Saturday 23 June 2012

The Save-Or-Die Remedy

Save-or-die poison is a corner often cut when reviving the Old School. Losing that seventh-level character to one bad die roll seems so unfair. So poison becomes a matter of hit points ... or just a knockout, not a killer ... myself, I have been giving players an extra saving throw, the first to avoid being incapacitated, the second to avoid death from the poison's effects.

But in our last session of play, gearing up to fight a venom-tailed wyvern, the player innocently asked if they could buy some anti-venom at the apothecary in town. With a successful availability roll (-3 seemed about right), a flask of the substance was found. After some haggling ("what price life itself?") the sovereign antitoxin was procured for a measly hundred silver pieces and packed on the person of the dwarf. Good thing, too; in the combat, the self-same dwarf, being the party member least likely to do so, failed a poison save, but had the remedy quick to hand and chugged it before the poison could take effect.

(I'm just noticing, by the way, that I don't feel the need to explain the silver standard in my game. Why? Well, even D&D Next uses it now.)

Although I may want to increase the standard price, there's no doubt to me that making antitoxins readily available through alchemists and apothecaries is a good move. Play-wise, it lets the threat of lethal poison remain, while offering a way out of its dangers through skillful planning and treasure spending. In terms of historical legends and folklore, a huge number of things were supposed to be a sovereign remedy for poison:
  • Bezoar (calcified stone found in the stomach)
  • Toadstones (stones spit out by a toad)
  • The correct half of a toad liver
  • Powdered amethyst or emerald
  • Herbs: Garlic, Vervain, Betony, Mistletoe, Mithridatum, Theriac
  • Unicorn horn
  • Confection of Cleopatra (not the best spokesmodel for surviving poison, but you have to agree she's strangely appropriate for a beverage of musk, birthwort and scorpions macerated in wine) 
Never mind that most of these are nonsense or, by sympathetic magic, obviously poisonous themselves. Never mind that poison was rare enough so that these overhyped antidotes almost never had to pass their screen test. Leaving to more obsessive minds the distinction between snake, insect, chemical and plant poisons, let's consider the standard, composite kind of antidote in the game to be as effective as the mythical bezoar or unicorn horn, against all sorts of ingested, inhaled and injected toxins.

Such a sovereign antidote costs, as base, 200 sp and has availability -3. It is a small, non-encumbering flask. After a failed poison saving throw incapacitates a character, he or she has only 1 round (6 seconds) of feeble ability to take out and apply the antidote. Beyond that, active colleagues have 5 more rounds to administer an antidote. Success means recovery from incapacitation in d6 minutes.

Poison is common enough between monsters, traps, potions, and villainous weapons that it's really something adventurers should have some kind of chance against.


  1. I can't imagine a party of seventh level characters not already having "neutralize poison" at hand in one of its several manifestations. Also it seems like those fearful of save or die effects must have implicitly removed reincarnation and resurrection from their campaigns.

    Having said that, there is a natural anti-venom to every venom in my campaign. In the interests of heroic rescue, those subjected to poison, death magic, divine retribution, obscure curses, and the like, linger in a state of "only mostly dead" for days equal to their highest ability score when they fail a save.

  2. Yeah, to echo Spirit, this effect has an implied availability in the traditional game too. See here:

    That also implies the threshold is 10 rounds, which would obviate the need for a second saving throw. It seems like your costs are several orders of magnitude lower than the implied costs of neutralize poison though, so you might want to revise your prices upwards if you want poison to remain a credible threat.

    I like the idea of being able to purchase natural remedies as well, but I would probably tie them to specific creatures in order to reward information gathering (makes more sense too). So, loading up on spider antivenom should not help you at all if you encounter a wyvern. At least that would be my take. If PCs want "general" antivenom, they would need the magic version.

  3. I see how the spell is traditionally available though, as you say, at higher levels and higher costs. For me it's just an attempt to solve the disconnection between the high frequency of poisonous monsters, etc. at all levels, and the low availability of solutions. Specific antivenom might work and in the example from play, would have been available.

    As you surmise though, Spirit, I'm not a big fan of "go to the temple, fork over the money, get resurrected" - preferring to front-load the protection dough in the instant before death, perhaps.

  4. I really like the idea of various distinct toxins and venoms, but after reading this I think I will adopt the idea of antidote=antidote. If you have a bezoar it saves you from all poisons. I like the simplicity. I like the fact that it nestles right into the whole resource management game.

    And, yeah, neutralize poison and resurrection are rare in my game. I wouldn't mind players spending bunches of silver to be safe against poisonous critters.

    Regarding your whole "Never mind" paragraph, Aww, making that kooky stuff real is one of the fun things about the game. I'll let the Traveller GMs worry about (and have the different kind of fun) distinguishing plant versus mineral toxins and the ways they are treated etc.

  5. A very interesting suggestion! I think I'm going to add a 'second save' bezoar-type item to my ACKS game at a fraction of the cost of Neutralize Poison. Will report back if they remember to buy one (they forgot last session) and it gets used.

  6. I like both specific anti-venoms and a more general one. Possibly you could have both, by saying that one negates the posion completely, and the more general one just keeps you from dying?