Game: Pale Designs: A Poisoner’s Handbook
Publisher: Bastion Press
Review Dated: 17th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 14
Average Score: 7.00
Hmm. Yummy. Bastion Press books with their full colour and glossy pages always look good. The fact that I’m making yummy noises about a book on poisons can be discounted as one of those strange things roleplayers do.
I noticed a bunch of other d20 publishers listed in the credits. Yes, sadly, I look there first. Pale Designs makes some of the best use of Open Game Content as under the d20 OGL license umbrella that I’ve seen yet. The authors, Steven Creech and Kevin Ruesch have used their own reputations and wiles, assisted no doubt by the Bastion’s prestige to win permission to re-print poisons protected as Product Identity by other publishers. This explains the extra credits. This success means that Pale Designs really is a poisoner’s handbook. It lists and describes a huge range of poisons. There’s an added bonus for GMs and players who like consistency in their games too. Since Pale Designs uses some poisons from previously published supplements and adventures you can be sure that Hog’s Breath the players encounter after their GM bought the book is the same Hog’s Breath that they encountered before the GM had the book. The GM doesn’t need to go hunting through his collection of adventures or supplements to find the one with the details for that particular poison either.
It could be easier to find a particular poison in Pale Designs though. There’s no universal alphabetical index for the poisons. Sure, poisons are presented alphabetically but also by type. If you don’t know the type then you’re in for a lot of flicking back and forth through the book. The ‘type’ is fairly arbitrary. The primary division of type seems to be whether the poison is new (seen first in Pale Designs) or not.
The introduction says “Gamemasters who use poisons in their games often do so with little or no planning.” You what? I would accept swapping out ‘often’ with ‘rarely’ in the sentence but not how it stands now. Oh well, I don’t suppose it really matters. If the roleplaying hobby has a hundred thousand players then I wouldn’t be all that surprised to discover there are a hundred thousand different roleplaying styles. It certainly doesn’t matter insofar that the “poison chain” that follows describes the process of collecting the ingredients, discovering the recipe, creating the poison, buying or selling, application, effects and treatment succinctly and with appropriate emphasis on plot spinning to appeal to me. There is even a very quick look (blink and you’ll miss it) on how to use poisons to build up the tension in your game.
The core rules for poisons in d20 betray Dungeon & Dragons’ early combat crawl roots where the idea was to kill things, kill them in the space of a single melee and then take their treasure. Poisons are quick and reduce the size of numbers on character sheets; whether those numbers represent constitution or hit points. Pale Designs is quick to tempt us with an optional rule variant. I think it’s right to do so. This new rule attempts to introduce the lingering effects of poisons. Successive amounts of damage are applied to the victim in addition to the initial effect in the rounds after the failed Fortitude saving throw. It’s an attempt to bring some of the horror of being poisoned back into the game. That’s the word ‘attempt’ used twice in nearly as many sentences there. More damage will certainly encourage one breed of gamer to respect poisons more but I don’t feel it really adds to the drama. A partial success is better than none at all. I’ll be using the rule.
Then the first batch of poisons begins. Twenty pages of listed, statted and described poisons. These are the venoms, toxins and poisons taken from Necromancer Games, Mystic Eye and White Wolf (presumably in their Swords and Sorcery Studio guise) products. Most of these poisons just do damage but a few have interesting effects instead. Nicely, where possible, the description of the poison includes a quick note on the DC value for harvesting or crafting the toxin. What these notes don’t include any interesting or practical cures. It would be great if just one poison listed another as a possible cure if taken in moderation. Even if the cures were simply mentioned as an arbitrary ingredient and a rarity value (say, “moonleaf root, very rare”) then this chapter would have doubled in value. I was looking for poisons that didn’t so much deal damage to targets as they played a key role in plots – preventing the ambassador from the Red Isle from attending the royal dance this /week/, for example. You can just about scrape that sort of thing. I highlighted week because we’re still looking at a majority of poisons that work only on the short term.
