Friday 30 October 2020

20 double-edged potions for the ingenious adventurer

I've written before about item-based problem solving in D&D, and the principle that creatively solving problems using whatever random junk you have lying around is always going to be more satisfying, and more memorable, than just beating them down with brute force. Magic items open up possibilities for all kinds of even more creative solutions, because they don't have to be limited by what's physically possible. But a magic item that grants a permanent new ability is likely to radically change the nature of the campaign.

One solution is to be generous in giving out one-use rule-changers, or 'potions' as D&D calls them. Plenty of things that would be game-breaking in a spell or item become perfectly viable if they can only be used once. But a good potion should be versatile: the kind of thing that could be used in all kinds of different ways, in all kinds of different contexts. No-one's ever going to be proud of the time they worked out that maybe they should drink a fire resistance potion just before fighting the red dragon. But beating a red dragon with a creatively-applied potion of levitation is the stuff of which gaming legends are made. 

Here's a list of twenty potions. All have been written with an eye towards OSR-style problem solving, and most of them are versatile enough that they can potentially be used in all kinds of different ways, including as weapons. Because why fight fair when you can cripple your opponents with potion side-effects instead?

Delivery system (roll 1d4)

  1. Must be swallowed. (Have you considered dosing your enemy's food?)
  2. Must be injected into the bloodstream. (Putting it on a sharp weapon and stabbing someone with it is sufficient.) 
  3. Works on contact with skin. (Throwing the bottle at someone should work unless they're covered in heavy clothes or armour.) 
  4. Gaseous: must be inhaled. (Throw it at your enemy's head!)

Effects (roll 1d20)



Beneficial uses

Hostile uses






Antigravity. User ‘falls’ upwards for six seconds unless something gets in the way.

Getting to hard-to-reach places on ceilings, overhangs, etc.

Six seconds of unimpeded reverse freefall will leave you 176 metres up in the air.


Hatemask. For the next 1d6 hours, the user takes on the appearance of whichever living being they most hate. (If the being they most hate is is a radically different size to them - e.g. a human who hates a dragon - they appear as a them-sized version of it, instead.)

Infiltrating the stronghold of your archenemy. Potentially a useful disguise if your archenemy is of a different gender / ethnicity / species to yourself.

Learning about your enemies. Revealing their secrets. Potentially getting someone killed by their own allies, by e.g. making someone look like ‘the enemy’ in the middle of a battle.


Nilbog essence. For one round, the user is harmed by healing and healed by harm.

Use it just before taking massive damage, e.g. walking through a wall of fire or jumping off a cliff.

Use on an enemy just before they get healed.


Soulfire potion. Magical flames burst from the user’s body, burning everything for 10’ around them for 1d6 minutes. During this time they are totally immune to heat and fire, though their equipment isn’t.

Protecting yourself from fire, or from being swarmed by enemies.

Breaking up enemy formations. Destroying someone’s equipment.


Beast-tongue. For 1d6 hours, the user gains the ability to communicate with animals. They lose the ability to communicate with any creature of above-animal intelligence.

Talking to animals.

Preventing someone from communicating with their allies, giving orders, etc. (Especially handy if used against summoners, who will be unable to command their summonations!)


Psychic sensitivity. For 1d6 hours, the user can detect the surface thoughts and emotional states of all nearby sentient beings by sight. Powerful emotions cause confusion and painful headaches.

Reading people’s minds.

Use it on someone in the middle of a riot or battle and watch them have a psychic meltdown.


Rust monster extract. For 1d6 rounds, every ferrous object that comes in contact with the user’s skin turns instantly to rust.

Rust your way through metal locks, barriers, etc. Destroy enemy weapons and armour on contact.

Use it on someone with metal weapons and armour and watch their equipment turn to rust.


Stoneflesh. User’s flesh becomes grey, heavy, and super-dense. For 2d6 minutes the user becomes slow, clumsy, and almost impossible to harm.

Endure damage. Survive dangerous environments.

Make someone too slow to catch you. Render finesse-based fighters ineffectual. Make flying creatures drop out of the air, or swimming creatures sink to the bottom of the water. Or use it on someone standing on a flimsy bridge or walkway and watch them fall through the floor.


