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Many games have classes that make extensive use of poisons. Poisons of course have been used in murder and poisonous gases have been used in war. But how realistic are the poisoned weapons so common in many rpgs? By that I mean: Is there some poison which can realistically (or at least plausiblely) be applied to a weapon in a way that will actually affect the outcome of a battle?

An answer showing how poisoned weapons have been used in history would certain answer this, but its not necessary. I am more concerned about verisimilitude and whether it is believable to have non-magical poisons applied to weapons in an effective way. Is it realistic to poison a weapon in the sense that it would actually work? And is it realistic to have a reason to do that even if it would work?

This question is obviously related: Creating Poison Cheaply - Potato Tea? but asks something different and is more focused on game balance if you allow real world ways of making poisons.

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This is incredibly broad, asking how realistically poisoned weapons model real ones across the whole spectrum of RPG is way beyond the reasonable scope of this site. Or it requires expertise outside the general domain of RPG which is off topic here. – wax eagle Dec 20 '13 at 18:14
@waxeagle I think it's less broad than that since it describes the kind of model of interest (fast, effective, useful on weapons) and that narrows it down to one common model that is familiar to many of us, regardless of specific RPGs. – SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 18:52
This question is both off-topic and too broad. If you're looking for a history answer, ask history. If you're looking for all poisons, check out a few books from the library. Please spec your question to a specific problem that you're having. Given that this has already attracted... broad and not-useful answers, my recommendation @TimothyAWiseman would be to delete and to post a specific question relating to your situation. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 21 '13 at 12:16
Perhaps I'm unclear on what the standards of the site are. At least after the rephrasing I thought I was asking a fairly specific question about realism and OpaCitiZen gave an answer of exactly the kind I was hoping for and the other answers were also constructive and interesting. Thanks for the feedback, and I suppose I'll try to clarify my understanding of the site. – TimothyAWiseman Dec 21 '13 at 16:06
I still think it's fine as-is. Historians can't answer this, as it is a comparative question that requires RPG expertise. It's a yes/no+why question, which is pretty straightforward. It's not asking about "in all RPGs", it's asking about the poison tropes that are common in RPGs—tropes are recognisable without having to point to an exemplar to gain a veneer of narrowness. – SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '13 at 20:03
up vote 17 down vote accepted

This archived forum from discusses the same question, it might be worth taking a look at.

The general points seem to be the following:

  • Poisoned arrows have been used by certain tribes, mainly to hunt smaller animals, though people used them to battle other people as well (Native American tribes, Chinese armies are brought up as examples.)
  • The primary aim of poisoning in melee seems to be to make sure an otherwise not lethally wounded (and retreating) enemy doesn't return to the field soon, if at all: more a strategic move than a tactical one (used both in open battles and in guerilla warfare)
  • A secondary use of poisoned weapons is psychological warfare: it scares the enemy
  • Smaller blades with poison were used for assassinations as well, again probably to maximize the chance of taking down a well protected, hard to reach enemy leader (so, if the stabbing fails, the poison will finish the work.)

I think that's the gist of both that rather thorough-appearing discussion and what little I remember from the history books on the topic.

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So: poisoned weapons are generally slow, rather than fast as they're usually modelled in RPGs. – SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 18:45
In many RPGs I have played, poison is fast but of short duration (ex: x hp/turn during y turns), but poisons seems to be the opposite: slow but mortals. I think there are some very fast poisons (maybe not as fast as a knife), but I suppose they aren't so easily applied with a weapon. – Flamma Dec 21 '13 at 10:49
'Curare' and the toxins of the aptly named 'poison dart frogs' were used for hunting purposes (birds among others) so they are bound to act really fast (otherwise how'd you ever find that bird in the jungle?). – fgysin Mar 8 at 8:00

The problem with realistic poisons is that they're incredibly game-breaking - any peasant can slip a handful of herbs into a player's food, and they're effectively a goner. Most RPG systems that try to handle poison treat it as a damage source, which is therefore nowhere near as much of a threat at higher levels, rather than instant-death, to stop every session being a paranoia-filled deathfest. Therefore, few (if any) RPGs handle poison realistically, simply to make the game more fun and less lethal.

Realistically poisoned weapons, specifically, aren't fun at all within a game. Poison on weapons wouldn't usually kill the foe while you fight him; it would slow his healing, damage tissues and cause sickness after the fight was over. Smearing excrement over a weapon would make even a small cut potentially lethal due to disease, as a quick and free way to make a weapon more dangerous, but players don't usually enjoy a game where they have to fear every cut. Winning the battle, only to die of blood poisoning later, can leave a bad taste in players' mouths, and having to Cure Poison/Disease regularly can be a huge drain on resources, especially if the cleric ends up having to use scrolls or a wand.

