Spells Through the Ages: Neutralize Poison

If you take a look at the death toll from my campaign over the last year, you may notice that about 25% of the deaths were due to a failed save vs. poison. The save or die mechanic is in fact viewed by many as a hallmark of an old school game. How does a party deal with this kind of problem? Well, let’s take a look at what magical recourse they have. I’ll be looking both at Neutralize Poison, which exists in every edition, as well as the lesser versions (Slow Poison, Delay Poison, etc.) that have existed in various editions at various times. And as a matter of course, we’ll have to look at the poison rules themselves. Let’s start with OD&D, the easiest and most vague.  It includes the following 4th level cleric spell:

Neutralize Poison: A spell to counter the harmful effects of poison. Note that it
will not aid a character killed by poison, however. It will affect only one object.
Duration: 1 turn.

Poison is mentioned in other places besides this spell throughout the LBBs, mostly in regards to the attacks of various monsters.  Its effects are never actually spelled out.  There is a brief hint in the description of saving throws that mentions a successful save vs poison results in “scoring one-half of the total possible hit damage”.  This implies that poison causes hit point damage, but how much?  No indication exists.

Holmes does not have any anti-poison spell, but given it’s previous incarnation as a 4th level spell this is not surprising, as Holmes does not reach that high of a level.  The next we see the spell is in Cook’s expert book, again as a 4th level cleric spell:

Neutralize Poison (Range: 0′, Duration: permanent)

This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds.  It can also be cast on a poison or poisoned item to make it harmless.  It acts only on poison present at the time it is cast.

Now, in the basic book poison is specifically addressed, telling us that “if a character is hit with a poisoned attack and misses his or her saving throw vs. Poison, the character will usually die.” (B 29).  Presumably the word ‘usually’ is in there as some monsters may dictate a special kind of poison other than standard death-dealing poison (eg. the spitting cobra’s blinding poison).  In addition to this general description, most monsters with a poison attack tell us the victim must “save vs. Poison or die”.

Item of note here is the rule that the spell may be cast within 10 rounds of being poisoned.  Presumably in B/X this is how long it takes for poison to set in and actually kill the victim, though it’s never described anywhere but in this spell.  We’ll see this duration extended in 1st edition AD&D, but more so we’ll see a lot more time spent on the final statement of the spell only effecting “poison present at the time of cast”.  It seems there may have been some debate about whether this spell when cast on say a poisonous viper, would permanently detoxify the animal.  AD&D tells us it certainly won’t:

Neutralize Poison (Alteration) Reversible

Level: 4, Components: V, S, Range: Touch, Casting Time: 7 segments, Duration: Permanent, Saving Throw: None, Area of Effect: Creature touched or 1 cubic foot of substance/2 levels

Explanation/Description: By means of a neutralize poison spell, the cleric detoxifies any sort of venom in the creature or substance touched.  Note that an opponent, such as a poisonous reptile or snake (or even an envenomed weapon of an opponent) unwilling to be so touched requires the cleric to score a hit in melee combat.  Effects of the spell are permanent only with respect to poison existing in the touched creature at the time of teh touch, ie. creatures (or objects) which generate new poison will not be permanent detoxified.  The reverse spell, poison, likewise requires an attack (a “to hit” touch which succeeds), and the victim is allowed a saving throw vs. poison.  If the latter is unsuccessful, the victim is killed by the poison.

Interestingly, there’s little here about using the spell to save a poisoned comrade.  B/X tells me I have 10 rounds in which to cast Neutralize Poison on my friend, but this spell mentions no such thing.  For that, we have to look at the new 2nd level cleric spell, Slow Poison:

Slow Poison (Necromantic)

Level: 2, Components: V, S, M, Range: Touch, Casting Time: 1 segment, Duration: 1 hour/level, Saving Throw: None, Area of Effect: Creature Touched

Explanation/Description: When this spell is placed upon a poisoned individual it greatly slows the effect of any venom, even causing a supposedly dead individual to have life restored if it is cast upon the victim within a number of turns less than or equal to the level of experience of the cleric after the poisoning was suffered, i.e. a victim poisoned up to 10 turns previously could be temporarily saved by a 10th or higher level cleric who cast slow poison upon the victim.  While this spell does not neutralize the venom, it does prevent it from substantially harming the individual for the duration of its magic, but each turn the poisoned creature will lose 1 hit point from the effect of the venom (although the victim will never go below 1 hit point while the slow poison spell’s duration lasts).  Thus, in the example above, the victim remains with 1 hit point until the spell duration expires and hopefully during that period a full cure can be accomplished.  The material components of this spell are the cleric’s holy/unholy symbol and a bud of garlic which must be crushed and smeared on the victim’s bare feet.

