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Universal Poison

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"What a convenient world we live in. One medicine cures everything..."
Adell's mom, Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories

In Real Life, there are many types of poisons. Variations exist that will affect nearly any organ or system. Poisoning can manifest itself as nearly any symptom known to man. Different individuals and (especially) species are not affected by poison in the same way; chocolate and caffeine are toxic to dogs and catsnote , but relatively harmless to most humans. Capsaicin (the stuff that makes hot peppers hot) can seriously irritate human skin and mucous membranes, but is completely unnoticeable to birds. The dosage is also important, if you care whether the victim gets mildly nauseated or dies quickly. As Paracelsus pointed out, even life-sustaining substances become toxic in excessive amounts. Essentially, poison can be any substance that a particular body can't deal with at that particular dosage.

However, in fiction — especially Video Games — all poison is essentially the same. It doesn't matter whether it's caused by industrial pollution, animal venom, poisonous plants, or military-grade chemical weapons, there's just one type of poisoning that saps the life force from the poisoned one over time, and any antidote will cure it. Usually presented as green, purple, or both, and optionally colors the victim in the same tone. This is an Acceptable Break From Reality, as most players wouldn't want to have to sort through dozens of remedies to handle the specific types of poison that one monster might inflict, especially if there are already other Status Effects to carry cures for. On the rare occasion that other poison types do exist, they will often be lumped with these other status ailments (such as paralysis).

The default traits of poison are:

As a Status Effect:

  • There is only one kind of poison in the world. All venomous creatures and poison-elemental spells use this same kind of poison.
  • While they come from many different places and are made out of vastly different materials, toxic waste, radioactive waste, chemical waste, sewer waste, toxic mushrooms, heavy-duty pesticides, and even animal venom all cause the same kind of damage or condition, and usually look the same, being either green, purple, greyish, or brown, complete with a bubbling surface and sickly glow for the more colorful variants, despite the fact waste can assume many colors, textures, viscosities, and thicknesses, and usually is out of the range of Technicolor Science properties.
  • Poison is often the same thing as disease or sickness. Venomous creatures, gooey and/or acidic enemies, and poison-elemental spells will inflict the condition on you, but often times, so will attacks from rotting zombies, wild/rabid animals, and filthy creatures.
  • This universal poison has only one effect — it will slowly sap the life force out of any living creature inflicted by it, but will not hinder them in any other regard. This damage is caused at a constant rate, often a percentage of the victim's total Hit Points, and is completely unaffected by things such as dosage or the body mass of the creature poisoned.
    • If there are multiple types of poison, the only difference will be the degree to which they harm the poisoned individual (e.g. reducing their HP by 5% or 10% every round).
  • It affects all living creatures equally regardless of physiology — a human, dog, insect or dragon will all suffer the exact same symptoms. If a creature does resist a poison, it will resist all poison. That being said, sometimes things that should logically resist all poison, such as The Undead, golems, and robots, are perfectly susceptible — especially if they just so happen to be Player Characters.
  • As there is only one type of poison in the world, there will obviously also be only one type of antidote. This antidote will work instantly when applied, and will usually be commonplace. (Though Cure-Alls will also work most of the time.)
    • If there are multiple types of poison, there will still only be one type of Antidote.
  • There may be areas where the mere act of standing on a specific location will poison a character. In this case, it may inflict the status ailment, or it may deal damage per step or unit time. Often an item will exist to negate this effect.
  • Often, poison will not be lethal, despite being quite capable of bringing characters to the brink of death. Usually, it will drop to one hit point and stay there, though the poisoned status will remain.

Poison as an Element:

  • Poison will be classified as an elemental force of nature, on par with fire, water, or electricity. If Functional Magic exists, there will often be an entire school of magic devoted to utilizing elemental poison.
  • If not used as a proper element, poison will be shoehorned into a miscellaneous damage type.
  • Poison is often damaging as an element towards earth, air, water, and/or plants, because it's generally perceived to be associated with decay and pollution of the natural world, even if it comes straight from the natural world itself (i.e. animal venom). "Clean" elements such as water, air, and even holiness also tend to be very damaging towards poison elemental forces.

Both elemental and status effect poison:

  • It is typically liquid or gelatinous in nature, and is usually green, purple, or orange in coloring (See also Technicolor Toxin for a complete list). It might also color any victims in the same tone. Bubbles of the same color may float over the afflicted character's head.
  • Acid is often mistakenly classified as a poison. Universal poison will almost always be highly corrosive. Although it is worth noting that the vast majority of acids also happen to be toxic, and in toxicology corrosion is a perfectly legitimate mechanism of action for a poison (bee venom, for example, is a type of poison that is acidic while wasp venom is a strong base). It is common for acids to be poisons, this is the reason you shouldn't make people throw up after ingesting a poison of which you don't know the properties, most of them are acids that could do greater damage on their way out than by staying in your mostly acid-proof stomach (and getting neutralized with the stomach acid on their way out). So there is definitely some truth to this, just not to the extent often portrayed.
    • In fiction, poison also tends to be highly corrosive when spilled (because it's wonderfully dramatic for the Big Damn Heroes to knock the poisoned goblet from the victim's hand in the nick of time and watch as the poisoned wine eats a hole through the banquet table.)
  • If Regen Hurts Zombie, poison does the opposite.

Sometimes a bottle or vial of the above substance is used as a trick powerup with negative, instead of positive, effects.


