Something Different: Dungeons & Drugs & Dragons
During my Dragon Heist campaign, I had a player character with the flaw that basically means having substance use and abuse issues. I realized pretty quickly that D&D doesn’t actually offer much in the way of substances for the vulnerable to that particular type of vice, or any interesting ways in which to overindulge. We have the same old cliche of the drunken bard or barbarian who spends all of his money at the tavern drinking ale and sleeping underneath various types of furniture. I decided there was room for improvement there, but it quickly took an interesting turn in terms of game design. People have written some fairly extensive and exhaustive systems for dealing with drug use and addiction for D&D, but I decided that my system needed to meet two criteria: it had to be simple, and it had to be restricted to “fantasy drugs”… whatever that means. Let’s find out.
I’m going to start this article off with a brief editorial about what sort of content goes into tabletop games like D&D, and how content can be more or less appropriate based on the audience. In this case, the “audience” is the players and the DM, but let’s take a look at the way content is often evaluated for larger potential audiences.
Here in the United States, we have three big rating systems for media: there’s one for movies that are shown in theaters, there’s one for television programs, and there’s one for video games. They each have their own levels and notations, but essentially they are there to give a general idea of who the media is appropriate for, by age and with regard to content, and there are committees and boards and suchlike who decide what media gets what rating. Some ratings mean that access to that content is restricted by age, or even disallowed in certain localities.
There are good and bad things about that, but what I’m getting at here is not that we need to have official content-evaluators who decide what’s appropriate and for whom. The point I’m making is that the content creators have an audience in mind when they are creating their media, and they will adjust the content in order to keep it appropriate to their intended audience. Because they know that their work is going to have to be considered by the ratings boards, they pay attention to what is included to make sure that the rating they get matches the audience they want to reach.
In the D&D world, there are a lot of people who create and evaluate content, but the most important ones are the players and the DM’s: they have the role of both the content creator and of the ratings board, because they have to decide what to include in their worlds and stories based on who’s at the table. And depending on the table, certain themes and elements might not be appropriate or acceptable.
I’m not going to get very political here, because this is an article about creating make-believe drugs to augment make-believe alcohol in a fantasy world which also has dwarves and unicorns in it. But as someone who creates content for D&D, I want to be clear on my intended audience for this article. In the real world, my position on drugs is that most of them should be legal for responsible use by adults who know what they’re getting into.
That’s who this content is designed for: it’s a mature theme for adult players, and even as such I’m going through some very careful design decisions to create something that I feel is appropriate for D&D at all. Much less something appropriate to just throw up on the internet and invite people to use in their home games, frankly.
So, folks, let’s be clear. D&D worlds are imaginary, but they can include a lot of things that are very serious in our non-imaginary world: slavery, organized crime, religious fanaticism, bigotry, torture, and the whole laundry list of what’s wrong in the world where we all really live. I think we include these things because in D&D we are heroes who have the power to take a stand and fight against what’s wrong in the world, and not just by donating to charity or even carrying a sign in a protest. We can pick up swords and battleaxes and throw ourselves into literal battle against evil. Drugs cause real, serious problems in our world, but I’m not against including them in D&D for players who are mature enough to handle the issues: they’re just another of the dragons that we go out to slay, at the table or away from it.
So, please use this responsibly, if it will add detail or depth to your game. If someone at your table is going to be upset by drugs as an element, leave them out. If you’re not old enough to handle this kind of thing, leave it be. I’ve gone through a lot of thought on how to make this work in a way that I feel fits with a fantasy adventure environment, but I don’t sit at your gaming tables, so I don’t know how things work where you are.
Make good choices. On we go.
Keeping It Not Real
The tricky thing about designing drugs for D&D is that they have to obviously be fantasy drugs. They can’t just be fantasy versions of real-world drugs. They can’t have the same effects as real-world drugs. As much as possible, they need to not be used in the same manner as real-world drugs. And, ideally, they need to have a non-gritty vibe about them. We’re not going for silliness, but we don’t want to get too dark either.
