D&D 5E How to run a successful "poisoned NPC" scene in 5e?

Quickleaf

Legend
My 4th-5th level PCs are approaching a scene in which they'll have an audience with the aging ruler (pharaoh), where they're attempting to present evidence of a renewed threat that the ruler believes to have died with his grandfather. I'm designing this as a skill challenge to determine how convinced the ruler is – and this will impact the support the PCs get later on.

At the climax of the scene, the ruler is non-fatally poisoned (poison was administered earlier and kicks in during the audience). It leaves him debilitated for a time.

My intention with the poisoning scene is that it serves as an impetus for the PCs to depart the capital city, and for a little while to experience life outside of the ruler's graces (context: several of them have connections to the royal court). This could either be the cliched "you've poisoned me!" where the ruler fingers the PCs, and guards give chase. Or it could be more politically nuanced, where the ruler fears his advisors will use the poisoning to renew a costly war against the southern kingdom (who had nothing to do with the poisoning), and beseeches (or forces) the PCs to "take the fall" until they can investigate & dismantle the true conspiracy. This scene serves to propel them to seek out a rumored bastard heir behind the conspiracy, without having the weight of their respective urban organizations behind them.

It's not exactly "the NPC dies before your very eyes", "but I cast cure wounds" kind of scene, but I'm a bit concerned that I'm skating too close to that territory given that the 4th-5th level PCs have access to lesser restoration. The obvious choice would be to heal the ruler without consequences/side effects – the drama and suspense dissipates, the poisoning becomes trivial, the PCs have no blame or suspicion upon them, and the scene is reduced to the ruler giving them a quest to find the bastard heir.

How can I successfully run this kind of scene in D&D? Or are scenes like this wholly undesirable in D&D? Does it require intelligent selection or homebrewing of the poison to avoid inflicting the easily removable poisoned condition while imposing ongoing effects? Do I need to include more variables / potential outcomes to maximize player agency?
 

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aco175

Legend
I was thinking on how the scene would unfold with the ruler starting to cough and show signs of being poisoned and how the guards, viziers, attendants, etc, would react. The PCs and players may think poison and think to jump to the aid, but the reaction of the secret service to lock things down and remove the president to a secure bunker may stop them. If some group of PCs who are not the senior, trusted advisors try to rush the ruler, they may get attacked. At least they get shouted back with words about how their royal cleric will tend to him.

This may be a good place to drop a spy with the faction that poisoned the ruler. He could be a trusted advisor or NPC that the PCs have dealt with before and have him point to the PCs/patsies to be arrested.
 

There is lots of precedent for "special magic poison that does not respond to conventional healing magic". I wouldn't worry, just say lesser restoration doesn't work, and a Medicine or Arcana check tells the party what the special antidote ingredient(s) is.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
A powerful ruler will be wary of magical attacks - but poison is a mundane threat. Have the ruler's entire audience chamber be warded with an anti-magic field. Thus he can still be poisoned, but the PCs cannot deploy any magical cure or assistance.
I love the idea. One of my challenges here is that the ruler (pharaoh) is a spellcaster in his own right, his vizier is a high-level bard, his bodyguard is a paladin of some sort, and there's good odds that an allied high priest will be present. He even has a death ward cast on him daily. So the antimagic field would be as crippling to the ruler and his court as it would to any would-be assassins.

I was thinking on how the scene would unfold with the ruler starting to cough and show signs of being poisoned and how the guards, viziers, attendants, etc, would react. The PCs and players may think poison and think to jump to the aid, but the reaction of the secret service to lock things down and remove the president to a secure bunker may stop them. If some group of PCs who are not the senior, trusted advisors try to rush the ruler, they may get attacked. At least they get shouted back with words about how their royal cleric will tend to him.

This may be a good place to drop a spy with the faction that poisoned the ruler. He could be a trusted advisor or NPC that the PCs have dealt with before and have him point to the PCs/patsies to be arrested.
Exactly. Part of the nuance is that the ruler is old and ailing already, so signs of sickness and coughing during the encounter aren't abnormal. Just reviewed the 2 cleric PCs and neither seems to regularly prepare detect poison and disease.

The high priest who is likely to be present – the most effective "royal cleric" – is also likely to be the most inclined to jump to conclusions and advocate for militancy against the wrong suspected enemy.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
There is lots of precedent for "special magic poison that does not respond to conventional healing magic". I wouldn't worry, just say lesser restoration doesn't work, and a Medicine or Arcana check tells the party what the special antidote ingredient(s) is.
I didn't realize there were precedents. I'd be curious how they handled that narratively. Could you illuminate me about the specific precedents you're referencing?
 


I didn't realize there were precedents. I'd be curious how they handled that narratively. Could you illuminate me about the specific precedents you're referencing?
Snow White, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings (Athelas), Star Trek (how many times does their super-medicine fail to heal the one specific thing), Doctor Who - The Caves of Androzani, Iron Man 2, [gasp]
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Snow White, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings (Athelas), Star Trek (how many times does their super-medicine fail to heal the one specific thing), Doctor Who - The Caves of Androzani, Iron Man 2, [gasp]
Ah, I see. I mistakenly thought you were referencing something from within D&D itself, like an adventure or supplement which I could look to as a template for how it was handled insofar as the rules are concerned.
 