Elixir of undeath. For 1d6 hours the user becomes pale and cold to the touch. They do not need to eat, drink, or breathe, and will register as undead to Detect Undead spells. Mindless undead will ignore them unless directly attacked. Sunlight is painful to them, holy water burns them, and they become vulnerable to Turn Undead.

Feigning death. Sneaking past zombies. Pretending to be a zombie. Navigating environments where breathing is dangerous or impossible.

Use it on someone and then get a cleric to Turn them, or douse them in holy water. Prevent someone from operating in bright sunlight. Get someone mistaken for a zombie and murdered by passing paladins.


Clawbrew. Causes the user’s jaws and hands to warp into huge, bestial fangs and claws for 1d6 hours, capable of inflicting terrible injuries. Clear speech and fine manipulation are impossible for the duration.

Scaring people. Boosting your unarmed combat capability.

Rendering someone unable to talk effectively. Preventing someone from carrying out delicate manual tasks (e.g. archery, lockpicking). Getting someone lynched as a werewolf.


Potion of photosynthesis. For 3d6 days the user’s skin turns green, and they are able to gain all the nourishment they need from sunlight and water. Lack of these things causes them to weaken and wither.

Subsisting without food. Pretending to be a Martian.

Use it on an underground predator and wait for it to starve to death.


Arctic Adaptation. Causes all temperatures to be experienced as 20C (36F) higher than they actually are for 3d6 hours.

Surviving ice and cold.

Use it on a warmly-dressed or armoured person on a sunny day and watch them pass out from heatstroke.


Gluesweat. For 1d20 minutes the user’s body exudes a sticky, gluey substance, making them stick to everything they touch unless they slowly and deliberately rip themselves away.

Use your glue-hands to climb along walls and ceilings like a spider.

Laugh as the feet of monsters stick to the floor, the arrows of archers stick to their fingers, thrown weapons stick to their wielder’s hands, etc.


Mistform. The user (and all their equipment) turns into a cloud of gas for 2d6 minutes. During this time they cannot move under their own power, but will move with the prevailing winds.

Turn to gas and get your allies to fan you through prison bars, across pits, etc.

Turn someone else to gas and fan them off a cliff, or into a box which you then lock shut, or just use it on someone in a strong wind and watch them blow away. Can also be used just to get rid of someone for 2d6 minutes.


Nighteye. For 2d6 hours the user can see perfectly in poor light, and dimly even in complete or magical darkness. Ordinary daylight is painful to them, and bright light is blinding.

Use it to see in the dark.

Use it on someone at midday or near a light source to blind them.


Gillbrew. The user grows gills, and for the next 3d6 minutes they can breathe underwater. They cannot breathe in air during this time.

Use it to breathe underwater.

Use it to force someone else to start suffocating unless they shove their head underwater.


Lightfoot. For 3d6 minutes the user’s mass is reduced by 90%, as is the mass of their equipment.

Balance on twigs, climb over damaged surfaces, make enormous leaps, carry someone bigger than you are.

Use it on someone, then shove them hard and watch them go flying. (Makes it much easier to push people into things!) Renders enemies largely ineffectual in physical combat.


Rubberflesh. For 1d6 hours the user’s flesh becomes stretchy and rubbery, allowing them to stretch their limbs 50%  further than usual. Their weird, rubbery flesh is hard to crush but parts easily beneath sharp edges, taking half damage from bludgeoning attacks and double damage from slashing attacks.

Stretching to get something just out of reach. Protecting yourself against crushing attacks.

Rendering enemies vulnerable to cutting attacks.


Slipperiness. For 2d6 minutes the user’s body becomes slippery and almost frictionless. If they are barefoot this requires them to move slowly and with great care to avoid slipping over with each step.

Slithering out of bonds, webs, etc.

Slowing barefoot enemies. Preventing people from following you up ropes, ladders etc. Making people’s tools or weapons slip from their hands. Making people lose their grip on ropes or ledges.


Magnetism. For 1d6 minutes the user becomes powerfully magnetic, attracting all nearby ferrous metals to them.

Stick to metal surfaces. Make an enemy’s weapons stick to you. Could also be used to suck metal objects out of pools, mud, pits, etc.

Make someone a literal magnet for arrows and other metal projectiles. Make someone’s own weapon stick to them. Make the weapons of their allies stick to them. Make a whole bunch of heavily-armoured opponents stick together in a big magnetic ball with the user in the centre. Point and laugh.



