Thursday, March 22, 2012

Venomous Thoughts

While working on translating my Dwimmermount notes into something others can read and understand, I was reminded some weirdness regarding poison in OD&D. In Volume 1 of the LBBs, in the section describing how saving throws work, it's stated that
Scoring the total indicated above (or scoring higher) means the weapon has no effect (death ray, polymorph, paralization, stone, or spell) or one-half effect (poison scoring one-half of the total possible hit damage and dragon breath scoring one-half its full damage).
It's a peculiar section, because it implies that poison deals damage rather than simply being save or die, as longstanding tradition would have it. Likewise, there's the 4th-level clerical spell neutralize poison, whose description in the same volume states that it is
A spell to counter the harmful effects of poison. Note that it will not aid a character killed by poison, however. It will affect only one object. Duration: 1 turn.
That, too, is pretty peculiar, because, once again, it implies that poison deals damage rather than instant death. However, no poisonous creature in the LBBs seem to deal damage with their venom that I can find and even the fact that they deal death is more a matter of interpretation.

In AD&D, a 2nd-level clerical spell is introduced, slow poison. Its description notes that it can restore "even .. a supposedly dead individual" back to life, if they died from poisoning within a number of turns less than or equal to the level of the cleric who cast the spell. That description suggests that "real" death from poison occurs not immediately upon failing a saving throw but some time afterward. AD&D's description of neutralize poison is roughly consonant with its OD&D predecessor, in that it doesn't seem to affect someone who's been killed by poison (though, presumably, it could be used in conjunction with slow poison), but, rather, could be used to make poisonous food edible or even de-venom poisonous creatures. Interestingly, the 1981 Expert Rules seem to combine the effects of AD&D's slow poison with OD&D's neutralize poison.
This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds. It can also be cast on a poison or poisoned item to make it harmless. It acts only on poison present at the time it is cast.
It's a bit of a muddle, if you try to go with just the bare text, unless, as is quite likely, I'm missing some crucial passage somewhere in the LBBs that clarifies it all. That's why, back when I was preparing to start the Dwimmermount campaign, I briefly contemplated having poison deal damage rather than death. The problem I had was trying to figure out just how much damage it ought to deal and whether that damage ought to be in addition to the damage dealt by the attack that delivers it. That is, if a giant spider deals 2-8 points of damage, does that include the poison damage or is it in addition to it? I never came to a satisfactory conclusion and, the more I thought about it, the more questions it raised, so I simply decided to ignore the implications of those passages in the LBBs and go with the "traditional" understanding that all poison is deadly poison.

I'm still not sure that was the "right" decision, but it's a decision that worked -- a few dead henchmen and hirelings to the contrary.

34 comments:

  1. Interesting discussion. I was never a fan of "save or die" poison, except for the most powerful critters. I much prefer a range of damages with saves meaning 1/2 damage or none.

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  2. Perhaps it does X damage per round? For Blood & Treasure, I'm having lethal poison do 1d6 constitution damage per round until neutralized or the victim dies. Makes it deadly to all, regardless of level, but gives a couple rounds to stagger around, clutching the throat before hitting the ground and kicking up the feet.

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  3. My thought was to have it deal one die of damage each round for one round per HD of the creature. I'd use d6 standard for most things, but there's no reason particularly venomous creatures couldn't have their die size (or even duration) bumped up.

    A successful save could mean that you only take half damage each round, full damage but for only half the rounds, or only one die of damage every two rounds, at the referee's discretion.

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  4. The Purple Worm's poisonous tail seems to maybe imply dealing damage since its mouth is the "more fearsome weapon".

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  5. The way I read Moldvay is that poison is not instantaneous but that there is no point in tracking how long it actually takes if there is no antidote. It's interesting, this actually mirrors the AD&D dead at -10 rule in some ways without the explicit bookkeeping.

    I wrote more about that here a few months ago:

    untimately.blogspot.com/2011/12/x13-neutralize-poison.html

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  6. That is interesting to be sure... It wasn't long ago that I stumbled upon (yet again) a passage in the DMG that states although a character might fall "dead" from missing a save against poison, it is rather that they succumb, and fall into a coma / stupor / etc. Death does not occur until much later. Up to 15 minutes... (paraphrase)

    Which I found amazing. I hadn't read that before.

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  7. Hmm, my link got messed up there. I don't see a way to delete the post though. Anyways, here's the correction:

    The way I read Moldvay is that poison is not instantaneous but that there is no point in tracking how long it actually takes if there is no antidote. It's interesting, this actually mirrors the AD&D dead at -10 rule in some ways without the explicit bookkeeping.

    I wrote more about that a few months ago:

    http://untimately.blogspot.com/2011/12/x13-neutralize-poison.html

    Sorry about the duplicate!

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  8. Whenever there was a creature with a poison attack we randomly rolled on the poison chart to see what kind it had...

    We likely didn't get that from the official rules at all, but it seemed fun.

