LP Labs: Let’s Make Some Poisons (Part 2)

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This is the second part of a small series on generating new poisons for 5e. If you haven’t yet, go check out the first part here.

So, last week, I started working out a system for creating some homebrew poisons for use in our upcoming 5e campaign. One of my players pointed out that poisons are, in general, an under-utilized aspect of D&D. Okay, fair enough. So, I set out a basic framework in the last article which uses what I’ve called “Efficacy Points” to allow DMs and players to lego-build their own custom poisons. In this article, I want to push through a few last additions to that system, and then make a bunch of them. I’m writing this stream-of-consciousness style, so let’s be bold: I’m going to make a few new poisons using this system that should (theoretically) be balanced and importable into any campaign right away.

Cost is for the Making

When I set forward costs in the last article, I may not have emphasized properly why this cost is useful. When we’re talking about a commodity such as a poison, the market-value of it is so much in flux that it is an irrelevant number. In general, poisons are illegal, so they’re already expensive. However, other things can jack the price way up as well, especially in terms of the ingredients necessary to make it. For example, the Purple Worm poison requires extracts from an actual Purple Worm. Well, what if there aren’t any Purple Worms on this continent? On this plane? That’s going to make that particular poison tremendously expensive. Conversely, Crawler Mucus is really just finding some crawler mucus and smearing it on a victim. If you’re in a town where Crawlers are harvested for food by the thousands every day, that mucus may be so cheap it’s practically free.

So, if the “cost” of a poison has little or no bearing on it’s actual market value, then what is that number even for? Well, it’s for the crafting, of course. In 5e, crafting is handled by the cost value of an item. By RAW, a character can craft 5 gp of something for each day spent crafting, including spending half of that in actual gold acquiring the requisite materials. So, the “cost” of a poison isn’t useful in terms of how much out-of-pocket cash is needed to buy one, but how much dedicated work is needed to brew the thing.

I want to re-emphasize another point, and that’s EP. The Efficacy Points are from an adventurer’s perspective, not from a general usefulness of the poison. This is a balance mechanic, and a necessary evil. After all, a poison can be super super deadly, but if the target has to drink it, it’s not going to be incredibly useful to a party facing off with the big-bad necromancer this afternoon.

Why does this matter when we talk about cost? Because it’s the EP which drives cost, and I’m about to start changing that value based on how hard an ingredient is to find. Yes, two poisons could be exactly the same, but if one requires an incredibly rare ingredient, it is going to have a significantly reduced EP. It is, in general, a less effective poison to an adventurer because it’s that much harder to find and make. This works out nicely when you consider that a poison may be very technically easy to make, so long as you have a super rare ingredient. “Now that I’ve got this powdered hen’s teeth, it’ll only take me a day to boil it into a tea,” makes sense. However, if the value of the poison is 100 gp, it would require 20 days to craft even with ingredients in hand. Ugh, that’s rough.

That’ll segue me into…

Meta-Poison Modifiers

The last stage of the framework to make new poisons is a set of meta-poison considerations. That is, things which affect the overall efficacy of the poison without influencing its specific effects. These are the factors that make the difference between a poison that takes a lot of skill to make from common household herbs, and one where any idiot can dip their dagger into the venomous sac of a dead basilisk.

Here are some examples I’ve come up with, but this is all modular and expandable. EP values are rounded down per 5e standard.

  • Rare ingredient (50% final cost each) – This is some sort of ingredient that is not merely expensive, but almost impossibly so. It’s something that requires adventuring to find, or an adventurer to supply. For each of these ingredients required to make a poison, halve the total cost. This means that a poison requiring two such ingredients would only have 1/4th the cost. It’s up to the DM to determine sufficient rarity of the ingredients, but generally they should require at least some effort to obtain in small quantities.
  • Slow progression (50% final cost) – If the poison takes so long to work that the target gets to take a long rest before its full effect occurs, it becomes way easier to seek help, whether as a bolster against its effects or a cure entirely. Curing poison is a pretty mundane magical effect as these things go, and the longer the effect takes, the more opportunity one has to get it knocked out. This effect is also useful for poisons that deal a bunch of damage over a long time.
  • Unstable (50% final cost for 2 days, 25% final cost for 1 day) – Unstable poisons go inert after a time limit. Here, it’ll halve the cost if it expires within 48 hours, and quarter it for an expiration within 24 hours. Again, this is efficacy from an adventurer’s perspective, so anything past two days is pretty much advanced planning and conspiracy.
  • Non-Poison Effects/Damage (200% final cost) – This is important because, as my poison-happy player pointed out, a bunch of monsters are immune to poison. Also, several classes get the ability too. So, by infusing a little bit of magic, or using something very acidic, a clever poisoner can make poisons which aren’t actually “poisons,” but more like a magical potion that gets stabbed into a target. Neat! Of course, DMs need to be very careful with this, because it could get very excessive and unbalanced. I would suggest limiting the effects to other standard poison effects (damage, exhaustion, paralysis) and requiring a source for the magic, such as a spellcaster who aids in making the poison. Having a poison cause fire damage is neat, but it can also be quite devastating. Tread carefully.

