How To Make Poisons More Dynamic

I’m currently working on my next Two Page Mini Delve, and I’m going to be including a combat with a giant spider. I wanted to simulate, as best as I could, how a spider catches its prety. The spider web fit into existing rules structure as a “trap” with no problems. However, when I came to the part where a spider injects its prey with a paralyzing poison, I got stuck. Yes, there are plenty of poisons in the game, but I didn’t think the rules for them were dynamic enough. The basic poison template is: Ongoing X poison damage, and (sometimes) the target is [status effect], save ends all. That’s not what I wanted, for several reasons. What I wanted was something that represented rapid deterioration of muscle control, not “ongoing damage and status effect, save ends.” So, I kept looking. I found some monster poison attacks (spiders, specifically) that were a little closer to what I wanted – a secondary effect after the first failed saving throw. Better, but not quite. Finally, I found a solution to my problem, but not in the poison stat blocks.

So, what if we treated poisons a little differently? What if we treated poisons as a kind of disease? Honestly, they act in similar ways. They both attack the body, and slowly (or quickly) break down its ability to work properly. When I think about poisons in a disease stat block, immediately I see three advantages.

First, by turning a poison into a modified disease, you’re getting rid of the “save ends” mechanic for something better. Instead of all PCs saving against the effect roughly 55% of the time across the board, you’re now taking into account the character’s constitution score because you’re using an Endurance check instead of “save ends.” Doubling the character’s poison resistance as a bonus to the Endurance check further reinforces a character’s ability to resist the effects of a poison.

Second, by stacking three status effects (or more) on a disease track, you can actually make a broader range of poisons that do all sorts of different things. There are only a certain number of single status effects that you could apply to a traditional poison stat block, but if you put them in combinations of three, you get (not doing the math) a LOT more possibilities. And with a disease track, you can do more than status effects. You could make the poison do increasing damage. You could penalize to hit or defenses. You could even have a “no effect” stage just before you drop the hammer, creating a sense of drama and tension for your players. Bear in mind that you can still include “ongoing” poison damage by including a flat poison damage amount at every stage. 

Third, by adjusting the frequency of the Endurance check, you can simulate the speed at which a poison works. For example, a fast-acting poison could require an Endurance check at the end of every round. A very slow acting poison would look a lot like a disease, requiring a check after each extended rest.

By way of an example, here is a (working) copy of what I will use for the spider’s poison in the next Two Page Mini Delve:

A note on bookkeeping

Having said all that, I feel I need to clarify something. I don’t think that this is how all poisons should be treated. In particular, I don’t think that PCs should have access to this type of poison, mostly because there’s an administrative burden placed upon the DM when they have to keep track of which monsters are where on their respective poison tracks. So I do understand why PC accessible poisons were simplified.

“Disease-like” poisons like this should remain squarely in the DM’s toolbox as one more thing that can add flavor and variety to a battle. If you want a poison to be a setpiece in an encounter (combat or otherwise), make it more dynamic and threatening than just another ongoing damage and status effect. Try a disease track – I think you will find that it’s exactly what you’re looking for.

What do you think? Is the “first failed save” mechanic enough for monster poisons? Or would you use a disease track?

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7 Responses to How To Make Poisons More Dynamic

  1. I like it a lot! Although personally I would change Stage 3 to simply “YOU DIE!” To work in the benefits of poison resist, you could alternatively throw in some low ongoing poison damage (5/tier) if the target is in Stage 1 or higher. It’d also be nice to have saving throws come into the mix in some way, so the Dwarves feel like their racial benefit is getting them some mileage; but, maybe I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.

    • Benoit says:

      Re: Dwarves, you could just treat that +5 to saves vs. poison as a poison resistance (might be too unbalanced, as you’d double it), or just a flat +5 to the Endurance check (probably more balanced).

  2. clayton says:

    I like this idea a lot.
    I’m looking for more ways to challene my paragon tier party, and this is a good way to make poison a bit more dangerous to ignore 🙂

  3. Pingback: Links of the Week: November 28, 2011 | KJD-IMC - KJDavies "In My Campaign" Articles

  4. Alphastream says:

    Dwarves, when poisoned, should gain 5 temporary hit points and laugh as a free action ‘-)

    I do like the idea of the basic mechanic, particularly with moving from save ends to an Endurance skill check and having it be each round. I’m less sold on the effects. A lot depends on the type of game you want. Die as stage 3 is great for recreating AD&D poisons, but less fun for most players… and the same is true of stun. But I can see a lot of fun possibilities where you could have things like:
    stage 1: PC loses minor actions unless they choose to take 10 poison damage
    stage 2: Ongoing 5 poison (no save) and make save at start of turn or fall prone
    stage 3: Delirium that causes the PC at the end of their turn to move 1d3 squares in a random direction, provoking OAs.
    Put together, that really paints a scene for me. You want to use this sparingly and have handouts of the poison progression so each player can monitor their own place in the progression without eating up time or place great burden on the DM.

    • Benoit says:

      That’s the great thing about the framework; you can make the combination of effects anything you want, and flavor it for your players’ tastes and play style.

      I do like the idea of the handout, it definitely puts the bookkeeping burden on the player rather than the DM, and they know what will happen if they fail their check (creating even more tension hopefully)

      (I also liked what you did with creating a choice when a character moves to a new stage – take damage or lose actions? Interesting choices, as Hamblin says, make the game fun)

  5. bluremi72 says:

    Great concept. Used the poison version and it adds much more instead of “take 5 poison damage”. To harken back to the 1e days, I added stage 4 – you die. Not for everyone, but it works for our game.

    I’m going to use this with green slime to go back to its original version of dripping on PCs and having them slowly turn into green slime if they fail their checks.

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