Is Poison Use Evil?

Many of gaming’s most debated questions revolve around alignment. Some people love alignment and others hate it. But, whether you like it or hate it, alignment can be a source of endless debate.

 

For example (answers at the end of the post):

  1. Do assassins have to be evil?
  2. Why do paladins have to be lawful good?
  3. Is Vilimzair Aralivar the greatest bard in the history of the world?

(Well, okay perhaps not the last one…)

Another alignment question occurred to me the other day:

  • Is poison use evil?

I’ve debated this question on and off with my chums for years. Some think poison use is evil, some don’t.

I’m personally of the opinion poison use isn’t necessarily evil. It might not be an honourable weapon—I’d baulk at a paladin using it—but I don’t see why killing someone with poison is any more or less evil than blowing them up with a fireball, stabbing them in the face with dagger or (insert other fatal attack here).

Even if you disagree and believe killing someone with poison is an evil act, I have a followup question for you:

  • Is using a paralysing or sleeping-inducing poison evil?

You could—and indeed I do—argue that subduing someone with a sleep or paralysing poison causes less pain and trauma than whacking them repeatedly with an axe. (Of course, though, what you do to your helpless foes after poisoning them could certainly qualify as an evil act…)

What Do You Think?

Is poison use clearly evil? Alternatively, is poison like any other weapon and therefore not intrinsically good or evil? Let me know, in the comments below.

The Answers

  1. Ask your GM.
  2. Because Gary Gygax said so.
  3. Yes.

 

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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34 thoughts on “Is Poison Use Evil?

  1. To me, a poison is just another weapon and its use is not in and of itself evil. I don’t consider assassins to be inherently evil, either, so my moral compass may be suspect! However – my point on both comes down to this – is the assassin or poison-user enjoying what they are doing by killing? Are they doing it to cause increased pain and suffering? Or are they doing it because it is an unfortunate necessity to prevent greater harm in the world?
    Excellent thinking point.
    -Michael
    Production Platform 3 Toys

    • Oh, well done. Your comment made me re-think my knee-jerk reaction.

      Is a sniper evil? A single bullet, in the right place & right time, might save countless lives, altho’ you are killing in an “unsporting manner”. Likewise the poison arrow, dagger, etc. is just another tool.

      Well said.

      • So what? The ends do not justify the means. A sniper who shoots his target in the most efficient means possible may, indeed probably will kill him, but he should only intend to remove him as a threat, from combat. A sniper using a poison bullet will be tried for war crimes.

  2. I do not consider using poison evil but in the way its used. For instance just to kill someone for no reason except you don’t like them yes thats evil, but to use it in non killing way as in paralysing or sleep I do not see a problem in that. So in my mind Poison use is not an Evil act but in the way its used. Just as in the way Magic is used.

  3. I think this falls on the ethical spectrum rather than the moral spectrum.

    You can kill with a sword or poison and it doesn’t change the good/evil balance of the act.

    Use of poison requires deception and trickery rather than a plainly displayed sword.

    You run into the same issues with a subduing poison. Restriction of freedom through poison can be just as good or evil as putting someone in jail.

  4. For me the use of deadly poisons is inherently evil, because you are commiting yourself to killing. In a fight you always have the choice to use non-lethal attacks or to stop your attacks before the enemy dies. With poison you are clearly stating “I want him/her dead!”.

    I would even go so far as to say there is a difference depending on which kind of poison is used. The use of poison gas is in my eyes far more evil than using a poisoned blade.

    As far as paralysing or sleeping-inducing poison goes, I don’t see their use as evil.

  5. If someone had succeeded in poisoning Hitler, would that have been evil? The fact that Hitler posioned himself (before shooting himself) does that change whether its an evil act or not?

    • Would it have been possible to remove the combatant from Hitler, or any head of state without killing them? Is it feasible to do so? if you shoot him and he lives he doesn’t have to be physically able to fight to still be a combatant, as he is directing the war….

      This is an interesting point, I will have to ruminate on it.

  6. I would say that it is one part the person’s motivation (to level the playing field against a foe vs. using it because the pain it causes delights the character) and one part the way it’s used (to finish the job swiftly and effectively or to induce unnecessary pain). Even then, the morality of this game is pretty simplified at its core, and we should be wary of complicating that without deeper reflection and clear purpose.

  7. It’s all about intent in my mind. Are you putting poison on your defensive positions to save a city or are you randomly poisoning nobles for fun? A with most things, it’s really player/character dependent. Poison in the right hands can be used ethically, whereas poison in the wrong hands can be reprehensible.

  8. As with all things, it is a tool. The motivation and responsibility of the user determine it’s “evilness”… which is still relative.

    There “goodness” and “evilness” are arbitrary constraints brought about by an alignment system. When in reality, it’s more like “legal” vs “illegal”.