The new poisons, the ones introduced for Pale Designs, do a bit better. Not much better but a bit and they do have the advance of filling in the gaps. The new poisons are broken down into groupings; alchemical poisons, magical poisons, planar poisons, mineral, multi-stage and natural poisons. There are plenty more new alchemical and natural poisons. I’m glad multi-stage poisons were included. These are the poisons introduced ingredient by ingredient to the target until the combination becomes poisonous. This is the sort of approach that could make poisons suitably scary in d20. Planar poisons seem like a good idea – poisons magically attuned to the resonance of particular planes. I think they need more work though. Ice blood, for example, kicks in hugely if the target visits the Elemental Plane of Fire but who’s going to be travelling to the Plane of Fire and troubled at all by a Fortitude saving throw with DC of 13? High level games and poisons just don’t go well together. Pale Designs has a stab at dealing with this but I would have encouraged the authors to do more than stab at the mechanics, I’d be all for dynamiting them.
There’s a small chapter on drugs. Drugs are effectively entirely like poisons except their effects are more varied. There’s a little more on alchemical processes and products. Examples include Fool’s Poison which tests positive as a poison in all respects but isn’t or the tactic of mixing toxin into your smokestick and having your retreat obscured not simply by thick smoke but poisonous thick smoke.
Chapters on equipment, weapons, traps and even magic items have more bulk to them. It’s here that you’ll find your variants on blowguns and poison needle rings.
There are new feats too. They tend to fall into the “Advanced-Improved-Extended-Enhanced” category but the monster feats are nice. The monster feats include such lovely touches as venomous spittle. Oh yeah. There are some new monsters to gift these new feats too as well. The new monsters tend to be heavily influenced by poisons and toxins, some more so than others. The Bloody Tears is a large plant with challenge rating 4 and of interest to brave people wanting to harvest bits of it for the crafting of poison.
New spells? Why not? There are lots of new cleric spells, a few assassin spells and even less druid spells. I’d rather have had that the other way around but at this stage in the book we’re into the added extra stage. Pale Designs has already reached the success level and at this point is trying to climber higher. The new list of new cleric spells is long because the book includes the Murder and Poison domains. There are plenty of other Murder and Poison domains but if you don’t have one handy then you’d notice their absence if Pale Design’s didn’t introduce them.
Pheh. Prestige Classes. You knew they’d be prestige classes as soon as I mentioned the new feats. The Acolyte is presented as the temple’s assassin. Okay. If that’s the case then the 10 level prestige class is pretty good. A different name for the class might have been better though. The Anarchist also has 10 levels of progression. This prestige class has weird entropic powers (because anarchy equals entropy?) and thankfully has a chaotic alignment requirement. Bondsman is an appropriate choice for a prestige because he’s a member of an elite organisation and trained in special skills. The Infiltrator is just as good. Mage Hunters, Psi-Slayers and Nightstalkers are fine prestige classes but my conviction that they’re inherently poison related starts to wane. You’ve got access to another Sniper prestige class and you can add that to your collection of Sniper classes. The Trapmaster prestige class is a good choice for the book and can claim undisputed validity in a book about poisons. There are a couple of new NPC classes too. That’s a heck of a lot of prestige classes – 15 pages in total. It’s worth noting that each class as a section for suggest campaign use and that this includes modern usage as well as fantasy.
Colour is used liberally throughout Pale Designs. It’s rather ironic given the book’s title that bold green and red are used for chapter and paragraph headings. The illustrations have a nearly cartoon style to them at times but not in a bad way. Occasionally you’ll turn the page to find a full-page illustration.
It must have been pretty hard putting together 96 pages of poisons and related equipment. I’m sure this is reflected in all the extra prestige classes, monsters, spells and feats. There are enough poisons and venoms in the book for it to work an encyclopaedia of toxins for the GM. I was surprised that there wasn’t more in the way of traps and equipment. Perhaps they’ve been done to death already but surely then adding more in preference to prestige classes would have done no harm. Pale Designs does well. It takes a tricky subject, doesn’t wimp out and the result is a genuinely useful book.