The fact of the matter is that drug abuse in the real world is a serious thing. Everyone knows someone who has gotten into trouble because of drugs. Maybe legal trouble, family trouble, health trouble… you name it, drugs can cause some very serious problems. We don’t want to bring something too authentically from the real world that ruins lives into our nice little fantasy world where we can escape from that kind of thing for a while.
And yet, we can probably do something that will let us have drugs as a thing in D&D campaigns. Not every D&D campaign. I always want to stress that the content of a campaign has to be sensitive to the real people involved. If there are people around the table who have bad history with drugs, including even fantasy-friendly RPG drugs might be a mistake. I say this a lot, but never make real people uncomfortable for the sake of realism in a game, and drugs are one of those things that have to be handled carefully.
But, assuming that everyone’s fine with the idea, it’s still important to keep D&D drugs pretty far distant from real-world drugs. There are a few ways we can do that, and when combined with some basic economy and mechanics, it’s possible to create some substances other than ale and wine for your licentious bard to get into trouble with when she’s in town with money in her pocket.
Looking and Quacking Like a Duck
Probably the most important thing when designing fantasy drugs is not to duplicate a real-world drug but just give it a different name. That’s the easiest way to create a fantasy drug, but ultimately it’s bad design, for a few reasons.
The simple example of this duplication method would be a plant which produced intoxicating effects via inhaling the smoke from burning its leaves. We can call it something like “giggle sprouts”, but everyone knows that it’s just relabeled marijuana. That might be fairly innocuous, but when our relabeled D&D drugs are identical to real-world drugs, the trick of renaming something real in order to transform it into something made-up is going to stop working. The transformation won’t take, and nobody is going to think about your fantasy drug as a fantasy thing at all.
People are smart, and they are good at drawing connections, and ultimately any plan to give real-world drugs a fantasy-friendly name and leave it at that is going to fail. That’s just because players’ brains are going to skip straight from the specifics about the fantasy drug over to the real-world drug, and never stop on the fantasy name at all. If you gave this a try, I bet your made up name wouldn’t even stick in the players’ memories: whenever you mentioned that burnable inhalable plant, they would mentally jump straight to “weed”. Do you remember my made-up name from the last paragraph, or are you thinking “weed” just reading the article?
We need to avoid this problem with repackaging a real-world drug in a fantasy wrapper, but it’s a tricky problem to avoid. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to two things, and how well they match. Your fantasy drugs will need to have a way in which they are used, and they’ll need to have an effect. If you can manage to match those two properties up in a way that doesn’t obviously apply to any real-world drugs, then your fantasy drugs should dodge the relabeling problem successfully. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy to do as it might sound.
How Do You Use This Stuff?
I had to take a health class in high school, and part of the health class was learning all about the drugs you shouldn’t use in order to stay healthy. And I mean learning all about those drugs. We learned how to administer the drugs if we happened to have any: if not for careful instruction in my local school system curriculum, I might still be unsure of how to use heroin, what with the lighter and the spoon and all. I guess they wanted to make sure we didn’t accidentally shoot up or something.
To be fair, they didn’t teach us to use drugs with style, so I didn’t actually have a teacher telling me to be sure to always snort cocaine off of a mirror through a hundred-dollar bill. All the same, there are a lot of ways that you can get different drugs into your system, and we need to consider them when we start designing drugs for D&D.
Unfortunately, when we select a method of use for fantasy drugs, we have a very limited list of options, and almost all of those options are also used for real-world drugs, legal or otherwise. The fact is that there are only so many ways to get a substance into your body, and some of them don’t apply very well to D&D anyway, just because of a mismatch in the level of technology. Are hypodermic needles a thing in D&D? I’m not sure, and so I’m probably going to rule that whole injection route out of consideration.
