OSR: Bring Out Your Dead

Your medieval OSR settings should have the Plague in it. Not just a plague, but the Plague, a recent memorable scourge that changed the world. A good medieval setting references the War, but forgetting the Plague means ignoring a huge part of human history. The Plague gets a one-liner on many OSR tables or adventure introductions. It deserves more than that.
Death and the Bishop, 1541, Heinrich Aldegrever

Before we get into the RPG-based stuff, here are a few quotes from 2300 years of human history, and some background music.

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighborhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.
 The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy [...] But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God. For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age.
 The Plague, Procopius
In 1349 [the Plague] resumed in Paris, spread to Picardy, Flanders, and the Low Countries, and from England to Scotland and Ireland as well as to Norway, where a ghost ship with a cargo of wool and dead crew drifted offshore until it ran aground near Bergen. From there the plague passed into Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Iceland, as as far as Greenland. Leaving a strange pocket of immunity in Bohemia, and Russian unattacked until 1351, it had passed from most of Europe by mid-1350. Although the morality rate was erratic, ranging from one fifth in some places to nine tenths or almost total elimination in others, the overall estimate of modern demographers has settled - for the area extending from India to Iceland - around the same figure expressed in Froissart's casual words: "a third of the world died."
A Distant Mirror, Barbara W. Tuchman. If you have time, I'd really recommend reading the entire chapter.
In 1918 an influenza virus emerged - probably in the United States - that would spread around the world, and one of its earliest appearances in lethal form came in Philadelphia. Before that world-wide pandemic faded away in 1920, it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. [...] Epidemiologist today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million. [...] One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry
It's almost as if there is a blind spot in our view of history that prohibits us from grasping the devastation of a Plague, of a scourge that kills on in ten or one in three of our neighbors, families, and peers. The survivors write histories and chronicles, sometimes in desperation. "I leave parchment," Brother John Clyn of Ireland wrote in the 14th century," to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun.”  

But the memory fades almost immediately. The next generation builds few monuments. There are thousands of WWI memorials but only a handful of memorials, mostly plaques and tombstones, for victims of the Spanish Flu. Similarly, while a cult of death arose in 15th century Europe, it rarely referenced the Black Death directly. It's almost too grim. We can understand war and violence, but disease escapes us. Survivors often launch into a period of excess, not just while the plague rages and life seems cheap, but for years afterwards. The "Roaring Twenties" and the elaborate pageantry of 14th century France could be seem as reactions to the vast, merciless mortality that "embraced the entire world".
The Triumph of Death, 1562,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Here are 3 options for including the Plague in your OSR games.

1. About to Happen

2. In Progress
3. Just Past

1. About to Happen

At some point in your game, the Plague will arrive, and everything will go to hell. Add an entry called "Plague Omen" to  your Rumours or Encounters tables. Once it's been rolled 10 times, the Plague is here. Mixed in with other tables, your PCs might not suspect anything until it's too late.

1d10 Plague Omens

1. There is sickness in the camp of The Enemy. Surely, God has punished them for their wickedness
2. A distant and once-prosperous city fallen into a sudden decline.
3. A common trade good is no longer available, and no one knows why.
4. A rare herb or flower is suddenly in demand in a trading port, worth its weight in gold.
5. A nation across the sea has closed its ports and burns any ship approaching. Their king has gone mad, it is said. 
6. Flocks of crows are flying south in huge numbers. 
7. A learned astrologer cast a horoscope so terrible and momentous that he sold all he owned and rode into the wilderness.
8. The King's nephew has fallen ill, and the most learned doctors in the land gather around  his bedside.
9. A rider gallops by, his face pale. He bears the livery of a distant kingdom and carries ciphered letters.
10. Someone the PCs know writes them a letter in a shaky and blurred hand, referencing dozens of past letters (undelivered), a terrible sickness, and God's wrath.

The Plague arrives without warning, like a sudden and terrible storm. You might see it on the horizon in the smoke of burning towns, or hear it in the dockyards or the alleys. Everything is normal the night before. The PCs wake up to screams and disaster. The world is falling apart and they are not immune. By the end of the week, they might all be dead.

1d10 Early Encounters
1. A caravan of priests, fleeing the area.

2. A riderless horse with a fine saddle.
3. A sick man, shivering in the streets, coughing blood.
4. A house abandoned, its inhabitants dead overnight, its windows open.
5. A raving doctor, promising all he has for a cure, for a rare ointment, for a chance to escape.
6. Bells begin to ring and don't stop until the ringer dies.
7. Fire spreads across a district

8. Looters, moving from house to house methodically
9. A doctor selling dubious cures by the dozen. 
10. 1x10x1d10 infected men, women, and children, heading for a landmark.

2. In Progress

The Plague is a fact of life when the game starts. The game is post-apocalyptic, like the Road, but with swords. Carts carry the dead to mass graves. Cities are abandoned. Armies rot in the field. The world is falling apart, but unlike the mad first few days, this is a slow and inevitable decline. Edicts are announced. Governments struggle for control.