Ah, I see. I mistakenly thought you were referencing something from within D&D itself, like an adventure or supplement which I could look to as a template for how it was handled insofar as the rules are concerned.
There probably is, it's a common enough trope. 1st edition seems most likely.

But for 5e, remember "specific beets general". So "X doesn't work on Y" is a specific rule, which beets a general rule such as "Lessor Restoration heals poison".

Just remembered - there is one in Baldur's Gate CRPG. Description and quest here: Marek and Lothander
 
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Quickleaf

Legend
There probably is, it's a common enough trope. 1st edition seems most likely.

But for 5e, remember "specific beets general". So "X doesn't work on Y" is a specific rule, which beets a general rule such as "Lessor Restoration heals poison".
Of course. What the DM says is how it is. That's the blunt instrument. However, the refined instrument is doing it in a narratively compelling way that engages players in working the challenge rather than evoking groans and eye rolls and "just run with it, it's the DM's show" quips.

To clarify: I'm less looking for permission, and more for inspiration.

Examples from folks' own sessions or past adventures where you've tackled something similar would be terrific.
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
I think some flowchart planning will really help here.

If this were a book or a movie, you could precisely plan out how the characters will act. In a game, though, it's frustrating as a player to not be able to effect the outcome.

I notice in your plan, though, you have a few different ideas of how this will play out, which is good!

I would be less concerned with how the scene actually plays out, and focus more on how you can communicate consequences to the players. Any action they take should have consequences. You can have it all lead to the same follow-up scene (characters have to get by without the king), but still let it play out as consequences to the characters' choices, not despite their choices.

So, for example:

If they try to cure the king -

The vizier warns them that approaching the king without his permission is a crime.

The guards will try to block them while the royal physician is summoned.

The king will look worse and worse.


If they don't approach -

The king will get worse and worse.

They will head whispers from others in the court, wondering why they don't take actions.

They will see someone running away - if stopped, this person is a spy or a messenger or something, but not responsible for the poison.


If they cure him -

He is whisked away to a secret chamber.

He quickly whispers or sends a secret message: "Act as if I have died, I will send word!"

They hear whispers from others in court wondering how the characters knew and we're prepared for the king's poisoning!
 

jgsugden

Legend
Your gut instinct tells you the right path - this just doesn't work in D&D once you reach a certain level without awkward force.

This storyline is best run at low levels when the PCs do not have easy access to methods to remove poison. After they can just get rid of it with a spell they likely have prepared, it becomes a bit obvious that you want to tell your story despite their abilities. I run these storylines (not for a king, but for a local figure of power in a town, such as a mayor) at levels 1 or 2. I can extent it with curses in the place of poisons at levels 3 and 4. At 5 to 8 I can do a short term storyline with a curse, as PCs do not often have remove curse prepared, but you can expect them to prepare it with the next long rest (or even a short rest for a few oddball characters).

Similar storylines that can achieve similar goals and can still work (although PCs can overcome these with a little guile) are: Imposters replacing the king, Misdirection (I had an NPC use phantasmal force to make the leader of the PCs see his patron ordering the group away on a mission at once), and old age (The king collapses as you speak to him, and his attendants announce his body is giving out. This is no disease, curse, poison or wound - it is just the ravages of time. Unless someone brings him a potion of longevity within X hours he will pass from this realm).
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
We use a houserule condition called "Doomed". Somebody who is Doomed is going to die; there's nothing you can do to change that. It's written in the stars -- the wounds to their body or spirit are too previous. It's a condition that the DM can give to NPCs. Great for those "dying words" scenes without the PCs suddenly ruining all the drama.
 

aco175

Legend
Plot could call for the the ruler to need special plant to heal and the restoration spell only slows it. The PCs may find out that the plant only grow in X place which is where the spy lives or wants you to think he lives. PCs need to travel there and find antidote before ruler dies. They may or may not be wanted by the kingdom for attacking the ruler or ruler planned this and needs the PCs to take the fall while he figures out who the real threat is. If he is in a coma though, he may need to do this from the astral plane.

This may cause the plyers to make some judgements on stuff like guards attacking them and not wanting to kill them, or the ruler trying to help them be sending said guards in another direction or giving the party a NPC if needed- maybe a escape boat ride or something.
 

This is a great time for the PCs to discover the Pharoah is already dead, and their life has been extended by magical means. (Lich? Mummy? Or something else, you decide.)

The poison is not a poison in the conventional sense. It is an elixir deliberately concocted to destroy the reanimating magic.

In effect, the Pharoah has been "poisoned" by life itself.

Let's see them Lesser Restoration THAT.
 


Nitrosaur

Explorer
Maybe the NPC hasn't ingested exactly poison, but something that can't be easily healed? Like grounded glass or some similar small sharp thing? The NPC isn't poisoned, but has something wounding and making it's way through them, so lesser restoration doesn't get rid of it, and even if it's healed by cure wounds, the NPC will soon find itself debilitated again as the foreign objects shred their way through its body.

Edit: Also, maybe some kind of strong hemotoxin? Then, even if the NPC is healed by lesser restoration and cure wounds, it's going to spend some time ill as it's dissolved organs and destroyed blood recovers, so you can justify the need of Regenerate to instantly heal such gruesome damage.
 

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