    • Indeed, the legality of having a substance is what makes something “evil” not as to the substance per se, but as to the act of having it- as a violation of the law. Though some issues on knowing or not knowing are present, as well as when one travels from a jurisdiction where the “poison” is legal to one where it is not.

      In any case, there are many poisons that are naturally occurring, and hence are not evil per se, as opposed to alchemical creations that are designed specifically to kill. Again where a law is available, it is easier to say that possession is tantamount to a crime at least.

      “Poison” might also be evaluated on its effect, as it can have benign effects. Clearly where it is meant to kill, injure, or cause suffering, then it is evil. And in cases where it is merely sleep inducing or a pain-killer then perhaps it is not evil.

      To be sure, a thorough analysis must include a consideration of the legality, the effects, and the intent in use of the substance.

      • I must emphatically disagree. “Legal” does not equate to “good” and “illegal” does not equate to “evil”. In game terms (because real world terms are touchy), slavery is legal in Cheliax. That doesn’t make it good. Indeed, if legal and good were actual synonyms, then the game would have only the three alignments of the red box set – Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. Equating evil with legality is a gross oversimplification, even for a game. Ethically and morally speaking, something good is good everywhere and something evil is evil anywhere. The definitions of lawful and chaotic can change as you cross the border from Cheliax to Varisia, but the definitions of good and evil are absolute.

        All that said, poison doesn’t kill anymore than spoons make people fat. Only people are capable of evil; it’s all about intent.

        • “Legal” does not equate to “good” and “illegal” does not equate to “evil”.

          Hear, hear.

  9. I don’t think it is for the same reason I, as DM, will allow a neutral magic user use necromancy to a certain extant. The player better be judicious or there might be an alignment shift in their future.

  10. Poison, in and of itself, is neither evil or good. And yes, it’s use in certain situations is purely an ethical decision. It is in the use by anyone when the question of good and evil enters. The physician who uses substances in prescribed amounts to heal is committing a lawfully ethical act and a morally good act but the physician can still be morally and ethically “challenged”. The assassin by nature is ethically challenged and most likely morally challenged at best, ethically chaotic morally evil at worst. If an assassin uses poison neither ethics or morals attach to the poison itself as poison is an inanimate substance. The question of ethics and morals only matter concerning the act itself, which can only considered evil regardless of the reason for the act.

    Just the views of a real life warrior/soldier who understands that taking the life of another is sometimes a necessary evil but still evil, even if done in the furtherance of what is considered the moral good.

  11. I don’t think it’s evil. It’s just the internet troll of killing methods. No defence against it, requires zero courage. And if not administered lawfully prone to go all sorts of wrong. Look what happened with Death; not even he got it right with the Salmon Mousse.

  12. I do not view poison use as an evil act, poison itself is just another tool in a adventurer’s arsenal. The act of wanting to cause unmediated harm, let alone kill, another sentient being is a evil act, even if that being itself is evil. Ultimately if the victim is dead, who cares if was by sword, spell, or poison.

    Assassins do not have to be evil just not Lawful Good.

    Paladins can be Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, or Chaotic Evil as per optional rules in Unearthed Arcanca.

    Who?

  13. Generally I don’t view tools as inherently good or evil but rather how they are used. Poison can be a leveling force (the 1/2ings on my world have been badly oppressed and now use poison to strike back at their oppressors). It can also be a cowardly sneak attack (Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in last duel w/ Paul in Dune for example).

    But why do Paladins have to be LG – not merely b/c GG said so but also b/c they represent a goodness that is beyond mere religions. They are the ultimate paragon of good and they uphold a code of behavior to inspire others (think the Lone Ranger or the classical Superman). It is that code and role model behavior that requires them to be LG.

  14. For questions of Good vs Evil, I always go with how does it relate to effecting the wellbeing or suffering of others? If using poison reduces/avoids inflicting suffering (e.g. a sleep poison to incapacitate guards so you don’t have to kill them) that’s a Good goal. If it inflicts/increases suffering (e.g. a nerve toxin that might kill the target), that’s Evil.

  15. Real world poison is evil because it’s a slow death sentence. It won’t work fast enough to save you in combat, but you’ll get your revenge. Once administered there is no mercy or second thought; the moment of administration is cold murder.

    Poison is also a slow cruel method of killing. Poisons are often painful and messy, and even if someone survives, they may be permanently maimed in some way.

    Thus, poison is evil because it is vindictive and cruel.

    D&D poison is ridiculously fast and has no concept of pain, plus it is often curable by clerics. Since it is fast, it may resolve a fight more quickly, saving lives. If you change your mind a cleric can reverse it, and if you are too slow you can still raise the dead. In that light D&D poison is good and merciful, and should be the preferred choice of paladins because it minimizes violence; it kills someone you were going to kill anyway but in a quick and painless way, keeps friends safe, and removes the need to slaughter enemy mooks.