But Only In D&D…
There is a way to administer drugs that doesn’t work in the real world, but could work in D&D: using magic. If you had some sort of shady enchanter who made his living casting pleasantly mind-altering spells for suitable fees, that would essentially be the same as someone purchasing some pleasantly mind-altering substance.
The difference would be that you can’t take your local enchanter-for-hire with you, so if you need a system that follows the PC’s into the woods and wilds and deep underground, the administer-by-magic idea isn’t going to work terribly well.
Still, there’s potential here. Maybe these guys hang out in taverns to provide patrons with a one-off experience. Maybe you can hire one of them to cast a spell on someone else in order to gain some leverage in a situation; that guard who is suddenly all blissed out is probably not going to stop you getting into the fortress.
Anyway, I’m not going to get any further into this idea in this article. It’s just something to keep in mind whenever you’re designing anything for D&D: have I accounted for the fact that this is a world with magic spells? Well, now I have. Onward.
Still, the method of use is only important as a side note. You have to have a method of use if you’re going to be able to describe the fantasy drug, for one thing. Also, as discussed in the last section, you have to be sure to choose a method of use that doesn’t match with the drug effect in a way that has an obvious real-world correlation, and that brings us to the more important design element: effects.
I’m Feeling A Little Odd
Our fantasy drugs need to have some sort of describable effect, otherwise the DM can’t narrate to the player effectively about how the character is feeling. Also, our fantasy drugs need to have a mechanical effect: in some fairly simple and reasonable way, using the existing rules, there will need to be something that works differently for a character who has used the drug in question.
In fact, there will need to be two mechanical changes. We’ll need an effect that is either neutral or mildly advantageous that is in force while the drug is active, and we’ll need an effect that is a moderate to severe liability that comes up when the character doesn’t get their required dose on time.
Why do we need a mechanical change anyway? The simple answer is so that the players don’t forget that the fantasy drugs are a real thing in the game world. If they don’t do anything real for the characters involved, then they’re just set dressing that fades away when it’s inconvenient, and we might as well not have them at all.
The slightly more sophisticated answer is that if there’s an effect for a player’s character that can be beneficial, and an effect to be avoided, then the player has a motivation for the character to be using the fantasy drug: benefits and detriments based on gameplay mechanics. When the player’s motivation (based on mechanics) concurs with the character’s motivation (based on in-world addiction or habituation), then we get a synergy that gives the player and the character each a reason to make the same choice.
The final note on effects is that they need to be somewhat fanciful. This isn’t the same as saying that they need to be ridiculous or goofy or silly; what it means is that fantasy drugs need to be lighthearted in tone, because it’s an offset to the fact that real-world drugs are quite serious. One of the examples that I designed basically gives you a nice tingly feeling, but if you don’t keep up the dose then you get all itchy instead; that’s what I have in mind when I’m talking about the proper tone to strike.
There’s one more element to look at from a design standpoint, and then I’ll finally drop the other shoe and give you some examples of fantasy drugs that I designed that put all of this together into practice.
With Intent to Distribute
That chemically-addled bard of ours is going to need to find a way to obtain a supply of whatever her substances of choice are, so we need to figure out how the legalities and availability work.
I basically envisioned this as happening along two axes: a legal-to-illegal axis, and an expensive-to-cheap axis. I wanted to have three drugs in my fantasy pharmacopoeia, so I decided to put each one in a different place on each axis. Feywild Mist would be legal, but expensive. Smudge would be not exactly legal, but not as expensive. Finally, Red Scrape would be very illegal, but also cheap.
So we now have a sense of how one obtains these things, ranging from above-board transactions in your neighborhood alchemist’s shop to furtive shufflings in back alleys in the middle of the night.
Please bear in mind, though, that in the examples I have set the prices based more on the heroes’ budget rather than on the townsfolk budget. If you follow the general guidelines on how much income most common people earn, then the drugs as described below will be far too expensive for almost everyone other than high-earning adventurers. You can obviously change the prices however you like, but I tried to set them so that they would make a difference to the PC’s, because that’s who they were designed for, after all. If you need a widespread epidemic of drug use, or the prices I suggest just rub you wrong, you can always cut the prices from gold and silver down into copper.
