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Thinking Out Loud

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Poison >> It's Too Good To Be Bad (D&D/RPG)

After being involved in so many online forums discussions, chat room arguments and face to fce chats over the past several months on alignment, morality of actions, and recently, the use of poison as it relates to game morality in roleplaying games, I decided to finally address the issue based on my own experiences as both a player and DM over the years. First, I'll list some of the most common arguments I've heard for why poison or its use is evil. Then, I'll explain why I utterly and totally disagree with each of them.

It may come across smarmy, perhaps a bit sarcastic. That is not directed at the board or its readers. It's really directed more toward my playing groups, based on our numerous discussions (ahem, arguments) about this very topic. So it's slightly tongue-in-cheek and uses quite a bit of hyperbole to make my point.

Hopefully, agree or disagree, you'll enjoy the read and maybe rethink your position on poison. Common arguments heard for why poison is evil:

1) It's evil by its very nature
2) It gives the user an unfair advantage
3) It's sole purpose is to impair and injure another being
4) Poison use lacks honor or dignity
5) It requires pre-meditation of violent action and full knowledge of the possible effects
6) It's cowardly and detaches the victim from the aggressor

And now for my rationale debunking each argument.

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1) It's evil by its very nature

This is easy for me to rationalize out of game and in game. Spiders, scorpions, snakes, wasps and itty bitty dart frogs are not evil. They all use poison to live, thrive and survive. Whether it's a defense mechanism or a hunting tool, poison is commonplace in the natural world. In strict game terms, these creatures are of neutral alignment, not evil. If poison and its use were truly evil, animals with natural poison abilities would be classified as evil.

If someone makes the counter argument that an animal/insect lacks the intelligence and self-awareness to understand the ramifications of its actions, that's great. Please, go ahead and make that argument. It goes a long way toward adding weight to most of my other points about poison. That alone virtually makes my argument that the use of poison can't possibly be evil.
This counter argument offers an insight that the poison itself is not the evil, but it's the understanding poison's impact and accepting those consequences that are the factor that make its use evil. I'll cover that shortly.

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2) Poison gives the user an unfair advantage

Combat, encounters and Dungeons & Dragons in general are all about facing unfair advantages and equalizing them. One could argue that a pure Fighter or Barbarian has an unfair advantage in melee combat over a Sorcerer or Wizard, but that doesn't make the Fighter or Barbarian evil by default. The fact that some classes can use magic items or cast spells is an unfair advantage over ones that can't. A monster that has damage resistance to certain weapons is unfair to warriors. A creature with spell immunity is unfair to casters.

I strongly disagree with the argument that using poison gives the poison user an unfair advantage. On the contrary, poison is an equal opportunity tool. In strictly game terms, each class has different strengths and weaknesses. In the strongest stereotypical comparison possible, one could assert that "Strong Physical Combat/Weak Magic Ability" sits on one end and "Weak Physical Combat/High Magic Ability" sits on the other end of this theoretical spectrum.

The further you are to one end of the spectrum or the other, the more you need to expend in terms of class and role resources to get better at your opposite. This is usually done by spending skill points, feats or selecting new class levels. However, with poison, everyone has roughly the same access.

Since only a select few prestige classes have any poison related skills or abilities, poison crafting abilities are available to anyone. Doses of poison are fairly affordable and come in a wide variety of forms, offering a lot of flexibility to the end user, and there are no imposed class restrictions on being able to purchase or use poison (such as buying a wand of fireballs having no appreciable benefit to a pure fighter).

The fact that poison is so accessible to so many characters, classes and roles makes it a universal equalizer. It doesn't matter if you have bulging muscles or a bulging medulla -- anyone can use poison and use it effectively with a little bit of practice and applied resources. That sounds pretty darn fair to me!

So which is the greater unfairness?

- A tool available to anyone, safely useable with a modicum of training (ie, doses of poison, requiring a few cross-class skill points and some money)
- A tool requiring a restricted subset of the populace to expend time, training and resources to use properly (ie, a suit of heavy armor for Wizards [requiring feats/suffering drawbacks] or a Staff of Healing for a Barbarian [requiring acquisition of different class levels/abilities]).

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3) It's sole purpose is to impair/injure/maim/kill another being

This may have been the most absurd argument one of my players made while I was DMing. And even as a player in another campaign (where I was playing a lawful good cleric that used poison arrows - which *everyone* lobbied morally against), I heard this quite a bit. This is completely irrelevant. Granted, it's also completely true. But still irrelevant. In fact, in the words of Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls, "Well... Duh!"

Why is it irrelevant? Well, look at everything else in D&D that is built for the same purpose that no one is concerned about morally. Let's start with the list of weapons. Battleaxe has the word "battle" in it for a reason. Longswords, bows, axes, maces, the list of weapons is quite extensive. Aside from a few items that see double duty as farming or hunting tools, all these are built to impair/injure/maim/kill. And I don't think anyone can argue that a standard shortsword is evil in and of itself.

