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It seems that the effectiveness of poisons, both in the core list as well as in homebrew systems for inventing your own, are balanced with and directly proportional to their cost. However, there are many poisons that are craftable in real-life at trivial cost.

One of the greatest examples is the semi-infamous Potato Tea. Potatoes are a form of nightshade, a grouping of plants known for their poisonous qualities, and sure enough, almost all parts of the potato plant are poisonous (including the part we eat if not boiled and much more so prior to modern genetic modification, and most concentrated in the leaves). Boiling a potato and/or it's leaves causes the poisons to seep into the water, and instantly creates a poison that is deadly when ingested.

This example seems to create a logic-bomb when applied to the balancing of poisons. The cost of materials is about 1 to 3 cp, and the crafting difficulty as routine as the ability to boil water. Notably, this is only one example of countless ways to make cheap and easy poison using real-world logic.

There seem to be a number of ways to handle this inconsistency:

  1. Do not allow it at all, banning the very concept.
  2. Make the poison weaker proportional to its gold value regardless of realworld properties.
  3. Make the poison cost more proportional to its strength regardless of realworld properties.
  4. Allow it and ignore the poison rules and their inconsistencies altogether.

What is the way to deal with this strictly by the rules, and is it truly in conflict with real-world logic? What is the most common or reasonable way to deal with this situation if it is considered in conflict with the rules? Are there houserules, homebrews, or a general consensus on the subject? Has anyone tackled this rules inconsistency before?

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Real-world logic/chemistry/physics isn't present in most games. Why assume this exists or would work in D&D? –  okeefe Jul 19 '13 at 23:05
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@okeefe Realistic logic is always present in D&D or any roleplaying game, at least in the lenient way my friends and I like to play (which I feel is common). The characters can do anything they want, and as the DM, one has to find a way to make it work. –  Southpaw Hare Jul 19 '13 at 23:12
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A strictly by the rules answer is certainly possible, but: "Most common" and "reasonable" are value calls that we can't make for you; any house rule or homebrew is going to be based on the gamestyle of the group that creates it, and is unlikely to be of help to anyone else; and "general consensus" is not something which can be usefully said to exist in the RPG community. Please join the chat to workshop this question so we can give you experience-based answers that will be useful to you. –  BESW Jul 19 '13 at 23:38
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@SevenSidedDie I do realize that many plants, like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn are all native to the Americas, and therefore their existance in a European-styled fantasy world is questionable. However, keep in mind that this is only one single example out of many ways to make cheap poison. The question relates to the overall problem, not the specific example. –  Southpaw Hare Jul 20 '13 at 22:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

As BESW said, don't expect the game system to model reality.

That said, if you need to figure out stats for potato tea...

  • It's an ingested poison. As the SRD says,

    Ingested poisons are virtually impossible to utilize in a combat situation. A poisoner could administer a potion to an unconscious creature or attempt to dupe someone into drinking or eating something poisoned. Assassins and other characters tend to use ingested poisons outside of combat.

    So, this really isn't likely to be a major combat advantage. In my view, a cheap and accessible plot-device poison isn't really a big deal. Also, how much exactly do you have to trick the target into drinking? From the sound of it, potato tea isn't nearly as potently concentrated as the expensive fantasy poisons in the game book.

  • What's the save DC? Something that calls for a DC 12 Fortitude save, for example, is still going to mess up a lot of low-level characters, but most powerful people will be pretty much immune to it.

  • What's the actual effect in game-mechanical terms? In the real world, it's pretty lethal, but lethal in the real world doesn't necessarily translate to "save or die." A poison that does 2d12 damage could kill a low-level commoner. Whereas a powerful character is just going to vomit it up but survive pretty much unscathed.

I'm not saying you should block the players by going out of your way to make it weak and useless. But don't make a game action super-powerful just because it could kill someone in reality. People were killed with regular ol' run-of-the-mill arming swords all the time. Yet they still do only 1d8 damage in D&D. Players characters and antagonists in D&D very quickly become more like action-movie heroes (or wuxia/super heroes, even) than real-world people as they attain levels or Hit Dice.

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If you do want to go out of your way to block players, stand up from the table, yell "Potatoes are a New World crop!" and award a Verisimilitude Demerit to each of the scheming players. –  Alex P Jul 20 '13 at 1:15
    
Unless you're playing a New-World-themed game... –  Joe Jul 20 '13 at 21:10
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This is the best answer to this question and many like it, you have to realize that 1d4 weapon dagger is a lethal weapon and can kill even the most experienced battle harden solider of today by stabbing him in the chest. By d&d terms that would mean that our best solider is about as healthy as a commoner with 1d4 hit points. Never visialize hit points or death in the same as real life otherwise any weapon that hits a target is a save or die roll of DC 10. –  Pro756 Jul 28 '13 at 17:54

So first of all, the poison list isn't meant to list "anything that could be poisonous if ingested," which includes a lot of stuff, but things that are useful as proper poisons (subtle, easy to deliver, etc.). Compare solanine (the stuff in potatoes) to arsenic (which is listed on the poison table) - not only is it less than half as poisonous (requiring double the amount of the substance to harm or kill someone), but it tastes super bitter so people in their right mind aren't going to take it. The reason arsenic is a popular poison is that a) it tastes sweet and non-irritating so you can put it into food and someone reasonable would eat it, and b) its symptoms look like cholera so it's often mistreated. There's a reason many notables have been killed by arsenic poisoning over the years but solanine poisoning is for "fools that ate too many potatoes." Furthermore, the costs are to buy it on the street; obviously if you have a black adder and some animal handling skills you should be able to produce black adder poison without spending 120 gp on it. Just like in real life, being a lazy adventurer means you pay a lot of money for something not just because of the raw materials but the means of production, shipping and handling, tax/illegitimacy, etc.

