Authors's Note: I am a histologist, not a toxicologist. While every care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the cures and antidotes listed on this page, don't try them at home ;-). Aside from anything else, we now have stomach pumps and gastric lavage, which work a lot better than anything listed here. I hope it's equally obvious that this material is intended for background - please don't try and poison anyone in real life and blame it on me...
The following article lists a number of poisons, their lethal doses, physical effects and antidotes. The current version includes only those real-world poisons that might be available in a fantasy setting with a temperate or middle-eastern climate. They were not all necessarily known in the real world middle ages, and the information here would not necessarily have been known to people at the time.
Acids & Poison Gas
Animal Poisons & Venoms
Every substance is poisonous
Every substance is not poisonous
All that differs is the dose.
This crucial maxim must always be considered when discussing poisons. There is no substance, which, if taken in large enough quantities, is not toxic. Even pure water can be poisonous if enough is consumed (it does have to be a very large quantity indeed, to be sure, but the principle holds). It is equally true that there is no substance which is harmless if taken in a low enough dose. For instance, arsenic, one of the better known poisons, is actually beneficial if a small enough dose is taken (it clears the complexion). The same can be said of many other 'poisons', such as strychnine.
What this means is that we cannot safely produce a definition for poison. Every substance is poisonous, so we must provide an arbitrary dividing line between the toxic and the non-toxic. Fortunately, once we have decided which substances are toxic in a low enough dose to be truely considered a poison, it is a relatively simple matter to classify these substances.
Widely used as a rat poison, and one of the better known of the assassin's tools. The fatal dose is about two grains. Death appears to be due to damage to the gut. After ingestion of large quantities of arsenic (over one scruple), the victim shows signs of violent colic and vomiting. Later the skin becomes cold and clammy. The victim may collapse or enter convulsions before death. Lower doses cause nausea, headache and other signs of general malaise. If the victim survives for more than a week he will usually make a complete recovery.
Arsenic gas, which may be produced alchemically, is extremely poisonous. Symptoms include a burning sensation on the face, followed, three hours later, by vomiting and diarrhoea. Later still the victim develops a bluish colouration, and falls into delirium, followed by collapse and death.
Arsenic is treated with syrup of ipecac applied as soon as possible after ingestion of the poison. There is no antidote to arsenic gas.
Brimstone is found in regions of vulcanism and is widely used by alchemists. The odour is detectable long before the poison can have any effect.
Lead is widely used for several purposes. The lethal dose is about eight grains. The symptoms are a metallic taste in the mouth, vomiting, and collapse. If lead is ingested over a long period, there will also be mental instability and vague pains. The chance of survival is about one in four. Even those who survive may suffer permanent mental damage.
Complete recovery may take up to a year. Syrup of ipecac is effective. Food and drink should be witheld for at least 3 days.
Phosphorus is a yellow waxy substance used in rat poisons. The fatal dose is about one grain. Ingestion of phosphorus is followed within a couple of hours by vomiting. The victim's breath will smell of garlic and even appear to smoke. Death can occur within a couple of days, but frequently the victim will appear to recover only to suffer from jaundice and vomiting one or two days later. Death can occur up to three weeks after poisoning. The chance of survival is more or less even.
If phosphorus is allowed to dry on the skin it will ignite causing slow healing burns and blisters. Phosphorus gas may be produced in a similar fashion to arsenic gas. The symptoms are similar to poisoning with the solid, with jaundice being the most notable symptom, along with coughing. Death usually occurs within four days, although it can take much longer.
Quicksilver is another substance widely used by alchemists. Quicksilver itself is not toxic unless ingested in very large quantities (and from the assassin's point of view, it suffers from the disadvantage of being extremely obvious). However, it is poisonous if used on a knife blade, and certain alchemical preparations can be lethal if eaten. The fatal dose of such preparations is about fifteen grains.
Alchemical quicksilver preparations leave a metallic taste in the mouth, followed by thirst, colic and vomiting. The victim will cease urinating from one day or up to two weeks after being poisoned, and will die shortly afterwards. Syrup of ipecac is effective if taken quickly enough.
