5 Poisonous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0122

A Brief Word From Johnn

Thanks For The NPC Ideas!

Thanks to the 100+ Tips readers who sent in their ideas and feedback for my NPC eBook! I was surprised by the kind of requests that came in, and because of your feedback I have completely changed a major portion of the book. It’s too bad other publishers aren’t able to do research like this and customize their products to accommodate specific requests like we’ve just done.

I emailed my publisher last week and got permission to add the names (first name and last initial, or alias–unless I hear otherwise from you) of those who wrote in to a special credits section. It’s not much, but your feedback has helped tremendously.

If you have any more NPC how-to and advice requests for me to cover in the eBook, feel free to write in–the publisher didn’t mention a limit on the size of that special credits section. ?

Minor Rewards In MS Word Form

Thanks to David Nihsen who put the couple hundred minor rewards into a formatted Word doc, edited it a bit, and added a table of contents.

Here’s the download link: Minor Rewards Doc.

If you have a PC, but not Word, you can download a free Word Viewer here: http://office.microsoft.com/downloads/2000/wd97vwr32.aspx

Virus Shmirus

The latest worm is pretty brutal. It sends itself to people found in the infected user’s address book and puts a random person from that same address book in the From field. Thus, it makes it seem like the wrong people are infected. I know a few people have received email supposedly from me with viruses attached.

So, my first bit of advice is to pick up a great villain tip from this whole thing: impersonation is a great villainous tactic! Use it in your next game. ?

Next, if you don’t have good anti-virus software, check out AVG. It’s cleaned the infected systems of two friends and has protected me entirely from this latest virus/worm. I’ve been using it successfully for six months now. Here’s the URL (it’s free software too, though PC only): http://www.grisoft.com


Johnn Four
[email protected]

5 Poisonous Tips

Consider The Huge Story Potential

Quite often poison is spontaneously used in games, or it’s something the GMs add quickly to an encounter during preparations without too much thought. However, poison has huge story potential that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Let’s look at the possible parts of the “poison chain”:

Ingredients Or Source

What is the source of the poison? Is it a mixture of ingredients? If so, what are the elements? Rare and exotic ingredients are ideal for quests, jobs, plot hooks, and story lines. Common ingredients that are well-known (such as arsenic) can make great puzzle quests where the PCs need to get their hands on it but don’t want to arouse suspicion.

The ingredients might need to be distilled or processed and the source material itself creates interesting story possibilities. For example, in your world the powder from boiled-off black rose broth might create a deadly substance, but it requires 1,000 petals to ensure the broth is potent enough. Getting that many flowers might be a great excuse to kick the PCs out of their home base and have them explore the region, which leads them into other stories and side plots…

Perhaps the source is extremely difficult to handle. Imagine getting dragon saliva, or a deep sea fish. When the source is poisonous and fights back you can turn things into a tricky hack-fest or a puzzling dilemma, depending on your players’ preferences and campaign needs.

Other options are:

  • The source is in a remote place but needs to remain fresh.
  • The main ingredient is difficult to contain, such as hot lava.
  • The source is nearby but hard to find (i.e. a chameleon mushroom).
  • The ingredients are illegal or sacrilegious.
  • The ingredients are hard to conceal (i.e. noxious smell).


If the poison is already a known entity then who discovered it and how? This tale would be great to weave into your campaigns in the form of bard’s tales, rumours and gossip, world history, or skill based lore. Ideally, you’d do this well before hatching your poisonous plot to create a feeling of campaign depth.

Other options:

  • The poison was an accidental discovery.
  • It was created on purpose (but who would be evil enough to do that? ?
  • The PCs unwittingly discover it.
  • Somebody with good intentions discovers it.
  • A demon reveals it and an NPC with bad judgement uses it during a moment of crisis.
  • The enemy of a society gives it to one side of a conflict.


How does the poison get made or processed? Consider adding complexity, scale, or wonderment to add value to your campaigns:

  • Special time requirement (i.e. on the Equinox, 10 years burning over an open flame).
  • Unusual location requirement (i.e. near a volcano, in outer space/astral plane).
  • Powerful energy needed (i.e. a fireball needs to be cast on it–where could that possibly happen safely?).
  • Strange equipment needed (this can be machinery from a higher tech level, magical equipment, or simply something foreign).

In each of those bullets lies a potential adventure thread waiting to happen…

Obtaining The Poison

There are several opportunities to weave the seller, buyer, and transport arrangements into cool plot threads.Assuming that the NPC isn’t creating the poison for himself, he’s got to find a buyer. How does he do that? Is there organized crime that could be approached? Corrupt agencies or guild members? A black market zone or meeting area?