Earlier, you'll recall the counter argument that it's all about the impact and acceptance of consequence. Well, that counter argument completely unravels when you compare poison to other tools that impair/injure/maim/kill.

Compared to most weapons, poison has a very, very small chance of actually killing its victim. Only poisons that inflict Con damage can technically kill a victim outright. Most poisons apply condition modifiers or ability penalties. Poisons have no critical range, no critical multiplier. Poisons do not rely on the skills, abilities and feats of the user to augment their effectiveness. Poisons don't do "damage" in terms of hit points. Poisons do not scale in power or magnitude as the user gains experience. Poisons cannot be "stacked" with external effects to improve their effectiveness like magic weapons.

On the other hand, spells and weapons inflict hit point damage, have multipliers, and can be augmented by character feats/abilities and progression. Aside from a few other cases (massive damage, save or die spells, Con reduced to zero, drowning, etc), the only way you can die is if reduced to -10 hit points. Therefore, a great sword wielded two handed by a raging barbarian or a maximized fireball cast by a high level wizard both have much better chances of killing a victim than poison.

In fact, the counter argument about intent and acceptance of consequences would seem to indicate that weapons with higher critical ranges and critical multipliers are "more evil" than weapons that simply crit on a 20 and do x2 damage... After all, they increase the overall damage output of a player, which increases the impair/injure/maim/kill aspect of the weapon. And most people are fully aware of how lethal a particular weapon is. Heck, lots of players I've played with like to brag about it -- "Remember when I crit'ed that Ogre with my Flail for 48 damage and dropped him in one blow - that was wicked!"

If the only argument is the impair/injure/maim/kill factor, poison would be among the most "good" options out there, while direct damage spells and weapons with increased critical range or critical multipliers would be far more "evil".

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You're still reading this? Fabulous. I've only got a bit more to ramble on about.

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4) Poison use lacks honor or dignity

I could possibly see this argument in certain, specific, singular and extremely rare instances. Which I'll mention in a bit. Granted, defining honor and dignity is as sticky a subject as morality and evil in a roleplaying game. However, more often than not, I think poison holds up just fine to honor and dignity.

Which of the following deaths is the most honorable? The most dignified?

- Bursting into flame and being burned alive by a powerful fireball
- Being decapitated by a vorpal sword
- Falling into unconciousness and dying a painless death after swallowing some powerful poison
- Being riddled with dozens of arrows from several rapid firing rangers with you as their favored enemy
- Having your body cleaved limb from limb by a dual axe wielding barbarian
- Having your throat slit by a rogue sneaking up behind you

Death by weapon or spell can be far messier, ignoble and ruthless than death or impairment by poison.

And how "honorable" does one have to be to rationalize his behavior? If honor is fighting with "all cards on the table" to make things as equal as possible, then strategy and tactics suffer. While it may vary based on the mood, flavor and setting of a campaign, all of these decisions make sound tactical sense, but may not be honorable:

- Flanking an opponent to gain an advantage (Your opponent is distracted - you dishonorable cur!)
- Striking from behind cover (Your opponent cannot meet you face to face - you disreputable lout!)
- The use of any ranged weapons (You lack honor by detaching yourself from your consequences!)
- The use of any buff spells (You dishonor yourself by not relying solely on your own natural ability!)
- Fighting a foe weaker than yourself, even if outnumbered (How dare you prey upon the weak - you wretched knave!)
- Setting an ambush (You dare not face me directly and openly? How dastardly!)

I will completely grant that poison may fall outside some lines of conduct for certain societal groups, cultures or religions. But codes of conduct are not always tied to the worldview's definition of morality.

Codes of conduct are usually specialized guidelines and imposed ideals to help maintain a sense of order, structure or service within a particular community or sect. If a code of conduct prohibits the use of poison, and someone swearing to uphold that code uses poison, that is an instance where the use of poison lacks honor and dignity.

However, this would also be the case if the Code of Conduct forbade the use of edged weapons. Or wearing the color green. Or eating dairy products. So yes, in this case, using poison could be seen as dishonorable as eating some cheddar.

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5) It requires pre-meditation of violent action and full knowledge of the possible effects

This argument is completely true. In fact, this isn't even an argument. It's a fact. However, the previous statements about the impair/injure/maim/kill factor of a tool and the honor/dignity factor of employing a tool address this issue fairly well.

Weaponsmiths know what they're doing. They make weapons. To kill other people with. In fact, to make the best weapons - those of masterwork quality or featuring wider critical ranges or greater critical multipliers - someone spent a lot of time thinking long and hard about how to maximize carnage.

The best refutation of this specifically worded argument, though, has got to be the creation of magic items. Not only do you need to invest time, money and other resources into crafting a magic item, you also need to devote XP - a bit of your collective knowledge, experience and essence.

Taken out of any specific game context, which of the following is more evil?