Although silver itself is largely harmless, certain alchemical preparations can be more harmful. The fatal dose may be as low as a pennyweight, although victims have survived after larger doses. The initial symptom is pain and burning in the mouth. The mouth will become black in colour and the victim will drool and vomit black material. He will eventually collapse and die in convulsions. If low (nonlethal) quantities of silver preparations are used over a long period of time, the user's skin will become bluish black in colour, starting with the whites of the eyes, then spreading to the face and hands before, if the practice is not stopped, spreading to the entire body.
Brine can be used to reduce the chances of dying from silver poisoning, although it is not a complete antidote. The discolouration is permanent.
Zinc is widely used in smithies, being the primary ingredient (along with copper) of brass. Smelting brass can result in 'brass fume fever', a disease characterised by general pains and cramps, as well as fever. More serious cases will result in vomiting and weakness, sometimes with a blueish discolouration to the skin and breathing difficulties.
Brass fume fever is treated as with any other fever. Recovery occurs after one or two days. In serious cases the death rate is about one in four.
Although one would not normally consider acids as poisons, none the less, they do kill people, and there is no reason not to consider them here. Acids prepared from brimstone and nitre are particularly dangerous, the lethal dose being about five drops.
The principal symptom of acid poisoning is, not surprsingly, corrosion. If acid is drunk then there is an immediate, severe, burning pain in the mouth and throat, followed by severe colic and vomiting. Brownish (brimstone) or yellowish (nitre) stains appear around the mouth and the victim may suffocate. After intial recovery there is fever and continued colic. The chance of survival is more or less even. Death can occur up to a month later.
If acid fumes are breathed in there will be immediate coughing and choking, followed by headaches and dizziness. The victim will then appear to recover, only to cough blood, gasp for breath and become dizzy six to eight hours later. This may continue for several weeks. The commonest form of 'poison gas' actually consists of the greenish fumes given off in certain alchemical acidic reactions. It causes burns to the skin and severe choking, as well as the symptoms above.
Acids splashed onto the skin result in brownish or yellowish discolouration and severe pain. Such burns heal only slowly and leave permanent scars.
Syrup of ipecac is ineffective in dealing with acids, and will generally make matters worse. Instead milk should be given to the victim as soon as possible, in quantities approximately one hundred times those of the acid. For acid burns the burn should be washed thoroughly in water and any affected clothing removed as quickly as possible.
There are a huge range of poisons which can be derived from plants. Indeed, it is from plants that assassins gather the majority of the materials used in their trade. It is therefore possible only to give a broad outline of the types of poisons available. In most cases, there are other plants which produce similar, but generally lesser, effects.
Croton Oil (Seeds)
This oil is not volatile, making it useful for applying to weapons. Since it is poisonous even on skin contact, great care must be taken whilst using it. The fatal dose is about one scruple of oil.
The symptoms are the same regardless of the method of application. There is a burning pain in the afflicted area and in the bowels and groin, followed by vomiting, pallor, collapse and eventual death.
The victim should be treated with water and milk followed by syrup of ipecac. These measures are of little use once the symptoms have started. If the victim survives for two days, he is likely to live.
Deadly Nightshade (Leaves and roots)
In common with many other poisons, this is of medicinal use if given in a low enough dose. The extract can be applied to weapons or used in food. The fatal dose of deadly nightshade extract is probably less than a grain.
Doses low enough to be of medicinal use may still produce some harmful side effects such as blurring of vision. Toxic doses cause hot, dry skin, delirium and hallucinations followed by stiffness, fever and convulsions.
Syrup of ipecac is effective for an unusually long time against this poison. The victims's mouth should be thoroughly washed to remove traces of poison, which can remain dangerous. The victim should be given plenty to drink. If the victim survives for a day he will probably recover.
Ergot (Whole plant)
Ergot is a fungus which grows on rye. Rye flour, used in making 'black' bread, is sometimes contaminated with the fungus. The fatal dose is about one scruple. The poison can be used on weapons. It is sometimes used to induce abortions, but can be deadly in the concentratios required.
The symptoms include nausea and vomiting, followed by dizziness, difficulty breathing and convulsions. Repeated exposure may lead to gangrene. Death may occur up to a week after poisoning.
Syrup of ipecac is very effective. Gangrene, of course, can only be cured by amputation.
