Easy Peasy Wracked with Diseasy

Illustration by Jon Kaufman

For the second edition of Blood & Treasure, I had a few goals in mind: 1) Better layout. 2) Incorporate errata and edit like crazy. 3) A little more gonzo, a little less standardized. 4) Streamline anything you can streamline.

That brings me to disease. The rules I used before were relatively easy, but I wasn’t really satisfied with them. I hit on this point in a post a while back, and developed a disease system that I published in NOD 28 that focuses on symptoms rather than on named diseases. For Blood & Treasure, I decided to use a simplified version of this. While somewhat random, it takes into account the monster or dungeon level delivering the disease, and hopefully sets up a race against time aspect that will add to rather than diminish the drama of an adventure.


When a character is injured by a contaminated attack, touches an item smeared with diseased matter or consumes disease-tainted food or drink, he must make an immediate Fortitude save. If he succeeds, his immune system fights off the disease and he suffers no ill effect.

If he fails the saving throw, the TK rolls 1d6 and adds the Hit Dice of the monster that infected him, or the level of the dungeon on which he was infected. Consult the table below. The infected creature will suffer all of the effects on the table up to the number rolled. The effects start at the times indicated on the table.

For example, a character who is both fatigued and sickened with feel the effects of fatigue in one round, and the effects of being sickened in 1 turn.

If an ability score is indicated, roll 1d10 to determine which score is affected:

Each day, the creature can attempt a new Fortitude save against the disease. If the roll is a failure, he continues suffering the ill effects as indicated on the table. If he succeeds, those ill effects are reduced by one level. When the character suffers no further ill effects, the disease has run its course.

While the character is diseased, they do not benefit from natural healing, although magical healing works on them. A cure disease spell will, of course, completely eradicate the disease, ending all ill effects.

Of course, once “cure disease” shows up, it just doesn’t matter, which is why the system is short.


This brings up the other part of the game I might streamline. I say might, because I haven’t made the change yet.

Saving throws in the game currently use three categories – Fortitude, Reflex and Will. As categories, they make sense and players can generally figure out what save they should be making when a situation comes up.

A post over at Delta’s D&D Hotspot got me thinking of another way that is more “gamist”, but which I think might be an improvement.

Delta was showing how the OD&D fighter’s saving throws went in an order from easiest to hardest, with the easiest saves being the one’s against the most dire circumstances. I like this idea. Why should it be easiest to save vs. petrification? Because failing that save means your character is dead, unless you have a high enough level magic-user who can turn you back. It treats saving throws more as “get out of jail free” cards than as simulating something real. I know this will bug the heck out of some folks, but I like it. It keeps the game a game.

This got me thinking about using a single saving throw number for each level – so only one number on the sheet, which fits into streamlining – with a blanket +3 bonus against instant effects that are (almost) unalterable – things that really screw up your precious character like instant death, polymorph, paralysis, petrification and the like. The classes would then have their own little +1 to save vs. something – fighters vs. dragon breath, spellcasters vs. spells – that sort of thing.

If I’m honest … it also saves lots of room in the books and makes monsters a bit easier to run.

Again, I haven’t made this change yet, but I think I’m going to.

I’m like 90% certain I’m going to.


I think.

Dragging It Out for Drama

I was thinking about disease in 3rd edition D&D, and how it involves losing a few ability score points each day until you either roll two successful saves in a row and recover, receive magical healing, or die.

A mechanic like this could be useful for other effects as well – a dramatic countdown to destruction that forces the character and his or her allies to “find a cure” before time runs out.

Think about undead attacks, for example. Level loss is a great mechanic (I know, some people hate it) because it makes the undead frightening to the player as well as to his or her character. Imagine using almost irreversible constitution loss instead. The idea would be to allow maybe one initial saving throw against the effect. If it fails, the character’s life begins to ebb away. Maybe it would be one point per day, maybe one per hour. Slowly, though, the transformation is taking place. Maybe after two or three lost Con points, it becomes noticeable. When half the Con is gone, the character’s skin looks pale or grey, and their personality begins to change. Clearly, something must be done – a cure must be found! At what point do the other players give up on stopping the transformation and instead make plans to destroy their pal or imprison them somewhere?

