Illness and Permanent Injuries in Roleplaying Games: ...Why?

Most tabletop and computer roleplaying games (RPGs) these days have rules for dealing with illness and injuries.  Whether you have to roll on the Nasty Diseases Table, or just get hit with an unfortunate series of random number generations in your video game, eventually an active player will discover that he has Blue Shin-pox Fever, or that he somehow managed to break an arm a few battles back and is only noticing that fact now. And then many of those active players will ask… why?

Well, the short version is that it’s sometimes the only inconvenience that a gamemaster (GM) or video game designer can throw at a high-level character and make it stick. At lower levels, threats to the player are no problem; in fact, in computer RPGs sometimes the trick is to keep a new player alive through the tutorial. But once you get past a certain point, it gets harder and harder to scale up intermediate hindrances to a character. You can always kill them, sure. But giving them a temporary but real setback can be tricky.  Hence, the aforementioned Blue Fever. Good excuse to make the player roll a few less dice for a while, or have a portion of his health bar shaded out, or whatnot.

The problem with this trick?  Players typically hate this trick.  Not all of them, of course. A lot of folks like things like Fallout 4’s new Survival Mode, where everybody’s out to get them and you can catch filthy radioactive diseases. But there are a lot of gamers who do not like the idea of having arbitrary hindrances dropped on them, at least when those hindrances can’t be dodged.  You see, they often had gone to some trouble to create characters that were an unholy mix of damage sponge and mirror, so they’re not always going to react well to situations where all their hard work went to naught.

This is the part where you get the boring platitude that ‘both sides are right’ — and, sure, it’s a platitude because it’s true.  However, I will suggest that people need to back up a little and think about how to not even have this be a problem in the first place. To go back to Fallout 4: Bethesda’s previous big computer RPG was, of course, Skyrim. Skyrim has diseases show in the game, which are more annoying to the player than they are to the character; besides, eventually your character would become either a werewolf or a vampire and you’d never have to deal with a disease again anyway. So what Bethesda did for Fallout 4 was to make diseases part of the overall Masochism Tango that is Fallout’s Survival Mode; people who actually want to catch a disease thus will be able to, and those who don’t, won’t.  Probably the best way to handle it in a video game, really.

As for tabletop RPGs? Well, I’ll go back to my favorite hobbyhorse: better communication between players and GMs. Specifically… well, this is a weird suggestion, but if you’re a player in a tabletop RPG, why not volunteer to get a disease? As in, tell your GM that the next time he wants to run an adventure where somebody gets sick, you’ll volunteer to be the plague victim or whatnot. This solves two problems: first, the GM won’t let you get sick until the actual adventure, because it’d be too legitimately confusing and so forth. But, also: by volunteering your character for the plot device you’re also retaining agency over the character.  That might make it easier to tolerate the negative implications of being sick.

As for GMs? Well, you probably read the previous paragraph and noted how a sneaky player might try to reverse-psychology you into never giving his character a disease.  Maybe let that slide and consider asking for volunteers yourself? And it doesn’t have to be a big adventure plot hook. It could be as simple as “Who wants to catch the cold that you’re all at risk at from being in the rain all night?” Let one of them have the cold. Let them ham it up a little – and, more importantly, milk it for sympathy.  And then when it stops being fun, let the cold disappear… but, remember, now it’s a precedent. Which means that you can maybe now run that Plague Year adventure that you’ve been thinking of running for a while…

(Artwork created using multiple elements.)