the encounter? 2) good, then mark down the changes and move on. History is the character sheet (with xp applied at the end of the session); anything other than instantly fatal poison does not work.

    I think you’re putting forth an ideal that has never been borne out in play, and indeed is unlikely to have been intended. D&D is full of both short-term (ghoul paralysis, sleep, duration of light sources) and long-term (charm person, giant centipede venom, hunger, thirst) effects that aren’t necessarily going to be recorded on your character sheet.

    Long-lasting effects are almost anathema to a game that seems to lack a scope for events that take place outside the character sheet.

    The idea that only what’s on your character sheet matters seems anathema to old-school D&D. From all reports, early play revolved around getting away from the rules and the sheet by interacting with the environment in imaginative and creative ways. A lot of the rules we have are outgrowths of such experimentation.

  5. 5 Naked.
    August 10, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I am not making my point but probably don’t have much of one to make. The effects you mention – paralysis, sleep, etc. – are short term in-game events. It is unusual if they do not expire within the same session of play. (Charm certainly is an exception; as naraoia is subtly and intentionally pointing out with his play, it is overpowered.) There is little room within the game’s rules to record long term changes in appearance, the use of a limb, intestinal damage, acid, or the effects of age.

    This is a feature of the game, as you say, left up to the home and table to make up as they go along. It certainly makes it limber and ready to wear, so to speak. My point is this game structure requires fatal poisons to be the norm at least as enshrined in its basic rule-set.

    My interest gravitates instead to the tarantella spider, the giant centipede (as you mention), and the shadow.

  6. 6 Charlatan
    August 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I think there’s an ecological aspect to poison that would prevent significant challenges from being nullified by it: For example, that giant spider you so fear is neither predator nor prey to a dragon; it is an insignificant groundling! What treacherous beast would carry in it a toxin so vile as to affect a dragon, and how could it be a lesser opponent?

    Then, of course, there’s a practical aspect to any poison’s application: Is it a contact poison? How are you handling it, and what dangers are you undertaking? Is it delivered via incision into the bloodstream? Think carefully on the invisible cuts you discover on your hands, or under your nails, when you slice a jalapeno or squeeze too many limes. This all without even considering the preservation of your toxin, without refrigeration or truly airtight containers…

    What, then, does all this mean for a dungeon trap? I think this suggests far more fearful things for those poisoned deaths: Chemical, perhaps, but not organic; like an accelerated, lethal mercury poisoning. Rather than keel over dead immediately: the poor soul writhes in agony, their senses of touch and sight degraded, a sensation of fire and burning, their skin going pallid and rubbing away in patches, their tortured cries surely attracting the attention of nearby creatures as they inexorably die on the floor of that cursed pit of a dungeon.

    Gruesome? Well, yes: It’s poison, you know.

  7. August 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I think there is much to recommend inflicting slow, painful, screaming death upon the PCs! I must keep this in mind for future encounters. There’s nothing like drawing in wandering monster after wandering monster because you haven’t yet administered the coup de grace to your wailing, dying compatriot…

  8. 8 Charlatan
    August 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    To be fair, I’m not recommending new deaths: I’m just elaborating on the what deadly poisons might mean. Besides, I’m a PC! I deserve something more than just winking out of existence. If my comrades cannot put me out of my misery, they could always grimly resolve that there’s nothing to be done, and simply leave me, wailing, to my fate. I won’t scream long- I failed my saving throw.

    In some ways, the misery is a reflection of the mundane trying to emulate the divine: When Man strikes you down, there is no beneficent bolt from the blue. Maybe there truly are instant-death traps, but these are surely magical in nature…

  9. August 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Interestingly, the last time I decided that a PC who’d failed his save vs. poison would take a while to die, the players concluded that he wasn’t actually going to die and that they could take him back to town to recuperate. When I said that he eventually did, in fact, die… well, they were very confused.

  10. 10 Naked.
    August 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I would totally chop Charlatan’s head off if he wouldn’t stop screaming. You know. For his peace.

    But he brings up a good point (before his horrible, hollering death). A good reason to take poison out of players’ hands is that what can kill a PC may not kill the huge beasties he or she might be facing. There is no reason to think a spider’s venom would do much more than relax the toes of a red dragon.

  11. 11 Charlatan
    August 11, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    “My toes! What have you treacherous insects done to them!” *flamebreath* *tpk*

  12. August 11, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    That’s not so much a reason to take poison out of players’ hands as it is a reason for the DM to exercise his or her authority to make rulings on the fly. Such a judgment call on the DM’s part is perfectly legitimate.

    Also, it goes both ways. A giant centipede bite that would merely incapacitate a human would likely kill a gnome or pixie!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2010

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