  1. This a really table for breathing new life into potions! I'm curious to see how it would look to reskin this table as elixirs from Taoist alchemists, or questionable alchemical products from serpent folk. Are there any effects that would not easily fit the theme of Against the Wicked City?

    1. Hm. The antigrav and rust monster potions feel a bit blatant for ATWC, and Lightfoot and Mistform probably wouldn't affect equipment. ('Drinking this potion reduces the mass of your backpack' feels a bit more like 'D&D logic' than is normal for ATWC.) But all the rest would probably be fine with a bit of reskinning!

    2. If this is meant for ATWC, there should be a point about whether or not will they work on horses.

    3. Sure they would. Hitting your opponent's horse / camel with slipperiness, stoneflesh, or gluesweat would be a great way to take them out of a chase scene, though making the poor thing grow gills and suffocate in air would just be cruel.

    4. Like, think of the anecdotes about the only doctor in the village being a horse doctor, and then picture a PC who gulps down a potion without first knowing it is a horse's dose.

      Seems to me there could be another point, where you roll to see on whom it works, like:

      1 - everything
      2 - everything with a non-negligible amount of flesh-and-blood
      3 - only humanoids
      4 - only a single race (1-80 humans, 81-90 serpent folk, etc.)

      ...something like that, I'm just thinking out loud. If we're out to produce a chart of random potions then there's definitely room for expansion.

      Also, it seems like ATWC offers a wider variety of playable races on which drunk potions should not work, than the average D&D does. (As for potions administered in other ways, it depends.)

      But I guess at this point I've strayed far enough from the original post's topic not to carry on this digression any further.

  2. Awesome sauce, which is what my players will probably name the first of these potions they find.
    I've purchased supplements with less creativoty than this.

  3. Two things I think will a big difference to how these get used are reliability and failure modes.

    For example, you've got a lot of "survive deadly environment for random length of time" items in here. Here the failure mode is potentially "you die in an ignominious and boring way", so players are unlikely to make a plan based on using them for much longer than their minimum duration unless they have some fall-back means of surviving it wearing off, potentially limiting their use in play.

    On the other hand, an elixir of undeath or a clawbrew wearing off at the wrong moment seem likely to create game rather than remove it, so those strike me as excellent candidates for random durations.

    I also think that a lot of these potions could have the potential to have occasional flashbacks where you briefly manifest the effect again in moments of stress for a few months after taking the potion, perhaps with the option of a will save to supress.

    1. In all honesty, I imagine them mostly being used for their side effects. Gaining temporary water breathing is fine, but forcing your enemies to run around with their heads shoved inside their own waterskins is *priceless*.

      I'd probably just ask players to roll the duration when they took the potion, so they'd know in advance how much time they had to work with. Even if I rolled it in secret, I'd be pretty generous with warnings like 'you feel roughly one-quarter of the potion effect has faded'. Because making intelligent use of a potion to circumvent an obstacle, only to die as a result of an unlucky random duration roll, would be a pretty rubbish way to go.

      Flashback effects are a great idea. 'Calm him down before he grows gills again!'

    2. Especially if you're suffering from more than one lot of potential side effects, which manifest together.

      "Why are you carrying around that nail on a string?" "It's our early warning system to start talking soothingly to Jim before he bursts spontaneously into flame."

      "Help! My nightvision is improving! Someone tie me down!"

      "How are we going to treat your injuries? Well, we've rigged this pressure plate up to a ballista. The moment the weight placed on the plate decreases, the ballista will fire into it. Now, stand on it while we yell abuse at you!"

      In fact, this leads me to the observation that a potion that combines two of these effects is probably a lot more fun than one that produces just one. Either you have to mitigate one effect in order to get the benefits from the one you want, or you find a situation where both are useful and get to feel smug.

  4. I vastly prefer potions that do something more interesting than simply replicating a Spell effect. Here's a d100 Table I whipped up with a hundred unconventional ones, definitely in the same vein of "perfect tool for a situation when coupled with Player Skill:

    d100 Unconventional Potions.

    1. Nicely done! There's a lot of good ideas, there: I especially like the ones that reward real forward planning, like the one that ensures lightning will strike the place where it's poured out during the next storm. Potentially powerful, but now you have to build your whole plan around the weather...

  5. I like the "I need a toilet to dunk my head into!" implications