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You have to get into a more social game before realistic poisons are gameable: then the hit on your reputation and possible trial (for the upper classes) or the risk of swift execution on the mere suspicion of being a poisoner (for the lower classes) make using easy poison simply less appealing and therefore far less common. – SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 18:49
This is a comment, not an answer to the question posed. – mxyzplk Dec 20 '13 at 20:49
@mxyzplk The question is whether RPGs are realistic about poisons. My answer is "no, because..." which answers it. It would be useful if you clarified what you meant, so I could expand on my answer. – Dakeyras Dec 20 '13 at 21:25
@Dakeyras I think leaving out the "No, because..." is part of it. – SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '13 at 11:12
I accepted OpaCitiZens answer as being more comprehensive, but after the update I think this was helpful to me addressing both the fact that poisoned weapons often won't be too useful during the fight and why RPGs hardly every try to handle them realistically. Thanks. – TimothyAWiseman Dec 21 '13 at 17:22

By that I mean: Is there some poison which can realistically (or at least plausiblely) be applied to a weapon in a way that will actually affect the outcome of a battle?

Well, yes! That is what all those hunting poisons are about - you put it on an arrow or a dart, and suddenly a 400-800 lbs beast is laying itself down within minutes, either dying outright or dazed enough you can slit it's throat with a knife.

But you'll also notice that kind of poison is very rare - it's hard to harvest that kind of stuff, much less harvest it in great numbers.

Instead, what we often saw happen is armies would dip arrows or spear heads into feces or other filth to create infections. When the wounded would die a day or days later, or lose limbs to necessary amputations... people often just assumed the enemy was "using poison".

The big realism hurdles are: getting enough poison, keeping it potent long enough to use, making sure your army (conscripts? probably) don't accidentally harm or kill themselves while applying it.

Even if the poison itself isn't magical, a lot of magic ideas quickly change how poison would be used:

  • If simple heal spells resolve poison, it may not be worth using to begin with
  • Can magic make poison harvesting easier? Can it increase the quantity/effect?
  • Can a magical scabbard keep the potency of poison you applied days ago?
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I think a distinction can be drawn between poison and venom. Poisonous plants, for example, do not kill every animal that eats a leaf; persuading animals that these leaves are not good to eat is enough, so vegetable poisons are typically slow-acting (and of course ingested). It's entirely historical to allow a witch or alchemist to produce poisons that an assassin can slip into the victim's food. If this threatens game balance, bear in mind that the actual outcome is unpredictable; testing on humans tends to be difficult to arrange.

Snake or scorpion venom is what most 'poisoned weapons' rely on. Obviously a predator is not interested in long-term mortality, so these venoms tend to be fast-acting and work through the blood (one cautionary tale is of the lecturer who swallowed snake venom to demonstrate its safety; unknown to him he had an ulcer that allowed the venom into the bloodstream). Venoms are very hard to create artificially, but can often be 'milked' and bottled for later use. The main limitation is that all venom loses potency quickly when exposes to air, so smearing some on your sword before a big fight is possible; keeping your sword permanently poisoned is not.

Other disadvantages for a GM to keep in mind are the reputation that using poison will give you (unchivalrous at best, in league with the devil at worst): the inconvenience of keeping a bottle of poison in your pack where guards or thieves may find it, and it may leak onto your clothes or food: and the difficulties of buying it. It is quite likely that you can find a shady apothecary who keeps snakes and sells a small amount of venom, but if he is arrested (or dies of snakebite) there may be nobody else in town.

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I didn't mention spiders because, besides the difficulty of harvesting, "Spider venom comes in many forms.It can often take a long while to discover the full effects of the bite. Naturalists have pondered this for years; there are even spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and drop off, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It's because spiders think this is funny, and they don't want you ever to forget them." Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys. – TimLymington Dec 21 '13 at 11:54

This is the kind of poison that one could put on a weapon and seriously debilitate an enemy.

Back in OD&D and 1e, poison was "fail save and die."

In a given game or at a given table, how lethal you want to make a poison has to be in the hands of the DM.

Does the DM want save or die?
OK, there are real life poisons that do that.

Does the DM want "poison, but chance to be saved" with anti venom?
OK, there are poisons that do that as well.

What kind of poison do You want in Your game world?

I won't delve into real chemical weapons in the real world since most RPG's are not real world simulators, and quite frankly, the tecnhical challenges to keeping them fresh enough to use are well outside of the "fun" of most RPG's.

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