Secondly - of course in D&D they tie costs to effectiveness, so you can't handle it by the rules and have realism. Making a poison of effect X is going to cost proportional amount Y. It's fine to jettison the rules for realism - that's how my group plays too, "but balance wharrgarbl" is not interesting to us either. So you don't have to worry about invalidating the game because you decide to use real world rules and not some numbers some dude in a cube made up one day. It's a legitimate play mode and it can work for you. However, realism is tricky - oftentimes someone's "that sounds good" reality doesn't pass muster (as with the tater poisoning plan). In general cost is proportional to usefulness in the real world too because, supply/demand, etc - so sometimes the rules have wisdom you should consider, but then fold spindle and mutilate as you like.

In this case I'd say "sure, you can make some poison - that no one's going to drink willingly unless you've tricked them somehow, and if you've got them tied to a chair and you're pouring it down their throat, fine, you might as well be coup de gracing them."

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Prestidigitation eliminates a lot of your reasoning for solamine's ineffectiveness. –  KRyan Jun 24 at 14:05

There is no rule inconsistency; it is a disconnect between game logic and real-life experience.

D&D is not a reality simulator; its mechanics are abstracted and --as you've noticed-- the value of things are proportionate to their use in adventuring rather than the difficulty in making them or the value of their component parts. While many people play D&D with some basic assumptions that "if a thing seems reasonable then it should be mechanically possible," the game system itself makes no such promise.

The Craft (alchemy) skill allows the creation of poisons, and the effort to do so is based solely on the gold piece value of the final result. This is consistent with other crafting rules, and with the wealth = power ethos of the game's --for lack of a better word-- "economy." The game is thus internally consistent with itself in this sense, and "rules consistency" is not a problem.

The fact that real-life effort/result ratios have little to do with D&D effort/result ratios is an entirely different matter, and irrelevant unless a gaming group specifically chooses to change this in their own game... and taken to its logical conclusion this choice has disastrous results on the system's already tenuous balance.

(See also: Objects below 1 pound never deal or take damage from being dropped; making gunpowder for explosives; using chlorine gas's heavier-than-air property to kill an entire dungeon; the peasant cannon exploit; and anything having to do with figuring out how the D&D economy actually works.)

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Interestingly this was a question I myself encountered to balance a game and I found out many realistic problems to solve this inconsistency.

a) Knowledge: Poisoning was always a very disdained and banned branch of knowledge. This means it was almost always used in secrecy because the reaction of persons if found out was often a very cruel death sentence for the poisoner and apart from death a very ruined reputation even for powerful plotters. So you may know that potatos here are poisonous, but people in the world may be unaware of the harmful effects.

b) Preparation or dealing: You need to create this poison which can be very troublesome. A poison can create poisonous vapors. It may lose his potency if not created very carefully. It may create a vicious stench which may alarm authorities or witnesses. It may be dangerous to transport ("Oops") or needs container which are highly conspicous ("What is inside this adamantine container ?").

c) Effectivity: A poison may be unusable. Some poisons like the funnel web spider in Australia does target primates, but is useless against cats. Or in reverse: A poison which is often used by farmers or fishers is harmless for humans. Pesticide in sprays can easily kill even big snakes while being harmless for us. It may have unfortunate side effects: The troll does react to the poison, but it works as combat stimulant. A poison may have high letality, but there may be effective countermeasures: violent retching, drinking much water or milk, some well-known antidotes.
A poison may need a long time to show effects making it unusable for a campaign. Even relatively fast poisons like snake poison needs several minutes to kill a person, warning the affected person.
The poison may easily lose effectivity over time because it reacts with the surroundings or drips off the poisoned weapon. A poison may have different necessary paths to enter the body: It needs blood contact or must be ingested or it needs to touch bare skin. Poisoning is one of the methods where the outcome is not as predictable as desired. There are well known real incidences of weak and small humans surviving incredible amounts of poison while strong and robust persons have died.

d) Conspicously: A poison may alert the person because it has a garish color, it smells strongly or it burns if touched. Once alarmed, the person will take precautions against poisoning.

So all in all, it is easily to arrange that you need high prices for inconspicous poisons (no smell, color or taste) which are working as desired (high letality, no antidote, robust against environmental factors) from trustable sources.

And finally: e) Reaction: Once the party use poisons, it will have effects. People and monsters will have no qualms to use unfair and cruel tactics themselves.
"A crossbow bolt comes from the thicket and kills your character immediately."
"You all feel that your limbs go numb while the innkeeper begins to smile." "You finally find the well after nearly parching...but..it has a strange smell..."

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At least half of traditional D&D antagonists already don't have any qualms about cruel and unfair tactics. They're inhuman monsters or capital-E Evil villains. –  Alex P Jul 20 '13 at 21:15
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Point A is a rare exception rather than a common situation: poisons have always been commonly available for use in crafting, cleaning, hunting, and extermination, in addition to the many naturally-occurring poisons in plants and animals; these poisons would have to be common knowledge so that people didn't accidentally kill themselves in the course of normal activities, and the wide variety of poisons thus available render points B and C moot. –  BESW Jul 21 '13 at 6:37

Another very simple solution...

This is a fantasy world, with Elves, and Dwarves and such... Not the real world. Maybe in this world potatoes aren't poisonous? Or maybe, there aren't even potatoes?

Ultimately, any decision is up to the DM - but you should of course consult with your players.

In the end the game is meant to be played for fun, if one player's fun is that he is the master potato poisoner, then you should let that be part of his mechanic - and "Oh no!" the police suddenly are on to his potato poisoning ways could even be an interesting story hook.

Conversely, the ability to kill an entire village by cooking them a poisonous stew might be something that all the players can agree is ridiculous and should not be included.

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