Game Designer's Notebook: Thematic Potion Bottles

Michael O. Varhola

SANTORINI, GREECE -- While visiting the Museum of Prehistoric Thera here I was poignantly reminded of something that I have periodically considered but never really implemented to any extent in my games or stories, namely the idea of thematic potion bottles. What inspired that thought on this occasion was the presence of several flasks or other containers intended to hold liquid that were not just in interesting shapes, but almost designed to correspond to common potion types! These included a pair of festive-looking boars'-head rhytons, a lion's-head rhyton, a conch shell-shaped vessel, and bottles shaped like bulls. 

Most of these particular containers are from around the 17th century B.C. and are products of the Minoan culture that once existed on this island, once known as Thera. They are believed to have been created for dispensing liquids of various sorts but even as designed could simply be corked in order to for purposes of storing potions until they were imbibed; while some do have one hole for adding liquid to the container and another for pouring it out, like a teapot, it would be easy enough to craft them with just one opening that could be easily stoppered. Most of these would also hold more than a standard one-ounce dose of potion and containers of these exact sizes could thus be meant for holding multiple drafts of the same substances or could be produced in commensurately smaller sizes. 

Purpose-made containers really would make a lot of sense, regardless of whether potions were very rare and valuable, and thus warranting of custom containers, or very common, and therefore being commodities easily identified and organized. This would remove a lot of the traditional mystery associated with characters trying to figure out the properties of discovered potions, but could be a convenient device for GMs who would rather focus on other things -- and, of course, any given container might be interpreted in multiple ways. Such items could, in any event, encourage a different and interesting way for interacting with potions, oils, alchemical compounds, and other substances; beyond their shapes, the materials, colors, and other characteristics of flasks could all contribute to the iconography of such specialized items. 

Such containers could, of course, also be used as magic items of various sorts, the most obvious types being flasks that could dispense a certain number of drafts per day of particular potions, or which might enhance the characteristics of such potions (e.g., allowing their variable effects to function at a spellcaster level higher than the minimum, which is generally the default in d20-based games).