Friday, February 22, 2013

Discussion: Disease As A Plot Item

Surprisingly, having just been the sickest I've been in years, disease is something on my head. Today I figured I'd bring up for discussion how you feel about disease as a plot item. As far as lore goes it's got a lot of backing. There are myths and legends full of some king wasting away from X, Y, or Z terrible disease (often to the plight of the general landscape as well) and needing some hero, or heroes, to bring the cure and restore him to life.

However, there are other ways to use diseases as well. The Black Plague was a notable "plot item" not so much because of who it infected but how many and how lethal it could be. Also in the way it shaped people's reactions not just to outsiders but to each other. Unsurprisingly there is more than a bit of lore detailing the plague as the handiwork of witches who made pacts with demons in order to punish those they saw as being against them.

Still, even with all this lore the idea of disease as a plot item has some issues to it that has made GMs shy away from it. For example, do you need rules for your players to contract the disease? Should that even be a chance or is it something you don't want to even deal with? The mechanical paperwork that can be involved when the fighter should be unable to get out of bed for 2 weeks can be extensive. It can also come across as unfair when you have to stack all those penalties onto the player. Quite simply put: being sick is not very heroic.

So, where do you stand on it in your games? Do you like it? Loathe it? Do you make it possible for your PCs to catch the bug? Sound off in the comments.


  1. I play a streetdoc in one of my Shadowrun games, so disease comes into play fairly often. We had a storyline with the Krieger virus that turns people into ghouls (and koalas into dropbears...seriously). Since the virus is easily transmitted, the patients had to be isolated - not that easy when you live in shipping containers on a waste dump. Also, the whole thing had to be kept secret to prevent a panic...also not easy when you live in a small community. The disease was the trigger for a lot of social interaction and hard decisions. And yes, my character could have caught the disease himself.

  2. Catching a disease from stumbling around in the sewers has come up in my own campaign, but so far there haven't been any diseases that have incapacitated the players. Well, apart from lycanthrophy if you count that. In the campaign I play in however, there has been a disease created by a big bad. It didn't affect the players either, but it did affect some NPC's close to them. Those who got it became feverish after a few days, hitting dangerously high temperatures in a few hours, and if they didn't get Healing soon, they died. If they did get healed, and the disease wasn't caught soon enough, the disease still blinded them permanently. There is something that caused only certain people to be affected, but we haven't found out what it is yet. :)

  3. Shadowrun seems like the kind of game where I'd expect the answer to be "of course you can get infected too!" Still, sounds like a fun plot. Has your doc getting sick caused problems for the team at any particular times?

    Pixie, oddly enough Lycanthropy was something I meant to mention but didn't as gets confusing sometimes. The plot sounds fun, and permanent wounds to NPCs people care about is a great way of motivating players (provided the players are good enough to care about NPCs.)

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  5. We don't play as the traditional Shadowrunner team and each of us has at least two character in the game. The whole thing takes place in a squatter community, the Rat's Nest, where a gang provides security for a fairly big group of people who dig through the trash of the dump to find valuable stuff.

    So far my doc has avoided any infection from his patients, although he and a couple of other people got "infected" by a Matrix virus and that really threw a spanner into the works of the community. They are also dealing with (for now) a couple of tuberculosis cases and he really needs to come up with a plan to avoid an epidemic. And about the first thing my doc did when he came to the Nest was to organise vaccinations...

    Sometimes this campaign feels a bit more like a social experiment than a normal RPG, but I love it. We're trying to make this as realistic as possible, to come up with solutions for the problems a community like this would face (like: how a street clinic that does a lot of pro bono work or at least tries to be affordable for everyone in the community would finance itself).

    We're on Obsidian portal, if you want to take a closer look at the whole setting.