Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ever Used Disease In Your Game?

I've used a disease in my game exactly once. Some kind of plague carried by space rats. This was d20 Modern, and I'm pretty sure the PCs made all their Fort rolls, so it never came up. It was never intended to be a continuing scenario in itself, anyway. Just a hazard of the encounter.

Mostly this is because up until a year or two ago I only ran d20 games regularly, and d20's disease system isn't particularly inspiring. Add in cure disease, and, well, there didn't seem to be all that much point to the adventure. (I'd love, by the way, to be proven wrong about this. Anyone got some awesome 3e/3.5/d20 system disease stories?)

As an aside, this is one thing that I really like about 4e. The disease track is just a whole lot more compelling. More tension, and more opportunity for interesting effects.

Still. You'd think that at some point I'd have jumped on another way to make my players' characters' lives miserable. Or that some enterprising DM would do the same to me. Hasn't happened yet. I've never even had a game where something like this happened to an NPC. I can understand that there might be logistical issues getting in the way of giving PCs certain diseases (some kinds of games would handle it really well, I think, but a really pulp/action/adventure game might seize up a bit) but there are plenty of things I've avoided doing to PCs for the hassle of it (I tend not to have villains capture just part of the party, for one) that I'll happily inflict on an NPC they like.

Boy, do I ever love abusing NPCs. There's all kinds of things you can do to them that would be a huge headache for the PCs, but are pretty much excellent with them. I try not to abuse them as a plot hook too much, but there's a certain kind of player who will get really attached to NPCs and then get really excited when they get a chance to save them from some hideous fate. And I always like to make my players happy.

Anyway, what makes this really weird is that I tend to love weird afflictions of various kinds in other media. Illness and injury come up with a decent amount of frequency in the fiction I write. In a way, even things like werewolves and the Hulk are just really dramatic examples of "disease," and that kind of dramatic, supernatural affliction is category I really dig. But even that has never really come up in one of my games.

The way I'm putting together the setting I'm working on right now, there's a good chance that this'll come up in a big way in the next game I run, so that should be interesting. But considering the issue has gotten me curious. Any of you folks ever used disease in a game? Was it a one-off thing, or is it part of your regular threat routine? How'd you handle it mechanically? Did it work out well, or are you never touching it again?


  1. I don't think I've ever had a character contract a disease, but the fear of disease has been a factor in a few games. If I describe a pool as fetid, the players don't touch it. If there's a body swarming with flies, the players don't search it for treasure. Once I introduced an NPC with a palid complexion and a bad cough and the players quickly left the area. Even in our our current game the players seem convinced that socializing with the locals in the Saloon is to be avoided... until sufficient magical remedies are acquired. :)

  2. I've had some PCs contact ghoul fever, but after I rolled out the dice, we swept it under the rug of "Time Passes".

    On one hand, I've felt for a while that 3/3.5 diseases and poisons are weak and no real threat to a PC. On the other, suffering a disease is not very heroic, let alone being killed by one. As a DM, I'd like to see poison put some fear into the PCs.

    Paizo's Pathfinder (aka, 3.75) seems to put some more teeth into poisons and diseases, actually allowing for the possibility of poison brining down more than a 1st level Commoner. I still need to read on them some more and put the new rules into effect to get a feel about how they really work in play.

  3. I've done very little with diseases lately, mostly because of the ubiquity of clerics with cure disease in most settings.

    Well, mundane diseases, anyway. Lycanthropy has been a big deal in most of my campaigns. And parasitic infestation. You know, the sort that sometimes afflicts, oh, I dunno, heroes who have recently tangled with slaadi? ;)

  4. Hmm...let's see...

    D&D - Curse/Disease/Plague, Lycanthropy, Parasites-that-turn you-into-an-undead-creature

    Ars Magica - Good old fashioned real world historical illnesses.

    Star Trek - Rigellian Blood Fever, the Naked Time disease, you name it.

    Superheroes - Illness themed villain hit the heroes a few times.

    I'm sure there are more. Perhaps dozens.

