RPG Fragility – Illness

RPG Fragility – Illness

Hello! Shao here. I’m starting a new series of blog posts tagged as ‘RPG Fragility’ – these are meditations on themes and situations of weakness and suffering, as well as my ramblings of how gaming groups might handle and explore these ideas in their stories and games.

In most games of heroic fantasy, disease is something that heroes beyond intermediate levels of experience don’t have to worry so much about. It’s just a matter of a simple spell to remove diseases, yet that approach also ignores the issues of vectors of illness and the social / cultural consequences of illness as a theme in the game world.

I’m writing this first post about illness and injury, as I sit in the waiting room of a hospital. Every few minutes, I’m looking up from my screen where I’m typing, to see if the notification for my appointment has arrived. Around me, there are stern-faced people, bored children, worried adults, nurses who seem exhausted from the busy workday..

As a diabetic, I’ve spent quite a bit of my life receiving treatment in hospitals, and I guess my observations and experiences as a patient have given me some inspiration for these ideas. Illness plays quite a big role in my life; although I spend much of my days denying or trying to forget it, my life’s rhythms and everyday experiences are marked by the fear and constant low-grade anxiety of poor health.

Chronic illnesses are literally life-changing; they transform aspects of one’s life in many ways. I used to suffer from extreme fatigue, and my wounds tend to heal more slowly. (I sometimes have nightmares about losing my mobility or sight due to tissue and nerve damage.)

As a player, I notice I tend to create and play characters with some degree of ruggedness and fortitude, who are able to endure a lot of pain and injury. Perhaps these are compensating measures, to account for my own lack of physical stamina; perhaps these also provide me with a template which I can imagine myself aspiring towards, to become stronger and tougher in some ways, and to inspire my own development of these traits.

This also leads me to think – how does illness feature in a RPG world? For example, what illnesses are more common in a given fictional setting – and why? How are these details significant? How can the characters in your game interact meaningfully with “illness” as a concept and phenomenon?

I remember playing a ranger in D&D who used her abilities to detect and remove diseases and illnesses in a community; on the spur of the moment, I had also asked the DM in that session if there were any non-dramatic, chronic illnesses present which may afflict the elderly and inform, and the DM seemed surprised for a moment, and said there probably aren’t, but he’ll think about it. He had told me later he didn’t want to take the story into that direction, as that would have made the game move very differently from what he had planned.

On another occasion, I was running a D&D session and the party was trying to infiltrate a bandit-occupied fortress in a river delta, via the waterways and drain pipes, during a torrential rainstorm. The deluge aided the party in their efforts to move unseen and unheard into the keep; however, the party was drenched in the rain, and proceeded to traverse the sewers, which I ruled increased the chance for them to suffer from illness and infection of their wounds.

As it turned out, some of the party members failed their saving throws, and developed a case of the cold and a bit of a headache. Their sniffling and sneezing were muted, yet audible, and added tension in infiltrating the fortress; at one point, the party’s sneezing caused the enemy sentries to become alarmed, and that changed the resulting story quite a bit, and the players felt a lot more mortal in this situation.

These are just some ideas and examples I’m musing over – what other ways have you used or encountered illness in your games? What does fragility and illness mean in your games and stories? Let us know in the comments below! Till next time!

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