6 Tips for Making Potions Fun Again

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 2, 2013

potionsSome 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).

1. Mislabeled

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?

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1 Jon July 2, 2013 at 10:35 am

> A ravaging Orc warrior … was less likely to have a love potion

Screw that. Dead orc with a love potion is the best plot hook I’ve heard in weeks.

2 Ameron (Derek Myers) July 2, 2013 at 10:47 am

Like I said he was less likely to have a love potion, not that it was all together out of the question. If you think an Orc with a love potion is something the party will have fun following-up on, by all means use it.

3 Joe July 2, 2013 at 10:49 am

Orc mad because… elf girl not return text messages! Why she no like Orc?!? Potion fix problem!

4 Emanuele Galletto July 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Actually, an Orc with a flying potion would be pretty badass too. But I digress. Thanks for the great article! Right now I’m writing my first adventure for my blog (http://halflingsden.blogspot.it/) and it involves an alchemist’s lab. I’ll probably throw in there some mislabeled (or code-labeled) potions to add to the fun!

5 Siskoid July 3, 2013 at 6:15 am

I thought for sure you were going to suggest “bubbles” or something.

That’s actually something *I* like to do, give different potions their own unique tastes and textures. So I love #3.

6 Vobekhan July 3, 2013 at 10:51 am

I recall an article in a really old Dragon magazine that had differnt things to do with potions – cant remember full details (or the issue number) but I do remember the party finding a healing potion that consisted of purple powder, had to be mixed with water and had the side-effect of making the imbiber turn purple too!

7 Mike D. July 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Would you be willing to share your list of potion characteristics (smell, etc.?). That could be a handy resource.

8 Kirk July 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Excellent article. This is a topic that isn’t covered very often and will really help enhance anyone’s game. Thanks!

9 Dave November 27, 2016 at 11:53 pm

I introduced my party to a crazy gnome that had a magic bag that held 132 potions. At the end of a giant quest he was grateful and gave them the bag. Of course all his potions were labeled very good. Or so he said. A potion with lightning bolts on the cover turned you into a blue dragon for 4 hours. That potion with a pic of the sun. Cold resistance for 24 hours. The one with a pic of a mountain? Yoh turned into a frost giant for 24 hours. Much like the gnoke fisbum fibblesticks my potions were home brewed. And oddly enough there was exactly 20. In case tbeh wanted tk grab a random one and chug

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