    While I will agree with PatrickW that suffering from a disease is not heroic, recovering from one, beating the odds of surviving one and of course curing one, definitely is.

  5. And parasitic infestation. You know, the sort that sometimes afflicts, oh, I dunno, heroes who have recently tangled with slaadi? ;)

    Ah! I knew I'd missed something.

  6. It's a semi-big deal in my post-apoc (homebrew setting) 4e campaign. There's a couple times I can think of off the top of my head that it made a difference in combat.

    One of my players didn't do so hot on a knowledge roll on filth fever, and thought it made you go mad at the end. After a couple lousy fort rolls and the resulting panic, the players because extra-cautious about avoiding encounters with wererats. In a different encounter, there were shallow pools of stagnant water on the ground and I ruled that anyone who got KOed while standing in a pool had a chance of getting infected, increasing with every round they were down. The PCs did their best to avoid standing in the pools.

  7. I DM'ed for a group in which a player that was infected with ghoul fever some fifty miles from the nearest temple, and spent most of the trip back from the dungeon paralyzed. Statistically, he should have been fine but he rolled poorly over and over. It also scared the party, because he had survivial ranks and was relied upon to provide food and navigate (which he couldn't well do with STR 0). It did bother me how most diseases are not life threatening.

  8. Hi there,

    I regularly use diseases in my 4e games. Since my players want a grittier feel we tend to use disease templates for injuries once you get a crit and fail a saving throw. Keith Baker came up with the idea:


  9. Used it in both Traveller and 2300AD. Worked fine. It can be more fun if it gives the PCs some permanent effects.

  10. Diseases are extremely old-school, and and excellent way of tormenting low-level characters without killing them. Take giant rat bites - there's nothing quite like watching a player's face as you describe in detail the symptoms their character is suffering from (one considered having his swollen leg amputated before the fever ran its course).

    To say nothing of the number of times I've seen, as player or DM, adventuring parties trek through sewers to get to the dungeon!

    wv: sornaupi - something hideous you really don't want to contract

  11. Twice I've used disease. Once in Exalted I had my characters contract cholera. because they were demigods it didn't slow them down too much, but the players decided to use it as a biological weapon - snuck into a slaver camp and pooped in their well, damn near killed all of them.

    The other time in Riddle of Steel I gave someone some horrible disease that was supposed to be extinct bu there were still spores in a corpse from that time period. It worked out nicely because that character was an untouchable badass, so at least he was in real danger once.

  12. To say nothing of the number of times I've seen, as player or DM, adventuring parties trek through sewers to get to the dungeon!

    Wow - that totally reminded me of a game I played in the early 90s.

    It was a published adventure (early Dungeon or Dragon magazine) which featured a disease type cult (think Nurgle from Warhammer) in a sewer / dungeon. The entire thing was filth, disease, green slime, rot grubs, etc. All the characters contracted nasty diseases with ongoing debilitating effects.

    My character was a Paladin... which was a *really* good choice for that adventure. :)

  13. Great thoughts, everyone. :) I've got a much better idea of how to use disease to best effect now. (Potentially permanent effects + exposure to disease ridden muck needed to achieve in-game goals = excellent player freak-outs.)

    In general it sounds like the real key here isn't in the system but in the DM. Good description goes a long way.

  14. I've played WFRP, so yeah, disease was a big factor. ;) Not easily cured, the various Poxes and Rots you can get in that game are almost badges of pride. Ditto the mental "diseases" of Call of Cthulhu. Speaking of which, I've always wanted to use the Innsmouth taint in a game, but have never figured out how to do it without essentially passing a death sentence on the player-character in question.

  15. Dammit! kelvingreen beat me to the "Duh! I play WFRP." gag. :(

    Quick answer: only when we're playing low fantasy/gritty settings. Tetanus and plague have their place, but among the shining spires of Eddingslund or Gernsbackia (generally) isn't it.

  16. "the real key here isn't in the system but in the DM. Good description goes a long way."

    By Jove, she's got it!