Diseases are Us:
First thing to realize is that neither McNeill nor Karlen are writing physicians desk references. For most of us, this is a good thing. But it means that if you want more information on the actual effects of this disease or that one, you have to look elsewhere. Any basic college microbiology text will do, though those which focus on pathogenic organisms often have a better selection of stomach turning pictures.
In addition, the following web sites may be of use to the GM with a plague in mind:
The first is the Medical Encyclopedia at the Dr Koop.com site. It contains an extensive listing of infections and non-infectious diseases, with a large and rather gruesome picture gallery. The second is the diverse the Karolinska Institute's History of Disease page with many varied links to all sorts of interesting disease sites.
But for something a little bigger in scope you will want to take a look at either McNeill or Karlen's book. Both are paperbacks currently in print and are available from any good bookstore or college library. Both books are similar in scope, beginning with Man the hunter/gatherer and considering how Homo sapiens has interacted with the microbial world in the millennia since then. Of the two authors, McNeill is the more original thinker. Karlen builds a lot on his ideas. However, while Karlen is derivative, his book is also more recent. McNeill has, in the introduction to the most recent edition of Plagues and Peoples, given a token nod to the appearance of AIDS and other recent diseases, but the addition is brief and unsatisfactory. This may seem irrelevant, but stop and consider: how much time do our players spend exploring virgin habitat: the deep rain forest, uninhabited islands, vast mountain ranges... When a species encounters new organism is when the most lethal interactions occur. The species (read player characters) have no immunity to the new organisms and are vulnerable to attack. Well, Karlen, by virtue of the hundred or so pages he spends on our recent war against microbes speaks more to this "discovery" of new diseases.
For the Game Master simply wishing to devastate her world with plague, however, both books are fine references. Both McNeill and Karlen explain how diseases spread: where cases will be the heaviest and the lightest, who will survive and who will not, and how culture will be affected by the effects of epidemics. In fact, because he spends more time on specific cases of historical disease, McNeill covers such cultural effects in more detail:
It's the little things that count...
But what if you'd rather terrorize just the player characters. Destroying or reshaping a civilization with epidemic diseases is, after all, a lot of work. And you can't always count of the PCs to willingly go exploring the rain forests on cue. Well, maybe it's time to test their familiarity with a vast array of poisonous chemicals and venomous organisms. Some of these, of course, conveniently attack on their own. Others are sure to be at the disposal of those secret societies of assassins your players have just thwarted for the third time... But where to turn for all of this nefarious information?
For a layman's guide to the effects of poisons, there is simply no better book than Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner. Designed for writers of murder mysteries, the book is detailed, comprehensive in scope, and yet written for those of use who do not have advanced degrees in biochemistry. Want to know what the effects of cyanide are? You've got them at your fingertip. Ahhh. But suppose you don't care what the poison is, you just want something, anything, that is colorless and tasteless. The poisons here are conveniently indexed by such useful characteristics, as well as by the symptoms they cause and effective means of ingestion. O.K., so some of the poisons are industrial chemicals unlikely to be floating around your typical epic fantasy world. Change the name. Make the substance of magical origin. These toxic roses, by any other name, will still provide coherent groupings of symptoms, effects, durations, forms, and so forth. What more could the scheming GM desire? How about a convenient, level-less method for simulating the effects of poisons useable in any gaming genre or system? Deadly Doses provides a realistic method for classifying poison strengths that can easily be converted into a gaming simulation. Every poison is rated on a scale from 1-6, with 6 being the most lethal. Within each category the authors tell you how much is required for a normal, human, lethal dose. To turn this into a poison simulation system is simple. If the poison is so lethal that only a few drops is needed to kill, then any character who is exposed to that much must make a resistance roll at the gaming system's "ludicrous" level. Click Here for an example.
For those of you not able to get a hold of this book, try the following comprehensive listing of poisonous plants at the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System. It is quite descriptive, and often gives you enough information to guess at a lethal dose, but not as quantitatively as Deadly Doses.
Well, that's about it for this episode's murder and mayhem. Join me next time for more on mystery writer's resources and other things to spice up your games. Then after that, the Distaff Perpective will return for an issue. Many thanks to all of you who have sent commentary on "why we game" and given me grist for the gender mill in future columns!
The following are Amazon.com links to the books reviewed in this article:
Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner.
Man and Microbes: Diseases and Plagues in History and Modern Times by Arno Karlen
Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill
Please post your comments on this article on the General Discussion Board.
Back to TOP OF PAGE