Disease can work the same way, especially if there’s an exotic or magical cure for it. Obviously, if there are cure disease spells floating around, there’s little point in doing this, so it probably needs to be something like mummy rot that is not so easy to get rid off.

You could also use this to slowly model a person losing their mind, shifting in alignment, etc. Just pick the most appropriate stat, and let the effects show up slowly – first there will be suspicions (“Grak seems a little more irritable than usual”), then grave concerns (“I tell you, something is terribly wrong with Grak”) and then confirmation (“All the signs are there – Grak is being possessed by a demon!), and then the race is on to cure Grak before he goes full demon.

Key to a thing like this, of course, is the cure. It should be something within reach of the characters, but not easily reached. If you know the victim has ten days left to live, make sure the cure is about seven to eight days away – they can get there, and they have a little leeway, but it will be tough going, and the closer they get, the weaker (or weirder, or more evil) their pal gets, making the final push particularly hard.

Of course, dramatic stuff like this loses its potency (and becomes downright annoying) when it is overused. If the party has to stop what they’re doing and go on a side quest every five minutes because somebody was bitten by a giant rat, they’re not going to be happy. You probably don’t want to do something like this often, and probably don’t want to use the same exact situation more than once. Keep it special and unique – magical or exotic diseases, not every sniffle – keep the spawning undead and lycanthropes rare in the campaign, etc.

Just a random notion – could be useful as a way to make even a dungeon crawl game about more than just XP collection. Monsters and treasures come and go – it’s the dramatic stuff like this that will forge fond memories of a campaign.

Getting Down With the Sickness

I don’t think I’ve ever been 100% satisfied with diseases in role playing games, not even with the rules in Blood & Treasure. This post is an attempt to create a system a bit more granular than most. In this system, diseases are not named, but rather are collections of random symptoms, with the number of symptoms and their severity based on the general severity of the disease.


When struck with a disease, say from the bite of a rat, a prolonged stay in sewers (or a flophouse) or a biological trap, an adventurer must pass a Fortitude saving throw to avoid suffering any ill effects at all. This might represent a case where the contagion is simply not introduced to the character’s system, or it is introduced and the character’s immune system neutralizes it very quickly.

If this Fortitude save fails, the character is infected. First, we need to know the severity of the disease. The Treasure Keeper can either roll dice to determine severity, or base it on the hit dice of the monster that spread it or the level of the dungeon on which it was acquired.

01-75 (0-4 HD): Minor Disease (1d3 minor symptoms)
76-90 (5-9 HD): Medium Disease (1d4 minor symptoms, 1d2-1 major symptoms)
91-100 (10+ HD): Major Disease (1d4 minor symptoms, 1d3 major symptoms)

Symptoms begin appearing within 1d4 days.

The Treasure Keeper should now roll 1d4 minus the sufferer’s Constitution bonus. This is the number of days before the sufferer’s immune system has a chance of defeating the disease. It is possible that the disease can be fought off before any symptoms begin to appear.

Each day, a victim of disease can roll a Fortitude saving throw to attempt to throw off one symptom, usually the most severe, but in any event a symptom of the player’s choice. If the player is successful, that symptom is removed.

If the diseased character is active (i.e. not getting plenty of rest), they suffer a -2 penalty on this save.

All characters that spend time around the diseased character have a percentage chance each day to be exposed to disease. This percentage chance is based on the number of type of symptoms, with a 10% chance per minor symptom and a 5% chance per major symptom. Naturally, the non-diseased character is permitted a Fortitude save to avoid actually contracting the disease.

Note: If you want to give a more supernatural feel to diseases, you can rule that any adventurer who dies from a disease and is not burned or buried in consecrated ground rises as an undead with Hit Dice roughly equal to the number of levels they had in life.


