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Old Screeds

Suicide Potion [10 September 05] Debunking a bitter pill.

You all know the scenario: You and your party of heroes have defeated your enemy after a nasty fight, only to watch him flee. You track him down, corner this villain, and finally he is at your mercy. At last you will get the answers you need, the revenge you deserve! Then the bad guy whips out a vial, swallows, gags, and keels over dead. No info ... no revenge ... very frustrating.

That's especially frustrating in 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, since the standard poison rules never allow instant death from poison. Even if a poison-eater did voluntarily fail both saves, odds are that a decent ability-damaging poison would still need the secondary damage to kill a person a minute later. Besides, the common DM-fiat item is the instant killer, not the ability-damager!

As a player, I'd like to be able to go shopping and buy me some of that instant-death ingest poison, but evidently it is only available at NPCMart. Despite the ridiculosity, game masters the world over simply refuse to stop using this time-honored role-play device. It's just such a gosh-darn easy solution to the problem of players getting their mitts on information the DM does not want them to have.

Fine. Give the poor overwhelmed DM his villain's suicide pill. Is all lost for the intrepid adventurer? Maybe not! The villain may still need to take out the poison and drink it. Doing that presents opportunities. Or rather, Attacks of Opportunity -- one when taking out the potion, and another when drinking it. And the best use of your AoO(s)? Doing damage is only effective if you drive your target into the negatives. If you think you might do that without killing him, go for it -- if you can inflict nonlethal damage, your chance of success is even better, since you have no fear of killing him. But the better route may be a sunder or disarm attack on the poison, or even a grapple. Let's tackle those AoOs one at a time.

The first AoO presents itself as the villain takes out the vial. That's the AoO provoked when you "Retrieve a stored item." It might be tempting to disarm your enemy of his poison pill at this point, but that's the same as the "He provokes an AoO as he draws a new weapon? I disarm him as he draws that one!" trick. The official D&D FAQ addresses this issue:

Question: When a character gets up from prone, when does the attack of opportunity take place? When he is still prone? When he is standing? Can the attacker choose when to attack? In one case, the attacker can get a +4 bonus to hit. In the other, he can make another trip attack.
Answer: All attacks of opportunity happen before the actions that trigger them (see Chapter 8 in the Player’s Handbook). When you make an attack of opportunity against someone who’s getting up, your target is effectively prone, and therefore cannot be tripped. You could ready an action to trip a prone foe after he gets up, however.
That means you cannot disarm a person with the AoO provoked when she draws the weapon. And it means you can't knock a vial out of an enemy's hand with the AoO provoked when he pulls it out of a pocket. Therefore, if you are the only person in reach and you do not have combat reflexes, do not take this AoO! You need to save your AoO (you only get one a round) for the opportunity provoked when the enemy tries to drink the vial. If there are lots of friends in reach, then you might as well take this first AoO, so long as your friends are smart enough to wait.

As for the second AoO -- the "Drink a potion or apply an oil" AoO -- if you have combat reflexes, you have more choices. You can grapple with the first AoO and pin at the second. If you succeed both times, not only have you stopped the suicide attempt, but you have pinned the foe. Or you can attack to subdue with the first AoO, and attack to disarm/sunder with the second.

But if you only have the one AoO, then forego the first AoO and take the second one, provoked as he lifts the vial to his lips. A successful disarm (or sunder) does the job then.

Of course, if the DM wants an NPC dead or silenced, she'll find a way to do it. The effective DM does so in a way that seems reasonable, though -- too often, a DM takes the easy way out. When that happens, there's nothing wrong with trying to keep your DM honest.

Feedback [9 Oct 05] A friend of mine, Kup, thinks the problem is not that DMs kill foes before they can be captured; but rather that PCs are too eager to kill everything first ... before the DM can use a captured NPC to give the party info needed for the module! Kup says:

I've always had the opposite reaction. I want the PCs to leave an NPC standing at the end of the battle to question -- how better to get the PCs from one scene to the next? The problem is, the PCs like to kill anything that moves -- even when it's no longer fighting, or never fought at all! Now, the PCs in my game nearly killed a new PC with this approach! LOL!

So, my problem was the opposite -- how does a DM avoid PCs (running by the book) shooting and killing every NPC? One way that I had planned, but never got to use, is the ol' adverse disguise/illusion spell, a great one for deterring the trigger-happy PC.

PCs enter a scenario (say, a room in a dungeon) and catch a whiff of magic in the air. Before they have time to explore, wham! -- a horrifying demon/specter/whatever appears, standing over one of the PCs, its twin sabres dripping blood -- and the PC is dead!

Bang, bang, bang.

When the smoke clears, the PCs learn that the demon was a adverse disguise spell cast over their friendly PC! Sometimes they learn the hard way -- the target PC dies from the trigger-happy friendly firepower. But, they learn -- enough with the shoot-first, ask-questions later approach!

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