Thursday, March 20, 2014

Making Poisons Deadlier in GURPS

One thing about poisons in games - and GURPS is one of those - it's generally not as scary as in reality. Pass a resistance check and you're okay. Deadliness varies, and although not all of them have resistance rolls (basically, not save or die, just . . . die) they generally do, and you usually get HT rolls not to die even after all of this.

So what if you want poisons to be a bit more systematically deadlier in GURPS?

First, don't forget the . . .
Rules As Written

Know your poisoning rules.

- Not all poisons have a resistance roll. Don't drink cyanide (B439).

- Some have HT roll penalties upwards of around -6 - don't get hit with curare (Low-Tech, p. 129).

- poisons often have multiple effects, such as damage and paralysis, or damage and a secondary chance of a heart attack, etc.

- Doubling a dose gives a penalty to resist and increased damage and reduced cycle times, per B439, Varying the Dosage, but makes it (much) easier to detect.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons has a Practical Poisoning rule for when you want to double or quadruple venom doses for maximum effect - based on that same rule from Basic Set.

- Positive Size Modifiers delay poisons. They don't actually increase the needed dose, but they slow down the rate of the cycles. It takes longer to get to your heart, I'd guess. Negative size modifiers make them work faster!

- Persistent poisons hit you over and over while you're in the area, regardless of your success on resistance rolls. Lesson #1: When mustard gas comes in, you should go out.

- Delivery agents aren't always about skin contact or skin penetration. Don't forget sprayed venoms (usually Blood Agents or Contact Agents), Respiratory Agents, or sense-based (horrid smells, eye irritants, etc.).

But what if that's just not enough? Here are three ways you can make poisons deadlier, or at least more worrisome.

Deadlier Venom

#1) Secret Resistance You can change how you run them, simply by not telling people the results of checks. Roll them secretly and just describe what happens. They'll have to assume the worst because they don't know if they made it or not. After all, "You take 3 damage" can mean a successful HT roll against a strong poison, or just a lucky damage roll.

This makes poisoning a bit more of a concern, but not actually deadlier. If anything, it might make it safer, but more expensive - not knowing if you've resisted or not, if you've taken the incidental damage of a successful roll or just got lucky on the effects of a failure, might drive you to use antivenins or magical cures in a fantasy game.

#2: Resisting Doesn't End Cycles - This is a big change. Right now, you make a resistance roll every time a poison comes up with a chance to affect you. If you resist, the attack ends and all further cycles are nullified.

I'm not a big fan of how this makes poison a lot less scary - all it takes is one good roll (or one of three, with Luck) to end its effects. Cobra bites you, you roll an hour later and resist and that's that. It has a tendency to make non-penalized HT rolls to resist poison not so scary. Most PCs get 12+ in this area, 14-15 or so with Fit, Very Fit, and so on, and may even stack Resistant to Poison on top. They normally resist right away, and if not, it's rarely more than 1-2 cycles before they do.

Changing it so you always apply all cycles, and must resist each as if it is was a new attack all over again, makes poison much scarier. Keep some antivenin around, because even a good HT roll early on only means you've bought some time to get help. It makes poison less "cobra bit me, make a roll and I'm okay" and more "cobra bit me, I'm going to suffer even if it doesn't kill me." This should affect the cost of Resistible, since part of the cost assumes success breaks the cycle of damage.

This will also make the more dangerous venoms (curare, cobra venom, nerve gas, fugu toxin) extremely dangerous, because even the rare success you get won't end it.

Optionally, you can make this an enhancement to certain venoms - persistant cycles. Cosmic is probably the way to do this, and the fairest cost wise.

#3: Multiple Hits Are Multiple Doses - This one might in fact be what the rules sort-of intend. Treat every single dose of venom as part of a unified whole, not separate attacks. So if you get stabbed with Caustic Tar with 4 doses at once, you resist at HT-4 or take 8 damage. If you get hit 4 times in the same second with 1 dose at a time, you roll at HT-4 or take 8 damage. Bit by a snake with HT-3, 2d, 1 hour onset and 6 cycles venom? At one hour roll HT-3. Bit three times? That's more than 2 but less than four, so it's HT-5, 4d, 30 minutes onset for 6 cycles. Suddenly, a pit full of spiders with weak (HT+4 to resist) poison isn't a trivial series of rolls, but a cumulative buildup towards a series of terrible rolls.

Beyond a doubled dose, just follow the rules on p. B439 and simply extend it out - every doubling of the doses applies another -2 to the resistance roll and adds another iteration of damage.

Run correctly, poison can be deadly, but those three optional rules are ways to make it a bit worse for the victims.