3. Exhaustion4. Fever, severe
5. Rash, major
6. Dementia
7. Rash, minor
8. Aches
9. Cough
10. Diarrhea
11. Fatigue
12. Fever, low-grade
13. Sickened
14. Stuffy head/runny nose/sneeze
15. Swollen joints, minor
16. Shooting pains
17. Spasms
18. Swollen joints, major

The character is possessed of aches in the muscles and joints and suffers a -1 penalty to attacks, Armor Class and Reflex saving throws (including task checks).

Roll 1d4 for severity; this is the chance on 1d6 per hour that your coughing attracts a wandering monster. After any major exertion (running, fighting, climbing more than 10 feet) you are fatigued until resting 10 minutes.

The character is unsteady on his feet. When moving at more than half speed or fighting, he must pass a Reflex save each round to avoid falling prone for 1d4 points of damage. Whenever he is forced to concentrate on spell casting, he must pass a Will save to successfully cast the spell. The character suffers a -1 penalty on all Reflex and Will saves (including task checks).

Not for the faint of heart. You suffer intestinal distress every 1d6 x 10 minutes and need to find a private place to deal with the problem. If you are not drinking a double ration of water, you suffer 1 point of Constitution damage per day due to dehydration.

An exhausted character moves at one-quarter normal speed, suffers a -1 penalty to saving throws and task checks and her foes enjoy two tactical advantages against her in combat.

Per the normal rules for this condition in Blood & Treasure.

Fever, Low-grade
The character has a low-grade fever and suffers a -1 penalty to Will saving throws (including task checks). He also requires twice the normal daily ration of water. Failure to hydrate properly results in 1 point of Constitution damage each day.

Fever, Severe
The character has a severe fever and suffers a -3 penalty to Will saving throws (including task checks). He requires twice the normal daily ration of water. Failure to hydrate properly results in 1 point of Constitution damage each day. Finally, the fever causes hallucinations. Each hour, the character must pass a Will save or be struck with the equivalent of the confusion spell for 1d6 x 10 minutes.

Rash, Minor
The character suffers from a minor rash over a small portion of her body and suffers a -1 penalty to attacks, Armor Class and Reflex saving throws (including task checks) due to the discomfort. Each day, the character must pass a Fortitude save to avoid scratching and turning the minor rash into a major rash.

Rash, Major
The character suffers from a major rash over a large portion of her body and suffers a -2 penalty to attacks, Armor Class, Reflex saving throws (including task checks) due to the discomfort and a -2 penalty to Charisma-related task checks due to the physical marring. Each day, the character must pass a Fortitude save to avoid scratching and suffering 1 point of Charisma drain for permanent scarring.

Shooting Pains
The character suffers fierce, shooting pains. She suffers a -2 penalty to attacks, Armor Class and Reflex saving throws (including task checks). Whenever she is forced to concentrate on spell casting, she must pass a Will save to successfully cast the spell. The character suffers a -1 penalty on all Reflex and Will saves (including task checks).

Per the normal rules for this condition in Blood & Treasure.

The character suffers random severe muscle spasms. This translates as a tactical advantage for his foes in combat, a -1 penalty to Reflex saving throws (including task checks) and a requirement to pass a Reflex save each time he is walking on a precarious surface to avoid falling.

Stuffy Head/Runny Nose/Sneeze
You suffer a 1 in 6 chance per hour that your sniffling and nose blowing attracts a wandering monster. Any exposure to copious amounts of dust, pollen, molds and the like force you to pass a Fortitude saving throw or begin a sneezing fit that last 1d4 minutes, delaying the party and attracting a wandering monster on a roll of 1-2 on 1d6.

Swollen Joints, Minor
Minor swelling in the joints reduces movement by 5, grants the sufferer’s foes a tactical advantage in combat and imposes a -1 penalty to Reflex saves (including task checks).

Swollen Joints, Major
Major swelling in the joints reduces movement by 10, grants the sufferer’s foes a tactical advantage in combat and imposes a -3 penalty to Reflex saves (including task checks).


1. Blood poisoning
2. Coma
3. Immune system attacked
4. Internal bleeding
5. Muscle damage
6. Nerve damage

Blood Poisoning
The disease is attacking the character’s blood. Each day the character must pass a Fortitude saving throw or suffer 1d6 points of Constitution damage. At 0 Constitution, the character dies.