The same problem exists for the buyer who needs a poison but can’t create it herself.

And then there’s the transport. Depending on the substance’s toxicity, identifiability, bulk, and containability, there are some great options for creating PC story lines, or background events:

  • Law enforcement actions (i.e. the mysterious raid by people in strange suits).
  • Leakage and spills cause a crisis in a neighbourhood.
  • PCs hired to move the poison from point A to B.

Application And Use

How should the poison be administered? Ingested, inhaled, skin contact? Go one step further when poison is used in your games and add a little style.

  • The poison sings or leaves yellow smoke trails when swung around on weapons in combat.
  • Replace the classic needle trap with a stinger, tooth, or claw trap. Check out the monsters, beasts, or aliens in your game rules and look for cool body parts you can use to deliver poisons.
  • The wealthy merchant hollows out random gems in his vault and fills them with a deadly liquid.
  • The poison is put into incense form and packaged in black foil with gold lettering.

Any way that you can think of breaking the usual poison stereotypes in your games the more entertaining they will be.


See Tip 2 for some effects ideas. The point for now is to look for story potential in the consequences of getting poisoned.For example, rather than slow, painful death, the poison causes anger and violent rage… Everyone in town is wondering the reason behind the rash of recent attacks by berserk ogres and ettins. Meanwhile, the PCs’ new job of protecting the tannery workers as they cart their production waste downstream is becoming more and more dangerous…


Antidotes are classic material for adventures and quests. You can add new twists and elements by going back to the beginning of this tip and working through the process again, because an antidote is just like a poison and has the same issues and story opportunities!

The next time you or the characters employ poisons in your campaign, think about the poison chain and make an adventure out of it. Pick just one part, or use them all to create side plots, plot twists, and entire adventures.

Add A Twist

Here are some ideas to add twists to poisons in your game in order to surprise the players or bring new life to a classic game element:

  • It doesn’t have to be deadly. Poisons are employed for more reasons than to kill.
    • For self defense, they have to act fast and incapacitate.
    • A poison that acts like a truth drug.
    • A poison that creates huge red skin blotches and acne: perfect for use in a social conflict like a bard competition or suitors competing for the Princess’ hand in marriage.
    • The poison reduces intelligence to weaken the PC for the next encounter’s challenge.
    • Coma. The poisoner wants to manipulate others (i.e. the PCs) so he puts a loved one into a coma and holds the anti-dote hostage.
  • Delayed effect. Imagine a poison that takes four weeks after initial contact to take effect. That would create a good mystery as the victim and others make a false assumption and try to think of events that happened within the last hour that would have caused the poisoning.
  • Mind altering effects. The poison generates psychosis.
    • Turns allies into enemies that the PCs won’t want to simply hack down.
    • Creates a mystery about a change in personality or strange behaviour–poison is not the usual suspect.
    • Lets players have fun by playing weird quirks until their PC is successfully treated.
  • One man’s poison is another’s cure. The poison could turn out to be useful to another race or society. Lots of potential for misunderstandings and story conflicts there.
  • Magic based or technology based. Radiation has created more comic heroes and villains than any other substance. One of Star Trek’s main villains uses nanotechnology to overcome opponents. With magical poisons, the sky’s the limit for effects and treatments. Be creative. ?

Use Poison To Sow Fear And Create Tension

The use of poison in most games creates two opportunities for tension. The first is the resistance roll. A critical dice roll should always be “celebrated” in the same way game show hosts drag on the final challenge or answer.Quiet all the players down, make sure everyone knows what the player is rolling for, describe the character’s current, almost-poisoned state, delay the dice roll for several seconds, then let the player roll d’em bones.

The second source of tension is fear of the unknown. Is the poison lethal? How deadly is it? Even if the character resists will she still suffer some effects? The players won’t know the limitations, effects, and side-effects of the poison and that can create a lot of healthy game tension.

Use this to your advantage. Before the PCs even come into contact with the poison, let them hear rumours that their foe is known to use poison. Feed them exaggerated tales of what’s happened to poison victims. Give them conflicting information about treatment and antidotes. Use fake poisons to create false alarms. Make hidden rolls from time to time.

Often, the mere presence of poison in the campaign creates a little player tension. Work on that when you can to create a more entertaining experience for all.

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Roleplay The Effects

From Roger B.

