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Friday, August 6, 2010
Adventuring in the Time of Plague
First a few terms. An “epidemic” occurs when the outbreak of new cases of a particular disease exceeds the expected number for a given population. This is, as the definition suggests, somewhat subjective. A “pandemic” is when epidemic conditions exist over a wide geographic area--possibly even the whole world.
The most famous historical pandemic is probably the Black Death which affected Eurasia, and peaked in Europe around 1350. Low-end estimates have it killing a third of Europe’s population. The traditional culprit was thought to be bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, though their are some new theories.
The societal effects were profound. Depopulation meant fewer people to farm, and that coupled with livestock plagues, and climatic changes lead to famine and starvation. Fearful people blamed convenient scape-goats--often Jews--and Jewish communities were wiped out in some places. Fringe religious groups like the Brotherhood of Flagellants became more widespread.
The Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) is also thought to have been caused by bubonic plague. This plague may have weakened Byzantium enough that Justinian I was unable to reconquer Italy, shattering any hopes of reconstitute a whole Roman Empire. It may have also weakened Byzantium for its coming face-off with the Arabs a century later.
I can think of three broad ways a plague could be used in gaming. The first is plague as background color. Carts of dead, or oddly dressed plague doctors might just be part of the general ambience of a setting--particularly one with a grubby, "real" Middle Ages feel. It could be treated seriously, or darkly humorous.
The second is plague as apocalypse. As its been pointed out before, there is a post-apocalyptic element to the implied setting of D&D. Perhaps the apocalypse isn’t just a remote event, but ongoing? This could cast the player’s not as pioneers on the frontier, but as defenders of the fire of civilization. This might or might not have implications on the sort of adventures had, or it might just influence the tone.
The third is plague as plot element. Maybe the point of the whole campaign is defeating the forces of evil behind the plague? It could be introduced early, as a minor background element, but as more people succumb to the disease it grows in importance. Eventually, finding a cure might become the PC’s central concern, but only after its grown “naturally”( or unnaturally).