Sunday, April 3, 2011


Hope I'm not stepping on any of you A-Z blogger toes with this D post.  It's just that I have the time today and have players that have the plague, so I need to explore disease mechanics a little.

First, I'm an idiot, when I posted a little about disease previously, I didn't realize that the Blackmoor digest has a table with more info on the very next page!  My only excuse is that I was in a rush to prepare for the session and was reading it in pdf so it wasn't as obvious.

Unfortunately, it didn't matter because the table didn't answer some of those questions I had anyway.  In fact, the one thing the text was clear on, chance of catching the disease, the table contradicts-- 90% vs 1%.  The only way I can understand this is that the lower number applies to player characters and the higher to anyone else once pcs are infected.  But that's a guess, it doesn't say that.

Ok, establishing that, no, those rules aren't going to help me as written, let's forge on.

Different Rules for Sieges
Disease may be a perfect example of how you might want different mechanics for different subsystems in a game.  What I realized looking at the rules in Blackmoor is that much of the subject is seen through the lens of sieges and armies.  Which makes sense, descending from Chainmail, if you're fighting with massed forces it would be nice to have some rules for how disease would spread through the ranks and weaken those forces by attrition.

But those concerns are different from my concerns in dealing with an adventuring party.  I think you might need at least slightly different rules for the two situations.

Disease and Your Character
Let's think about how a disease affects pcs.  It can't be immediately fatal or it becomes identical to a poison.  Once contracted a lot of real diseases take about 12 days, almost two weeks, to fully manifest themselves.

What about symptoms?  Some fantasy diseases have odd symptoms, but with natural diseases catching it usually means you're weakened severely or bed-ridden.  So if we are going to have mechanics for diseases that are reminiscent of real diseases the character:
  • contracts it or not
  • for a few weeks is probably too weak to adventure
  • might die if not cured in those weeks
While party travel might spread the disease to cities or troop concentrations leading to great repercussions to the campaign world, it looks like disease for a party is just a matter of "you're out of action until we get you cured." 

Does Disease Matter?
If a party is far from civilisation or help, this could lead to some dramatic tension, especially if the disease is spreading through the party.  But I think that would the rare case.  Cure disease is available to 5th level clerics in most old school rules systems (6th for Moldvay).  So, unless your campaign world has few of that level cleric around, disease becomes an minor inconvenience, a money sink.

Well, unless the possibility of the city being infected mentioned above, is the party's home base settlement.  That could cause drama, adventure hooks, and provide an even bigger money sink. So, is the only reason to mess with non-fantastic diseases at the party level to spread it to their base of operations?

Some diseases would allow for characters to be carriers (think Typhoid Mary) and this would make the likelihood of them spreading the disease to cities and troops much higher.  But on the other hand, it would make it much less likely for players to realize that they are, in fact, the spreaders of the pestilence.  And that would make it hard to engage the drama and hooks mentioned above if players don't feel responsible.

Scars and the Aftermath
Some diseases can leave permanent scars or effects (think small pox).  It is possible that a cure disease will save a players life without preventing these.  So disease might become more frightening if it could permanently reduce a character's charisma (as Blackmoor suggests), blind them, or leave some other mark.  But I have a hard time believing a holy person could lay on hands, curing a sickness and still leave these marks of the sickness.  Maybe.  I suppose it's how miraculous you conceive the divine magic in your campaign.



  1. Some games base their healing on whether or not the character is a faithful member, or whether or not the god seeks some return investment. Perhaps a lesser version of only faithful getting full healing effects unless the unfaithful perform a quest or seek out a caster of their own faith.

  2. i'm definitely not a huge fan of something just leaving the character unable to do anything for a potentially long period of time

    it seems like your focusing more on natural diseases, but unnatural ones seem to have a lot more potential, not only could they have weird affects but maybe they are the work of a deity, so only clerics of that deity can heal the character or there is some other means that can only be achieved by a quest of some sort, but then i guess that's basically a curse, hmm...

    for natural diseases, if the characters are away from home but say, in a place where a particular disease is common, it could change their social status
    typically this would be lower, but maybe the disease produces a mark that's actually seen as noble or that the player is some sort of 'chosen'

    also, maybe cure disease isn't a catch all spell, there isn't one spell to cure every disease, knowing the spell just means you know how to cure pretty much every disease

    in that case you could have a disease no one knows how to cure still and people could be trying weird and drastic things like they did during the black plague doctors wore bird-like masks with 'filters' and they practiced blood letting and leeches

  3. Did you see this?

    You list much of what I'd use disease for - race for the cure/antidote, search for drugs that might stave off or suspend the disease for some time - plus the paranoia of spreading infection, compounded by incubation delays. These can prompt hard questions (roleplaying opportunities) about how/if you help the sick person: is it better for the whole ship to throw them into the sea? Is that worse for the people on shore? Not so much for the diseased PC, but their friends (and NPCs) can have memorable sessions figuring this out. I might allow dream-quests for the feverish PC: near-death insights. For fantasy diseases you might actually be able to "fight" them, and teach others how to win (yogic self-healing?). Or maybe the diseased player gets an insight that some otherwise deadly/dangerous thing can help cure them (yellow mold?), which gives the party a quest.

    There's also potentially confusion about what causes the disease. Since it's your fantasy game, the players can't be sure that plague is bacterial - it could be a curse or undead "infection" or anything. There may be other theories and responses that seem rational based on them (driving out demons, ritual purification/penance etc). NPCs (esp. in cities) might want to try those theories out.

    Your point that diseases can spread to easily exceed the capacity of clerics with cure disease is a good one: what will the players do to jump the queue? How will the gods react? Who gets saved first? Nobles, the faithful, persons of interest? How much does the setting know about epidemiology? If they get it, they'll send flying squads of clerics to the site of first outbreak to keep the spread contained (and quarantined). If they don't, then plague will blow right through their poorly-directed efforts. This is stuff the Red Cross/MSF deals with all the time: local beliefs and limited infrastructural capacity.

    Recent plague survivors.
    Boccaccio's Decameron is all about the Black Death and social consequences. May be interesting.

    (I put bodyswapping in the alchemist's baths just in case. It's a drastic measure, but becoming a mechanical jackal would render the PC immune to bacterial plagues. Though they could still be a carrier...)

  4. Thank you all for the great comments. So, one thing to keep in mind is that healing may be difficult. I'm liking the idea more and more of permanent stat damage.

    The other thing that seems important, what makes disease different than poison or a curse, is its contagiousness. Makes me want to think of all kinds of weird fantastic, but spreadable conditions.

    "There's also potentially confusion about what causes the disease."

    Acch, richard you are so right. I forgot, my players actually thought the plague the Templar had was a curse from god for his actions! So, again, except for the contagiousness disease to players is identical to a curse.

    And I hadn't seen that link, thanks.

  5. this is a long way off what you're actually noodling here, but if you're interested in the idea of contagion as a social phenomenon (and the idea is relevant to all kinds of racism and group identity and so on), then Mary Douglas' classic text Purity and Danger just might be for you. At least I think it's full of creative ideas for what those crazy pitchfork-wielding villagers might do next. Douglas' definition of "dirty," for instance, is "things out of their proper place."