Don’t use the rules as listed in the books (assuming that wouldn’t anger your players). And avoid describing things in rule-based descriptions.The statement, “Your opponent’s blade has a green (black, red) goo along the edge of the blade,” should make a player nervous. If he or she gets cut, make statements like, “The wound burns with a painful intensity you’ve never felt before.”

Don’t give hit point damage until later, or even use non hit point related effects. Tell them they feel sleepy, tired, hung over, or that they want to lose their lunch. All of these can be roleplayed much better than “You take four hit points of damage”.

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Turn Poison Into More Than A Single Dice Roll

From Maarten V.B.

I always try to use poison as it works in real life: as a race against the clock. Instead of allowing a save and dealing a lot of damage when missed, I treat poisons as a gradual attack on the victim’s body.An example:The PC party is breaking into a keep a few miles outside the town to recover a stolen item. As the party thief tries to open a locked chest, a trap is sprung and a poison needle stings the poor rogue.

The thief knows this, but he doesn’t necessarily share this with the party (he doesn’t want to look stupid, does he? :).

[Rules: The GM or the thief’s player rolls a resistance roll appropriate to the game system to avoid being infected by the poison. The PC fails this time but the GM doesn’t tell him anything yet.As an aside, every now and then I let my players roll poison saves when they are hit by normal weapons or stung by needles, etc., just to keep them in the dark as to what is happening.]

The thief is infected with a strong poison, but it takes some time to kick in (onset time). The adventure continues and after a few minutes of game time the GM passes the player a note that says the thief feels a throbbing pain in his right index finger. As the thief looks at his finger, he sees that it is swollen and blue.

[Rules: The GM tells the player to record 1 damage to his finger on his sheet.]

Maybe the player warns the group now, or maybe he doesn’t. After this, the wound keeps getting worse. Eventually, his entire hand starts to turn blue and swollen.

[Rules: At regular intervals, the DM tells the player to record another point of damage].

Eventually, the thief will realize that he needs help. He will warn the group, if he had not already done so, and now they have to race back to the city to find someone who can cure the poison. A slow poison spell or potion could buy them some extra time, if they have it.

The GM should make this race as exciting as possible: PCs arrive at the doctor’s house with more than enough time left, only to find that the doctor is out making house calls. Or the priests are in a sacred service and may not be disturbed for the coming hour. Or the witch doctor is already treating another mortally wounded patient and she cannot do two things at the same time.

This way, you can turn a poisoning into an event which requires a lot more, but also yields a lot more, than a single dice roll.

Promote Your RPG Product Here

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Just don’t try to sell us any swampland in Gehenna. ?

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Keep It Simple

From Simon M.

Just thought I would email you with some interesting info. If you recall, at one stage I was jumping up and down about the use of victory points, benching heroes, and super- organization. What changed it?

It all started when an old friend of mine visited us for a few weeks. He’s in the Australian Navy and spends a lot of time away on the ship so I don’t get to see him much. He plays D&D and both of us were looking forward to playing.

Then out came his 1st Edition D&D & Hackmaster??? We played several sessions and even our wives joined in. The quests were very black and white and somewhat brutal. But, guess what, we loved every minute. It was like stepping back in time. Back in time to when we first began playing.

What’s more, I have had really good responses from my gaming group–nearly everybody had their own books and couldn’t wait to play. We haven’t forgotten story lines and plots, but follow the “less is more” idea. Writing quests with a basic goal and framework with possible side quests mentioned but not fleshed out.

One of the examples would be Quest #3 “Serial Killers” where the party discovered three hooded figures (ghouls) dragging the body of a dead elf. The PCs’ goal was very black & white: discover what was going on. Later on I added additional elements with several rival thieves’ guilds operating in the district. The party was running in all directions: “who was behind these murders?” (The ghouls, of course, have a lair in the sewers.)

It’s one of the best quests I ever produced and it took a total of 5 minutes on the bus home while my car was being repaired.

Simple is often the best. The biggest problem is people get so tangled up in trying to produce the perfect game. I had so many rules and modifications from other games I just lost total track of where I was. The aim is to have lots of social contact and fun with only a small outlay of expenses.

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Managing Large Groups, Another Use For Free Email Accounts

From deyv

I don’t actually spend a lot of time creating NPCs for my current game as it’s a difficult 9 player group. When there are that many players around the table, D&D is reduced to a war game!

So, we do our role-playing via email. My stipulation for players was everyone had to set up a Hotmail account with their character’s name which is to be used by the DM and the other players. It’s working out great!