False Hellebore (Flowers)
The death camas is related to the lilly. The fatal dose is about one scruple. The symptoms are nausea, severe vomiting, muscular weakness and visual disturbance. Syrup of ipecac is generally effective.
Foxglove (Any part)
Extracts of foxgloves are occaisonally used to stimulate heartbeat. The fatal dose is about two scruples. The initial symptoms are headache, nausea and vomiting, followed by blurred vision and delirium, then loss of colour vision and death, usually from apoplexy. Recovery is likely if the victim survives for one day.
The victim's airways should be maintained to prevent suffocation. Syrup of ipecac is effective. The victim should be given plenty to drink.
The seeds of certain common fruits are poisonous if treated in the appropriate fashion (this requires no special equipment, but I'm not about to explain it). Cassava and oil of bitter almonds have similar effects. Large quantities are required, but the poison is extremely rapid in its effects.
Ingestion of suitably large amounts of these substances causes immediate unconciousness, followed by convulsions. Death will occur within, at the very most, fifteen minutes. Lower quantities cause dizziness, vomiting, headache and then death within four hours.
Syrup of ipecac usually has little effect. There is no known antidote.
This consists of the resinous extracts of the hemp plant. The dried flowers can also be used, and are referred to as marijuana. It can also be drunk, sniffed or smoked.
The physical effects include frequent urination, and may extend to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The effects depend on the personality of the subject, and in particular, his mood when he takes the drug. Emotions are heightened, and the aim is to acheive euphoria and a loosening of inhibition. The subject may also become restless or tired and confused. There may also be a loss of dexterity. The effects are in general not as severe as those of opium and it is not as habit forming.
Syrup of ipecac has some effect against hashish when it is eaten or drunk, but, naturally, none if it is taken in other ways.
Hemlock (Any part)
This is a plant related to parsley, some forms of which are equally poisonous. A piece of water hemlock half an inch in diameter can be sufficient to produce fatal poisoning. Water hemlock causes colic, vomiting, sweating, convulsions, bluish discolouration and death by suffocation. Poison hemlock and dog parsley produce vomiting, drooling, fever and slow acting paralysis, again resulting in death by suffocation.
Syrup of ipecac is effective if given early enough. Provided that such measures are taken, the victim should survive.
Meadow Saffron (All parts)
This plant is used in the manufacture of yellow dyes for cloth. Poisons are generally made from the seeds, although any part of the plant will suffice. The fatal dose is less than one grain. The poison is slow acting, showing no symptoms for the first three to six hours. Then the victim suffers a burning sensation in the throat, vomiting, colic delirium, convulsions and difficulty breathing.
The victim should be given water and milk, followed by syrup of ipecac.
Widely used by druids, this plant grows on oak trees. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the berries are especially so. The symptoms and treatment are the same as for foxglove poisoning.
Monk's Hood (All parts)
Tincture of Monk's Hood is used in linaments. The lethal dose is about one scruple of the plant or two drams of the tincture. The tincture can be absorbed through the skin over a long period of time. The victim suffers from vomiting and a burning sensation in the mouth followed by numbness, blurred vision, chest pain, shallow breathing and finally convulsions. Survival for one day is usually followed by recovery. Syrup of ipecac is of limited use.
Mushrooms (All parts)
Poisonous mushrooms are found almost everywhere, and are usually mingled with edible varities. There are a very wide variety of symptoms, as might be expected. The principal symptoms are vomiting, breathing difficulty and jaundice. Other symptoms depend on the particular mushroom, including enlargement of the liver, headache, mental confusion, drooling, wheezing and hallucinations.
Amanita has a similar effect to hashish, although more extreme. The subject becomes excited and suffers lack of control, followed by convulsions, unconciousness and prolonged insanity. Hallucinations are vivid, and include both sight and sound.
Syrup of ipecac is effective with all mushroom poisons. Mushroom poisoning is generally not fatal, although some species are unusually deadly.
Opium Poppy (Seeds)
The dried juice of the unripe seed capsules of the white opium poppy is used as a narcotic drug. The exact effects of the drug depend on the geographical area in which the poppies are grown. The effects also vary depending on the personality and race of the subject.
The fatal dose is about five grains, although it can be much higher in addicts (up to two pennyweight). It is a brown, resinous substance, or a powder, and has a strong bitter taste.
