Friday, June 11, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 125

 At the start of the "explanations and descriptions of magic items" on page 125 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there is a section on potions.

Potions are typically found in ceramic, crystal, glass, or metal flasks in enough quantity to provide one person with one complete dose so as to be able to achieve the effects which are given hereafter for each type of potion. Potion containers can be other than described at your option.

That's straightforward enough, though I recall many referees in my youth allowing a "half-dose" of a potion, with commensurately lesser effects. I don't know how widespread such a house rule was outside of the circles in which I moved, however. Likewise, I remember one referee who had replaced potions with what he called "lozenges," little pills like cough drops that had to be eaten to achieve the appropriate effect. I never understood why he'd made this change, but but it stuck with me decades later.

As a general rule they should bear no identifying marks, so that the players must sample from each container in order to determine the nature of the liquid. However, even a small taste should suffice to identify a potion in some way – even if just a slight urge.

Once again, we see the conflation of "player" and "player character" that is quite commonplace in the early years of the hobby (Empire of the Petal Throne does this often, for example). While I understand why, from a game perspective, potions are not labeled, it's one of those things that doesn't make much sense to me from a setting perspective. Unless the manufacturers of potions have a better memory than I do, it seems like it would be all too easy to forget whether this phial contains a potion of extra-healing or a potion of gaseous form. Drawing once again on my early experiences, I knew of a referee whose potions could be identified by color and taste. Over time, characters learned which were associated with which potions and that made it easier to determine which was which. Of course, he also had greatly expanded the roster of available potions, so it wasn't quite as easy as it might sounds.

As Dungeon Master, you should add a few different sorts of potions, both helpful and harmful, of such nature as to cause difficulties in identification. In addition, the same type of potion, when derived form different sources, might smell, taste, and look differently.

 I don't mean to keep harping on this, because I know opinions differ strongly about the matter. Nevertheless, I am not in favor of this approach as a general rule. I think it's important that a setting, even in its magical aspects, have some degree of intelligibility. Players and their characters should be rewarded for learning over time and it seems to me that shifting the correspondence between color, taste, scent, etc. and effect is intended to undermine the value of that. Clearly, Gygax felt differently.

Unless otherwise stated, the effects of a potion will last for 4 complete turns plus 1–4 additional turns (d4). If half a potion is quaffed, the effect will last one-half as long in some cases. Potions take effect 2–5 segments after they are imbibed.

I find it intriguing that Gygax's rules for "half-doses" are more lenient than those of the referees of old I encountered, who halved not just the duration but the overall efficacy.

While potions can be compounded by magic-user/alchemist teams at a relatively low cost, they must have an actual potion to obtain the formula for each type. Furthermore, the ingredient are always rare and/or hard to come by. 

This is where most fantasy RPGs falter a bit. If magic items are capable of being manufactured, why then aren't they more readily available? The simplest answer is the one Gygax offers: they're hard and expensive to make. That's a fair answer, but, if that's the case, then why do they seem so easy to come by in dungeons and similar places? The simplest answer to that is to limit the presence of magic items across the board, making them quite rare. Again, that's a good answer, but how often was it ever observed, even by Gygax in his published adventure modules? I actually don't know the answer to that question, honestly. Perhaps someday I should do an analysis of the prevalence of magic items in published modules (assuming someone else hasn't already done it).

Not from the DMG but a favorite of mine nonetheless


  1. Regarding the ready availability of magic items in dungeons, I personally adhere to the idea of D&D's implied setting as being post-apocalyptic, with past cultures being highly magical.
    Just like Greyhawk and the Dying Earth, or FASA's Earthdawn (typically described as "basically D&D, but it makes sense").

    1. I'm fine with "the Ancients made it" for magic items, but when it comes to potions, surely those things have an expiration date? I certainly wouldn't want to drink something that's been sitting on a shelf for a millenium or two no matter how magical it is.

      Reminded of an old "joke" short story about an archeologist who discovers a formula for an elixer of eternal life on an scroll he can't quite fully translate, proceeds to mix it up, drink it, and immediately dies. When his colleagues find the body one of them glances at the scroll, asks his comrade what that last glyph means, and is told "For External Application Only."

  2. [i]"Once again, we see the conflation of "player" and "player character" that is quite commonplace in the early years of the hobby"[/i]

    I think that's because "rrrrole playing" hadn't really happened yet. You were essential the character---he or she had your personality and intellect. Donning other identities for a PC is something my group never did (nor does my current group do now). That's the OD&D way.

