Monday 5 December 2016

De-Fanging Old School Poison

I know, I know. I'm a heretic.
Before you cast aspersions on my character, know this:

- Characters die in my game with some regularity.
- The sheer fear generated by Save or Die poison is fantastic and I love it.
- The Death and Dismemberment thing I use means characters can generally survive a few hits at 0HP

It's this last one that's the real issue.
Often a character will survive a fight where they ran out of HP, albeit with broken bones and a gnarly scar or two. Combat becomes less binary when there's a grey area of increasingly brutal injury.
In this context, the simple on/off switch of old school poison is somehow... boring.
Not to mention pretty bullshit when I've effectively been training players to think "oh no, 0 HP, I'm going to start getting hurt for real!" instead of "oh no, 0HP, time to start rolling up a new guy!".

Maybe it's that I always narrate poison deaths as literal instant death instead of the up-to-a-day of slow death implied by Delay Poison. Or maybe the exciting part is the actual save roll, and anything beyond that is so much fluff compared to the knowledge that your guy died again.

An important note:
You could use this poison system without needing to use the whole Death & Dismemberment subsystem. I've noted where this is the case in > Courier.

My players never fight giant spiders if they can help it. They have learned.

These are the things I like about old school poison:
- Doesn't give a shit how much HP you have
- Scary as hell
- Kills people

And these are the things I don't like:
- No scary grey area between life and death

So I've basically just bolted poison onto my established Death & Dismemberment rules.
The following rules for poison will be absolute fucking Greek to anyone who's not me or in my game, so here's a quick and dirty rundown of the relevant death rules:

When you're at 0HP you don't die, but begin accruing Death Tokens. The more you have, the closer you are to death.
They come in different flavours called Bleed, Pain and Trauma.

Bleed Tokens mean that you take damage from bleeding out.
Pain Tokens mean you've got a chance of fainting.
Trauma Tokens mean you've got a chance of dying.

Each round you have a choice - Stay Down or Tempt Fate
If you choose to Stay Down you do nothing that round, just lie there and keep breathing. You also count as Surprised against all attacks.
If you choose to Tempt Fate you can act as normal. At the end of a round in which you Tempt Fate
roll your class Hit Die, and:
No matter what you rolled, you take damage equal to your Bleed total.
If you roll equal to or less than your Pain total, you faint.
If you roll equal to or less than your Trauma total, you die.

So if you're an average Specialist (class hit die - 1d6) with 3 Pain Dice and 1 Trauma Die, you've got a 3/6 chance of fainting and a 1/6 chance of dying outright.
The Stay Down option is an important part as we go into these Poison rules. It means you give up your turn but you stay alive and conscious. It's up to your friends to protect you and heal you.

> You could trivially replace "Pain Tokens" with "Pain Points" or checkboxes on a Pain Track, something that counts up linearly.

With that in mind, here goes:


Poison: Some creatures like ghouls and spiders are poisonous.
Poison is represented by Poison Tokens. These count as Death Tokens, and come in the same three types, ie. Pain Poison knocks you out, Bleed Poison drains HP and Trauma Poison kills you.
The main difference is that Poison Tokens bypass HP and cannot be removed by healing or First Aid.

On your turn you have to choose between Tempt Fate and Stay Down, even if you have HP left.
Even worse, Poison affects you hourly no matter what.
Every hour, Save vs Doom. On success, remove a Poison Token of your choice.
Then roll to Tempt Fate, but apply your Constitution Modifier to the roll. Good luck!

Hopefully that makes sense?

The idea is you get Death Tokens even if you're at full health. This is fucked because you can't heal them easily, they're independent of your HP, and even if you just sit there doing nothing they'll still hurt you every hour.
Here you are, the Fighter with 50 hit points, and you're powerless to stop the poison pumping through your veins.
In Logan's terms poison bypasses Grit to hit Flesh.
You're probably proper fucked without luck, hardy constitution, a Cleric with anti-poison spells and/or specific antivenom. I'd definitely allow people to create antivenom from harvested poison, that might be fun.

> For those using some variation on my death and dismemberment rules, Poison Tokens do increase the number of dice characters have to roll on the death table. It's a double downside!

On the subject of Clerical anti-poison spells -
Delay Poison will now make you immune to the effects of poison for 24 hours. This means you can act as normal and hopefully the poison will be out of your system (due to hourly Poison saves) by the time the duration wears off.
This also makes it a really great spell to cast on people before you fight a poisonous enemy, rather than a sort of janky poison-only resurrection spell.
Neutralise Poison destroys any Poison Tokens you have, but doesn't heal anything else.

Now I've got three (three!) mechanically differentiated types of poison I can use. Depending on the monster or trap they'll inject more or less poison dice, or even inject a combination.
- Bleed poison drains people's HP over time, so that might be good as your video game-style DoT poison. An anticoagulant maybe, or a poison that eats away at your body from within, or even something that clouds your mind and makes it easier for you to get hurt. This also means healing magic are mechanically useful against Bleed poison, because you can keep topping up their health to prevent it ever getting low enough for Death & Dismemberment.
- Pain poison leaves you unconscious, so it's for knocking people out. The "weak poison" of a classic giant centipede could be a buildup of a single Pain Token per bite. Eventually you just keel over and the centipedes eat your unconscious but still-living body.
- Trauma poison is the real shit, liquefying your innards and killing you TO DEATH.
Giant spiders definitely inject as many Trauma Tokens as their damage roll, meaning they're still massively deadly, but a player can choose to do nothing on their turn to delay their death. They're still probably going to die in an hour when the first wave of poison rolls kicks in, but at least there's a glimmer of hope instead of a binary alive/dead.