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  9. I prefer the idea of poison dealing damage only because in the real world, plenty of animal poisons can mess you up rather badly, but not kill you. A save-or-die poison that has no other ill effect (I don't consider the wound itself part of that poison damage) seems contrary to that.

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    1. Yeah, that's why I prefer to interpret poison abstractly. The poison probably isn't striking the character down instantaneously, but if there's absolutely nothing that can be done why add any extra detail? And there are game reasons for wanting instant death effects (so that players will treat some monsters as obstacles rather than combat opponents).

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  10. Like dragon breath, dmg = creatures hit points, save for 1/2 unless otherwised noted (yellow mold, cloudkill etc.) Perhaps creatures can only use their poison on the first 3 attacks as well (and opting not to use their tail/poison attack until desired, just like dragons breath).

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    1. I also like the idea of it being 1d6 dmg per round up to the creatures hit points (or 1/2 their hit points) as it emulates the poison courses through them and making it different from BWs.

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  11. For 'natural' creatures, I allow for some leeway, using some later edition breakdowns on poison damage. But for 'monsters' as presented in the MMs (giant scorpions, purple worms, huge spiders and the like), I keep the 'save or die.' We started with the 3rd edition, and I noticed that much effort went into reducing the immediately disastrous effects of things like poison or level loss. The result ended up being no 'real' fear of the critters on the part of the players. From my memories of trying the game out in the 80s, I remember players actually dreading certain monsters (undead, poisonous) because the results could be so devastating. I liked that element when we converted over to AD&D. And I still do.

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  12. In AD&D I'd go with assuming any monster used poison based on the save modifier. For example, a spider that gives a +3 save bonus is using Insuative Poison B (1d3 round onset, 0 HP on save / 25 HP on fail). Anything of save +1 bonus or worse is Type D (no effect if save, death if fail).

    Having poison take longer doesn't help, it just muddies things up and makes it hard to track. For this reason I also don't like poison onset times. If someone takes poison damage, I tell them which amount is from the poison. If they get a Slow Poison or Neutralize Poison within a couple rounds they can remove that damage (temporarily, in the case of Slow Poison).

    This way, if you die from poison and someone has Neutralize ready, you still go down but they can bring you back up. Much easier to handle in combat than tracking onset times.

    If you want poison to do damage, make it 1d6 per level. That's pretty standard for most D&D editions, and will make poison more deadly in OD&D than in 3E for example. Poison level doesn't need to be tied to monster HD, but it could be. I could see a 1 HD spider causing 2d6 poison damage I suppose. The save is for half damage, like a fireball or whatever.

    I like stat damage sort of, but I don't like dealing with all the paperwork. In 3E there are a boatload of things each stat affects, so you have to recalculate the modifiers for anything you do to make sure your stat damage isn't hampering it. Also stat damage to a monster either does only roleplaying damage or else requires ad hoc DM ruling all the time, or a ton of exception cases in the rules, or every monster has stats. I don't want any of those options.

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  13. poison scoring one-half of the total possible hit damage

    It's a bit of a stretch, but you could interpret this to mean that poison causes death or the loss of half your character's hit points; e.g. a 10 HP character who made her save against poison would lose 5 HP.

    AD&D lists different poison types A, B etc for players, but notes that all monster poisons are lethal.

    I think save-or-die poison is important, especially for the creepy crawlies and other weak but poisonous monsters. Otherwise, what makes spiders scary?

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    1. ^ I don't think that's a stretch, that's totally how I read it in OD&D. To me that seems clear, but obviously I see that's not a universal experience.

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  14. Page 154 of the Rules Cyclopedia says optionally poison can do 1d6 per HD of attacking creature.

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    1. I think that poison damage cannot heal normally, so switching to d6 per HD that cannot be cured except by a slow poison/ neutralise poison spell or antidote, is acceptable. It makes poison nasty and a long term problem for players, with fewer immediate deaths. It also simulates weakness and sickness that accompany the spider bite.

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  15. Thanks for that analysis of the LBBs, interesting stuff. I like save or die generally for critters. For traps, I do many, many varieties of effects. Poisoned weapons are the trickiest, methinks. Not sure what's "best." Especially when you get into things like "a single elf with a poison arrow felling the Queen of Chaotic Dragons" (TD #32-Poisons from AA to XX). Keep it rare I guess is best.

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  16. I tend to use 1d6 per creature hit die for venom damage.

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  17. I've tried this: failing a poison roll incapacitates the character. They have 1 + Con bonus days to be given a cure before dying (assuming someone is there treating them).

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  18. It seems to me that the most straightforward interpretation of the LBB version is that if you don't save the poison does your entire HP of damage; if you save, it does half that...which might still be enough to kill you if you've already taken damage. Assuming that you're not dead, then Neutralize Poison can give you back the HP you lost. I'm not entirely sure what I think about that.

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  19. Yeah, poison was a muddled mess. I know of three articles in Dragon that tried to make the whole thing comprehensible, "Poison: From AA to XX" (#32), "Poison: The Toxins of Cerilon" (#59), and "Taking the Sting Out of Poison" (#81).