There’s no reason that these meta-poisons characteristics can’t be stacked up and added together. So, if you’ve got a poison that would normally by 50 EP (yikes!) and therefore should cost 8,184 gp, but it requires two super rare ingredients and spoils in 18 hours, it’ll only be 500 gp in the end. Not too bad, as long as you can make it and know exactly when you’re going to use it.

So, with all that done, here’s what our poison system table looks like:

Sweet! The nice thing about this is the inherent modularity and tweakability. Maybe you think acid damage shouldn’t be as expensive as other types of magical damage (since you don’t need magic to get acid), so you dial just acid damage back to 125%. Yeah, go for it!

So, with all of that in mind, here are some poisons I just made up based on this system. I made a batch of low-power ones for use in the first few levels of play, as well as a couple more potent ones. These are free, so have at.

  • Poisoning 101
    • Black-Out Dust Inhaled 115 gp (3 EP)
      This caustic dust derived from reduced spirits, typically blown into the face of a victim, requires a DC 10 CON save. If the target fails, it is blinded. At the end of the targets turn, it may attempt this save again.
    • Nausea Ink Injury 26 gp (1 EP)
      A black substance derived from molds found in roof thatching, this poison requires a DC 10 CON save. If the target fails, it is “poisoned” for 3 rounds. At the end of the target’s turn, it may attempt this save again. This poison is unstable, and remains potent for just 20 hours.
    • Burn Paste Contact 125 gp (4 EP)
      This thick white paste made primarily of lye burns the skin on contact. A target subjected to a dose of this poison suffers 2d4 poison damage, or half as much on a successful DC 10 CON save. This poison remains in effect, burning the target every round, until the target spends an action to scrape it off with something.
    • Malaise Injury 52 gp (2 EP)
      This poison is made from an extract from semi-common poisonous insects (rare ingredient) and causes the target to feel tired and slow. If the target fails a DC 10 CON save, it suffers two levels of exhaustion. At the end of the target’s turn, it may make this save again to shake the exhaustion. The target cannot die from this exhaustion, but will instead be knocked unconscious.
    • Love Potion Ingested 125 gp (4 EP)
      This poison is derived from heady spices and alcoholic spirits. Once ingested, the target must succeed on a DC 12 WIS save or be charmed by the nearest creature. The target may make this save again every minute.
  • Advanced Poisoning
    • Widowmaker Injury 465 gp (13 EP)
      This poison is a nasty cocktail of painful and dangerous substances boiled from everyday items. The target must make a DC 14 CON save or be dealt 2d8 damage and be “poisoned” for 1 minute. On a successful save, the target is dealt half damage and is not poisoned. At the end of the target’s turns, it may attempt the save again to end the “poisoned” effect early.
    • Headwrap Poison Injury 300 gp (10 EP)
      This poison is extracted from various poisonous mushrooms. The target must succeed on a DC 16 CON save or be blinded and deafened for 1 minute.
    • Twilight Oil Inhaled 256 gp (9 EP)
      This oil is derived from the byproducts of dyes and tanning which, when shaken or disturbs, evaporates into a cloud of gas. Creatures which inhale this gas must make a DC 14 CON save or fall unconscious as if asleep. This sleep will be broken by any damage.
    • Extract of Terror Injury 405 gp (12 EP)
      This viscous liquid is distilled from the sweat of the imprisoned and tortured. Targets are frightened until they succeed on two DC 16 INT saves. Targets may make a save immediately, and then again at the end of each of their turns.

Those are just some quick ideas. Of course, there are endless combinations.

It’s important to remember that any system which tries to boil these sorts of things down to a simple number are easy to work over and abuse. Its up to the DM and players to make sure what they concoct seems reasonable and playable. It never hurts to simply make things more “expensive” if the poison seems too potent for its EP cost. CHalk it up to the intangible “difficulty” in boiling, extracting, and rendering process.

Have fun with this, and let us know what you think!