Side Effects
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Aunty Milly ran willy nilly
When her legs they did recede
So they looked on medicinal compound
Now they call her milipede

Jennifer Eccles, had terrible freckles
And the boys all called her names
But they gave her medicinal compound
Now he joins in all the games

(from) Lily the Pink Scaffold

Basic Information

Side effects are things that happen when medicines are used other than their intended purpose. Indeed, in many cases you get side effects if you use the stuff properly as well. Traditionally the list can seem far more hazardous than whatever the problem was to begin with…

Side effects often start with mild things like nausea or dizziness and somewhere in the middle of rambling, some insane side effect will be announced, something like heart attacks or the like… however… many people make fun of side effects because of their overall ridiculousness, resulting in goofy or impossible things like "temporary limb loss" or "spleen attack." Generally a responsible producer of medicines will divide the side effects up by probability (common, uncommon, rare and very rare for example), with the approximate likelihood (1:100, 1:1000 etc.) indicated … irresponsible producers of medicines tend not to get licenced. The paranoid and hyperchondriachal suffer immensely from these lists, but they are still vital.

It is an extremely rare product that is 100% free of side effects - normally anything that has a therapeutic action will generate some side effect by virtue of its action (e.g. opiate painkillers causing drowsiness and numbness). The trick is to get your cost/benefit right - does this drug cure your cancer but give you ten times the risk of a fatal heart attack? It might be worth it, whereas if it was intended for insomnia or constipation it would probably not be licenced. In some cases the side effects will rule out a particular patient group completely (thalidomide and its analogues are still in use for treating cancer … which they do very well, but they are completely contraindicated for expectant mothers - but then so are most anti-cancer drugs).

In fiction, however, side effects are truly bad, but hard to take seriously - they are frequently played for laughs and include things such as changes in skin colour, uncontrolled hair growth and steam rising from the ears.

Side effects are also common in technology, particularly gadgets developed by mad scientists - but also in real life where the tech hasn't had time to be debugged properly.

Side effects can also include additional or unexpected costs or conditions that need to be met for the product to work - a medicine may need an additional co-dose of something to work properly (or safely…), whilst a device may need some additional supporting function or an input that wasn't planned for (perhaps treating something that was meant to be re-usable as a consumable).

In Game Use

  • Traditionally more of a comical thing, though a side effect may plague a NPC or a PC as well, could be random things in the background if a TV is on.
  • Although we usually associate side effects with medicines, they can also be used with magic as well.
    • You might consider giving magical artifacts a major effect for its intended purpose and also a minor side effect.
      • For example: Wand of Lightning: When used, the wielder's hair stands on end as if electrically-charged.
      • Or: Gloves of Groping: Primary purpose is to increase the wearer's manual dexterity and useful for thieves; but it has a side effect of compelling the hands of the wearer to unconsciously grab the buttocks of the nearest member of the opposite sex at inconvenient moments. (Great for starting tavern brawls)
        • This sort of thing can be overdone. Players in one of my campaigns stopped taking magic items unless I spelled out what the side effects were. *sigh*.
        • With magic, thematic side effects work well - whether on the intended theme of the item or based on the powers that created it (items created by human sacrifice may well have quite sinister quirks, whereas those created with divine assistance may well be picky about their users. A fetish may have side effects based on the personality of the indwelling spirit or the character of a mortal creator might contaminate an item … so the lightning wand above may well actually be charging the user up with static, whilst the gloves of groping might have been effected by the daydreaming of a lecherous creator).
  • Side-effects can be a way of introducing adventure hooks, advancing the plot. In LOTR, using the Plantir for divination has the side effect of directly attracting Sauron's attention.
  • If you have a gadgeteer in the party, whether working with drugs/potions or technology/magic items, or if the PCs are capturing alien tech (or whatever) side effects are pretty much to be expected, and may be played for larfs or deadly serious depending on the tone of the campaign.
  • In wartime - or any other time your PCs are being send bleeding edge kit straight off the bench, they are probably also conducting a beta test (or even an alpha…) under combat conditions. Side effects are no laughing matter, but might be a price worth paying for that vital edge over the enemy.
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