Thursday, November 15, 2018

Plot Traps (Diseases)

It’s been a while since I put together one of these articles but I’m back and reasonably healthy enough to put one of these together.  We’re going to be putting some more of these together going into the new year and exploring some new options for ideas to make your gaming experience fun an exciting.  Today’s excursion covers another plot point that can shape an adventure, a story arc, or even an entire campaign. 

Today’s topic is disease and illness.  Ranging from simple childhood ailments to divinely mandated and supernaturally powered plagues, diseases and illnesses can radically redefine the plot you are building.  Now we’re discussing this in terms of an rpg environment and not a real world setting, so you can discard some real world practicalities and details when you put one of these together.  Let’s dive into this.

Plot Point ? Disease

This iteration of a plot trap involves a malady or some other physical affliction that degrades some aspect of the person who it affects.  In a real world or modern inspired setting, these are typically caused by microbes or other tiny life forms that infiltrate the body.  In a fantasy setting, these can take any number of forms and shapes.  They all share a few common traits, namely that they reduce a person’s ability to function and through this reduction can endanger the person’s life. 

Most games have a system for how to deal with these problems and you can examine those in the system of your choice.  Whether it’s the Saving Throw mechanic for Dungeons and Dragons, or a more complex action that requires more interactions with the system, these are all well defined within those systems.  If you’re interested, grab an rpg you haven’t played before and see how they handle diseases.  Now we’re going to take a look at a few specific types of illnesses and how they affect the setting. 


Highly communicable diseases with a high mortality threat are a very real, very pressing danger to any location in a campaign setting.  Starting with the infirm, the very young, and/or the very old, these diseases can strike quickly, seemingly from nowhere.  Even healthy people with no apparent symptoms can still carry the disease allowing it to spread to even more locations. 

Social Maladies

Sexually transmitted diseases can be just as dangerous to the individual, but are often less dangerous to a city or region.  The vector the disease travels on requires an exchange of fluids from one person to another.  The intimate nature of the contact required for these diseases limits their ability spread through a location.  These diseases are often less lethal than a plague, but can still cause a great deal of pain and suffering to the people who live with them.

Magical Illness

Magic in the world interacts with things in a very bizarre fashion.  This can create a host of magical ailments and contagions.  These don’t follow the normal rules for how diseases work and can create a myriad of interactions and effects that can impair a person’s health.  Further, the magical nature of these illnesses can have spectacular results as they run their courses.

Why is this a Plot Trap?

This Plot Trap is a Plot Trap because more than any other plot trap we’ve discussed is its ability to run completely out of control.  Diseases can take over the plot without needing a lot of help, and dealing with them can force characters into radical courses of action that may not jive with their sensibilities.  Diseases, especially ones that recur frequently cast a pall over the rest of the campaign, and you have to be ready for that when you plan to feature disease as a signature element of a plot.

Key Elements of this plot device
  1. The Effect: Diseases have a very specific effect on the people who suffer them.  Defining what the effect is, and how lethal it is requires your world building definition.  You can create any number of potential effects and conditions that afflict a person.  There are a lot of real world examples you can examine to see how they affect people and to use as inspiration for your own diseases.  
  2. The Vector:  As important as the disease itself, it’s vector determines how fast a disease spreads.  Vector is how the disease is passed from one person to another and who it affects.  Defining who the disease affects can also create interesting situations full of tension and drama for your game.
  3. The Cure: Disease is usually a curable condition in fantasy gaming. Figuring out how a particular disease can be cured (or at least managed) is a good idea because it’s an avenue for character growth and story development.   


There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way.  Let’s take a closer look.

Zombie Plague

A supremely popular variation on a typical plague, this disease reanimates the corpses of its victims as shambling undead zombies.  This disease typically has a superbly high lethality and is usually easily spread.  The few survivors are typically overwhelmed by the hordes of zombies created in the plague’s wake.

Transformative Magic

This version of the plot represents a disease that causes a massive transformation in its victims.  Whether it turns them into stone, traps them in a gaseous form, or otherwise causes some other dramatic effect (my personal choice is probably something that turns them into an energy cascade that rips through the area like a fireball), the disease makes a lasting, if not permanent change on the person with this disease. 


Diseases can be campaign defining plot elements.  The lasting effects of these conditions can reshape your campaign setting and require dramatic action from adventuring types to halt.  This gives you the benefits of a ticking clock and a way to spread dread and misery to people around the stars of your story.  Diseases don’t generally play favorites, so you can have them affect old friends, family, and other people close to the characters.  DO THIS SPARINGLY. 

I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun.  If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen.  Game On,

Game Fans.  

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