A Plague Upon You!

By April 15, 2020DnD

So craziness is about with the recent epidemic and D&D has had to keep pace and go digital. Oh, wait we live in 2020 world and these tools are widely available and used by many before this, us included. Discord, Skype, Roll20, D&D Beyond and Fantasy Grounds only scratch the surface of tools easily found to help a transition to digital games.

In more D&D oriented news, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has been released. There was even a fun Q&A held by Matter Mercer and Marisha Ray that was quite hilarious. On the horizon we Mythic Odysseys of Theros releasing soon and lots of information on running digital games from the crew at Wizards. Onto the meat, but it’s pretty questionable this time.

Plagues. In D&D plagues can be a major plot point or alternatively serve as a backdrop for the world at large. They could range from real world analogs like the black death or smallpox to something more magical and targeted. Perhaps there is a plague that mostly affects elven men, specifically designed to weaken them militarily. What are the consequences to that? Perhaps it happens and they fall as a society, perhaps women take up the call and shift their social structure for generations to come or perhaps the intrepid adventurers will find a cure before it spirals out of control.

Let’s take that last one and run with it. Who made this plague and to what end? The most logical answer is a rival power. Perhaps the drow as revenge or dwarves who want the fertile elven lands. Simple, but simple can be good. Something like this can easily become a backdrop and not the spotlight. The characters may find themselves in the middle of a political situation that might be difficult to navigate. The party of dwarves discover the plot and a moral dilemma is formed. They may dislike elves, but is this moral? Is it cowardly? Their loyalty and morality is tested, will they act for the greater good or allow it to happen to further the machinations of their leadership? One wonders.

What if it’s not a rival power, but some chaotic faction? What if a singular person or minor faction made it for some dastardly end? This is where things can get interesting. Perhaps they worship some plague god, similar to Nurgle from the Warhammer universe. Themed factions are really fun to create, especially if the players pursue them as an enemy. Let’s take the Nurgle faction, you can have things like rot grubs, diseased rats, the sibriex, and a slew of amazing homebrew creatures. A particular favorite of mine with this theme is the Herald of Rot, which I found on the monster a day subreddit.

An expert dermatologist in Kuala Lumpur mentions that even simply reskinning existing creatures to do poison or necrotic damage can make it work with a bit of descriptive flare. ‘The dwarf moves menacing towards you, boils on his face and puss dripping from his eyes. As he moves he takes his axe and slides it across his flesh popping boils and coating it with the disgusting liquid that escapes.’ Gross, but telegraphs to the players what might happen if they are hit by this character.

Zombies fit into this easily. Cliche for sure, but giving them new abilities brings a freshness to them. They might simply deal an extra d4 of necrotic damage or poison their targets. Perhaps their corpses explode when struck down splashing bile and puss on those nearby. This might be bypassed by using fire, cold or radiant damage. The possibilities for such changes are endless.

Another way to take this is fungal infestations. Perhaps the plague came from a denizen of nature, like a spore druid. She creates a fungus that infects people, perhaps killing them and raising them as a spore zombie or creating obedient myconids from the corpses. Or, more terrifyingly, controls living sentient people towards some goal if they are infected by the spores. They might be ordered to simply infest others or destroy infrastructure, slowly degrading civilization enough for nature to become a real threat once more.

There are other ways to play it as well, in many stories vampirism and lycanthropy are diseases. A plague of werewolves or even less than Victorian vampires could be a real problem. Another plague adjacent infestation is that of slaad. Their reproductive methods are quite horrific and could easily go out of control like a plague if left unchecked.

Hell, maybe have a less than heroic campaign where the players are the plague bringers. Things like oath breaker paladins, spore druids, death and grave clerics, zealot barbarians, necromancy wizards and the like. Even simply changing an existing subclass that doesn’t lend itself to such play and theming it that way is always fun. Maybe you are a life cleric whose healing leaves permanent scars or strange lesions on your allies. This makes them feel healthy but over time slowly changes them, perhaps unknown to even themselves until this is pointed out. After a few months of your healing their skin shows as a pallid green that frightens those they meet. How will that play out within the party?

It’s a fun concept to play with that can take you in a myriad of directions. It’s strange to imagine how a society would deal with such things in a vaguely medieval setting. There are no borders to close or planes to shut down. The best you can do is close off your cities and burn the bodies. Of course there is magic, but few games are in a high magic setting where such issues could simply be snapped away.

I’ve always felt that diseases and poisons are far too easy to magic away in D&D. You hit level five or so and such things are a nuisance, less than a real threat outside the immediacy of combat. I think a good way to solve this is requiring a specific material component for such a spell to cure a disease that is more of a plot point. Perhaps the flower from a far off mountain is the key to the cure. This mountain, however, is guarded by a dragon or worse yet, the plague bringers discover the location of the cure and guard it themselves.

In any case, I hope you are all taking care of yourselves and your loved ones. Stay safe and healthy and let’s hope next month’s post is a bit less… virus-y? Next month I’ll be covering hirelings and other NPC allies.

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