RPGaDay2020 Day 27: Flavour – what do potions taste of?

RPGaDay2020 graphic
The original RPGaDay2020 prompts graphic by @WillBrooks1989

Yesterday in RPGaDay2020 was about Strange and striking the balance between novelty and framework.

Today we look at Flavour.

I have to confess this is something I’m not very good at describing. I usually fall back to what the characters see; I should get better at using the other senses.

A perfect example is a potion. I might describe a potion as red, as green, as blue with gold flecks. But there is more. I could talk about how it sloshes, or moves in an oily manner. I could talk about the feel of the faceted glass under the fingers.

But for something that you consume, surely the taste is important (and/or the smell, which is the primary aspect of flavour). What does a potion of healing taste like? Is it spicy, with hints of cinnamon and clove? Minty? Cherry and almond? Or is it less attractive – maybe hints of armpit, earwax and garlic?

Interesting question: are potions are the same in your world? For example, does a healing potion always look and taste the same, or do they come in assorted colours and flavours? Can an experienced adventurer differentiate between a potion of healing and a potion of giant strength just by looking/smelling/shaking it? Or is there too much variability?

I can see the arguments either way.

  • On the side of all potions of a type being the same, it would make sense that there’s a specific recipe of ingredients which need to be combined in the same way each time to have the particular effect. Different ingredients, and you get a different result.
  • On the side of all potions being different – potions are magical, so it doesn’t matter exactly what’s in it so much as how it’s made and what magic is invoked to create it. Different people’s magic works in different ways, so surely the result must be as distinctive as the magic.

The thinking has changed over the years.

When I started, with the Basic Set, there was no indication of what a potion looked like/tasted varied. In fact, it’s written into the description:

Potions are usually found in small glass vials, similar to Holy Water. Each potion has a different smell and taste – even two potions with the same effect!

D&D Basic Set DMG p43

It’s similar in AD&D:

…the same type of potion, when derived from different sources, might smell, taste, and look differently.

AD&D DMG p 125

Move forward to Fifth Edition, and I was surprised to find that each potion is described. For example:

Potion of Clairvoyance

… An eyeball bobs in this yellowish liquid but vanishes when the potion is opened.

Potion of Fire Breath

… This potion’s orange liquid flickers, and smoke fills the top of the container and wafts out whenever it is opened.

5th edition DMG, p187

My inclination has been to continue making up descriptions for each potion, but am I now breaking a contract with players who are used to 5th edition and are familiar with the descriptions in the DMG? On the other hand, I can always invoke the “well, it’s my world so I get to decide.”

What do you do?

BTW, coming back to the prompt, it’s interesting that in first edition, it’s the smell and flavour they concentrate on, whereas in 5th edition it’s all about the look. There is one exception:

Potion of water breathing

… Its cloudy green fluid smells of the sea and has a jellyfish-like bubble floating in it.

5th edition DMG, p188

Come back tomorrow for Day 28, and another look at changes between versions of D&D with Close shaves.

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