Not-always-lethal illnesses and conditions your players should be aware of! Part one!

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biohazard-final[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

It is quite incredible what we put our characters through sometimes. They get cut, slashed, slammed, cursed, tied, imprisoned, hacked, bitten… the list goes on and on. But they very rarely get sick. Very rarely they get an illness that would incapacitate them partially for a few adventuring days.

Indeed it makes no sense. Also, it makes it more difficult for the GM when they want to make the character’s life a bit of a misery without actually resorting to magic or other unsavoury means.

Lastly, illnesses can be very handy because we, as humans, can relate to some of them, so we know the sort of pain our characters are going through. And that should make it more fun!

Well… fun… I mean… like playing the character…

Oh hush! You know what I mean!

Anyway, here’s a list of 50 illnesses that are not always lethal but could make your games a lot more interesting, and your player’s life a bit more challenging. They’re in no particular order and some ideas of how they could affect the players have been given, but the idea is that you use them as you see fit, so feel free to add the causes and symptoms. And the lehality!

  1. Common Cold. We’ve all had a cold sometimes and it sucks. It’s very debilitating and the sneezing, wheezing, sore nose, sore throat, feeling tired… Not nice. Imagine combating in the middle of a sneeze attack? It would certainly affect your stamina and your ability to hit things accurately. It can last for quite a few days and the cough can last much longer. No cure is known for this disease, I’m afraid!
  2. Flu: The influenza is an illness not just for humans, but for animals too. Bird Flu and Swine Flu have taken on the news in the last few years quite often. The most common type, though, the human influenza, will give you fever, cough, a sore throat and muscle aches. Lot of muscles aches. Depending on the strain, it could put you in bed for three weeks and, at the very least, you could expect to be in bed for the best part of a week to clear it. Think of it as the mother of all colds, but worse. The flu won’t just affect your fighting abilities; it will also affect your charisma and your mental agility. Yep… petty bad!
  3. Diarrhoea: Oh my goodness where to start! There are a lot of types and none is pleasant. If you need a description, diarrhoea happens when you have three or more loose or liquid bowel movements per day. In severe cases you won’t be able to control such movements. It is a pretty serious condition, though, and it can be lethal if leaving untreated.
    Now, imagine fighting while you suffer from diarrhoea . Or taking the armour off when are in a rush… I’ll leave it to your imagination!
  4. Bad back: Another very much ignored condition that can render a human pretty much useless for weeks at a time. Something as silly as bending over to lit a fire, or as serious as lifting a stone golem, could easily strain one’s back and leave the person barely able to move. Not good if your character has to walk, run, ride, exist…
  5. Haemorrhoid: Those are the blood vessels in the anus that help you poo. Sometimes they swell. There are several types, but the type that interests us are the external ones. Especially when said blood vessels become thrombosed and they hurt. They hurt a lot. And they make you very, very uncomfortable. It is not life threatening at any rate, and probably won’t stop you in combat for long, but imagine a long horse-ride when you bouncing on fresh pile of piles. Ouch!
    Also, imagine that meeting with whomever king or lord/lady you’re meant to meet while you’re fidgeting to try and make yourself confortable. Of if you’re a bard, imagine performing a delicate number while your bum itches like hell… I’m sure you get my drift by now.
  6. Food poisoning: Friends, if you’ve had this, it makes you very weary of eating whatever it is made you ill. Tin mussels in my case. Severe diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. It can lead to dehydration and it’ll last a few days. And boy it is unpleasant.
    For starters you will hardly, if at all, be able to control your bowel movement. The expression “when you gotta go, you gotta go” was invented for this. If you’re wearing an armour or any costume that doesn’t go off quickly…
  7. Asthma: Another one people don’t take seriously enough. Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways. It’s symptoms are wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.
    This could affect your characters in myriad ways. From the typical asthma attack while fighting, to making nay to impossible to cast spells, not able to sing for bards, aim for archers…
  8. Chickenpox: this is an airborne extremely infectious disease that usually starts with a skin rash in body and head and it becomes itchy. Very itchy. It normally heal without scarring, but you’re the GM, so if you want to decrease someone’s charisma a north or two…