  16. I would say that a lot of balances on how the poison is used – are you targeting an individual or poisoning a towns water supply? The choice of target has a lot to do with whether I would consider poison use an evil act. Poisoning rodents in the sewer system to cut down on pestilence is not an evil act, doing so without warning to known people living underground first would be.

  17. Poison is a tool that can be used for its specific effect. Like any offensive magic or any hand-held weapon it is how and why that makes its use evil or not. In RPG’s where a character’s action can alter their alignment or cause consequenses from going against their alignment, that use of any tool can be critical. It’s generally harder to cause a careless attack with a hand-held weapon that may have lingering or later effects. With poison it can be carelessly used. Pouring it into a cooking pot to kill the guards may be advantageous at the time, but what if later all the young are killed also? Does that act then count as evil – the lack of consideration to other potential victims? The conscious act of harming another should be considered an act of evil if it is not for a suitable cause. Poison is just one tool for that end. It is possible to consider non-fatal poisons a Good aligned action. I’ve had a character in my games in the past that only ever used sleeping venom on darts and sleeping potions to subdue opponents, refusing to kill anything. Is that not a Good act, compared to most ‘Good’ aligned paladins, for example, who slay opponents who get in their way?

  18. Adventurers, even the good ones, are killers. In order to achieve their aims, the tools they use are such things as evocation, necromancy,enchantment, poison, archery, toe-to-toe combat, lies, intimidation, etc. It comes with the games, how much fun would it be if the party face mediated disputes and the pcs then acted as peacekeepers for a period? No the game is designed so that violence is most often the solution. Poison is just a tool.

  19. Ahh, the nature of evil.
    Your point about killing with a fireball as opposed to poison is a good one.
    The only difference I can see is that one is usually covert,
    whilst the fireball is about the least covert way of killing as one gets.
    Maybe it’s a question of honour. ‘face me, you coward’ and all that.
    When we see it coming, we have a chance to defend. Poison is for the unscrupulous.

    Of course, none of this would be a problem, if only we as gamers, had the courage
    to rid ourselves of the tyranny of Alignment. An archaic tradition that we seem to want to
    cling to. can you imagine if WoTC suddenly announce that D&D will drop Alignment.
    There would be questions in the house.

    The main problem is that the notion of a universal good and evil. I’m quite sure that
    someone who blows themselves up in the same of religion doesn’t see themselves as evil
    and many would agree. And yet the word evil is used by other to describe such a person.

    D&D is about supernatural worlds and so the idea that there are parts of the Abyss
    in which a type of evil is entirely prevalent is fine. Although I question how the day-to-day
    realities of a place entirely made up of Chaotic evil creatures can even exist.

    Everything is context and perception. A combination that goes far beyond seven broad
    moral and ethical codes encompassed by the Alignment system.

  20. Didn’t get a chance until now to respond to your question on the ethics of using poison.
    For me, I have it in my campaigns, & I’ve even gone so far as to expand the new 5e core-rules by using older D&D material as well as personal research on toxins, poisons, venoms & noxious chemicals used in my older D&D 3e works.
    I find that if my players use it from the perspective of it being just another tool in their arsenal, & we as a group don’t harp on or embellish the pseudo real-world implecations of the pain & lingering agony of the effects of sone of the more dangerous concoctions, then all is well…
    We as a group (& I personally encourage this view for my own games), approach the more violent or confrontational aspects of the game with a “its complex chess” mentality – we don’t give graphic descriptions of combat or gore, & so when played that way, poison is really just another tool.
    Each to his own my wife is fond of saying.
    Keep well – & keep up the hard work. Raging Swan, & your Facebook posts are a most welcome addition to my ever increasing knowledge of table top role playing games.
    Robert Minnaar.

  21. Poison designed to kill outright is certainly not a good act.
    But a poison designed to render a victim unconscious, or temporarily immobile might actually be more good.
    So I would say, as with most things alignment centered, it depends on how it is being used.

  22. Lethal poison use is evil because its intention is to kill, not to remove the combatant from the man. things that do damage, just do damage, they render your opponent unable to fight. Good people don’t go around killing the wounded and those that lay down their arms. But poison ( lethal) doesn’t work like that, its sole intention is to kill, it does not take the combatant out of the man, it s intention is to take the life out of the man. I have no problem with poison being categorically evil. That said, power word kill, and death magic in general should be equally considered evil.

  23. You know me Creighton, if the end justifies the means and a better good comes out if it torture and poison is not evil.
    After all I saved the bride of the heir to Onnwal using torture on her kidnappers.
    Leginton the Bastard. 😉