The character falls into a deep, comatose slumber. While in a coma, she heals ability score damage at twice the normal rate and enjoys a +1 bonus to save vs. the other symptoms of her disease. After three days, the comatose character can begin making daily Will saving throws to come out of the coma. If three of these Will saves are failed, the coma becomes a permanent condition and can only be removed with a restoration, miracle or wish spell.

Immune System Attacked
The disease attacks the characters immune system, imposing a -2 penalty to all saves vs. disease (including saves against symptoms of disease).

Internal Bleeding
The character is bleeding internally, suffering 1d6 points of hit point damage and 1d6 points of Constitution damage each day that a Fortitude saving throw is failed. At 0 Constitution, the character dies.

Muscle Damage
Each day the character must pass a Fortitude saving throw or suffer 1d6 points of Strength damage. If the character reaches 0 points of Strength, she is paralyzed and dies in 1d6 hours.

Nerve Damage
Each day the character must pass a Fortitude saving throw or suffer 1d6 points of Dexterity damage. If the character is reduced to 0 Dexterity, he is paralyzed and dies in 1d6 hours.


This disease system suggests a few new spells:

Level: Cleric 1, Druid 1, Ranger 1
Range: Touch
Duration: 24 hours

This spell suppresses a single symptom of a disease for 24 hours.

Level: Cleric 2, Druid 2, Ranger 2
Range: Touch
Duration: Instantaneous

This spell completely removes one symptom from a diseased character.

Level: Cleric 2, Druid 2
Range: Close
Duration: 24 hours

This spell makes all diseases within close range more virulent for 24 hours. All who suffer from these diseases suffer a -1 penalty on all saving throws against the disease, and the chance of exposure to the disease for others is doubled.

Dragon by Dragon – April 1979 (24)

April of 1979 – those heady days of stuff that was happening and things and stuff. Okay, I’m too lazy at the moment to look up what was happening back then, but hey – who cares, right? We know the Dragon was happening, so let’s focus on that.

What did the Dragon have to offer in 1979? More importantly, can we use any of this stuff now?

Lost Civilizations (A Fantasy Supplement for Source of the Nile) by J. Eric Holmes

When you see Dr. Holmes as the author, you know you’ve got some quality material in your hands. Hell, I’ve never even played Source of the Nile and I know this article has to have something useful in it. The article is all about adding some fantasy to the more realistic game of African exploration, specifically of the sort you might get in an H. Rider Haggard or E. R. Burroughs novel.

First up, I love the list of explorer types used in Source of the Nile: Missionaries, Doctors, Zoologists, Geologists and Adventurers. If you were doing an RPG of Victorian exploration, you have your class list right there.

His idea is that when you enter a completely uninhabited hex, there is a chance of it containing a lost city (a roll of 2-3 on 2d6). If in a desert, the city is uninhabited. Otherwise, it is inhabited by survivors of lost Atlantis. The people use bronze weapons and wear ornaments of gold and gemstones, and then you roll dice to determine the city’s organization. Roll 1d6; on a 1-3 the city is ruled by a warrior-king with 1d6 x 1d6 x 1d6 + 10 warriors; if the roll is 4-6 it is ruled by an evil high priest and a white goddess who command 1d6 x 1d6 x 1d6 + 5 warriors. I include this bit because it could be adapted to almost any hex exploration style fantasy game.

When exploring an uninhabited desert city for treasure, you roll 1d6: 1-2 he discovers that the ancient gods still live, his expedition is destroyed and he escapes completely mad; 3-4 traps kill half his askaris and bearers, but he escapes with a bag of diamonds and rubies worth $500 and the secret passages are closed off forever; 5-6 he loots the city for $1000 worth of gems and $200 worth of gold.

This brings to mind something I once did for a game. I was starting with characters above 1st level, and they were from various places in my campaign world (Nod – you might have heard of it). For each character, I came up with one past adventure for each level, each adventure leading them from where they were born to where the adventure was to start. In this way, I gave each player a bit of knowledge about the campaign world and some cool tidbits about their characters. Something to consider.

