Pale Designs Slips Deadly Poisons Into d20

After four years of playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 and its kin , poisons are old hat for most players. Depending on the situation, the rules lawyers, power gamers, and even that guy who spends most of the night exploring the nasal possibilities of his dice know what poison a Game Master is talking about when a noxious gas suddenly bellows from a locked chest, and starts dealing catastrophic ability point damage.

If the poison isn’t the fabled burnt ochre fumes, then it’s at best an annoyance — there’s nothing on the list that players haven’t seen before, and if they aren’t killed outright by the ability damage, they have time to prepare for the inevitable save they all know is coming one minute later.

That’s where having a book like Pale Designs is so handy. Yes, it’s an exceedingly specialized book, and one that most GMs won’t use more than once a month. But when you’re looking for something particularly nasty to terrify your players with, this book’s nice to have around.

Poisons, Tools and Monsters

Pale Designs contains 14 pages of poisons, some culled from other d20 sources, and others created by Bastion for this book. The toxic substances are broken into alchemical, magical, planer, mineral, multi-stage and natural poisons. As in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, each poison includes a DC (the number a player needs to beat in order to avoid taking damage from the poison), primary and secondary damage effects, a type (inhalation, injection, etc.) and a gold piece value. Write-ups are given for every poison, with a brief description of what it is and how it works. Most also explain how to go about creating the poison, detailing the appropriate craft or harvest checks.

Each poison is assigned a toxicity rating based on its Difficulty Class (how difficult is it to resist) and what sort of special damage it does. The toxicity rating is an excellent quick reference tool for GMs in a hurry, since it allows you to quickly browse the list of poisons and find one that’s appropriate for the task at hand. This is something that Wizards should seriously consider adding to D&D 4.0.

The rest of the book supports the poison chapter. “Alchemical Processes and Products” introduces new ways to augment poisons via alchemy, making them more potent, harder to detect, or delaying their onset. “Feats” offers advanced techniques for harvesting poison, as well as treating and resisting its effects. “Prestige Classes” offers several player options focus on either creating or wielding poison, expanding the game beyond the standard “assassin” prestige class. Finally, the “Monsters” area offers DMs with a variety of new poisonous creatures for them to scare their players with, including the assassin-friendly clockwork stirge and the deadly (and tiny) fang golem.

Death by Poison

Pale Designs is exactly the sort of book I like to have in my d20 gaming collection, because it serves two purposes. First, it allows me to surprise my players with something new, different and–most importantly–not in any of the D&D core books. Second, just the fact that I have this book is enough to strike fear into the hearts of my players. Indeed, just recently one of my players said “hey, don’t forget Ken just got that new poison book … who knows what he’s going to throw at us” (or words to that effect). How’s that for restoring a proper respect for d20 poisons?

The poisons themselves run the gambit from annoying to lethal, providing a dangerous dosage for nearly every situation you can imagine. The presentation of the poisons varies, and this can be annoying; some explain specifically how to harvest and produce them, others do not. I wish they’d been consistent, and provided this crucial information for every entry.

Most of the poisons use the same “primary damage, secondary damage” model from the Dungeon Master’s Guide but the flavor text does a good job of transforming this tired mechanic into something more exotic.

That said, for most of the poisons, the mechanic is just more of the same. While I appreciate the effort that went into fleshing out the book with feats, spells and monsters, I’d rather have seen a section dedicated to non-traditional poisons: such as toxins with an onset time of weeks rather than seconds, weak poisons that take months to kill, and multi-stage poisons that do more than just stat damage. Some of the poisons in the book do this sort of thing, but I would love to have seen more.

Early on, the book attempts to increase the lethalness of poisons by introducing a new mechanic that deals additional hit point damage each round, above and beyond the ability point damage suffered. For example, the “heart fire” poison does 2d6 Con as primary damage and one permanent point of Con as secondary damage if the character fails the saves. However, if the character fails the second save, the variant rule kicks in. The player immediately takes 36 points of damage (a number derived from the strength of the primary and secondary damage). The next round, he takes one point less of damage, or 35. This continues until the damage taken equals zero, or the character is dead.

This is just too lethal for my tastes; yes, I want to scare my players, but I don’t want to have a TPK every time I decide to use some poison-wielding drow, particularly given certain characters’ propensity for blowing crucial saves. That said, halving this value would give the PCs more of a fighting chance, and I’d consider adding such a diminished rule to my game.

The prestige classes didn’t inspire me, but then again, I’m not a big prestige class kind of guy; given a choice between having more poison information I can use, or temple-sanctioned “assassin” like the Acolyte, I’ll take more poisons every time. The monsters are a nice touch, and almost all are immediately useful. I particularly liked the “fang golem”, which replicates small insectoids and are just begging to be deployed by assassins.

Final Analysis

Pale Designs originally retailed for $24.95, and while I like the book, it’s 96 pages don’t contain enough for me to spend that kind of money on it. However, it’s presently selling for $14.95 on Bastion Press’s Web site, and that price seems just right for a book like this. If you’re a DM looking to give your game a deadly spin, it’s well worth checking out.

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