Small doses of opium produce excitement, and the subject develops a vivid imagination. This lasts for some hours, and is followed by relaxation and sleep. The higher the dose, the briefer the period of excitement and the deeper the sleep.
High doses will produce unconsciousness, pinpoint pupils, slow breathing, cold sweat, blueish skin and sometimes the subject will begin to twitch randomly. Death may occur within a few hours. Withdrawal from the drug leads to yawning, weeping, severe digestive problems, colic, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation, sweating, fever, and chills. Death from withdrawal, however, is rare.
If treatment is administered within the first couple of hours, syrup of ipecac may have some effect if the patient is still conscious. The victim should then be kept warm and given plenty to drink.
Poison Ivy (All parts)
Poison Ivy can even be dangerous on contact with skin, leading to acute irritation. Deaths are rare. Breathing in smoke from burning plants can also lead to poisoning. There is no effect for at least twelve hours after poisoning, and sometimes nothing happens for as long as week. Eventually, the area of contact will start to itch and swell, later developing an extremely unpleasant rash. There will also be weakness, malaise and fever.
After skin contact, the poison should be removed by vigorous scrubbing. If the poison is eaten, then syrup of ipecac is, as usual, effective.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the root is especially so. The symptoms are burning in the mouth and stomach, repeated vomiting, slow breathing and weakness. The poison is not particularly lethal. Syrup of ipecac is effective.
Although the stems of the rhubarb plant are edible, the leaves are poisonous. The fatal dose of rhubarb extract is from one to four drams. Symptoms begin with a burning sensation in the mouth and stomach, with colic and vomiting. Tremours, convulsions and collapse follow. Death can occur within minutes. Prolonged skin contact with the extract may cause discolouration and even gangrene. Preparing such extracts produces fumes however, which can eventually lead to poisoning.
The victim should be given milk and chalk powder. Syrup of ipecac is of no use unless the poisoning is fairly mild. Recovery is likely if these treatments are given.
Used as a rat poison. The fatal dose is about one or two grains. In lower doses it can be of medicinal benefit. Strychnine poisoning can be identified by the fact that rigor mortis sets in almost immediatly after death. The poison has a strong bitter taste. The victim initially suffers from stiffness and tremours. As poisoning pregresses, the victim suffers from spasms and nervous excitement, followed by death.
Syrup of ipecac is of only limited use, especially after the severe symptoms have begun. Absolute quiet reduces the frequency of spasms. If the victim survives for one day, recovery is likely.
Alcohol is widely used in all forms of drinks. It is generally the only drug whose use is widely accepted socially prior to the introduction of tobbaco. The amount of alcohol in drinks is measured by their proof. Proof spirits are those that, at room temperature, weigh exactly twelve thirteenths of an equal measure of water. Spirits are described as so many degrees under or over proof, depending on the quantity of water which must be added to or deducted from one hundred volumes of the drink to produce proof spirits.
Approximate Proof Strengths
|Beer, Cider||95 u/p|
|Strong Ale||85 u/p|
|Fortified Wine||75 u/p|
|Typical spirits||50 u/p|
|Very strong spirits||Proof|
|Pure Alcohol||74 o/p|
The fatal dose of alcohol is equivalent to just over a pint of whiskey if drunk in less than one hour. This figure is highly variable, however. People who drink frequently are generally less susceptible.
There are four levels of alcoholic inebriation, with symptoms as follows:
I - Mild : Slight visual effects, reduced agility and dexterity. There is a reduction in intelligence, and a loss of self-criticism and self-control. Small pains will also be eased by this level of alcohol. These effects together appear to give a stimulating effect, although alcohol is actually a depressant. The subject also begins to feel warm, and the skin becomes flushed.
II - Moderate : Visual blurring, severely reduced agility and dexterity, slurring of speech. The subject experiences swings of mood, including both depression and excitement.
III - Severe : Staggering, double vision, unusual reflexes, possible lockjaw, pale skin. There is by now a complete loss of self-control, judgement and any sense of shame. This level of inebriation can be dangerous.
IV - Acute Poisoning : Collapse, unconsciousness, slow breathing, reduced reflexes, total insensibility. Possible death.
