A Sneak Peek at HARP Subterfuge

Copyright Until publication, the author wishes his or her identity to remain secret. © 2018

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"Ancient cultures discovered that many plants and animal substances had special properties and valued them for their analgesics (pain relief), muscle-relaxant, anti-coagulant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-convulsant powers."


Poison is a tool used by assassins, Ninja, Envenomers, and Nightblades to perform their work. While the scope of the Poisoning skill is sufficient for campaigns that use poison only occasionally, additions and refinements are needed for campaigns that will incorporate poison to a greater degree.

In HARP, Herbcraft is for “finding, recognizing, and harvesting various magical and non-magical herbs effectively.” This skill is used when searching for poisonous plants in the wild. The Poisoning skill encompasses the “bonus for preparing, storing, and removing poisons safely and effectively” and “the character’s knowledge of poisons as well as his ability to work with them safely.”

The use of poison in fantasy role playing can easily become too pervasive and powerful, and upset the balance of the game. One reason is that the effects of poisons do not vary. They are what they are. A world with fell toxins and vicious venoms is already a dangerous place. Allowing characters easy mastery over those substances can shift the balance of power.

The goal of this chapter is to give players and Gamemasters enough additional information about poisons to decide just how much they want to include in their gaming. Some players and Gamemasters may be fine using the base rules on poisons found in the HARP core rule. Others may wish for a light expansion. Some players may want their character to become masters of assassination. Gamemasters may want ideas for building intriguing campaigns that revolve around mysterious deaths, sudden illnesses, and the search for rare cures. If your adventuring goals include assassination, interrogation, deadly weapons, or occult alchemy—or if Envenonmers (HARP Folkways) or Nightblades populate your world—then you should review this chapter and consider including its guidelines.

To meet this goal, this chapter will discuss poison in relation to various cultural topics, give additional guidelines and details for the Poisoning skill and sources of poison, provide additional methods for using poison (including poisoning weapons), provide details on using aphrodisiacs and intoxicants, and detail the steps for creating new poisons.

Poison, Culture, and Society

The use of poison in culture and society is varied and widespread. Poisonous substances—the toxins and venoms discussed below—have been used for medicine, mysticism, hunting, ritual, and warfare. Toxins refer to the poisonous substances of plants or animals that require the victim to touch or ingest in order to be affected. Venoms refer to the poisonous substances of animals and creatures that are delivered through a bite, sting, or stab.

How cultures and societies view poison and its use is also quite varied and depends somewhat on the society’s level of literacy (i.e. preliterate, semi-literate, or literate), which is discussed in more detail in Chapter 10.

Poison and Medicine

The use of poisonous substances in culture and society has its roots in medicine and the arts of healing. Ancient cultures discovered that many plants and animal substances had special properties and valued them for their analgesics (pain relief), muscle-relaxant, anti-coagulant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-convulsant powers. Healers have also long known that the difference between “medicine” and “poison” is a matter of dosage. The truth is that almost all substances are toxic if taken in too high a dose. It is easy to imagine how accidental ingestion or deliberate experimentation revealed which plants were poisonous. Ancient healers—for whom poisonous substances were often mystical—learned that careful measurement and administration is required or else your helpful, healing affect will become a harmful or deadly one.

Poison and Mysticism

In tribal cultures, small doses of poisonous substances were used to induce hallucinatory effects during ceremonies and rituals. It was believed the resulting trace or state of euphoria allowed shamans to consult with spirits or conduct “magical” rituals (e.g. healing, exorcism). In these cultures, the toxic substances became associated with the occult and considered the province of the divine. Possession of these substances was entrusted only to spiritual leaders who guarded the secrets of their preparation and use.

The effects of poisons enhanced their connection to the occult, especially (as in the case of ingested poisons) when horrific symptoms mysteriously appeared in people. The sudden onset of fever, retching, or unexplained bleeding made poisons appear to be the work of evil spirits, demons, or black magic. These mystical or unholy associations were further reinforced by the fact that many deadly plants grew in inhospitable places or near boundaries of toxic gas—boundaries which were seen as entrances to the underworld.

Despite the awe that such mysticism created, tribal cultures found great utility in using poison for hunting, which spread to its use in warfare.