Keeping the Magic-User In His Place by Ronald Pehr

A classic of old Dragon (hell, a classic of modern articles as well, in as much as it addresses the idea of “balance” between characters). Ronald includes a few ideas of controlling these damn wizards so they don’t mess up the game. Interesting, because it introduces the idea of forced fairness to the game – i.e. I want the game to go one way, but the rules aren’t allowing that to happen. Think of the article previous – the explorer explores a lost city and you roll a dice and that determines what happens – amazing wealth or complete insanity. That’s it. Why? It’s a game, and those are the rules, and playing the game is more important than winning. Or, to state it another way, winning or losing should be a product of the game experience, not a preconceived idea that the game play must support. Why not have wizards who “ruin” the game with fireballs and charm spells? Let everybody have their time to shine, and play it smart. A fireball is a tricky thing, and over reliance on them might be a wizard’s undoing.

Chinese Dragons by David Sweet

One day, these fine monsters will appear in the Fiend Folio, and they were always pretty cool. In fact, it might be fun to do something similar with occidental dragons, replacing the red-blue-green-etc. dragons with ones based on the famous dragons of European myth.

Another Look at LYCANTHROPY by Jon Mattson

This article throws in the idea of different types of lycanthropes that a bitten character might turn into. They are as follows (in summary):

A. Turns completely into the lycanthrope that bit him; i.e. new alignment, etc.
B. Remains in human form, but takes on the mentality of the lycanthrope.
C. Character takes lycanthrope form, but retains his own mentality.
D. As A, but only changes under a full moon or great stress.
E. As B, but only changes under a full moon or great stress.
F. As C, but only … well, you know.
G. Under full moon or great stress, changes into a hybrid of beast and man.

Under option G, he actually writes, “This may sound something like the “Incredible Hulk,” but that is the general idea.” Love it.

There is also a percentage chance for figuring out the character’s new alignment. The new lycanthrope has half the character’s spells and abilities while in lycanthrope form and some modifiers to his ability scores.

Another great quote:

Note: To many people it may seem strange that a wolfs constitution would be better than that of say a bear, but remember that wolves often survive through incredible hardships such as hunger and cold, and I’ve yet to see a bear do as well.

What the?

Ultimately, this is a pretty cool article as it allows the chance that a PC can remain a PC and an interesting party member even after succumbing to lycanthropy.

Roman Military Organization, A Classic Warfare Update by Gary Gygax

An interesting article on the organization of the Roman army.

A Viking Campaign in the Caspian Sea by James E. Brunner

This is a nice history of an actual (well, I assume actual) Viking foray into the Caspian Sea for plunder. A sample:

“In the tenth century the Caspian Sea lay like a great pearl in an ocean of endless steppes and towering mountains. The prows that cut its placid waters belonged to poor fishermen and merchants from every land. Unlike the Black Sea that lay to the west, no northern pirate fleets had ravaged its shores and carried off its great wealth. To the north and the east lay the powerful Khazar Khanate whose capital, Itil, on the Volga Delta, controlled the major trade route to the north. Any merchant or pirate that sought wealth in the Muslim lands to the south had first to deal with the Khazar Khan, whose greed was legendary.”

Primarily interesting to me as it reminds me of Howard’s Vilayet Sea and the adventures had in and around it. When you find fantasy that interests you, take the time to find the reality that underlies it. You might find it even more inspirational.

The article also includes rules for fighting the Battle of Barda’a using Classic Warfare.

The Melee in D&D by Gary Gygax

Here, Mr. Gygax offers up some thoughts on how melee combat is supposed to work in D&D, specifically it seems to answer the complaints of folks who would like more realism in the system. A few important points:

– The game is mostly about creating fantasy personas and their adventures, and that means more than just fighting

– Hack and slash shouldn’t be the first resort of characters

– The system isn’t too unrealistic – it’s built to ensure relative speed of resolution without bogging the ref down in paperwork or creating a high probability of character death

Here’s a bit I found interesting:

“Don Turnbull stated that he envisioned that three sorts of attacks were continually taking place during melee:

1) attacks which had no chance of hitting, including feints, parries, and the like;

2) attacks which had a chance of doing damage but which missed as indicated by the die roll; and

3) attacks which were telling as indicated by the dice roll and subsequent damage determination.

