The Generic Villain On Poisons and Protagonists

Most of the time, we have to deal with the heroes face to face and skill to skill, by weapons, minds or tongues. But sometimes we’re lucky and we can let poison do some of the work, as long as we know how to use it.

For purposes of this exercise, I’m going to define poison as pretty much anything that the heroes are going to want out of their systems due to their eventually maleficent effects on mind, body and/or spirit. This includes things that will kill them, paralyze them, put them to sleep, relieve them of their magic, severely addict them to a substance very few people have…. you get the idea.

The first thing to think about is the kinds of poisons you can use on a protagonist. There’s something of a sliding scale here, depending on narrative importance, but most of what it boils down to is that the more Named and Primary your target is, the less final your poison can be. Drugging them in order to capture them more easily, to keep them down long enough to lure their friends into an ambush, or just to relieve them of their goods? Usually works. Sticking them with a slow-acting poison or addicting them to a rare substance in order to extort them into doing your bidding? The initial exposure generally comes through. Something that should kill them on exposure? Unless you’re in some major league Dark and Gritty, that’s almost invariably going to fail.

Next, there’s the matter of administration. Don’t get fancy! Poisoned blades, as long as you keep quiet about it (too obvious and you get that obnoxious tendency of heroes to hoist you on your own petard), can be quite effective, and of course there’s the old slip the stuff in the drink or pawn it off as medicine. On the other hand, never, EVER do anything that involves two cups and anyone choosing, particularly not if your mark’s the one who offers. Inconceivable though it may seem, the nasty little prot will probably be immune, or just so good at sleight of hand that even if it’s red wine and you’re in the middle of a snowfield you’ll still never catch her pouring it out—and if that’s not the case, then I don’t care how many clever couplet mnemonics you use, it’ll be something you’ll take half a dozen reps to learn and your opponent will know by heart on one hearing. Just… don’t. Really. Note, though, that for the expert, getting absurdly fancy can be a benefit, particularly if nobody hears how you plan on doing it until the deed is done. Dramatic Necessity loves originality.

Make sure what you do once the poison’s landed doesn’t exceed your ambient Dark and Gritty Quotient. Simple searches and disarmings, dragging them back to the dungeons, drawing on their faces in permanent marker (though if you must, please tell me there’s a good reason), extorting simple fetch quests out of them—that’s one thing. But unless you’re in one of those grimdark grimdark anyone can die and will probably do so horribly unless they’re slated just to suffer a lot instead ‘verses, serious torture and sexual assault are probably a bad idea, and I really don’t trust the Laws of Narrative Causality not to misinterpret cavity searches.

Regardless of what some people may tell you, use of poison on protagonists isn’t impossible—you just have to remember how to make it work with the Laws of Dramatics. Stay cunning!


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