“I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four
From the early exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective to the two-fisted tales of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, pulp fiction is no stranger to the seductive nature of illicit substances and their traffic. Howard’s Stygian sorcerers are somewhat synonymous with the “slumber of the black lotus,” and no crime thriller worth a dime would be missing that trademark undercurrent of heroin noir.
Since I’ve been exploring the impact of classic pulp fantasy on roleplaying—with Howard’s writing in particular—I find it only fitting to shine a light on the decadent side of the Hyborian underworld. Taking inspiration from Conan and Cthulhu mythos stories (as well as real-world substances somewhat appropriate to the time and space), I set out to supplement the Pathfinder RPG with some devious drugs and puissant poisons of the pulp era to keep a pervasive sense of corruption close at hand.
It’s worth noting: the relative low cost of drugs in Pathfinder is offset by their addictive and damaging side effects. Should you find one of these illicit substances unbalanced in the hands of your PCs or NPCs, please adjust costs or severity to suit the story and pace of your own campaign. (No drug in the Pathfinder Reference Document exceeds 500 gp in cost, and I wasn’t going to be the one to start breaking the bank).
So here’s an attempt to add some context to those drug-induced nightmares of demon-haunted realms from the pages of our favorite pulp stories. Simply put, these are items one could expect to find on the Stygian black market—for a handsome (and often harrowing) price. And I’ll spare you a grand treatise on the ethical concerns of drugs and substance abuse in tabletop roleplaying; but I will advise you to respect your fellow players and always remember: there’s a fine line between ripe and rotten.
Black Lotus Pollen
Type inhaled, ingested, or injury; Addiction major, Fortitude 20
Price 500 gp
Effects 2 hours; +2 alchemical bonus on Will saves, fatigue
Effect allows a spellcaster that requires rest to prepare spells to do so after 2 hours
Damage 1d2 Con and 1 Str damage
Notes The pollen of the black lotus creates death-like sleep and monstrous dreams. It is said that the grisly wizards of the Black Ring voluntarily seek the scarlet nightmares of the black lotus to revive their necromantic powers.
Spirit Vine Decoction
Type ingested, injury; Addiction moderate, Fortitude 18
Price 200 gp
Effects 1d6+2 hours; +1d4 alchemical bonus to Wisdom, true seeing as per the spell following a successful DC 17 Concentration check
Effects variable; 50% chance to become sickened or nauseated for 1d2 hours
Damage 1d2 Con and 1d2 Str damage
Notes Legends say the instructions for this sacred brew came directly from plant spirits and the plants themselves. This potent admixture of ‘Spirit Vine’ and other psychoactive jungle plants is utilized by shamans and truth-seekers alike for its divinatory purposes. Vomiting can follow ingestion, which many shamans consider to be a vital part of the experience. The spirit vine decoction is said to penetrate the veil between worlds.
Type inhaled, ingested; Addiction major, Fortitude 24
Price 50 gp
Effects 1d2+1 hours; +2 alchemical bonus to Perception, detect thoughts as per the spell, -1d2 penalty to Intelligence
Effect 5% chance to become confused if user is addicted
Damage 1d2 Con and 1 Dex damage
Notes ‘Sweet Leaf’ is a sardonic moniker for this narcotic wasteland weed. Toxic and highly addictive, the grassy sweet leaf is eaten by those too impatient to smoke it (or too addicted to bother). Addicts reek of the leaf’s sweet stench and can be identified by their green-stained mouths and demon-haunted eyes.
Type ingested; Addiction minor, Fortitude 16
Price 100 gp
Effects 1d4+2 hours; +1d2 alchemical bonus to Intelligence, +1d2 alchemical bonus to Charisma, -4 penalty on saves against illusions and mind-affecting effects
Effect 25% chance to become sickened for 1 hour
Damage 1 Con and 1d2 Str damage
Notes ‘Wavy Caps’ is the colloquial name for a rare species of psychotropic mushroom. Wavy Caps grow on raw compost and plant material, and are traditionally found in regions lush with temperate woodlands. Fruiting is dependent on a drop in temperature and typically occurs during autumn months, when savvy foragers can turn a princely profit.
Black Lotus Extract, Stygian
Type poison, inhaled/ingested/injury; Save Fortitude DC 22
Price 4,500 gp
Onset 1d4 rounds; Frequency 1/round for 4 rounds
Effect 1d8 Con damage; Cure 1 save
Notes Although black lotus pollen is coveted by Hyborian sorcerers for its necromantic properties, the refined blossoms of the Stygian black lotus strike dead any who taste or smell of them.
Type poison, contact; Save Fortitude DC 18
Price 3,500 gp
Onset 1d10 rounds (blinded), 1d6 minutes (Con damage); Frequency 1/round for 8 rounds
Initial Effect blinded and staggered for 1d2 hours; Secondary Effect 1d2 Con damage; Cure 2 consecutive saves
Notes This darkly purple juice is harvested from a fruit the people of Kush call the Apples of Derketa, named after their Queen of the Dead. A small drink of the juice or its touch upon flesh spells a painful death.
Fat-Tailed Scorpion Venom
Type poison, injury; Save Fortitude DC 15
Price 4,000 gp
Onset immediate (sickened), 10 minutes (Con damage); Frequency 1/hour for 15 hours
Initial Effect sickened for 3d6 hours; Secondary Effect 2d4 Con damage; Cure 1 save
Notes The Stygian fat-tailed scorpion brings instant death to those who feel the terror of its toxic sting, making this remarkable venom a valued treasure among contract killers.
Night Scorpion Venom
Type poison, injury; Save Fortitude DC 17
Price 400 gp
Onset 1 round
Effect blinded for 1d3 hours; Cure 1 save
Notes Of all the underworld’s denizens, burglars and sneak thieves in particular hold the unique properties of night scorpion venom in high esteem. Though uncommon, it isn’t all too hard to find.
Swamp Adder Venom
Type poison, injury; Save Fortitude DC 15
Price 3,000 gp
Onset immediate (Con damage), 1d2 rounds (paralysis); Frequency 1/round for 6 rounds
Initial Effect 1d2 Con damage and paralyzed for 1 minute; Cure 2 consecutive saves
Notes The swamp adder—sometimes known as the “speckled band”—is native to the marshes of Vendhya and is simultaneously feared and prized for this potent paralytic venom.
Zingaran Viper Venom
Type poison, injury; Save Fortitude DC 16
Price 2,500 gp
Frequency 1/round for 6 rounds
Effect 1d4 Con damage; Cure 1 save
Notes This viscous green venom is harvested from the giant Zingaran viper, the most lethal serpent from the fiend-haunted swamps of its namesake.
Chris Lockey is a professional warrior poet and amateur cryptozoologist who hails from the black woods of the North Carolina badlands. He currently lives in Los Angeles in lasting servitude to the Old Ones. For ongoing updates from the asylum, follow him on Twitter @ChrisLockey.