This is a correct summation of what the D&D melee procedure subsumes. Note that the skill factor of higher level of higher level fighters — as well as natural abilities and/or speed of some monsters — allows more than one opportunity per melee round of scoring a telling attack as they are more able to take advantage of openings left by adversaries during the course of sparring. Similarly, zero level men, and monsters under one full hit die, are considered as being less able to defend; thus, opponents of two of more levels of hit dice are able to get in one telling blow for each such level or hit die.”

An article well worth the read.

DUNGEON – More Variations on the Theme by George Laking

This is a collection of extra rules for the DUNGEON game. Since it’s being published again, this might be a good article for folks who love it.

Armies of the Renaissance by Nick Nascati

This is the second part of an article from last issue (I think – too lazy to look at the moment). It covers The Swiss. I’ve long thought the Swiss would be an excellent folk on which to model dwarf armies.

Narcisstics by Darrel Plant and Jon Pitchford

Some monster humor of the disgruntled geek variety, statting up jocks and their female groupies as monsters. I’d convert them to B&T format, but the format in the article is hard to make out, and frankly they’re not just worth it.

Psionics Revisited by Ronald Pehr

This variant takes some of the random chance out of the powers psychic characters receive, tying them more closely to their professions (or so the article says). It appears to divide the powers into two categories: Cognitive Powers and Kinetic Powers, adding a few new powers to the game.

Disease by Lenny Buettuer

This is a set of tables for determining how long it takes a disease to kill a person, and what symptoms are suffered in the meantime. The fatality interval goes from immediate to 10 months, based on a percentile dice roll. Another table determines how many symptoms are suffered and a third what those symptoms are. Honestly – a great idea and one I wish I’d thought of. After all, why do I care what the disease is called? All I want to know is how long the adventurer has to live (more on this below) and what happens to him until he can receive healing.

The other thing I got from this article is the point of diseases in the game. There are many ways to die in D&D, and each should offer up different challenges to the players. Disease in this case becomes a race to be cured.

Bergenhome ’77: the CAT’s Test of American Armor by Stanley Schriefer

If nothing else, this article presents an interesting moment in the history of the magazine. The article is about how well American armor (as in tanks) did in a NATO competition. No stats here. None. Not tied to any game. Just military news that might be interesting to wargamers.

The Return of Conan Maol by Paul Karlsson Johnstone

Weird little article about bagpipers and such.

Choir Practice at the First Church of Lawful Evil (Orthodox): The Ramifications of Alignment by Lawrence Schick

Another interesting article about the three-tier alignment system and their relationship to gods and the powers of those gods. It also divides the three alignments into several “sects” or versions of each alignment. Lawful, for example, is divided into the following:

(A) Absolute Order (High Law)
(B) Harmony/Goodness
(C) Justice/Vengeance
(D) Knowledge
(E) Evolution (Social Darwinism )
(F) War

It then gives information on each of these versions of alignment – its tenets, its practitioners, it’s prime deity. Here’s one example:

Law: JUSTICE/VENGEANCE (Monks, Paladins, Assassins)

Tenets: Good (Law) must be rewarded and Evil (Chaos) must be punished. All creatures are judged impartially by weighing their “good’ and “evil” deeds. Transgressors will be punished according to the depth of their depravity. Criminals must be diligently pursued until brought to justice. (Examples of this alignment’s enforcers might include Solomon Kane, The Shadow, Mr. A., and Javert.)

Prime Deity: MARLY
AC: -4 HP: 300 MOVE:24”
MAGIC: Standard plus See Past plus Detect Truth/Lie.

Honestly – one of the most usable alignment articles I’ve yet read. A great take on the subject, and quite usable. Bonus: Nice piece of art!

Naming People, Places and Things in Petal Throne by G. Arthur Rahman

This article provides a random table for generating the rather non-European names common to MAR Barker’s campaign world.

