Red Book Poison & Venom Revisions

I think the mechanics for poisons and venom in Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book are alright.

Pretty straightforward and they get the job done, but after working on The Apothecary and The Ranger Melissa and I have a much better understanding of how they work in real life, which is quite different than what I'd previously assumed.

Namely that, depending on what hit or bit you, they can take awhile to kick in, you can survive for hours or even days afterwards, and sometimes you live even without treatment. Though, going without can result in long-term or permanent complications, so getting treatment if you can is the best route to take.

And, sure, Dungeons & Delvers isn't intended to be a reality simulator (even before you factor in mythical venomous creatures), but I think the poison and venom mechanics lack not just lethality, but tension: if you're poisoned you get hit with a penalty to most rolls, likely a bit of poison damage.

But, if the poison damage doesn't kill you, then as long as you kick back for awhile you'll probably be fine. You don't even have to wait and see, as the penalties and poison damage kicks in right away!

I want players to go, "Uh oh," when they run into a venomous monster. Kind of like encountering level-draining monsters in 2nd and 3rd Edition. I want them to see a giant snake or spider, a basilisk, bone devil, blue dragon, or what have you and freak out, more so if they get bitten or stung. I want them to worry about what's going to happen: will they survive? How long do they have?

In other words, for Red Book at the least we're taking the rules for poisons and venom back to the drawing board. The goal is a set of mechanics that instills uncertainty and terror, but isn't overly complicated. Also something that will encourage players to pack around antivenom, clerics to pick up Cleansing Touch, and reward paladins with Enduring Health.

The first thing I did was refresh myself on how they work across multiple editions. After all, it can help to see what's been done before, and no sense reinventing the wheel if you find something that, however unlikely, already does precisely what you want, right? Here's what I learned (or was reminded of):

2nd Edition
Poisons don't have names, instead being referred to as Class A through P. They have variable onset times, ranging from immediate to twelve hours. They can deal damage, cause you to die (sometimes instantly), paralyze you, or generally debilitate you (speed and all ability scores are reduced by half, and you cannot be healed at all for 1d3 days).

Good start! I like the variable onset times, and while the Class labeling isn't terribly imaginative I think it makes it a bit easier to just slap them on various monsters. It's a bit annoying that it's in the Dungeon Master's Guide instead of the Monstrous Manual, however, but that's not a mechanical issue.

3rd Edition
When afflicted by poison you make a Fortitude save. If you fail you immediately suffer damage, most often ability score damage, and then a minute later you have to make another save to avoid taking more damage (also usually ability score damage).

Not a fan of this because it always kicks in far too quickly, and unless it damages your Constitution or hit points (which is only the case for sassone leaf residue's initial damage) it can't actually kill you. The ability score damage can take awhile to recover from, which is nice. Means it can have an impact well after a given encounter, possibly for days, even a week or two.

4th Edition
Poisons have immediate effects, which are often ongoing poison damage (ie, you take poison damage every six seconds) until you succeed on a saving throw (which also happens every six seconds). Some impose other conditions and penalties, such as weakened or -2 to defenses. The drow poison knocks you out, but only until the end of the encounter.

I don't like that all of the poison's effects happen right away, nor that you can very quickly completely shake them off. Even worse, you can just burn healing surges once the fight is over and be completely fine.

5th Edition
Poisons take immediate effect, dealing poison damage and imposing the Poisoned condition. Some add other conditions and penalties.

On the upside, the Poisoned condition can last for quite some time, along with various conditions such as being blinded (which can last up to an hour). Some durations are also random. Only real downside here is that most of the poison damage happens right away, and as with 4th Edition can be easily cured.

How We're Doing It
Individually none of them do exactly what I'm looking for, but there are aspects I do like: 2nd Edition's random onset, how 3rd Edition can have a long term impact, and 5th Edition's penalty, since I feel like it can be used to model various debilitating symptoms. Even 4th Edition's ongoing poison damage has merit, I just wish it wasn't so frequent and easy to put an end to.

Taking the parts I like from each, along with a few tweaks, here's what I came up with (note that instead of saying venom and poisons, I'm just going to say venom because that's usually what players are going to contend with):

First off, some venom will have immediate effects such as intense pain. This will be represented with a penalty to d20 rolls and saving throw DCs, like it is in Black Book.

All venom will have an onset time, typically a variable number of rounds or minutes. The time is random so you aren’t sure exactly how long you have, and also to account for varying amounts of venom entering your bloodstream. This is how long it takes for more severe symptoms to present themselves, and serves as your window of time to treat it before things get more serious.

Once the onset time elapses you have to make a Constitution save. Success means you either shake it off or suffer reduced effects (the latter usually being the case), while failure means you get the full package.

Succeed or fail, the effects vary from venom to venom. Usually the penalty increases (mentioned under symptoms), or you suffer from a penalty if you weren’t before. Sometimes you suffer ability score damage, or have a condition imposed on you like Dazed or Paralysis. Most commonly you’ll begin taking poison damage, and I say "begin" because it’s almost never a one-time deal.

Getting hit with multiple instances of poison damage is just part of the problem. The other part, possibly of greater concern, is that poison damage doesn’t just inflict damage, it reduces your maximum WP in the process. If it gets reduced to 0, you're dead.

For example, a venom might force you to attempt a Constitution save or suffer 1d4 poison damage, which is repeated every hour over the span of 2d4 hours. Like the onset time, the duration is also random, so players won’t be able to easily learn a venom's duration and know what to expect (which would also reduce tension and fear).

Even after you stop taking poison damage, the symptoms can persist for much, much longer. Could be hours, could be days. Here’s an actual example:

Targets are only subjected to chimera venom when its serpent tail inflicts WP damage.
  • Immediate Effects: Intense pain and swelling around the wound (-1).
  • Onset: 3d6 rounds
  • Symptoms: Severe pain, impaired vision, difficulty breathing and swallowing (penalty increases to -2). Cannot restore VP due to resting. Every round spent Concentrating requires a check against the venom's save DC. The penalty lasts for 1d4 days, after which it is reduced to -1 for another 1d4 days.
  • Damage: 2d6 poison damage, every 10 minutes for 3d6 hours. A successful Constitution save negates this damage. After the damage's duration has elapsed, each time the target completes a long rest their maximum WP increases by 1d6, up to their original maximum.
  • Paralysis: If you fail three Constitution saves in the span of an hour, you are also Paralyzed for the remainder of the damage's duration.
If you succeeded on your initial Constitution save, then the duration of symptoms is halved, you only suffer 1d6 poison damage on a failed save, and you are not Paralyzed if you fail three Constitution saves in the span of an hour.

Curious what others think. Too complicated? Are we missing something? Too severe? We're considering giving most venomous attacks a Recharge roll to account for the fact that they're far more dangerous and deadly than before.

You can now get a physical copy of Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book in whatever format you want! We've also released the first big supplement for it, Appendix D, so pick that up if you want more of everything.

The first issue of The Delver, a magazine featuring fungal-themed content for both players and GMs (including an adventure in which myconids find religion), is available!

Our latest Dungeon World class, The Ranger, is now available.

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).

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