So, without further ado, some examples of fantasy drugs, designed to be available to a greater or lesser extent in a large city like Waterdeep.
The Good Stuff
Before I get into the specifics, a few conventions and generalities. Each of these examples are designed to work along the timeframe of long rests, and that’s just because it’s easy to know when a long rest is happening, and also because it’s easy to have the negative effects of each drug do something that makes a long rest less effective. So, in general, a character needs one dose per long rest in order to avoid bad effects. That doesn’t mean that a character can’t take extra doses in order to renew the neutral-to-positive effect, and there’s no penalty for using extra doses other than needing to have enough supply to last until the next opportunity to make a purchase.
Also, there is no addiction mechanic for any of these beyond the negative effect for not getting the required doses on time. I have seen some very complicated systems for figuring out who has to take how much and how often and how difficult will it be to quit and so on, and I don’t like them. Complicated systems require extra effort from both the player using them and the DM, and frankly we have enough rules to worry about without patching on complex systems. Magic like lesser restoration, greater restoration, or calm emotions can be used at the DM’s discretion to end existing addictions to any of these, meaning that no more doses need to be taken to avoid negative effects.
My other reason for not having rules about addictions and getting clean and whatnot is that all of this fantasy drug content primarily came into existence as a way for a player to have some more roleplaying opportunity, and that opportunity was related to a character flaw. As a general rule, I do not require players to make dice rolls related to their character flaws. If your character flaw is being willing to desert your friends when a fight gets too scary, that’s up to you as a player to deal with; I’m never going to require you to make a save or ability check to decide whether you run away from a particular fight or not. If you’re honestly trying to roleplay your flaw, your character might have to decide to run from that fight… or in the case of the drugs flaw, your character might decide to start using his drug of choice again voluntarily even after kicking the habit.
Character flaws belong to the player, and they aren’t mine as the DM to enforce. I actually have a player who frequently rolls saves and checks of her own to decide whether her character will do foolish things based on character traits, and there’s no problem with that, because she’s doing it herself, and because she wants to. It’s part of her personal play style, and whether she rolls extra checks or not, or pays attention to the results or not, is none of my business.
Okay, off the soapbox and into the fantasy drugs themselves. I’ll break down each one into a section primarily on lore and narration, and then follow that up with the mechanical elements.
Feywild Mist is a swirling blue vapor that comes in a tiny glass flask. It’s a calming and euphoric mood enhancer, and is therefore popular among the young and affluent as a party drug, and among the older set as a sleep aid. It’s completely legal to sell, own, and use, and can be bought for about 1gp per flask at any alchemist’s shop, reputable or otherwise. This is the stuff that rich parents worry that their children are spending their allowances on.
As far as the mechanics go, a character needs to take a dose of Feywild Mist at the beginning of each long rest. Following taking a dose (whether at the beginning of the long rest or at another voluntary time), the character gets advantage on his next Charisma save, or disadvantage on his next Wisdom save, whichever comes first, due to the calming but soporific effects of the drug. If a character doesn’t take the required dose at the beginning of a long rest, he has trouble sleeping and doesn’t regain full HP for the rest: the character expends one hit die, adds his Wisdom modifier, and subtracts the total from his HP following the rest. The same effect occurs on any subsequent rests when a dose is missed, but the character never has to lose more than a single hit die worth of HP, subtracting it from his normal full HP.
Smudge is an oily black cream or ointment that comes in a squeezable wax packet. It’s generally applied behind the ear, and causes a pleasant tingling sensation to spread from the application site over the entire body. Its legality is more questionable, because it’s illegal to buy or sell, but legal to use or carry; additionally (at least in Waterdeep) the City Watch are hit-or-miss regarding Smudge, and might overlook a sale or purchase as long as no other laws were being broken. You can probably find someone to buy this from in the less reputable taverns, for about 5sp per packet.