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A Good Moral Dilemma

From Robert A.

Here is one of my all-time favorite villain sources:

The Guy The PCs Wronged.

There’s always one. No group is on form all the time, no player is continuously polite, fails to never offer offense, never steps over the line with an NPC, never fumbles drunkenly after a barmaid, never requisitions a scrawny farmer’s horse and lets the kobolds kill it (regardless of the fact that the man’s unplowed fields will leave his kids to starve the following winter).

Unless you’re playing with bizarre, angelic super beings, your PCs have given unfair treatment to some NPC at some point in the campaign. The more, the better, I say.

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.” The first law of Hollywood is that the suffering the hero has to endure in the first reel is directly proportional to the amount of ass he can kick in the second.

Take ‘Gladiator’ for example. Poor old Russell Crowe loses his beloved emperor, military command, woman he could have loved, rank and honour, house and home, wife and child, all within the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, we’re writhing in our seats saying “Yes yes yes yes YES! Oh man, this is gonna be great.” We know that once Russell starts swinging he won’t be stopped until the entire Roman Empire goes down. The group I used to play with called this phenomenon Revenge Motivation Points.

Now apply this mentality to the group of orcs your group just hacked their way through. At the end of the camp they find a young orc lad of 14 years, cowering with a bone dagger. Do they callously cut him down? If so then maybe he survives a near-lethal wound to rise again. Or maybe his kid sister, crouched deeper in the shadows, witnesses the savage murder of her brother.

The best part of this is when you can make the players realize that the NPC is right in hating their characters. Not just plausible, but morally right. If the players can, for a moment, see that “Oh wow, we slaughtered his whole family and left him to die in the snow,” then the thought “Maybe we deserve it if he gets us,” can’t be far behind. IMHO, this is the stuff that a great nemesis is made of: the players’ own dark side blunders.

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Use An Easy Combat To Bring New PCs Together

From Walo

Just a quick tip on how to bring all of your new PCs together when they’re all perfect strangers.

As soon as you begin (in whatever locale you choose – probably works best in a town or on the road), start a battle. Make sure it is a relatively easy fight to be sure that they will survive though.

The battle will give the PCs a reason to hang around for a second and think about what just happened. If there’s an NPC around, have him or her gather them around and thank them for saving him (whether or not he was in any real danger, people have a tendency to feel threatened around combat situations). Have him ask their names, what they do, and have them comment on how well they fought together. Then hook them into your adventure by telling them where work is to be found and how to find it.

While it’s not exactly the best bet for those who prefer to role-play than to fight, it is effective and gives the characters a reason to stick together.

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Getting Published

From Johnn Four

Several subscribers emailed me after my NPC book help request asking me how they could get their foot in the door of the RPG publishing world. Here’s a response I made to one person that I thought might contain a couple of useful tips for you.

If there are any publishers or pro writers on the Tips list, please feel free to write in with your own tips on how amateur writers can get published.

Hi Namechanged Toprotecttheinnocent,

I can’t say if it’s difficult or not to break into the industry as a writer. The path I took was to hack out 100+ issues of a freebie ezine and a dozen Dragon articles before I was offered a book deal. Was it hard? Not really because it was so much fun. But, it was very time consuming. There are probably easier paths! ?

Here are a couple of tips:

  • Write some articles for free and get them published (i.e. in my ezine, RPG.net, etc.). That will get you exposure, and also give you first-hand experience of the writing process. If you enjoyed writing the freebie articles, then you know you can get serious about going pro.
  • Next, choose your genre and game system, then visit publisher sites. Download or request their submission guidelines. Then…submit! That’s all there is to it really.

More tips:

  • Meet your deadlines. If you can make your deadlines, publishers will give you repeat business and your rep goes up. That’ll pave you a career.
  • Obey the publishers’ guidelines. That’s a front-line test for many companies. If a writer can’t follow the basic instructions of their guidelines from the start, what are the odds that the writer will have the attention-to-detail needed to finish a job?The trap is, when you read guidelines, you think “hey, I can do it quicker if I do it this way”, or “they’ll be so impressed because of the way I’m doing this that they’ll forgive my disregarding their processes”. Suppress this urge. Do it their way the first time, establish a relationship, then chat about your ideas or suggestions.
  • Write for fun. If you can’t write for fun, then odds are you won’t enjoy writing professionally because pro writing has its own responsibilities: deadlines, quality, editing, money.

Hope that helps!