Option A) An alchemist who takes inert chemicals or naturally occuring toxins and combines them in a way that will dramatically impede the reactions of a creature (inflicting Dexterity/Strength damage or paralysis). After days and days of hard work, he has created several doses of poison.

Option B) A mage who is willing to part with a portion of his soul, the very essence of his being, to create a wand of Empowered Lightning Bolt. After days and days of hard work, he has created a tool to inflict massive electrical damage to multiple targets 50 times.

Those who don't find Option B to be more evil (especially in a context-free comparison) are most likely the very wizards busily crafting said wands of destruction.

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6) It's cowardly and detaches the victim from the aggressor

This one's hard to address. Why? Perhaps it's because I tend to play physically underwhelming characters who simply can't stand toe-to-toe with melee characters. Perhaps because cowardly is such an emotionally charged word. Cowardly? I prefer "Clever". Detached? Sure, I can see that... but why is detachment a bad thing?

As a high level fighter, if you find yourself forced into a combat situation against a dangerous, armed opponent, would you prefer to meet your opponent naked and weaponless, or fully armed and armored with your tools of the trade? Well, if choosing fully armed and armored is cowardly, then I guess using poison could be, too.

When my character's survival is at stake (as it usually is), I like to use every possible advantage to ensure that survival. Weapons, armor, spells, magic items, tactics, planning, teamwork. Poison is simply another tool to add to that list. It's foolish to ignore any resource at your disposal. If you desperately need a screwdriver to complete a given task, use the darn screwdriver - don't limit yourself to only using a hammer or saw.

Poison use can certainly be detached. It can be slipped into a drink, coated on an arrowhead, sprinkled on some food, or fumes blown into a room. But a long range sniping archer shooting you from 200 feet away in total darkness with complete cover is pretty detached, too. So is a wizard casting a spell at long range. Heck, by the time a Wizard is powerful enough to cast meteor swarm (9th level spell, 17th level caster), he can cast it from 1,080 feet away (that's 216 squares - or 9 full rounds of all out running by a standard, unencumbered human). That's pretty damned detached, too.

I think this argument speaks more to a perception problem. If you can't do as well as I can in melee without assistance, then your assistance must be a sign of cowardice/weakness/evil. If you can't climb/sneak/jump/spot as well as I can without assistance, that must be a sign of cowardice/weakness/evil.

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One last pure in game/mechanic reason why poison is not evil:

The spell poison (Clr 4, Drd 3) is a Necromancy spell. We know that Necromancy by itself is not evil, as there are several useful applications of Necromancy that inflict no harm or hardship -- astral projection, clone, gentle repose, etc. Further, if the spell poison were evil, it would have the evil descriptor attached to it, such as Create Undead, Animate Dead, Eyebite or Protection from Good.

If poison (the spell) is not evil, and it tangibly creates poison (the substance) that even a Lawful Good cleric could apply without repercussion (based on spell selection limitations or descriptors), then how could non magical poison or its application be evil?

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So, in conclusion, poison and its use can't possibly be evil the way I see it. If you still think that using poison is evil even after all this, then you must also accept, to a degree, some of the following:

Initial Concession Premise: (Choose one)

A. Animals/insects using poison are evil, not neutral
B. Animals/insects using poison are not evil because they lack the intelligence and self-awareness to understand the ramifications

Additional concessions:

A. Using weapons with crit ranges greater than 20 and multipliers greater than x2 is evil
B. Spells which impart ability penalties are evil (bestow curse, ray of enfeeblement, feeblemind)
C. Spells which impart condition modifiers are evil (sleep, color spray, waves of exhaustion, entangle)
D. Spells which inflict direct damage are evil
E. Creating magic items that have the ability to inflict damage is evil
F. The use of strategy to gain a tactical advantage in combat is evil
G. Selecting feats, earning class abilities or purchasing equipment which improves your damage output is evil
H. Selling weapons, spells or equipment which can inflict damage is evil
I. Killing an opponent by any means, regardless of circumstance or tool used, is evil


Ok, I'm finally done. And if you're still not 100% convinced whether or not using poison is evil, I have a foolproof, guaranteed way to find out.

Ask your DM.

Well, what do you think, sirs?


  • Very well done. I was looking for information on D&D poisons and ran into this article. I am going to bookmark it and recommend it to any future "poison is evil" debaters I encounter on the internet. Kudos to you.

    By Blogger Andrew, at 9:02 PM  

  • i know this is old, but its so perfectly done i couldnt not say something... i get the poison is evil thing all the time when i play a rogue... an thanks to this, ill have quite a few logical ways to make them shut up ^^ thank yo sir for your efforts in making this.

    By Blogger John, at 4:50 PM  

  • Amen. This is the most useful thing I've seen outside of the SRD books since Dnd-wiki. It's well thought out and presented. I came on looking for a ruleset for designing new poisons, and came across this. It'll make my life much easier.

    By Blogger Magnamune, at 6:45 AM  

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