Mechanically, taking a dose grants the ability to add 1d4 to a d20 roll, but the decision to add the d4 has to be made before rolling the d20. On the very next d20 roll, 1d4 must be subtracted from the d20 result (unless the character takes another dose immediately after rolling the first d20 with the added d4). A character has to take a dose at the beginning of each long rest, otherwise the tingling sensation turns to itching, which prevents the character from regaining some spell slots from the rest: take the character’s spellcasting ability modifier, and give up that many levels worth of spell slots in any combination desired. No more spell slots can be lost in this way, no matter how many doses are missed. These spell slots can only be regained by taking a dose before a long rest and avoiding an itchy night, waking up with all spell slots intact. If the Smudge user isn’t from a primary spellcasting class, use the detrimental HP effect from Feywild Mist instead of removing spell slots; I would use the HP effect for characters who gain spell slots from a subclass, as well, because they have far fewer spell slots to lose in the first place.
Red Scrape is a viscous crimson liquid that is applied to a sharp implement, like a knife blade, nail, or fork. The sharp point is then used to make a 2-inch cut or scratch somewhere on the body; the liquid makes these much more likely to scar visibly. Red Scrape causes a thrilling heightening of the senses initially, but devolves into acute dysphoria as the effects wear off. Red Scrape is illegal to manufacture, buy, sell, possess, carry, or use, so dealers on the streets and very sketchy shops are the only places to buy it. The usual price is 1sp per dose, and it’s sold in round metal tins containing 10 to 20 doses. Those looking to make a purchase (at least in Waterdeep) run the risk of buying from an undercover City Watch officer, but an overall limited supply in the city makes it difficult to find a reliable dealer with enough product consistently on hand.
Mechanically, a dose is taken at the end of each rest, short or long. Until the start of the next rest, the character can take advantage on an active Perception check of the player’s choice, or can choose not to be surprised in a single instance when the character otherwise would have been surprised. A missed dose results in a catastrophic drop in mood, resulting in a reduction of the character’s Charisma modifier by 1 until a dose is taken; the Charisma modifier can never be decreased by more than 1, even if multiple doses are missed.
Share and Share Alike
So, there are three fantasy-suitable drugs for your D&D game, if you want that sort of thing. Feel free to use them for your own games as described, or design your own. Just remember that in order to get serviceable fantasy drugs, you need to mix up the specifics enough to not be duplicating something that’s in the real world.
Also, make sure to have mechanics that are meaningful but simple, because usually adding something to the game that causes confusion is not worth the trouble, especially if it’s something like fantasy drugs that are entirely optional and only exist to help with roleplaying that is also (for better or worse) entirely optional. You’ll need to provide a benefit for using a dose, and a penalty for not using one when required, and usually the benefit should be limited or mixed, and the penalty should be serious enough to be meaningful but not excessive.
Of course, I’ll repeat the same warning from before: don’t include fantasy drugs if it makes people uncomfortable with the game. There are lots of people out there who have had bad drug experiences, whether of their own or involving friends and family. If bringing something into a game that we play for fun and relaxation will cause stress for someone, then don’t do it. It is neither appropriate nor worthwhile.
But, if having a little more variety in the available vices for D&D characters would be helpful for your game setting or for roleplaying character traits or flaws, fantasy drugs, properly designed, can be useful. Remember, as I said before, I’m intending this content be used by mature players and DM’s who are up to the challenge of handling difficult real-world elements as part of their game.
A final word of advice is this: while you’re free to build on this and create more elaborate systems for things like addiction and recoveries and relapses, I suggest that you don’t. Elaborate systems generally just create more mental load on the DM and certain players, and having more rules to remember and apply consistently is often very inconvenient… and when things are difficult and inconvenient, we stop using them, either all at once or through a process of progressively ignoring them.
So, have fun… just not too much fun. Anyone from the late-night party crowd can tell you that a Feywild Mist hangover is no joke.