The Scholar's Book Shelf

Copyright Laura Trauth 1999

"You think you got the last word in by poisoning my tea
But the jokes on you, 'cause I poisoned yours as well"
The Flash Girls
"Tea and Corpses"
From the Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones
      The Characters are all 20th level supermen who've been "blessed by a war god." The villains run in terror at the sound of their names. They have a fan club in every city of your world. So what do you do to put a little fear back into 'em? How can you generate a bit of angst without the gods themselves striking down your nigh invulnerable heroes? With the smallest of enemies. And thus we have this month's scholar's bookshelf recommendations: William H. McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, Arno Karlen's Man and Microbes: Diseases and Plagues in History and Modern Times and, somewhat further down on this page, Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisonsby Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner.

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 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:

    So when you invite in epidemics the results will be upsurges in expressions of religious faith (and lack there of for that matter), chaos to the economy, shifts in the balance of political power, and more. A lot to handle all at once. But just read either of these fine books and you'll be well prepared to orchestrate every aspect of the impending chaos.

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 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

Editor's Note

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