Is Using Poison in D&D Evil?
In one of the recent videos on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted discussed poison in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, taking a look at the history of poison in earlier editions. Using poison in D&D has evolved over the decades for sure, and the conversation raised some interesting points. There are plenty of comments on the video too, offering lots of different perspectives. I’ve got my own thoughts on the subject, so let’s get into it and, at least from my point of view, answer the question if using poison in D&D is evil.
Changes to using poison in D&D
The biggest takeaways for me to help answer this question are two changes in D&D. The first thing is the nature of the game and how people play. Keep in mind this isn’t an absolute — there’s always been variety in how people play D&D.
Back in the day, the game was more informed by European medieval concepts. D&D evolved from wargaming, featuring knights, infantrymen and the like waging battle with swords and bows — conventional weaponry. The idea of a character using poison was akin to chemical warfare, something to do employed by thieves’ guilds and the like. But interestingly enough, there was also a gamist reason to keeping a watchful eye on using poison in D&D.
The first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook explicitly states the main reason for keeping poison use to a minimum is maintaining the challenge of the game. The section on poison flat out says overusing poison makes D&D too easy.
As regards any moral quandaries about using poison in D&D, the section covers whether it’s good or evil mostly as a way for a Dungeon Master to present restricting the use. Using poison doesn’t have any mechanical impact on a character, but instead suggests say good characters should avoid using poison because it is foul and unfair. Another suggested approach a DM could take is it’s frowned upon in society, or simply against the law.
It’s worth noting there are class-based restrictions on using poison in AD&D. Nonevil clerics and all paladins may never use poison, and assassins (a distinct class in this edition) absolutely can. “The primary function of assassins is killing,” the PHB states. “They may use poison — ingested or insinuated by weapon.” The rest of the classes may only use poison if the referee allows. Bards, an optional supplemental class in AD&D, could also never use poison, unless they are neutral evil.
Using poison isn’t evil but evil characters use poison
Poison is treated very carefully in the early days of D&D, and it tells a lot about the game. If we fast forward to today and fifth edition D&D, it’s handled much differently and perceptions of it as well. In a sort of post-modern gaming world, poison is just another way to deal damage. It’s no different than fire, lightning, bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage or any of the other damage types. Even a novice spellcaster with the poison spray cantrip can project puffs of noxious gas from their palms all day. But there is some distinction between poison as a damage type or condition, and straight up poison like you’d apply to a weapon or slip into someone’s drink.
“In some settings, strict laws prohibit the possession and use of poison, but a black-market dealer or unscrupulous apothecary might keep a hidden stash. Characters with criminal contacts might be able to acquire poison relatively easily. Other characters might have to make extensive inquiries and pay bribes before they track down the poison they seek.” — From the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide
A lot of comments in the video express post-modern views, pointing out how chopping someone in the neck with a greataxe or exploding creatures with a fireball isn’t any more good or evil than poisoning them. And they’ve got a point — dead is dead right? Good and evil are relative, and the narratives we weave with our friends around the gaming table sometimes explore these themes much more deeply than players in the early days.
I like these changes, and those comments are right. There’s practically no mechanical discussion in the D&D 5E rules for judging whether a character’s actions are good or evil, and this is a good thing. The stories we create together can explore these themes if we wish, and ask these heady questions. Without a rules framework, it’s up to the players to determine the morality of their characters’ actions, and this can make for compelling, dramatic stories. It also removes absolutes and provides flexibility to consider relativity.
Is it evil to coat a blade in poison or cast cloudkill and watch the bodies hit the floor? Is it good to hack and slash monsters with a greataxe? The answers aren’t always black and white. A society in your game might be shocked by adventurers methods, even if they are ultimately defeating evil. If the party chases a necromancer from their lair in the village cemetery and butchers them in the public square before the eyes of children, is that a more good act than slipping the necromancer a poisoned glass of wine, painlessly ending the threat?
Thankfully we have all the tools we need to explore complicated themes like this in our D&D games.