Wow, that’s quite a lot of text.  And ultimately for a solution I find highly unsatisfying.  I mean, I do like the idea of having a less powerful spell for delaying the effects of poison that might allow a group of 3rd level characters or so make it out of the dungeon in time to find a priest and pay for a full Neutralize Poison.  I really dislike the lose 1 hp but never go below 1 hp though, as it smacks of game design-ism.  That is, I’m sure the designer felt very clever writing this, but it feels like it has so many edge cases that it causes more problems than it solves.  What if the victim is poisoned again, does he lose 2 hp per turn?  Once he reaches 1 hp, is he now impervious to all poison effects, at least until the spell runs out?  Can he be healed back up, and if he is, will he lose hp from the poison again?  Yuck, why not just give the poor bastard a break and say that the death by that particular poisoning is delayed by the duration of the spell?

This is further confused by the addition of more kinds of poisons in the DMG.  Not only do we have death causing poisons, but also hp damage causing poisons, and damage amounts for poison you fail to save against (eg. type E ingested causes death, or 30 hp damage if you save).  What does this mean for Slow Poison?  If a character fails his save vs. damage causing poison and gets a Slow Poison cast on him, what does that do?  Is it different depending on whether the amount of damage was greater or less than the victim’s remaining hp?

Finally, questions arise when the players get high enough level for their cleric to start packing Neutralize Poison.  Can Neutralize Poison be cast on someone that failed to save vs. a death dealing poison?  If so, how quickly must it be cast?

I was going to go into later editions as well here, but this is getting long so let me sum up.  The rules in 2nd edition are not much different from 1st, Neutralize and Slow Poison pretty much do the same things.  By 3rd and 3.5 poison has been greatly reduced.  There’s no more save or die, the strongest poison causes 3d6 points of Constitution loss, with a 0 Con equating to death, but on average this isn’t going to be enough to kill a character who rolled 4d6 drop the lowest for his Con.  Slow Poison becomes Delay Poison (still 2nd level), and grants complete temporary immunity to poison, Neutralize Poison prevents ongoing effects but does not undo any immediate damage caused by the initial poisoning.

Sigh.  It’s all so convoluted, and could have been fixed so easily.  I think B/X gets closest to what I’d want, though I’d be tempted to take the 10 rounds out of the spell description and make it a general rule for poison.  Poison attacks require you to save vs. poison or become comatose for 10 rounds and then die.  Neutralize Poison is then simple – it removes poison and wakes the comatose victim.  I have no problem with it being used as an attack against a poisonous creature, well done I say.  I’d also say that a Dispel Magic might return the creature to its naturally venomous state (the poison is still there, it’s just been magically neutralized).  Finally, the addition of a 2nd level spell that increases the duration of the comatose state sounds pretty cool to me, but I don’t need it.  Might make for an interesting potion for low level treasure though.

Huh, yet again I find the B/X solution the best.  I hope I’m not starting to appear biased.

2 thoughts on “Spells Through the Ages: Neutralize Poison

  1. “Poison attacks require you to save vs. poison or become comatose for 10 rounds and then die.”

    I generally like this idea, although walking home tonight musing about it this occurred to me — I’m not a fan of a fixed “death” duration (see also: death at -10) because players wind up counting down the “safety” rounds and don’t help the downed guy until they absolutely have to (IME).

    I might suggest 2d6 rounds (kept secret by DM). Go save Bob, he could die at any time! (And I first considered d6+6 [i.e., average ~10] but then that just devolves to counting off the first 6 rounds.)

    On a broader note, that’s why I now have people roll Save vs. Death at 0 hp. Once you deplete your listed health resource, your fate is purely in the hands of cold, uncaring, cosmic probability (dice).

    1. Ooh, I like the addition of randomness, nicely done! I would also tend to feel that this is a good place for DM tweaking. It would be very easy to vary the size and number of dice based on the power of the poison. If the poison is weaker, why not toss a couple more d6 into the pile? Super strong poison maybe just gets a single d4. I’d always allow some buffer time though, there has to be some window in which to get the cleric over and cast Neutralize Poison, otherwise what’s the point of the spell?

      Also, with a rule like this in place, I find myself wondering how I’d adjudicate someone attempting to suck the poison out with his mouth during the comatose period. Perhaps simply allow the victim a second save, and maybe if you’re feeling mean force the person sucking the poison to also save against accidentally ingesting the poison.

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