5 Things We Get Wrong About Poison in D&D

5 Things We Get Wrong About Poison in D&D

By Luke Hart

Poison is everywhere in D&D. Monsters use it when they stab you with their stingers or bite you with their fangs. Assassins coat their blades with it and drow their crossbow bolts. Dwarves are resistant to its effects. And yet, we often use poison sub-optimally in our D&D games. Here are five ways you’re probably using poison wrong and how you can fix it.

By the way, if you’re frustrated with all the missing rules in 5e and looking for some lightweight rulesets you can add to your game, check out our Big Ruleset Bundle. It contains 5e rules for poison, mass combat, sieges, hex crawls, points of interest, crafting, and more.

Watch or listen to this article by clicking the video below.

1. Massively underutilizing poison

With everything else going on in the game, it’s easy to not focus on poison usage, even though it can be really cool and have amazing effects. Most of us know about Basic Poison listed in the player handbook, and yet how many players actually stock up on it prior to an adventure? There are even more poisons listed on page 257 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), but how many dungeon masters actually use them or make them available to players?

Many times, we simply overlook using poison in our games. But variety is the spice of life, and after playing the same old game for quite some time, putting the spotlight on a familiar but underused game mechanic can be really cool. Wouldn’t the game be more interesting if players had a selection of poisons at their disposal and could use them on their various adventures? Imagine the rogue stocking up on Oil of Taggit or Burnt Othru Fumes on the black market and ferreting them away for the next big heist. And especially when we consider the massive amounts of gold that the core rules suggest DMs give their players, giving them something like poison to spend all that cash on makes even more sense.

2. Not making poison better and more interesting

Now, one of the first objections folks will likely have against using poison is that it mostly sucks. And, yes, you have me there. Basic Poison from the player handbook costs 100 gold pieces, takes an action to apply, and only does 1d4 poison damage. If that doesn’t suck, I don’t know what does. So, as a dungeon master, consider homebrewing poisons a bit to make them a better option for players to consider. In the case of basic poison, how about we make it a bonus action to apply, have it deal 1d8 damage, or have the 1d4 damage be applied to the first three attacks that land during combat? Any one of these quick fixes, but perhaps not all three, make this poison a much better option, and players will be more likely to use it.

Now, the poisons listed in the DMG are certainly better . . . but they are still kind of uninteresting. Most of them rely on the same tired two mechanics: make a saving throw and take some damage OR make a saving throw or get the poisoned condition. Admittedly, that’s not super exciting. So, even though there are 14 additional types of poison in the DMG, they are mostly just different flavors of the same mechanic. That gets boring fast. And that leads me to my next point.

3. Not expanding the poison options

As dungeon masters, it’s our job to create an exciting and interesting game world for the players to play in and enjoy. The same can be said of poisons. If we wish to use poison more in our games and make it something cool the players can have fun with, we need to increase their options and be more imaginative than just giving the poison types special names with varying amounts of damage. What about poisons that cause confusion, or fear, or charm the target? Or paralyzes or causes the target to launch into a fit of uncontrollable laughter? Or poison that replicates a spell effect?

In a game such as D&D, the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. So, let’s not limit the poisons in our games to only doing damage and applying the poisoned effect. And yet, at the same time, creativity can be challenging, and as the dungeon master, you’re just one person with one brain. But what if players could help, too?

4. Not providing poison crafting options to players

Players often have equally amazing and insane ideas, and several brains are usually better than just one. Providing a way for players to create their own poisons does two things. First, it takes work off the dungeon master’s shoulders. You can still create your own poisons if you’d like, but outsourcing creativity and effort allows you to focus on other things as needed, too. Second, it gives your players a way to exercise their creativity and gets them more invested in the game because they can get excited about the cool poisons they might be crafting.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Luke, you just told me to allow my players to craft poisons to take work off my shoulders, but if I have to create a poison crafting system, isn’t that just going to be MORE WORK? Well, technically, yes, but if you use a pre-existing poison crafting system, it isn’t much more work. The trick, in my opinion, is using a lightweight system that can be easily implemented and doesn’t take a lot of time to read, learn, and teach to your players.

5. Not setting the example

Once you’ve made poison more interesting, expanded possible options, and introduced some simple poison crafting rules your players can use, the next step is to set the example as the dungeon master. There are simple things you can do such as equipping the bad guys with poison and having them use it against the players’ characters.

And, of course, this leads naturally to having that poison turn into loot that the characters can take off the bad guys’ bodies after they murderize them, or that they find in cabinets and chests in their hideouts. Because all respectable bad guys have secret hideouts, right?

But you can also introduce poison as a theme in your campaign and take things to the next level. Is the Big Bad and his cronies heading up a black market poison ring? Are bodies being found about the city, all having died from the same mysterious poison? Is the police force beginning to crack down on poison possession, and yet the players just LOVE using all the special poison they’ve crafted?

What’s the Deal with All the Missing Rules for 5e?

Are you frustrated that there are some big gaps in the 5e core game system? You know, entire rulesets that seem to be missing?

Believe me, we feel your pain. And that’s why in the Big Ruleset Bundle we have created several lightweight rulesets to fill in the gaps that the 5e designers left behind:

  • Advanced Poison
  • Mass Combat
  • Sieges
  • Hewcrawls
  • Points of Interest
  • Hexes
  • Curses
  • Crafting
  • And more

Remember, these rules are lightweight, meaning it won’t take you and your players ages to read and learn them!

So, if you’re tired of having to homebrew your own rules or make on the spot adjudications when these situations come up, pick up the Big Ruleset Bundle, which includes Poison Explored! Don’t spend another second wondering why it isn’t in the core rulebook.

Also, if you’re looking for information on running Skill Challenges in 5e—another mechanic oddly missing from the game—check out our article on How to Run Skill Challenges in D&D 5e.

The Big Ruleset Bundle - lightweight rules for 5e

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