That final note is important. It gives the poisoned player Interesting Choices as to what they do after being poisoned.
Do you become dead weight and rely on your friends to get you out of there? Or do you fight through the poison and risk the consequences?
Carting an unconscious body out of a dungeon is logistically interesting but pretty boring for the player of the body in question. Carting a conscious body out of a dungeon is a bit more interesting, because at least the player can speak and act if something goes wrong.
It also means their friends have got a few hours to frantically look around for a cure. I doubt they'll be able to craft a proper antivenom in that time (apparently you need access to a goat), but it gives me a few mechanical knobs to twiddle in terms of poultices and herbal remedies and spending a few years building up a resistance to iocane powder.

I don't know why I like the image of people being stretchered out of dungeons so much.
Probably this one picture, to be honest.

Finally, the full copy-paste of the new version of the Death & Dismemberment rules, because why not.

Hit points: HP is more like Not Getting Hit Points, when you take HP damage you’re actually avoiding serious injury. You never go into negative HP, instead you start accruing Death Tokens and rolling on the Hack & Slash “On a Table for Avoiding Death”, which is more brutal than it sounds.

Death Tokens: These are an abstract way of showing how messed up you are. They come in three colours representing Pain, Bleed and Trauma.
You keep Death Tokens in a pile in front of you. The more tokens you have, the more fucked up you are. 
When an attack would take you below 0HP, add a white Pain Token to the pile. Then roll 1d6 for every Death Token you have, add the damage you took to the total, and look up the result on the death table. 
Most results give you more Death Tokens, along with short-term penalties and long-term injuries.

Death Token kickers: You take 1 damage per Bleed Token at the end of each round.
Each Pain Token gives you -1AC, a -1 penalty to all your rolls, and a chance of passing out.
Trauma Tokens are black. Each gives you a chance of dying immediately of internal damage.

Encroaching doom: At the end of every round you have Pain Tokens or Trauma Tokens, roll your Hit Die. If it’s equal to or less than your total Pain Tokens you faint, and if it’s equal to or less than your total Trauma Tokens your organs fail and you die over the next few minutes.

You can instead opt to just lie there panting and crying and holding in your guts. All attacks against you count as attacks from Surprise, but you don’t take bleed damage or roll for unconsciousness and death.

Medic!: First Aid can be used to remove Death Tokens, see New Skills.

Magical healing removes as many Death Tokens as it would usually heal HP. Excess goes to hit points.
Broken arms and other long term injuries mean you are at 0HP until you recover.

Poison: Instead of being insta-death, poison bypasses HP and gives you Poisoned Death Tokens. This means you can be dying even though you've still got lots of HP.
Poisoned Death Tokens act in the same way as Death Tokens - Pain knocks you out, Bleed drains your health, and Trauma straight up kills you.
Unlike normal Death Tokens, Poisoned Death Tokens cannot be healed by First Aid or healing magic that merely heals HP.

Every hour, and at the end of every round in which you move or act, follow the normal rules for Death Tokens. After every hour you can Save vs Poison to remove a single Poisoned Death Token of your choice.


  1. Personally, I like to use ability damage. This gives you that grey area, and allows the GM to make the poison as deadly as he wants (since ability scores aren't tied to level like hit points are). I use the same thing for undead draining (not a fan of level draining). A failed poison saving throw means that you take more damage, and some of it may be permanent (depending on poison). This creates a good approximation of the fear caused by save-or-die mechanics. DCC tends to do this, and I'm not sure why LotFP doesn't, since ability damage is a well-establish concept in that game.

    1. Yea that's a good one, actually!

      I guess the only reason why I wouldn't do that is because I like having a range of mechanics to mess with, and for some reason I want poison to "feel" different to other mechanics.
      I already use ability score damage for some things, so I feel like it'd be somehow derivative to use it for everything.

      Plus ability score damage doesn't (ordinarily) have a ticking time bomb aspect to it, but that can always change.

  2. I hear you. Poison is always going to be one of those mechanics that comes at you sideways, and that's part of the point. I struggled to find a good way to work onset times into my own houserules, but it just bogged down. I like the pace and choices that your mechanics create, which I could never get right.

    1. Yea I'm sort of hoping it makes poison palatable enough that I can use it more often, and also make it easier to adjudicate if/when the players get their hands on some poison of their own.
      It's also a big step up from my previous de-fanging attempt, where a failed poison save from an ordinary save-or-die poison deals 1d100 damage. It's the ticking time-bomb aspect of poison I guess, my first experience of poison in an RPG was (of course) pokemon and that whole oh-god-i-hope-i-can-get-to-a-pokecentre-in-time sense of dread.

      You mentioned level drain before, and poison is definitely in that "unfair old school mechanic" zone.
      I'm not sure what I'll do about that, but at least they can Carouse/Philanthropise levels back in my game which seems fitting?

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