I am reading the titular book by Andy Brunning because I still have a curious mind. I’m in the section on poisons, an area of medicine and biology I have very little experience of (despite handling some of the deadliest chemicals known to man). So aside from enjoying a romp through the chemical structure of naturally found poisons, I’m getting a good grounding in dosage and effects. What becomes very clear is that our RPG mechanics are pretty much broke.
Poisons kill you! Yes I know that seems like a pretty obvious statement but at the most brutal level it is as simple as that. How effective they are at killing you is all down to dosage and mechanism. Now there might be a genetic predisposition to what that dosage should be but in essence you put a poison in your body then you will suffer the effects. No saving throws, no resistance rolls just a lethal dose.
This has got me thinking about the Rolemaster system and how it handles disease and poison. Well actually the thought was there because if you don’t have levels how do you handle resistance rolls (RR). A brief outline: RR rolls are used for many opposed resolutions (poison, disease, magic, influence) at equal levels it’s a 50:50 and skews for increasing level differences. Now ICE (the old school) has already considered poisons in subsets of effect. However, the higher the level of the character the less likely they were to suffer because of this rather than exposure. Until they are over level 10 where it becomes a case of ignoring it almost altogether. Pretty odd since it should be your overall health and a dose of genetics that determines susceptibility.
You can argue for a level for the poison based on potency and also as it is roleplay you want a healthy dose of luck to be involved . I wouldn’t be happy if everyone died because they walked into the poison trap without giving them a chance at a heroic escape. Perhaps that is the best way to view the RM increasing level approach; the hero becomes for lucky or adept at holding his breath, spitting out the poison. I think I’d rather give the player the chance of offering a solution and giving them a dice roll shot at success regardless of their level.
There is however, a place for determining onset of the effects of poisoning (or diseases infections for that matter) with either a percentage result table (MM table), target value roll (RR table) or just an opposed roll. The Constitution stat is your genetic predisposition to fighting off the effects that will boost chances of survival or reducing the overall effects on the body. Any racial modifiers would likewise reduce the effects and improve survival chances. Even the size of the character can be factored by moving the potency up and down a category. The same dose would be more potent for a Hobbit than a Troll. Take that you poison wielding assassin: your dagger injects the poison into the Troll (it will take 3 days to incapacitate the creature).
In most of our fiction the poison is deadly and fast acting. The hero steps into a gas trap and survives because he holds his breath. The disposable henchman dies coughing and fighting for breath within a few seconds or minutes at the most. The good Lord killed by poison in the night or at feast at table. The assassin’s blade that drips poison into the wound and thus the death of character is sudden and quick.
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,-Ghost (King Hamlet, Hamlet’s Father) spoken to Hamlet[Act I, scene 5]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebenon
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That, swift as quicksilver, it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body;
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood; so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand,
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Actually, pretty much everything you can read in Hamlet appears in our choice of fictional poisons. However, when you start to read articles on poisons of natural extraction you realise that although some effects may become apparent quickly the actual death part can take sometime (days and weeks). There are few that incapacitate quickly at high doses and in that the GM can gain control of the poison cabinet from the player who wishes to coat every blade in a quick acting poison and in the process prevent themselves from instantly killing a character with poison. Grading by dose the effect of poison (or hallucinogen or disease) gives a chance of healing, can modify what can be accomplished to allow escape, gives time for antidotes to be delivered and generally should make poisons more interesting without adding a large workload of research to the GMs already busy life.
A final thought, I haven’t gone into specifics of poisons, preparation, lethality, potency, and latency because I think that is part of the game world you are in. I would say don’t give into the lazy combat orientated poisoning that causes the foe to immediately drop and die. Follow Shakespeare in Hamlet act V. Poor Laertes thought to win with slow poison from the cup of Claudius and indeed Hamlet was disorientated. Then he sought to speed the process up with a quicker poison from a blade and ended up being killed by his own poisoned blade. Such is the reward for the perfidious poisoner.