Plague. Even the word sounds infectious. Historically, plagues shaped cultures, created second-class citizens and leveled entire civilizations. Today’s plot hook is the old-fashioned plague, plucked from the history books. There will be no discussion of curses, magical diseases or other claptrap. I speak of the classic plagues, Cholera, Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Lord of Pestilence itself, the Black Plague. Magical plagues are tedious. They are too easy to eradicate with the magic elixir/kill the evil wizard/rejoin the Macguffin.
As for gaming, a decent plague offers oceans of useful role-playing and combat opportunities. Players and PCs are very good at identifying threats and eliminating them, usually with a sword. Now they face an enemy that has no fear, no agenda and no body to cleave. Here is one quick series of scenarios I threw together based on some history and a little bit of my twisted mind.
Initially, the PC’s lord tasks them with investigating a plague outbreak in a distant village. Arriving days later, the PCs come upon a village under seige. Uninfected villagers hunt the infected and the infected try to hide. Make certain the plague has an obvious physical trait, like boils or yellow skin. Now the PCs face the dilemma of trying to save the sick, both from the disease and their hostile neighbors. Perhaps the PCs might decide to kill the infected, to protect the village. Whatever they decide, the threat abates and life goes on…until the next outbreak.
The PCs slay a few dragons and orcs, perhaps hearing rumors of a sickness, but it is distant and does not impact them directly until…
A large border city discovers plague victims in its midst. It is a trading community, so there is a terrible threat to the nation! To really make things terrible, a neighboring state blames the PCs nation for the plague, claiming it is an “attack.” Armies gather and the plague spreads further. Thousands die and bodies pile in the streets. Assuming it is as lethal as the Black Plague , death rates can reach 30% or higher. Imagine a large city with 50-75% of the population sick and perhaps half of them will die. Basic services break down. There is no medical care. Even the healing PC classes cannot keep up. Fear takes over the populous.
Religious fanatics blame an angry deity and demand grim sacrifices to their god. Scapegoating some ethnic group becomes popular. Mob lynchings and using “purifying fire” on the blameless minority is the order of the day. Society begins to fall apart. Talk of revolution is in the wind.
If you are a DM that cannot get some quality role-playing moments from your players in this situation, turn in your dice. Rending moral decisions, mass suffering and political chaos make great gaming fodder.
Depending on your players knowledge, they might even try to stem the tide. Common sense approaches such as quarantines and sanitation can save lives. Truly motivated characters might invoke the name of Dr. John Snow and seek the “miasma’s” source. What if the source is a “Typhoid Mary ,” immune to the disease, but contagious? Can the PCs bring themselves to kill the carrier to save the nation?
So, please consider using a plague in your game. Bad for peasants, but great for gaming drama.;-)
One last item, in “World of Warcraft” there was an accidental plague called “Corrupted Blood. ” Start with the Wikipedia entry, but read some of the other sites that mention it as well. It is a fascinating look into human plague behavior. It was such a good simulation, even the “Centers for Disease Control” is working with it to model real plagues! A role-playing simulation that actually has some real world benefits gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.