A writer I admire in the RPG field is Steven Marsh for his true gift in turning any topic into a role-playing related editorial for the old weekly version of Pyramid Online. No event, observation or piece of trivia was too small that it couldn't be turned into a though-provoking article. So I asked some RPG buddies to throw out a few suggestions - any topic, event or phenomenon - to see what I could make of it. So unless I had some flash of inspiration for my weekly delve into the role-playing world, I could pick one of their suggestions out of the proverbial hat. For this week, Pout throws out "Swine flu". Well, ok then.
Disease as consequence: Diseases can be an annoyance or tragedy in the making, but to a GameMaster, they're a valuable tool. See, in most campaigns, I avoid killing PCs. It just isn't good tv. BUT, that can quickly lead to a loss of suspense (again, look at most tv series - if your name is in the opening sequence, you're safe). Consequences other than death can of course serve the same purpose, so the Disease, whatever it may be, becomes a viable option. While a character may not ultimately die from what you've exposed him to, it could still have lasting consequences. Scar tissue? A need for cybernetics? A new disadvantage? A drop in attribute scores? These can be scary for a player.
Disease as plot: Diseases have one useful feature when it comes to driving plots. They have a built-in countdown. A PC might have a certain time to get the cure before he dies (or is permanently maimed or brain damaged, etc.), which can drive the plot at a breakneck pace. Conversely, a 24-hour virus might put the character at a disadvantage at the worse possible time, but can be waited out, allowing her to bust out the fists of fury in the endgame.
Disease as risk: In one-shots or games where death is expected to occur and survival is its own reward, players may be tempted to excessively armor their characters. Ok, but does that armor protect them from illness? Even a face plate can crack.
Disease as nerf: Non-lethal diseases can be used to reduce the effectiveness of PCs as an added obstacle. A simple cold might impair a character's attribute and skill challenges (seduction with a runny nose, or strain on one's Constitution), but in worlds where special powers are possible, illnesses that affect those powers are also imaginable. How does a particular disease affect spell-casting? What about super-powers? And could some viruses only affect those that make use of such powers?
Any game with more than one species: As a link to Swine Flu, let me introduce Orc Flu (you all love the pig-like Orcs, right? Sure you do). One of the greatest challenges facing modern medicine today is viruses migrating to species they are not endemic to and mutating into dangerous strains there. In worlds with multiple species all interacting (be they fantasy races or aliens), virus migration would be a very real problem. How does Orc Flu affect an Elf? Can you get cooties from Mr. Spock?
Magic games: Magical diseases could produce any number of effects. Imagine a contagious curse. Or a disease transmitted through spell-casting (an MTD). Maybe some creatures in your game world are simply people suffering from a plague. What if zombies aren't really dead, for example? Lycanthropy and vampirism are certainly communicable.
High tech games: Robots and cyborgs have to deal with computer viruses. Or how about nanites that eat at their metal implants? And if Star Trek is any indication, diseases could cover psionic parasites, temporally out-of-phase viruses, and conditions that mutate your genome or make you aphasic. There's no real limit. It doesn't all have to be radiation sickness.
Now go out into the world and sicken your players! And if you'd like to play the game like Pout did, feel free to suggest topics in the Comments section. I'll add them to the hat.