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.