USR Wednesdays: Disease

I didn’t post last week because I was really sick, and I’m just now recovering, a week and a half later. Last Wednesday evening I watched the hours slip away, knowing I wouldn’t get in front of the computer that night. But it did inspire this week’s post.

Disease is something that’s not often used in role playing games; in traditional fantasy RPGs it’s no challenge at all, easily overcome with a spell. In contemporary or modern settings, technology like medicine or super-healing machines eliminates disease quickly (not quickly enough for me, unfortunately). No matter what the setting, having a character slowed to a crawl by an illness usually means you can’t tell a fun story… unless you describe it the right way.

Disease As A Weapon

The simplest way to represent disease is as a weapon — think of post-apocalyptic mutants carrying plagues, or evil druids spreading contagion. If an actual weapon, like a tainted sword or corrupt spell, is used to deliver the disease, the attack delivers its normal damage. If that attack is a hit, the effects of the disease also take place, usually a penalty of -1 or -2 to stat rolls: Action (physical illness), Wits (affected mental performance), or Ego (impaired social interaction). The penalty lasts as long as it makes sense in the story.

Bonuses to defend against disease.
The eternally cool and creepy plague doctor. (image: public domain)

Lingering Disease

To represent long-term disease, something that has an impact on a character without interfering with adventuring, try stepping down Hit Points. After the character first contracts the disease, make an Action roll against the Target Number of the disease (usually 7) to fight off its effects. A Specialism like “Very Healthy” or “Antibiotics” could help on the roll. On a failure, the character loses 5 total Hit Points and 5 current Hit Points. If the character’s total Hit Points fall to 0 (zero), he or she is dead. On a successful roll, the disease gets better, and the character regains 5 total Hit Points — but not current Hit Points; he or she still needs recovery time. When the character is back to his or her actual total Hit Points, the disease is completely cured, and no more rolls are needed.

Repeat this disease/healing check as often the game master decides is appropriate; once every two or three days of game time is realistic (that’s how often I felt incrementally better this past week). Extremely intense moments, like combat with “boss” monsters, may call for disease checks too, as the character suffers major strain.

Disease As Adventure

A disease can also be the trigger for the adventure: find the magical fountain of healing, or the special medicinal ingredient located deep in the wilderness. Alternately, the disease could be the villain, where the heroes have to retrieve a vial of lethal plague that was stolen from a medical research lab before it’s released in public, or unrest grows in a war-torn country as doctors struggle around-the-clock to come up with a cure for a deadly disease — can the heroes buy them enough time to do their work?

How will you use disease in your USR adventures?

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