The goblins had been lurking beneath mounds of rotting leaves in a ditch alongside of the road. They were well hidden, and the darkness of the moonless night helped to conceal them even more effectively. No movement betrayed their presence. Six parties traveling this same stretch of road, a well worn dirt path running between Black Bell and Tall Town, had all been attacked by this very band over the last two weeks. All of them had been caught completely unaware and forced to give up their valuables before they’d been able to draw a blade. Although few of them had even had a weapon to draw in their own defense. More often than not this road was used by farmers, merchants, tinkerers, and peaceful travelers who had never used a knife, save to butter a slice of bread. Unfortunately the last to fall prey to the goblins hadn’t been a mere merchant, or a farmer taking the long road home. The prince’s horse had dragged his body all of the long miles down the road to Tall Town, and by the time it had cantered through the town gates his golden hair was matted with blood and dirt.
Since then no one had come down the road and the goblins had gone hungry for three nights. They’d heard the hoof beats and the clatter of iron long before they had ever seen the men on their road, they’d slipped out of sight as smoothly as shadows slip from the corner of eyes. Five men were traveling along the path to Black Bell tonight, moving warily with carrying steel and torches in their hands. Two marched ahead of a cart lighting its way along the path keeping their eyes peeled for danger or any ruts in the road that might snag a wheel. A mule walked sullenly behind them dragging a wooden wagon and a man sitting on a cushioned bench at the front of the cart. Two more men marched behind the cart armed with crossbows.
The goblins were fewer in number and their weapons were notched and rusted. Eyeing the steel and smelling the sweet scent of the fruit in the back of the cart they leapt from their hiding place and charged. The mule screeched in terror and her driver shouted a warning as the leaves flew into the air and the keening battle cries of the goblins shattered the night. Two goblins tumbled backwards into the ditch with the feathered shafts of arrows sprouting from their throats, the third fell to his knees in the dirt clutching a knife buried up to its hilt in his belly. The cloaked man who’d thrown the dagger drew another and finished the dying goblin off as quickly and quietly as an owl snatches a mouse off of the ground.
The cloaked man wiped his dagger on the leg of his pants and slipped it back into its sheath. A tall man armed with a mace stepped forward and stared down at the fallen goblins, the large feather tucked into the brim of his hat shuddered in the cold wind. “Aren’t you going to get the other dagger?”
The cloaked man shook his head. “He died for it, he can keep it.”
The sharp twang of an arrow being released and the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground were all the noise the cloaked man heard before his friend cried out. A short dark arrow was jutting from the man’s leg, his plumed hat bouncing down the road caught in the breeze. The cloaked man knelt down and tugged the arrow free of its new home drawing a sharp cry of pain from his friend. Black ichor mixed with blood dripped from the tip of the barbed arrow. The man sniffed at the arrowhead and cast it into the ditch disgustedly. “Poison.”
Poisons are one of the most insidious and deadly methods for taking a life known to man or beast. Serpents slipping through high grass with venom dripping from the fangs, assassins with daggers dipped in exotic toxins, jilted lovers grinding up seemingly harmless herbs into a meal, and ferocious beasts great and small all rely on the same thing to accomplish their work. Considering what a prominent role poisons have played in our own history it’s hardly a surprise that they play an equally prominent role in tabletop games.
More often than not overcoming the effect of a poison requires that a player make a check with a set difficulty level based on their stamina or fortitude. After a simple throw of the dice the character will either overcome the effect of the toxin, or suffer a penalty if it proves to be too potent. There’s also a chance that someone in the party will have a potion or an antidote in their possession that can cure the afflicted character, making things even simpler. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those solutions neither resolution is all that dynamic or interesting. It also doesn’t feel like there is much of a threat or a drawback no matter what the resolution is, personally I’ve never felt as though a character was actually in danger of dying as a result of being poisoned during any campaign.
So how do we make poisons feel more dangerous? Well the most obvious answer is to increase the degree of difficulty needed to overcome them, but that doesn’t really add anything to the experience. In truth that makes it more difficult without adding anything new to the experience, and is more likely to frustrate players than it is to entertain them.
Resolving poisoning with a team check gives everyone at the table a way to participate in the situation, and it makes it seem more like. Perhaps while the poisoned character tries to stave off the effect of the potion, a cleric could continually call upon their deity to heal the affected party member, and a wizard or ranger used their knowledge of herb lore to search for a plant to counter the effect. That idea appeals to me a bit more but its really just a slightly more complicated version of the original one.
Inflicting more extreme penalties on the poisoned character might convey the senses of danger and urgency required by the situation, but that would also rob the character’s player of the chance to contribute anything meaningful to the scene. If a character is paralyzed by a poison, unable to speak, and rapidly approaching death their last moments should be important. There should be a feeling that this character could have survived the situation, or that their death was somehow meaningful.
The idea of incorporating will or resolve into the scenario is also interesting. How many times have we seen or read about characters resisting the effect of a poison through sheer force of will just long enough to accomplish some vital task, or for aid to arrive in time for their life to be saved? The idea of giving characters who might not be all the physically powerful a chance to overwhelm a scenario with their willpower is an interesting one.
As a final thought I think that even is a character survives their bout with some deadly toxin, the experience should leave them marked in some way or another. It could be a simple thing like a scar, or a tattoo marking the occasion when you were healed by a member of the assassins guild as and serving as a reminder of the debt you owe them. However it could also be something deeper and more meaningful to your character. Perhaps they vow never to use poisons again having nearly been killed by one, or they might acquire a special hatred for anyone who wields a venomous blade.
In all honestly I don’t have a perfect answer for how to deal with poisons in this scenario, but it is something I will be considering carefully and trying news ideas with in the future.