    [i]"Players and their characters should be rewarded for learning over time and it seems to me that shifting the correspondence between color, taste, scent, etc. and effect is intended to undermine the value of that."[/i]

    Maybe in one dungeon, or from one source...but you run the risk of making your game grow stale over time if it's universal. Let magic be magical, wild, and unexpected. That's its purpose---not to cheat in a faux-technology. Again, don't let things becomes mundane.

  3. I seem to recall reading that actual real world alchemists would label their ingredients with secret or at least esoteric symbols. That makes sense to me, as an anti-theft precaution if nothing else. You want to know what the label on that potion says? Cast Read Magic.

    1. I subscribe to this too, though use read languages. Over time you might be able to keep a track of the symbols, but generally it's cast a spell or take a punt.

  4. I too played in games where you could identify potions by color and taste, and it seems to me that this used to be fairly common. I vaguely think that some game (or Dragon article?) actually had rules for this, but I'm not sure.

    As for why potions are hard to make but common in modules: an in-game possibility is that people in the past had skills and knowledge that have now been lost, so potions mostly exist in old hoards in dungeons. I like this for durable magic items, but not so much for potions; since they're consumable, why haven't they been consumed? I think the real answer is twofold. Many of Gygax's modules come from tournament scenarios that predate the DMG, so they may reflect a looser attitude toward letting characters get hold of magic; they may also be there to facilitate getting through the scenario. (I think particularly of potions of giant control in the G-series modules.) Also, potions have to be hard to make so that players don't destroy the balance of the game, but they can be as common in treasures as the DM wishes because the DM controls the balance.

  5. I think the simplest solution is that one is the consequence of the other: ingredients are rare because the resulting potions are obiquitous in dungeons. The ancient civilizations making all those potions drove the ingredients to extinction.

    1. That reminds of the "gold is magic" theory (which I'm also quite fond of). Gold is rare and precious today, but it's as common as pocket-change in the D&D universe. That's because gold is solid magic, which is why it's worth XP and why magic-users need so much of it to research spells, cast spells, and manufacture magic items. The gold that's used for magical purposes doesn't go into the economy, it's straight-up CONSUMED by mystical and alchemical rituals, and after thousands of years of decadent magic-use, magic will one day fade from the world (and gold will be that much rarer and more valuable).

  6. I love D&D and it's magical treasure. And it is totally illogical...

    So when I want more logical, I trot out a friend's homebrew I ran a lot in college, Cold Iron. Cold Iron has a coherent magic item system with rules for creation and a balanced cost structure. The result is magic shops work and PCs may buy and sell magic items. They can have their swords upgraded. Part of what makes this work is other than magic swords and armor, permanent magic items are very expensive.

    PC spell casters could eventually make magic items, but the time involved is enough that adventuring is a quicker way to make money and much better way to make XP. OK, so there IS one logic breakdown - the treasure flow in my campaigns at least was so much higher than the income rate of magic item creators that it's possible the PCs were monopolizing all the magic item creation capacity of the city they were based out of, and then some. But that logic breakdown is easier to ignore in light of the fact that the PCs treasure is getting spend on potions and charged items fast enough that, yes, they can upgrade their magic, but no, they don't suddenly start loading up with permanent items. Plus, potions are always useful since all other magic items require the user to spend mana points to power them. Potions are the only long term storage of MP. And the system has some spells that take a LOT of MP (which makes for expensive potions).

    The only other game I have seen with as workable a "treasure economy" is RuneQuest where PCs can spend money on training.

    But Cold Iron loses out on all those interesting and more magical seeming items of D&D.

    D&D 3.x magic item creation showed how you can't easily retrofit a magic item creation system on top of D&D spells. There are 3.x spells where the GM just has to say: "no, you can't make that type of magic item out of this spell."

    Cold Iron doesn't have that problem because of the no free MP. OK, magic swords and armor are sort of an exception, at least they were an exception the way I ran them, but those don't break the system like a permanent magic item that can repeatedly cast spells at no cost to the user. Think of how easy it is to find a spell that breaks that kind of system.

  7. If my players were ever to ask why it was hard for them to make potions, and yet they could find them, I would simply say "yes, that's what makes the game playing work best".

    Because any other answer is just a variation of attempting a more believable Potemkin village; it will always remain Potemkin regardless of how you dress it. There's no point avoiding or delaying acceptance of that and getting on with the game for what it is.

  8. a lot of this is more Gygaxian "At-War-With-The-Players" stuff. earworms, unknown magic, traps trap traps. make sense? NO! Mess with the players? YES! Fun? MOSTLY!

  9. I little while back I made a set of charts for determining if (and how) potions were labelled, which even included a chance that some areshole magic-user mis-labelled them on purpose.

  10. If you can't identify your potions where is the fun of putting the a healers mark on a potion of poison and then having it administered to you by one of your friends when you go down?