  1. I think these rules are awesome, especially #2 and #3. I like that #2 makes people actually care about antivenom and rewards people that are well prepared.

  2. A possible option would be "Your HT check needs a margin of success higher than half of the remaining cycles to nullify all the remaining cycles." A success without that high margin of success avoids damage from a single cycle of damage.

    1. I like that, but it means a count adjusted on the fly. That can be annoying - it also means a very long cycle poison that is otherwise weak is almost impossible to shake off - the same as saying "can't" if it's upwards of 100+ cycles.

      It might just be easier to say that if you resist by 5, or critically succeed, the cycles end. Saying you need to succeed by 5+ to shake off a poison completely and end its cycles (it's there, but you're not going to suffer further) might be both heroic and workable.

  3. I concur with qpop. Certainly #2 is sensible from a realism standpoint -- I can't think of any real life examples of people "shaking off" a poison that's already had some effect on them. For anyone feeling it too harsh, I might suggest letting only the very first resistance roll excuse further ones, on the basis that something simply went awry in the delivery of the poison -- snake didn't inject on this bite, poison got wiped off the dart by clothing or fur before penetration, etc.

  4. This deserves to be a "Harsh Realism" switch in something. Certainly, I think I'll be using it in my solo game.

    What do you think should be the exact modifier for Persistent Cycles? +100% (Attack with a lingering special effect)?

    1. +100% is a good start; I'm really bad at pricing enhancements but that's where I would start

  5. I like it. I haven't used poison yet in any game, but played with disease a bit at some point. The base mechanism to resist illness/poison. These ideas a on the spot.

  6. I've been toying with an idea of a successful HT roll, just converts HP damage to FP.

    1. FP damage on a success? That sounds really brutal.

    2. I think my players would prefer HP damage. FP loss is much nastier than it seems on the surface, and less trivial to recover even in a game with supernatural powers!

    3. Unless you have time to rest, in which case no problem.

      (Incidentally this blog is by far the top source of referrers to mine. Thanks folks!)

    4. No problem? Depends on how much damage a venom does. Cobra vemon does 2d damage after 1 minute, then 2d per hour for 6 cycles. Would you want to suffer an average of 7 FP per hour for 6 hours? Only people with Fit can recover faster than they lose FP, and that's only if you claim that laying around with cobra venom in you counts as resting. I wouldn't. And after you go to negative FP, you lose HP anyway.

      I think you'd get into a situation where Resistant to Poison is dangerous unless coupled with extra FP. Plus venoms like Monster Drool (HT-0, 2 HP damage) would be extremely effective when resisted. 2 HP of damage isn't much, but -2 FP immediately, in combat? Ouch!

    5. Yeah, fair point, I was thinking more in the general case. It'll turn to HP loss eventually, and you drop unconscious sooner, but it's no worse than HP loss.

    6. I'm not sure that I think it's not worse than HP loss. For a spellcaster, for example, you're taking away their main resource. A thief like Galoob maybe wouldn't generally need to build extra FP because he doesn't have much that would deplete it, but building more HP is never a bad thing because of how easy it is to lose it. Taking FP damage would give another avenue of attack to worry about for the player to spend those precious points on. Then again, I am super new to GURPS so maybe this is not correct at all :)

    7. The harshness of the FP loss is one of the reasons I was thinking about going that way. It doesn't outright kill you, but you really want to avoid getting poisoned if at all possible. With the goal/point of encouraging the investment in anti-venoms and Neutralize Poison spells.

      And if it seems to run too harsh, I can always make it a 3/4, 2/3, or 1/2 of the damage as FP loss.

      I guess

    8. Sure, I see that. But "FP loss on a success, HP loss on a failure" is lethal to the point of "save or die, but no save." FP loss is debilitating in a way that HP loss isn"t, leads more quickly and surely to unconsciousness, and then leads to HP loss. Plus, FP is already more expensive, more limited, and more easily lost than HP.

      Poison attacks would necessarily cost a lot more, because they are automatic FP loss with a HT roll that can mitigate that to HP loss.

      It would make them deadlier, for sure, but I'm not sure it's a fair level of deadliness.

    9. That's basically what I was going for. Thanks for the better explanation, Peter!

    10. I have a house rule that I use for poisons that the cycle only stops if you make the roll by 5+. Otherwise, you just don't take damage that cycle. Coupled with penalties from inherent HT penalties and multiple doses tends to make poison more deadly some virtually impossible to shake off while still leaving the possibility especially for those characters who have bought up their poison resistance.

    11. I see Peter already mention my house rule up thread already. Got to read everything more closely.

    12. No worries, it's nice to know it's not just a random idea but one other folks have had and used.


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