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Basic Information

Any pharmacologically active substance that is not part of the body's normal metabolism - that is, a substance alien to the body's natural biochemistry that causes demonstrable effects once introduced to it. The line between a drug and a poison is blurry at best and relies mostly on being able to define what is - and isn't - a desirable effect.

The effects that the user of a drug intends to occur are generally defined as the 'main effect', 'primary' or 'indication'. Others, besides those actually desired - and particularly deleterious ones - are known as side-effects.

In the modern era the trade in drugs is heavily regulated by most governments due to the immense potential for harm caused by rogue operators - licensing of who can make, store, handle and sell what is strict in most jurisdictions and enforced by powerful agencies with wide ranging powers. Where this is not the case the existence of contaminated, counterfeit or otherwise unsafe compounds can be a serious menace to the general population. Historical regulation - if it existed at all - would be either by guild privilege (mainly for - possibly alleged - medicines) or by monopoly and taxation (for more recreational substances) … bearing in mind that many historical authorities might not make the distinction. So, for example, you might need to buy your opium from whoever holds the royal monopoly, and pay your opium duty, and then can do what you like with it, but if it is sold as laudanum you have the added protection of whatever the apothecary's guild requires in the way of competence and quality control. The idea that the state might restrict the sale of opium as a public health matter would probably not occur to anyone before the modern period1.

A prominent sub-category of the whole is recreational drugs - and, due to misuse of English by the media these are what far too many people think of when they hear the word "drugs".

Useful terms of reference include:

  • Narcotic: Roughly translated as "sleep-making", these are substances that induce drowsiness and frequently euphoria in the user - typically through depression of the central nervous system - and may also have analgesic and sedative effects. High doses will tend to lead to unconsciousness, escalating to coma and eventual death by respiratory arrest. Note that a variety of substances not typically considered to be drugs can have narcotic effects. This term is also abused to mean "recreational drugs" by the ill-informed.
  • Psychoactive: General term for drugs which alter the user's central nervous activity which are not narcotic, typically stimulants and those that scramble sensory input. Widely used but not terribly specific.
  • Excipient: Any material that does not have a significant pharmacological effect but is mixed with a drug substance as part of a preparation - including colourings, flavourings, preservatives and bulking agents, but also specialised coatings that ensure the drug arrives in the right part of the gut (if taken orally) and similar things.

List of Drugs

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • Both recreational drugs and medicines can make good treasure.
  • This can be a sideline for an alchemist character.
  • A possible adventure for the PCs to undertake could involve gathering recipes, materials, and equipment to make a lost cure for a plague.
  • Note the point about the difference between drug and poison being blurry at best. Something that slows the heart might be a lifesaving drug for a patient with a dangerously fast pulse, and a deadly poison for one whose pulse is already dangerously slow; lots of potential there for stories.
    • Likewise, some drugs2 are effective precisely because they are poisons. With these, the hope is that they poison some unwanted lifeform faster than they poison wanted ones.
      • Worth noting for these is that because of evolution, mithridatism can apply to populations much more easily than to individuals. Be sure to take the prescribed dose and finish the full course.
    • Targets of The Conspiracy might avoid doctors for exactly this reason.
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