Alcoholic mania is a state of extreme excitement and anger. The subject may even go as far as to try and commit suicide or to commit unusual acts of violence. This may last for hours or even days, during which the subject will not require sleep.
Chronic alcohol abuse leads to weight loss, diarrhoea, loss of sensation, memory loss, palsy and mental deterioration. In extreme cases, the subject may show disorientation and suggestability, frequently beleiving that he has recently made trips to distant parts of the world. The subject is unable to abstain from alcohol, and will suffer severe withdrawal symptoms if forced to do so. The chances of recovery depend to a large extent on the original personality of the subject.
Withdrawal from alcohol after prolonged bouts of drinking leads to delirium tremens. The subject suffers tremours in the hands and tongue, spreading to the entire body. This is followed by loss of apetitie, nausea and fever. The subject will make constant pointless motions. This is followed by hallucinations, always of an unpleasant nature. The subject begins to see rats, insects and spiders crawling across the floor or his clothing. Bystanders may be mistaken for executioners or assassins and objects will distort into wierd shapes. The subject will become extremely excited and may commit murder or suicide.
There is no cure for drunkeness. However, the situation may be prevented from becoming worse by applying syrup of ipecac. Hangovers may be partially releived by the consumption of fruit juices. In severe cases of alcohol poisoning, the subject may never fully recover. Survival for one day is usually followed by recovery.
The brown recluse spider is a light brown in colour with a dark patch on the back. The body is half an inch in length. It is found in dark undisturbed spaces.
The bite is initially painless, with pain developing from two to eight hours later. This is followed by blistering, redness, swelling and bleeding. The lesion will continue to grow for about a week. The victim may suffer from fever, nausea, weakness, vomiting and even delirium. Healing may take up to eight weeks. Death is rare, but will occur within two days if at all.
The black widow spider is jet black with a globular abdomen and with orange or red spots. The tarantula is a very large black hairy spider with orange banding around the knees. Both produce very similar venom. This poison is actually more powerful than most snake venoms, but is produced in very much smaller amounts (even in the tarantula). Black widow spider venom is probably the most powerful poison known.
The first symptom is immediate muscle spasm. This is followed by slight pain, swelling and white skin at the site of the bite. This in turn progresses to pain in the chest, abdomen and joints, followed by nausea, drooling and sweating. Breathing becomes difficult and the victim develops painful cramps.
The victim should be given complete rest and a tourniquet should be applied. Death is unlikely and recovery will be complete within the week.
There are several varities of poisonous scorpion. They tend to kill more people than snakes, not because the poison is any worse, but because they tend to live near homes.
There is usually a slight tingling or burning sensation at the site of the bite. In severe cases there may be pain in the throat, cramps, convulsions, incontinence and difficulty breathing. This normally lasts for up to two days.
Deaths are rare (except in children). A tourniquet should be applied to the affected limb, and the poison removed.
Some shellfish are poisonous at certain times of the year. The principal symptoms are numbness and vomiting. The victim then stops breathing and may die. Syrup of ipecac is, as usual, effective.
Some true fish can also be poisonous, either permanently or at certain times of the year. Puffer fish are the most dangerous, killing about half of their victims. Symptoms begin a few hours after eating and start with numbness of the face and lips, spreading to the fingers and toes. This is followed by vomiting, dizziness, colic and weakness, and then, in severe cases, foaming at the mouth and convulsions. For weeks afterwards the victim may suffer from searing pain whilst eating. Hot objects feel cold and cold objects feel hot. Syrup of ipecac is effective.
|Cascabel||1/2||9||2-4||Olive-green with light green rhomboids|
|Coral Snake||v. small||7||1.5-2||Red, yellow and black stripes|
|Cottonmouth||2||1||2.5-4||Deep blue black|
|Diamondback||7||6||3-5||Brown with dark rhomboids|
|Green Mamba||1||8||4-6||Light green|
|Pit Viper||1/2||<1||2-3||Greenish yellow|
|Prarie Snake||1||6||3-4||Brown with dark rhomboids|
|Puff Adder||2||2||2.5-4||Light brown|
|Viper||1/3||8||1.5-2||Grey or brown with black zigzags|
Length is in feet (for adult snakes) and the yield of poison is given in grains. 'S' is the relative strength of poison, higher numbers indicating increased deadliness. In determining the danger from a given snakebite, both yield and poison strength must be considered.