Monty Haul and the Best of Freddie by James M. Ward

Another adventure in the annals of Monty Haul. A sample:

“The Bronze Dragon was of tremendous size for its breed, measuring over 80 hands long and able to rear to a height of more than half that. The creature had gleaming claws as sharp and damaging as scimitars; buffed with gold dust. Its fanged jaws were kept sharp by biting heavy platemail vests that were a part of its horde. Its massive scaled body rested regally on an altar made of its own gold and silver. Chalices of platinum and coffers of gems and jewels were all about, arranged to please the delicate sensibilities of the dragon. Its giant eyes, that had been but a moment before closed in dragonslumber, opened, aware of the tread of footsteps down the echoing marble corridor, designed for just that echoing effect.”

In Defense of Extraordinary Characters by Rodford E. Smith

A very quick bit about why high level characters make sense, giving as examples from literature Odysseus, Daedalus, Hercules, John Carter, Conan and “everyone’s favorite Kryptonian.” So there you go.

The Society for Creative Anachronism by Allen Hammack

An overview of the society and their doings. These days, this would be what we term a “web page”.

And there you have the April 1979 issue of The Dragon. Not a bad issue all told, with at least two or three articles that I think most folks would find useful.

On Allegory

Your average fantasy rpg is set in a medieval world, which means knights and dragons and disease. Knights and dragons are easy enough to stat up, or I suppose they are since every game has them in one form or another. Disease, on the other hand, can present a few problems. If disease is going to play a roll in the game, it needs to be a real obstacle. If we’re being realistic, we know that many diseases, if contracted, must have the power to kill or really screw up a PC. That’s problem number one – explaining to a player why the character he has lovingly nursed through countless acts of daring to a lofty level is now dying from some pox he picked up when he was foolish enough to enter a town to buy supplies and train. It’s a real anti-climax and seems either terribly random or terribly unfair – a couple rolls of the dice, and microscopic entities that the locals haven’t even discovered have just accomplished what the Dark Lord and all his minions could not. Problem number two, of course, is that none of this will actually happen, because the chance that the afflicted cannot find a cleric to cast cure disease (or remove disease, depending on your edition) is slight. So, you go to the trouble of introducing the black plague, the disease that ravaged Europe and and maybe changed the course of human history, and the players see it as a mere inconvenience – slightly less annoying than death, but nothing that can’t be handled. To me, this just won’t do.

When designing my campaign, I wanted disease to be represented and I wanted it to be a problem. I looked at many different disease systems, from Arneson’s in Supplement II to Gygax’s in the old DMG and the ability score damage in 3rd edition, and none of them solved the aforementioned problems for me. And then, I started thinking allegorically.

I don’t run a historically realistic campaign. Nod is a world of folklore, fairy tales, mythology and superstition. The medieval mind did not see disease for what it was. Rather, it imagined that disease was a punishment from God. The Black Plague was God’s judgment on mankind. It was one of the most morally, spiritually and psychologically damaging event in European history, right up there with the First World War and its trench warfare and chemical weapons (which were a major inspiration for Tolkien’s Mordor.) This “psychic damage” is quite apparent in Peter Brueghel’s Triumph of Death (a detail of which can be seen above). And that painting got me thinking. A disease is terrible on a personal scale because it scars, weakens and kills. But disease is terrible on a grand scale because it infects and spreads. What monsters in the game we all love infect and spread? The undead, of course – or at least some undead. That’s when I decided to embrace the medieval and ancient allegories (symbols) that fantasy role-playing turns into creatures and makes real with stats. So, those disease rules that I could never quite get right were out, and plagues of undead took their place. The Black Death in Nod would not be an outbreak of bubonic plague transmitted by fleas and rats, but rather a terrible judgment from Heaven by which the dead rose from their graves and spread devastation and madness throughout the land. This was something that players could deal with – opponents to be overcome and mysteries to be solved (why are the gods angry? how can we placate them?) – with their skill at the game rather than a couple arbitrary dice rolls. Of course, mummy rot and lycanthropy were still in – you can’t have a proper campaign without mummy rot and lycanthropy. But otherwise, the undead, especially those who can spawn with a touch of their spectral hands, would take the place of disease in my campaigns.