Some of my fondest memories of D&D involve a situation where a character drinks an unidentified potion. The results were usually chaotic, hilarious, or both. However, as D&D changed so to did the mystery and wonder that potions can bring to the game.
In 4e D&D the system became so magic heavy that potions were of little consequence. At low levels when a potion can actually make a difference, identifying them is automatic during a short rest. I can’t remember the last time characters had a potion in their inventory that they couldn’t identify.
I’ve recently started using the D&D Next rules during public play and in my home games. It draws heavy influence from the older editions of D&D where magic was rare (much more so than it is in 4e). It’s been so long since I’ve played in games with limited magic treasure that I’ve really had to change my gaming mentality to keep things interesting. By thinking back to those fantastic campaigns I was part of in my younger years, I remember the awe and wonder in the simplest elements of the game. Everyone in the party doesn’t need a +1 sword to make their character interesting and to have fun. But when magic is introduced, it’s a big deal.
In a system with limited magic items, even consumables such as potions and scrolls are deemed valuable and important. They always have been, but when there are over 100 other magic items in a party, no one cares about a simple potion. But in a party where there are only one or two magic items, discovering a few potions in the treasure horde is a real find.
As I mentioned at the outset, I have great memories of PCs using potions they haven’t identified. The reason they took such a risk at all was that identifying a potion was costly. It usually required that the Wizard cast Identify to know with certainty what potion was in the flask. In my experience, players running Wizards don’t want to give up a spell slot for a utility spell like Identify when they can instead memorize something that they can use to hurt monsters with instead. If a Wizard did have Identify memorized it was always used to reveal the nature of the more important items like weapons and armor before consumables like potions.
With a little bit of creativity and ingenuity by the DM, introducing simple potions into the campaign can add new elements of fun and excitement for the players and PCs. Let’s look at a few ways that DMs can have fun with potions simply by withholding the liquid’s true power (at least at the outset).
As the DM I’ve always had fun with potion identification much to the dismay of my players. They rarely find labeled potions and when they do they are often mislabeled. PCs know that the contents are magical but they don’t know what it will do if consumed. This element of the unknown is like giving the party a ticking time bomb. Eventually someone’s curiosity will get the better of them and they’ll drink the potion. That’s when things get interesting.
2. Know the Owner
Now I’m not a truly heartless DM (despite what you might have heard from my players). I generally give the party hints about the potions. The most common one is the nature of the person they took the potions from. A Cleric who was beset upon by bandits was more likely to have healing potions on him than vials of poison. A ravaging Orc warrior might have had a potion that would make him stronger or faster; he was less likely to have a love potion or a potion that allowed him to fly.
3. Mundane Identification
I will often use common characteristics to allow PCs to try and identify potions through mundane means. For example, in my game healing potions always smelled like almonds. However, other potions might also have a similar odor. All the PCs really knew for certain was that a potion that didn’t smell like almonds was definitely not a healing potion. I kept a master list of which potions bore similar characteristics so that the astute players could learn from their experiences and mistakes.
4. Trial & Error
The most fun way for PC to identify a potion is simply to consume it. Smart PCs know that they should probably do this in the heat of battle. After all, if my unknown potion allows me to breathe fire, it isn’t much good if I drink it after the fight is over. When a PC decides to finally drink an unknown potion you know you’ll get everyone’s undivided attention while they wait for the potion’s effects to kick in.
5. Playing the Odds
Another trick I’ve used is to provide potion vials with labels that have detached. For example, say that four vials are found in a backpack. The backpack got wet and the labels all came unglued. Now the PCs know what the four potions are (assuming they were all labeled correctly in the first place) but they don’t know which label went with which vial. This still throws some random elements into the game but with limited scope. This is usually when I include one vial of poison or something else potentially harmful.
6. More Variety
Many DMs are reluctant to hand out anything but healing potions. This needs to change. DMs need to use the full list of potions. Players are their most creative when something unexpected happens. Sure healing potions are likely the most plentiful kind of potions in the D&D worlds, but a wide variety of potions exist and DMs should include them with treasure.
By adding the element of the unknown to an adventure it has the potential to turn an otherwise straight forward encounter into something much more exciting and extremely memorable. So whether you’re using a magic rich or magic light system, provide the party with unlabelled potions and see what they decide to do with them. The decisions will reveal a lot about the players and the characters.
How many DMs hand out potions but don’t reveal their nature immediately? How do you expect PCs to identity the contents? If your character found a bunch of unlabelled potions would you drink one? If you drank a random potion and it was harmful would you be less likely to drink unlabelled potions next time?