Most fantasy worlds will presumably have their own unique spcies of snake. These should be easy to devise using the above guidelines.
Snake venom is popular amongst assassins because it is easy to apply onto a blade or into a special poison knife. Such poisons are also unusually deadly. The symptoms depend on the particular type of snake involved. Four main types can be distinguished, however:
(Diamondback, Prarie Snake, Sidewinder, Cascabel, Pit Viper, Cottonmouth)
Apart from the cottonmouth, these are all varieties of rattlesnake.
The area of the bite begins to swell and become painful within a short time. Over the next few hours there is a bruise-like discolouration of the skin, and small red spots appear. The victim suffers from weakness, fainting and nausea. Cascabel bites also produce blurring of vision and partial paralysis, although they are otherwise less dangerous than the others listed here.
(Viper, Puff Adder)
The puff adder can be easily distinguished by its plump build and the fact that it inflates itself when it becomes angry.
The area of the bite become swollen and painful and a bruise forms. Bleeding from the wound and occaisionally also the gums, can occur. The swelling may become very extensive. There may be nausea or vomiting. Viper bite victims can become very thirsty. Puff adder victims may develop colic or red spots on the skin.
(Green Mamba, Coral Snake)
The victim suffers from drowsiness, weakness, drooling and paralysis of the face and mouth. Breathing becomes difficult. Coughing, blurring of vision, convulsions and headache can also occur. Mamba bites cause intense colic, often with vomiting.
There is very little pain at the site of the bite, but there is pain in the muscles, especially during movement. Paralysis of the mouth, weakness and coughing will also occur.
With any snake bite or after a stabbing with a poisoned blade, a tourniquet should be applied to the wound and the poison removed (preferably by a skilled individual). The victim should be completely immobilised.
Syrup of Ipecac (Leaves)
Syrup of ipecac is made from the extract of the leaves of the semi-tropical ipecacuanha tree. The extract is diluted down and made into a syrup. It is widely used by those wishing to avoid poisoning. As with any other substance, it is, of course, poisonous if taken in a large enough dose. It is, however, impossible to estimate what the fatal dose is - not because it is particularly high, but simply because there is no way to measure it.
Concentrated ipecac extract (as opposed to the syrup) causes convulsions, fainting and choking. It should never be used medicinally. The syrup has only one effect: it induces copious vomiting. It is because it has no other effect that it is so useful against poisons. Of course, it has no effect against gaseous poisons, or those injected by knife blade or wild animal. However, it will remove virtually any ingested poison.
It is important that the syrup be taken quickly, since it cannot reverse any effects that have already occured. It only serves to stop the poisoning getting any worse - it is not an antidote. It should never be given in cases of ingestion of acids, since it tends to make such cases much worse as the acid destroys the gullet on being vomited forth. No more than a fifth of a gill should be given.
While syrup of ipecac is the most powerful emetic known, it may be replaced by others where it is not available. Strong mustard or other foods with an equally pungent taste will serve just as well, although they may be required in greater quantities. Other plant-based emetics generally have side-effects or may be signficantly poisonous themselves.
The effects of poison on non-humans such as elves, dwarves, etc. are left to the GM. If such races are closely related to humans in your campaign (as they are, for example, in Harn or Middle Earth) then poisons will have similar effects on them, although the doses required may vary, depending on body mass and on any inherent 'poison resistance' or high endurance. Obviously, if the races are significantly different from humans (lizard men, for example) the effects may vary, although the same poisons will usually be effective. Only in the case of truly alien or magical entities (such as Gloranthan Aldryami) are effects likely to be completely different.
It must also be remembered that magic can have a great effect on poison. The most frequent use of magic in this regard is an antidote. With some poisons, such as acids, arsenic and croton oil, normal anti-poison spells should have only a limited, temporary effect. This is because such poisons have a direct physical effect on the body. In order to cure somebody of such poisons by magical means would require both an anti-poison spell and a physical healing spell.
Magic can also be used to imitate the actions of various poisons. However, this would seem an excessively complicated way of killing somebody magically!
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This page was last updated 25th September 2004 by Jamie 'Trotsky' Revell. Comments welcome.