  9. Arthritis: This is an absolutely horrific condition of the joints. There are over 100 different types of arthritis but the most common is osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition as a result of trauma to the join, infection of the joint or, more unavoidably, age.
    The pain in the joints is quite considerable and sometimes moving the joint becomes next to impossible. Needless to say, holding swords, tensing bows, playing instruments, writing… it all becomes very difficult.
  10. Migraine: Now that can be a biggie. A migraine is more than a simple headache. It is a pretty severe condition that can cripple a human for days. As well as a searing pulsating headache, more often than not located in one side of the head. It can come with friends too! Friends such as vomiting, photophobia and phonophobia. I have experienced, many times, migraines with photophobia and I swear is truly horrid. When looking at a light source, or being in a light place, your eyes feel like they’re pricked by needles and it hurts. It hurts like hell.
    I can promise you, fighting like that, or carrying out any sort of dexterity or mental task is nigh to impossible. To be assaulted by any bright light could spell hell.
  11. Ingrown toenail: Sounds silly, right? It isn’t! This happens when the toe nail grows and buries itself in the skin of the toe. This, funnily enough, only happens in shoe-wearing cultures. It can be uncomfortable and painful, but, apart from severe infection, it’s not serious. However it could make walking or fighting a bit more complicated. A minor irritation, but a fun one to throw at the players. Specially those who want to be stealthy!
  12. Tennis elbow: Lateral Epicondylitis, also known as wanker’s cram, is a condition in which the outer part of the elbow becomes sore and tender. There is no known origin, but a strong link to racket sports has been suggested. I think racket sports and wielding a sword are close enough, so I’m sure the characters could suffer from this condition without too many questions.
    For the record, it hurts. Like hell. And the pain can go all the way up to the arm and render he elbow useless, as moving it can be excruciating. Try holding a long sword, or driving, or fighting, or playing the guitar, like that…
  13. Whopping Cough: Another biggie. This illness is extremely infectious and can last for three months. It starts with mild cough and develops into severe and uncontrollable coughing episodes that come accompanied by high-pitched “whoop” sound that gives the common name to this disease. It can also induce vomiting after the cough.
    Fighting during a coughing fit would be problematic, as it would to try and keep any level of stealth. Need I say more?
  14. Conjunctivitis, or Pink Eye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the outer layer of the eye and he eyelid. There are several causes, allergies, bacteria, chemicals… but they all have one thing in common. It’s extremely annoying and itchy and they can go from one eye to the other. And it can last a while.
    While it’s lasting, the common symptoms are swelling of the conjunctiva, watering of the eyes. The bacterial kind, the one that truly matters to us, also develops excessive pus production. It can be truly yucky, especially when you wake up.
    Carrying out any sort of activity that requires your sight becomes truly difficult. Reading, aiming…
  15. Tonsillitis. Again one that won’t kill you, but it will make you very, very cranky! The pain in your throat as you swallow is really horrible. Horrible enough to put you off eating. And affecting your sleep.
    It can also take your voice away for a while. Terrible news if you’re a bard or a wizard!
  16. Herpes: Herpes can take many shapes and sizes. It’s hardly lethal per se, but it can be rather debilitating at times. For starters it can have an impact on your looks, so characters with oral herpes could have their charisma modified. In severe cases it can produce facial paralysis, so speech could also be more difficult. Bards, Wizards and Clerics beware!
    Genital herpes can also come with an itch. Persistent and very uncomfortable, especially if you’re wearing some metal piece that rubbing against it all the time.
  17. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the bronchi. It can be acute or chronic (or both!) and it comes with the development of a cough and the production of sputum (phlegm). Chronic doesn’t mean is constantly present, but it can come at any time and last for about three months. Singing with bronchitis? Nop! Fighting? Difficult! Performing delicate tasks? Good luck!
  18. Acne. If you’re reading this, you either are, or have been a teenager. If you have, you know of acne. If you haven’t, you might be too young to be reading this!
    Anyway, acne looks horrible and it will affect your charisma. A lot. Make it as severe as you like and you’ll have a truly horrible disease to plague your players with. Stephen King used it very effectively in “Thinner” and, I can assure you, acne takes a whole new dimension when you crank it up a notch and look for some pics in the internet. I promise you, ideas will flow!
  19. Tooth abscess. It doesn’t sound serious enough, does it? Let me assure you it can be. When you’ve been in a fight and you’ve been punched and have a cracked tooth (as fighters are likely to have) getting an abscess is more than likely.
