Recreational Drug
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One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all

Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall…

(from) White Rabbit Jefferson Airplane

Basic Information

A recreational drug is one that is used for pleasure rather than for medicinal, religious or other purposes.

For various reasons - mostly those of public order, public health or community morays it is fairly common for the production, sale, possession and use of recreational drugs to be (sometimes heavily) restricted.

Of course, every drug has its problem users - those whose excessive and/or compulsive use of the substance makes them incapable of fulfilling their social role and/or leads them to resort to crime to acquire more of the substance than they can easily afford.

Unfortunately what counts as a recreational drug depends very greatly on circumstance - which many legislators are too stupid or lazy to understand - and a substance which is used for recreational purposes may have useful applications in other fields which can be unreasonably impeded by laws intended to prevent leisure use.

Also, those who want some kind of historical verisimilitude in their campaign setting should be aware that, religious taboos aside, prohibition of recreational drugs was historically very rare. Most standard fantasy settings appear to operate to modern cultural values and have the majority of such drugs heavily restricted - possibly to avoid censorship - but in reality this should be far more the exception than the rule. In the real world, most of the modern prohibitions date from the 1960s or later (which is why atompunk settings tend to be rattling with them) and may yet not make their centenary. If anything, the average medieval state would be more likely to sell a monopoly in the trade than prohibit it outright.

In world dissonance is also fine - the C19 Opium Wars resulted from one power (The Chinese Empire) instituting a ban on drug commonly used for recreational purposes (specifically opium) for reasons of its own public health and internal order. Unfortunately the main supplier of the drug in question (The British Empire) had no notion of it being a problem and regarded the Chinese measure as a recurrence of their historical habits of economic protectionism, over which conflict had arisen in the past. Again, the modern real world has near universal treaties controlling the trade in controlled drugs, but that need not be the case in other settings and nations vary considerably in their internal controls even with these in place.

Note also that very few cultures treat recreational drugs consistently - it would be entirely normal for any given culture to permit some and prohibit others, and for the distinction to be made on cultural rather than medical grounds (as per the example of most modern Western societies permitting nicotine and alcohol but prohibiting most other drugs, including those that are significantly less harmful).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Every culture has its drug(s) of choice - and will usually have culturally bound ways of accommodating their use. Disruption of these structures, or introduction of a foreign drug, is likely to cause social problems.
  • Chief amongst the social problems is liable to be abuse of a given substance - generally by overindulgence and/or widespread addiction. As noted above, this can be due to the introduction of foreign drugs (or forms of drugs) into a na├»ve market - many European temperance movements were kickstarted by the appearance of cheap distilled spirits (notably gin) in markets where wine and beer were native, raising alcohol abuse to epidemic proportions. Likewise, most modern recreational drug prohibitions resulted from increasing availability of substances which had previously been in very limited supply.
  • Problem users - addicts in particular - are commonly the ballast level for the criminal community and are often used as relatively cheap muscle by better organised operators. Not very reliable muscle in most cases, addicts being what they are, but traditionally cheap and easily manipulated.
  • Ironically, practically the only beneficiaries from prohibition of recreational drugs (much as in the US experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s) are Organized Crime and The State (and the more cynical libertarian may question the distinction).
  • Where you have multiple species, differing biochemistry may radically alter what constitutes a drug - catnip, for example, could be major social problem for cat people but a non-issue for humans. Even more radically the theobromine found in chocolate is far more psychoactive (and toxic) to many mammals than it is to humans. Travelers had best be very careful what they carry about with them.
  • Where prohibition exists, circumventing it is an obvious source of adventure profit but can be a source of considerable values dissonance. After all cocaine smugglers look like an acceptable target to modern eyes, but we wink at the idea of a 1920s boot legger or rum-runner.
  • Probably a good treasure, especially if you like to promote in party roleplaying.
  • Recreational drugs can also be used as a form of surrogate currency in an appropriate black market.
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