I very rarely make posts about game mechanics, but there’s something I’ve started thinking about recently: poison! How does one make it engaging? I don’t really like Save or Die type poisons and I haven’t given any Vaarn monsters this ability. The closest is the Amaranthine Death-Worm, which can inflict you with a special status that prevents your HP from being higher than 0. Nasty! But not instant death. However, most creatures aren’t as venomous as the Death-Worms are, and I want their ability to be a unique one.
The obvious solution is to make less potent toxins and poisons a Damage Over Time (DOT) effect. I like DOTs in theory, but I’ve been struggling to come up with a way of tracking the DOT that doesn’t put loads more mental strain on me as a GM. Videogames can easily apply an effect that does X amount of damage every round for Y rounds. When I write stuff like that and try to run it myself, it’s a hassle for me. I end up with another little bit of book keeping each combat round, remembering to deduct HP from the players affected, keeping track of how long the effect has been active, and god forbid the monster poisons the player again two rounds later and gives me another new asynchronous DOT countdown to remember. It’s a mess, frankly, and distracts me from more important stuff like clear descriptions, varying the monsters tactics, re-iterating everyone’s positions, making sure the battle is dynamic, remembering to do Morale checks, etc.
My solution is simple: apply the Usage Dice rule to DOTs. Basically, Vaarn PCs can incur a Toxin Dice, which represents their exposure to venoms, poisons, radiation, etc.
Toxin Dice go in a chain, which looks like this: d4 – d6 – d8 – d10 – d12 – d20. Nothing new here if you’ve seen a dice chain before. If you have a Toxin Dice sat on your character sheet, you have to roll it every time your combat round comes up, and subtract the result from your HP before you act. If the result of your Toxin Dice is four or lower, the TD steps down one dice size in the ladder. If not, it stays the same size. The rung below d4 is 0, so once you roll a d4 you’ll be cured of whatever is ailing you.
Getting hit again by a new toxic attack steps your TD up, but only to the maximum TD level listed next to that attack. So if my Toxin Dice is a d6, and I get hit by a d8 Toxin attack, my Toxin Dice steps up to a d8. If my Toxin Dice is a d12 (!) and I get hit by a d8 Toxin attack, my Toxin Dice doesn’t change. This puts a bit of a cap on toxin damage, so less venomous creatures can’t bump you up to the d20 damage threshold (which is nasty). Obviously if you want to be a real asshole you could have stacking Toxin Dice from different toxic attacks, but this could kill PCs really fast if they’re rolling three or four d8 TD each round.
If you’re outside combat, then roll the TD every time the GM would check for random encounters.
Why bother with this? It solves the problems I had with DOTs: it’s easier to remember (because the dice are right in front of each player affected) and it’s more interactive (because they have to roll the Toxin Dice and interpret the results themselves). It also simplifies the problem I had with new asynchronous DOT countdowns being started: the new toxin damage just bumps the TD back up to its original size. If I were embracing this system I might even buy special dice to be the Toxin Dice, and have ones that are yellow and black or like lurid green or something.
I used this system in my players’ encounter with the venomous glider-spiders in our last Vaults session, and it worked well. I do it all via video chat so I didn’t actually explain the system to them during the fight, but it let me easily track the poison damage on each PC throughout the combat. There are other fun wrinkles you could add, like psychic toxins that only roll for damage when you use Mystic Gifts, or language viruses that make the character roll their TD whenever they speak out loud, and so on.
Anyway, just a thought. I’m going to keep using this rule and see how it plays long term.