    There are several types of abscess, but we shouldn’t worry about that. What matters is that it hurts, and the pain can be extreme. Having said that, some abscesses don’t hurt, but they swell a lot. Those would affect charisma, of course.
    The painful ones could hurt even more if someone is hearing a helmet that needs strapping across the face. Now, if you have one of those and get into a fight and the fight punches you in the side of the face where you have that abscess, the fight could be over for you a lot quicker than you expect!
  20. Acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis it’s a horrible gum disease caused by bacterial infection. It symptoms include necrosis and/or punched out ulceration of the gums that can be very painful. It also produces halitosis.
    So for fighter it might not be a great deal, but for anyone who needs speech, or simply to look good… you’re in trouble.
  21. Anal Fistula: this is another horrible one, and very uncomfortable indeed! In a nutshell, this happens when a gland that drains into the anus gets blocked. Then an abscess can form and it can point to the surface. Think about it like a spot (pimple) in the ass, but it hurts *way* more and the pus drain is, actually, rather disgusting.
    Allow me to assure you that riding if you have a fistula will hurt. Enough to diminish your constitution a bit. If left unchecked and untreated, the abscess can also be the perfect entry point for infection.
  22. Eczema. This term is applied to a range of persistent skin conditions and rashes. The skin becomes reddish, dry, swelled, itchy, crusty, flaky, blistery, oozing, bleeding… now imagine that on a face.
    Need I say more?
  23. Lupus. Systemic lupus erythematosus is a truly horrendous disease of the immune system. It can affect any part of the body and it happens when the immune system attacks a part of the body’s cells and tissue, resulting in inflammation and tissue damage. It can be lethal and is more common in women than in men.
    There are many types of Lupus. Dermatological, musculoskeletal, haematological, cardiac, pulmonary, neuropsychiatric, neurological… plenty to choose from!
    This one offers a great deal of freedom for the GM to throw to the players as, basically, anything could be wrong with the characters at any given point and render the character pretty much useless and impotent at very short notice.
  24. Chronic functional abdominal pain. Well friends, this one of those illnesses that do exactly what the name says. Your tummy hurts. Lots. All the time.
    There is no known medical explanation for it and it can be truly debilitating. Feel free to throw it at your players as an unknown curse when you want to make encounters more challenging without altering the monsters stats. This illness will make stealth, aiming, fighting and generally living, a misery.
  25. African trypanosomiasis. This is a parasitic disease that manifests in two stages. The first phase comes with fever, headaches, joint pains and itching. Horrific swelling of lymph nodes to huge sizes take place when the parasite invades the circulatory and lymphatic systems. A common place for the swelling is the neck. If left unchecked, it can also produce anemia, and cardiac, endocrine and kidney dysfunctions.
    The second, the neurological phase starts when the parasite invades the central nervous system, which is where the disease earns the name “sleeping sickness”. Confusion, reduced coordination and disruption of the sleep cycle with fatigue periods contrasted by manic periods. It leads to night insomnia and day time slumber. Damage cause by this stage is irreversible. I don’t think there is any part of this disease that can’t be used somehow!


2 Responses

  1. You make a good point about adventurers not getting minor health issues, but I think it is important to consider if such things make for a better playing experience. Occasionally, as a dramatic device to accomplish some plot point sure, why not. But as a GM I would make this kind of thing very very rare, unless a player specifically asks for it to stretch out his role-playing skills or it is situationally perfect. People play for fun and managing a disease just isn’t any.

    Now if you have a player who needs to be absent from a gaming session then sure, strike him down with the bird flu. In fact, if you need a filler adventure you can send the rest of the party off to get a cure. That would be a perfect excuse as to why he is not present.

    You certainly hit upon an interesting idea, though it’s not one I’d ever use. Keep up the good work and keep those creative juices flowing!

    • Oh certainly! I think this sort of illnesses would become tiresome if they’re used constantly. The idea is more to be used if there is the need for some sore of debilitating effect that would last a few days.

      We often use magical reasons for people to feel ill, like curses and the like. I think in games where magic is not a constant, or simply where it doesn’t exist, something like this could be very handy info to have as a last resort.

      I have to come up with more though! 🙂

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