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  • The Basilisk venom in Harry Potter. Poison from the Basilisk's fangs was a corrosive substance capable of destroying any magical or not magical object, including dissolving Horcruxes. It even destroys the items beyond all hope of recovery; inanimate objects normally can be repaired with a quick spell, but not after they have Basilisk venom on them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • There were dozens of different poisons throughout the various Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks from the start, with different effects. In 3rd Edition none of them even do direct Hit Point damage. The damage is dealt instead to the character's attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma), and the type and amount of damage are different for each poison. However, they generally affected all creatures the same way, the exceptions being creatures that were immune to poison (and who were thus immune to all poison), and poisons that specifically affected only certain types of creatures. The few exceptions to those exceptions were gone by 3.5. (3rd Edition druids, for example, could become immune to "natural" poisons—but not mineral poisons. In 3.5, they simply became immune to poison.)
    • The trope was played completely straight, however, in 4th Edition. Poison is now just another damage type, and is usually paired with the system's ongoing damage mechanic. These can get a bit strange: A green dragon's poison lets it control your mind, while a Couatl's poison also does radiant damage.
    • In 5th edition, poison also does damage as with any other effect, with some lasting over time, but some can have other effects.
    • In Pathfinder, which is essentially a debugging of 3.5 by another company as opposed to 4th editions ground-up rebuild, poisons are still effects that do stat damage over varying amounts of time and require certain delivery methods (contact, injury, and ingestion, though there is some overlap). They do affect most creatures the same way regardless of their type, mostly to avoid making the rulebook into a medical diagnosis sheet. However, the only creatures that are really immune to poison are either things with no anatomy to affect, like elementals and undead, or innately magical creatures that would need these immunities to survive their inimical environments, like Devils. Kind of hard to lord it over the tormented souls when you can't breath the atmosphere.
  • Lampshaded in the Warhammer rulebook, which states this trope is in use for simplicity's sake. It also notes that there are exotic poisons for exotic creatures, such as Holy Water for The Undead, which poisoner is assumed to have access to and can use when fighting such opponents.
    • Somewhat averted in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay bestiary, which includes in-universe commentary from a Skaven assassin which consists solely of the best poison to use on each of the entries. This involves as simple things as arsenic (fellow skaven) to ground glass and nightshade (ogres), to warpstone powder (The Undead) or holy water (daemons). Or, in one case:
    *On mountain giants* Whatever you use, use a lot of it.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Vindicare assassins are said to use poisoned bullets, with the rulebook stating that they use acid-filled ones when shooting at Necrons.
  • In GURPS, all (normal) poisons inflict toxic damage, and some cause damage to ability scores or inflict status ailments. However, curing a poison does require knowing what kind it is unless you have magic or the like.
    • And "toxic" as a damage type isn't actually restricted to poisons; it's more like a catch-all term for "cellular damage" done by e.g. poison, disease, radiation etc.


    Real Life 
  • The cone snail group of sea snails bypass this trope completely. Each cone snail packs somewhere around a hundred different toxins and uses them all simultaneously, essentially making sure that no matter what it's attacking, it's going to die. This also practically ensures that none of its preferred choices of prey, nor any of its potential predators, ever develops a resistance to its venom.
  • Almost any substance is dangerous with (in)appropriate dosage. On the other hand, almost any substance is in some way beneficial (or at least harmless) with appropriate dosage. This extends all the way to the most lethal poison known to man: Botulinum toxin. Not only is it marketed as Botox, but it has a number of other oddball medical uses involving paralyzing muscle tissue. In extremely low doses, obviously, since nanograms of the stuff can kill you. Infinitesimal dose of infamous mustard gas serves as an ingredient in some chemotherapies.
  • Chlorine gas... sort of. It's not technically poisonous, it "merely" reacts with water to form hydrochloric acid. Any creature which has moisture somewhere on its body will find it becoming acidic when exposed to chlorine gas.
  • Bleach, a chlorine compound, operates on similar principles as chlorine gas. It's not technically poisonous in itself, it's just that if bleach is put in contact with most amines (derivatives of ammonia), it releases chlorine gas, which triggers the set of reactions above. Surprise, surprise, most living things are made of proteins, which are made of amino acids, which by their very name include amines...
  • Cyanide is probably the closest thing to a universal toxin, as it imitates the shape of oxygen and sticks to the protein turbine in mitochondria that processes oxygen to water, blocking it up. In other words, cyanide is deadly to every organism that respires using oxygen.
  • Hydrogen sulphide prevents respiration in the same way as hydrogen cyanide. Like cyanide, it's lethal to every oxygen-using lifeform, apart from a select few which have adaptations to detoxify it.
  • Arsenic, which interferes with the ADP/ATP aspect of many chemical cycles in nearly every metabolic organism in existence. Recent discovery of a bacterium that could not only withstand high doses of the stuff, but even appeared to actually use it in its DNA (in place of its chemical cousin, phosphorous) rocked the scientific world, indicating a second genesis (creation of life from non-life).
  • Carbon monoxide binds to haemoglobin in red blood cells in place of oxygen, preventing oxygen delivery to cells. It's toxic to all vertebrates because they all use haemoglobin.
  • Ethylene Oxide shreds DNA and RNA, which all discovered life needs (plus viruses.) However the lethal dose is proportional to the biomass therefore it becomes inefficient against large lifeforms or large populations; unless cancer is your objective.
  • Ionizing radiation. It doesn't matter what it is you're targeting, enough radiation will kill it. Of course, tolerance for radiation varies considerably among different organisms- small insects can withstand doses a hundred times greater than humans. While radiation is something all organisms must deal with (together with oxygen it causes more DNA lesions in a day to the average human than there are grains of sand in the world), a large enough dose will overwhelm an organism's capacity to regenerate. And like all toxins, the devil is in the dosage, otherwise radiotherapy wouldn't exist.