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A classic method of identifying potions (especially in OSR games) is by sipping them. This method is attractive to me for the potential fun involved in experimenting with unknown effects. However, I find that there are conceptual problems with it. These are the possible scenarios I can think of:

  • A character discovers the effect of the potion by experiencing them through a sip (example: if Bob the Fighter tastes a healing potion, he will be healed): the logical consequence here is that a sip is sufficient to elicit the full effect of the potion. Thus, nothing would stop Bob the Fighter to drink only a small sip of a beneficial potion every time he needs its effects, rather than the entire potion. This would extend the durability of the potion to multiple uses, invalidating the equation 1 potion = 1 use. Furthermore, it would make difficult to count remaining uses (how many "sips" are there in a potion?).
  • A character can guess the nature of the potion by experiencing a milder version of its effect through a sip (example: if Bob the Fighter tastes a healing potion, he will be healed by a only few hit points). This is possibly better than the previous version, since if Bob the Fighter wants to elicit the full effect, he must drink the whole potion; however, it doesn't address completely the problem. Let's say Bob the Fighter is down a few hit points, and doesn't want to waste a full potion: he can decide to drink a few sips to regain a couple of hit points. So there is still the problem to count remaining uses/remaining effect after a sip. Furthermore, it doesn't work too well with potion with all-or-nothing effects. What happens when Bob the Fighter tastes a potion that changes permanently the color of his hair? It changes the color temporarily? It changes the color permanently, but only slightly?
  • A character can guess the nature of the potion by experiencing a "descriptive" version of its effect through a sip (example: if Bob the Fighter tastes a healing potion, he will feel "refreshed", or the GM will describe how bruises disappear and small cuts rapidly heal - but with no mechanical effect). However, as the previous scenario this doesn't seem to work very well with all-or-nothing effects.
  • A character can guess the nature of the potion by recognizing its taste (example: if Bob the Fighter tastes a healing potion, the GM will will describe its peculiar taste, and the character will subsequently recognize the same potion by recognizing the taste). This could be a good solution, but I'm concerned that it might grow old pretty fast.
  • A sip is not enough to discover the effect, the character must drink the whole potion (example: to know that a healing potion restores hit points, Bob the Fighter must drink it - sipping will have no effect): Another good solution as far as game mechanics and verisimilitude is concerned; my only complain is that Bob the Fighter may be discouraged to drink a potion of which he has only one specimen.

Are there other methods that do not have the previous problems (methods that could encourage experiments while keeping the whole thing amusing for the players and simple for the GM)?

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Whatever works in your game is what you should do. If you haven't tried any of these yet to determine what works though…

Your first two options I've never seen work. They fail exactly in the ways you predict: the piecemeal benefits are way better than the normal function and it fundamentally changes the role of potions in the game. They don't work, for a value of “work” that means “potions have their expected utility.”

What does work is every option after. Your predictions about how they would fail don't bear out in experience.

  • Descriptive effects take a little bit of creativity to come up with for each type of potion, but it's less difficult than ad-libbing royal dialogue or coming up with a way to respond to players doing something you don't have a plan for.

    Yes, a sip of healing potion could be described as “refreshing”, and that's pretty easy to come up with. There's no reason that you can't come up with subjective effects for any other kind of potion, whether or not it's an all-or-nothing effect. An levitation potion might cause one to feel “bubbly”, an invisibility potion might make the drinker “feel light-headed”, a potion of fire breathing might taste “spicy”.

    The point is, no matter what you come up with, the hint will not 100% tell them what the potion does anyway. That means that you can get slightly poetic about the descriptions too, so that maybe a potion of growth makes the tester feel “achy” and a potion of water breathing feels “cold”. If you want it to be obvious, then giving hints is defeating your goal; skip to the bottom and read up on another option you didn't think of…

  • Recognising its taste is perfectly valid. Your concern that it might get old fast doesn't bear out — in practice what happens is that the players get very interested in keeping good notes on what potions taste like so that they can quickly and accurately identify future potions, as well as sort them into safe “known” and risky “unknown” categories. This kind of behaviour is wonderful and exactly what making players experiment with magic items is supposed to elicit. If you're wanting your players to vigorously engage with potions in your game world, this is a boss method to do it.

  • Recognising its appearance works just like taste, except it's the kinder, gentler option because they don't have to risk imbibing something that might be harmful even when only sipped. Players will take meticulous notes (or curse themselves for not doing so, the first time they find a potion they recognise but can't remember the effect of), and really get into the process of experimentation.

These three can even be combined for even more in-depth experimentation play experiences: give each potion a descriptive sensation when sipped, an appearance, and a taste. You can make these each unique, or you can make some of them the same; e.g. maybe two potions are both a brown oily swirl in the bottle, but the one that tastes like onions is a healing potion and the one that tastes like acetone is a fire-resistance potion. I improvise these details when a new potion is discovered, and I keep a blank spreadsheet page in my notes to jot down the potions' attributes to keep it consistent. (There's nothing stopping you from determining this stuff ahead of time, but I like to save my prep for things that can't be done improvisationally or with random tables during the game, so the blank spreadsheet is how I roll.)

Some potions will be easier to identify than others by different means, which is fine — such variations are the stuff that make small details like potions interesting to interact with in the exploration mode of play. Descriptions of potions they haven't found yet also become valuable information that NPCs can give the PCs, or which can be found in scribbled notes in the margin of a spellbook. Knowledge becomes treasure that the players really value!

Another valid option: Don't make them guess at all

Another option is to handle it in a way similar to describing NPC's conversation in third person: require the exploration action still (and therefore the associated risks of choosing to sip or not sip strange liquids) but skip describing the details and just tell them what their PC learns.

You take a tiny sip from the bottle of liquid and discover that it is a potion of strength. Moving along now…

If the above options that involve the players having to treat potions as mini-riddles — and maybe getting it wrong sometimes — is something you don't want to ever deal with, then you don't actually want them to be guessing via hints. You just want to tell them. And that's fine!

It doesn't even remove the exploration focus from a game — it just changes what the game focuses on exploring. If a player can have their PC just sip a potion and be informed what the hero deduces it to be, without needing to do the deduction themselves, that just means you can move along quickly to the other awesome exploration stuff: mapping, managing light sources, making semi-informed risk assessments about going further or retreating, etc.

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