Where Do They Get Their Plagues?
  • Where Do They Get Their Plagues?


    Today I am going to discuss a destroyer of kings and armies, slayer of nations, stealer of lives and maker of orphans and widows. Yes, we are talking about pestilence. Plagues and diseases have reshaped human history and there is much that we can adapt for worldbuilding purposes.




    The first thing to consider when using a plague is how treatable it is. A plague in a setting with commonplace healing magic may prove to be little more than a nuisance, but even a nuisance can cause disruption all across a setting.


    For example: it doesn’t matter if an illness is a nonfatal norovirus equivalent if it’s virulent enough to infect a small city. Having the militia, the court, the bakers and shoemakers and armorers all sick with the runs means that the routine of everyday life grinds to a halt. How better to take over a kingdom with little bloodshed?


    Acquiring the cure for an illness may also prove ruinous. One of Michael Stackpole’s excellent Star Wars EU novels has the Imperial remnant engineering a disease that would infect nonhumans so as to exhaust the Republic’s stocks of bacta - the Empire, itself, being made up mostly of humans, would not be similarly affected.


    Plagues have many consequences above and beyond the usual death and sickness, and here are several to consider. A minority could be blamed for the plague, and thus persecuted for it. The widespread deaths could topple royal houses and leave thrones vacant - what better to start a succession war around? In the longer term the death of a good segment of the population might lead to increased prosperity among the survivors, allowing more social mobility, or it might also stunt a population enough that land is left vacant and fallow for want of tenants.


    This increased prosperity could lead to sumptuary laws so that the newly prosperous peasants won’t get above their stations by dressing too much like the surviving nobility, which ties this back to my column on clothing. Plague can also spark social movements. Some people could believe that the plague is sent by the gods, and perform austerities and deeds of flagellation as atonement. Yet others could logically think, why be virtuous when we’re all going to die, and engage in parties of debauchery and dissipation.


    Another thing to consider is whether the plague has outward symptoms. The prevalence of smallpox before its eradication led to the use of false moles, sometimes cut out in fanciful shapes like hearts and stars to hide smallpox scars. The white-skinned, red-cheeked look of the chronic consumptive drove Romantic visual ideals.


    The vector of a plague is also important to plotting. A venereal disease spreading through a monastic order sworn to celibacy puts the lie to their vows, unless the disease could also be passed by other means of transmission. A disease spreading via tainted water could be stemmed by a new-fangled beverage made with leaves and boiled water.


    The civil response to a plague varies, and can be a good reason to goad PCs along a story. If the city they live in has been struck with a plague and quarantined while they are absent, how are they to get back home? Doughty adventurers could possibly help search for a cure… or venture into the catacombs beneath the city to evade quarantine.


    The sick could be exiled instead, and made to dress distinctively so uninfected people know to avoid them. Historically this led to the establishment of leprosariums and leper colonies, and if the illness itself is not fatal, merely disfiguring and permanent, then it might lead to permanent villages and outposts of the "unclean."


    An enterprising party of PCs may swathe themselves in the sackcloths of the afflicted, warning others to stay away by means of castanets or bells. This guise could allow them to infiltrate objectives, or escape the notice of militia or a manhunt. Conversely, cunning bandits could use this means to disguise their weapons and armor, only to discard their robes once they are within reach of juicy targets.


    And what are the survivors to do with the dead? Are they laid in mass graves, or perhaps cremated? Or is the army putting them in sealed cloth bags to use as ammunition against a besieged city?

    contributed by M.W. Simmes
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. DocMoriartty -
      Very interesting, a lot of this though is based on society. DnD often looks like the ancient or medieval world but it is not. Most DnD worlds have history as long or longer than our real history. The difference being magic vs technology. So it is not really fair to assume the average farmer or towns person in a DnD campaign acts and things like the superstitious fools of our medieval history. They could be as culturally as sophisticated as we are, just without the technology we have.

      In reality that makes sense as well. Most Kingdoms in DnD worlds are much more like modern governments than the primitive governments of Ancient Rome or Medieval England.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Quote Originally Posted by DocMoriartty View Post
      Very interesting, a lot of this though is based on society. DnD often looks like the ancient or medieval world but it is not. Most DnD worlds have history as long or longer than our real history. The difference being magic vs technology. So it is not really fair to assume the average farmer or towns person in a DnD campaign acts and things like the superstitious fools of our medieval history. They could be as culturally as sophisticated as we are, just without the technology we have.

      In reality that makes sense as well. Most Kingdoms in DnD worlds are much more like modern governments than the primitive governments of Ancient Rome or Medieval England.
      The article assumes you base disease on science. I don't. In my game world diseases are the results of disease spirits. The nastiest is a Plague Spirit. As for societies and governments, I do not connect them to modern systems; my kingdoms are feudal. In a system in which one man can wield the power of an army of regular soldiers feudalism makes sense. High level characters pretty much eliminate the superiority inherent in organized modern governments / society. Why send an army to kill the dragon when a lone (high level) knight can do it without getting hundreds of men fried and probably just ticking off a very dangerous beast?
    1. Inchoroi's Avatar
      Inchoroi -
      My next campaign is all about disease + zombie apocalypse, actually. The goddess of disease and death is attempting to remake the material plane over to match her prison, so things are going badly for, well, everyone.
    1. Lord Rasputin's Avatar
      Lord Rasputin -
      Funny, I have an article for Pyramid that's been near publication about diseases in GURPS. Based on research and play testing (my players now know that their Health scores are important), some advice and summary:

      * Don't give the PCs serious diseases unless they're asking for it (like dressing themselves in the clothes of the plague-dead). This isn't fun.
      * Any kind of prodding PCs along in a story isn't recommended, either, though that's because I hate GM-driven storylines. But if you don't want them dawdling in town, settlements will almost always have an influenza season in the winter and a diarrhea season in the summer. Don't want to catch them? Go into the dungeon.
      * The history of illness in D&D is older than D&D. See the end of Supplement II: Blackmoor; Arneson didn't write those tables on the fly.
      * Illness is a minor mishap in a D&D-ish game. In game effects, they exist to give a complication to things like staying in town, and to slow down wayfaring. Do you stop and rest and heal, or press on and fight the big boss earlier, when he's less mighty, but taking penalties from the case of meningitis you have?
      * Histoplasmosis. I swear that it's a crime that this hasn't been in fantasy RPGs earlier. Look it up.
    1. ilsundal's Avatar
      ilsundal -
      Quote Originally Posted by DocMoriartty View Post
      Most DnD worlds have history as long or longer than our real history.


      No.
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