    By the way, I just became the 500th backer of Dwimmermount. After analyzing my finances, I decided that it was possible to do so. Looking forward to it! As a matter of minor concern, I was wondering if the Megadungeon Tracker will be made available for purchase later. It seems like something that I'd like and have use for, but can't financially justify until well after the Kickstarter campaign ends.

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  20. I have poison do damage equal to the victim's HD. I don't much like a simple save or die, but i think poison should have a drastically different feel from ordinary wounds.

    I give PCs maximum hp for first level, which helps to offset the poor saves. As they level up and get better saves, their hp will tend to get closer to the average result of the poison damage, so they remain quite vulnerable. And of course, being wounded will always make poison much more dangerous.

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  21. Perhaps this is explained by the passage on poison in the Holmes basic set (which I read recently and found interesting and unusual):


    If a hit is scored by a poisoned weapon, a curare tipped blowgun dart, the poisoned sting of a giant scorpion, etc., the victim must make his saving throw against poison or paralysis and also take the number of damage points indicated by the die roll.

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  22. Save-or-die poison makes sense to me. Perhaps because I live in Australia.

    You could take damage equal to the amount you failed your save by. However that's just a suggested house rule (based on a common practice in Tunnels & Trolls), not a suggestion as to what the intention was in D&D.

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  23. Mentzer Basic suggests either a regular system of hit points (1, 2, 3 or 4 hit points per hit die) or save or die effect with a bonus to the save depending on the lethality of the poison.

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  24. I roll 1d8 per HD of the creature. It interacts very nicely with the "death from massive damage rule" which I use. Higher level characters that survive the large amount of damage (more than 50 hp) still have to save or die.

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  25. [How I do it]

    With the exception of certain extremely potent magical poisons (such as the venom of the basilisk,* which was actually so potent that it poisons the very rock it walks upon), it had no effect during combat.

    After combat the character would generally sicken (exact effects depending on the nature of the poison) and then would have to make a save to see if they survived. Failure indicated death. However most poisons just made you very sick - you were likely to survive them (bonus to saving throw).

    You generally got a bonus to the saving throw equal to the hit die of the creature. I followed the example of the animal world where larger creatures were generally less poisonous than their smaller brethren. But the sheer amount of venom injected by a giant spider was going to make you ill, although it was unlikely to kill you.

    Effective non-magical artificial poisons were fairly rare. The pollen of the Black Lotus being the one that appeared most in my game. But mainly because it could be easily dusted on someone's pillow or clothing 9assuming you had access to both the flower and the pillow at the same time).

    [Other Tricks]

    I remember once having Cloudkill do 5HD of damage (anything with 5HD or less died. Everything else had whatever HD remaining rerolled. The Green Dragon suggests poison gas should do hit point damage - but considering that it is chlorine breath the attendant corrosive effects would seem to encourage this approach.

    [A possibly interesting idea to play with]

    Everyone normally plays the saving throw vs poison as the ability to survive or resist poisoning. But what if the saving throw was the ability to avoid being poisoned in the first place? We already know that hit points don't necessarily represent physical damge, so what if the hit point damage taken from the "poisoned" attack wasn't actual physical damage, but rather the effort required to avoid getting bit/stabbed, fanged, harpooned, etc. Then an all or nothing approach might well be justified.

    [* My basilisk was a bright orange 9" long lizard that was venomous in almost every sense of the word. Because it amused me to have a small lizard that could kill even a dragon stone dead.** It would frequently raid chicken coops for the eggs.]

    [** Actually one player (who was investigating if he could use basilisk venom) who was bitten was so badly poisoned that he had to make a save vs poison for each of his resurrected characters from the residual poison contaminating his dead spirit. Colder than stone dead.]

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    1. Everyone normally plays the saving throw vs poison as the ability to survive or resist poisoning. But what if the saving throw was the ability to avoid being poisoned in the first place?

      Do they? I've always seen it interpreted as avoiding the poison wound. Certainly that's the way it's stated in the DMG, hence save or die. If you used the former interpretation then I suppose straight damage by monster HD the way some people have been suggesting would make more sense.

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    2. I stand corrected. Everyone I know assumes poisoning to be the direct result of the strike hitting. <grin>

      It's probably as a direct result of the Greyhawk listing of damage as, for example, "1d8 + poison."
      Since you've already determined that the strike hit (and thereby caused the damage), then poison tends to follow automatically.

      Although I am the only person I know that rates poison effectiveness inversely proportional to the creature's hit die, but it seems to make so much sense to me based on what we generally observe to be the case in the animal kingdom. After all the big guys have their own advantages when it comes to damage caused. I also have limited strikes (like a dragon's breath weapon), to represent the creature's poison reserve. Of course, more magical creatures break all these rules.

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  26. I never saw a problem here, because we had all sorts of poison effects in our games: death, unconsciousness, paralysis, damage, insanity, slowed, hallucinations. Pretty much anything we could think up.

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    1. I'll echo this. If I'm using a monster from the manual and it just says "poison," I assume save or die, but for my own poisonous creatures I use all kinds of effects.

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