1d10 Late Encounters

1. Work crews in masks, walling a family inside a house.
2. An abandoned cart full of corpses.
3. A banquet held by the infected and the dying in the middle of the street
4. A new edict declaring a curfew, a travel ban, a new tax, a general amnesty, or some other law. It is completely ignored.
5. A beggar, wearing the clothes of a noble, dancing around a fountain.
6. 2d10 flagellants whipping each other and praying.
7. A spray of gold coins and gems dropped by a dying looter.
8. A barricaded and fortified house. Does anyone still live inside?
9. Fanatics burn clothes, tapestries, books, heretics, sinners, and the dying .Anything that might offend God is flung into the pyre. 
10. A roving doctor sells bundles of herbs and flowers, guaranteed to ward off the infected air.

Yet life continues. You can buy food in the marketplace. You can charter a ship, raid a dungeon, seduce a princess, attend a tournament. The world struggles on, in a changed and diminished form, but there are pockets of light and peace. The Plague has become accepted. Panic has faded into fear, fear into dull resentment and rage at the inevitable, or at God, or at mortality.
Anyone who survives the Plague might become richer. Labour is scarce, wages rise (despite laws passed against it). Looting is endemic, buried treasure is common. Some trade routes, cites, and villages fade forever. Some prosper. In a changing world, the PCs might be able to leap several rungs up the social ladder, or topple those in power.

3. Just Passed

It is over.The Plague is a memory, an affliction of past generations. The living stumble through a diminished world, one where violence and disorder are more common. The ruins of the past, from empty villages to overgrown fields to weather-worn castles, stand everywhere. Eat, drink, and be merry, for the world has just escaped destruction, or is perhaps on the brink of it. Taxes are higher than ever.

If your game takes place in this era, the PCs will be able to buy and hold land more easily than they would otherwise, but hiring mercenaries and assistance is more expensive. The world is also more chaotic and disordered. Rulers cry out for a return to morality, but sink further into excess. Most people recognize the signs of plague, and most rulers know how to prevent its spread: isolation, often by walling the dying up in their own homes or blocking gates and roads.

100-200 years between major plagues seems about right in a medieval setting, but minor flares will accompany any major plague like shocks around an earthquake. 

Black Death at Tournai, 1359, Gilles le Muisit


For each populated region, hex, city, town, or whatever on your map, roll 1d6. That's the percentage (10%-60%) of the population that will die, is dying, or died during the Plague. The population will decline further for about 30 years before slowly recovering. Some areas in northern France did not reach their medieval population levels until the modern era.

Death and Infection

Test for Infection:
Urban per day
Rural per week
Isolated per month

"Isolated" means "the Plague Carrier can still get to you but strangers can't". If the carrier can't get to  you, you are safe. The PCs do not know this. They don't know any of the stuff below, even if they are educated and well-read.

Base Chance of Infection
Raging (About to Happen)50%
Stable (In Progress)5%
A Memory (Just Past)N/A
If the Plague is over, the PCs will not become infected until the cycle begins again. 

+10% if malnourished
+10% if infected with any other disease or serious illness
+10% if in intimate contact with anyone infected

+10% if wounded
-10% if young/elderly or in the prime of life. Roll per plague to see which group is less likely to die.

If anyone in the party is of a different race or ethnicity than the local area, they have a 20% chance to be more susceptible (+10%) and a 50% chance to be less susceptible (-10%). If they are of a wildly different race (spiderlings, lizardlings), the chance of infection is always 1%, but if they do become infected, the Plague will spread from them to any others of their race with astonishing rapidity.

Spells like cure disease will cure the Plague, but will not grant resistance. You can still be reinfected. There are historical cases of people being infected with the Black Death in the morning and dying by sunset. Even a cleric with 4 castings per day can't save everyone.

If you are infected, use whatever disease rules your system has in place already, unless they seem insufficiently lethal. If that's the case, use the rules below. The Plague might have a name, but it won't be "cholera" or "influenza" or "ebola". It will be "The Plague of Justinian" or "The Red Death" or something equally evocative. Your players shouldn't be able immediately to associate it with a real-world disease.

Disease: the Plague

Each morning, or after 2hrs of strenuous activity, Save. If you fail, take 1d6 Constitution damage until you are cured or die. If you pass 2 consecutive Saves, you are cured, and are forever immune. Your Constitution damage recovers at a rate of 1 point per day, during which time you can still infect others.

Chances are pretty good that the Plague will infect at least one PC. The other, uninfected PCs then have a choice: flee, or try and save their friend and risk infection. Starvation and dehydration will kill them even if the Plague doesn't. The Plague should be treated like a "dragon between you and the exit" scenario in its potential for a total party kill.

The party could also go on a quest for a cure (unlikely), a deserted castle or monastery to hide in (more likely), or just loot everything in sight and hope they survive. 

Extra Tables

1d10 Carriers of the Disease (roll once per Plague)
1. Rats and Dogs (fleas)
2. Ticks
3. Sheep and Goats
4. Swine
5. Cattle
6. Horses, Donkeys, and Mules
7. Mosquitos and Flies
8. Water
9. Air
10. People only

1d10 Symptoms of the Disease (roll as many times as you'd like per Plague)
1. Bloody cough

2. Black pustules
3. White pustules
4. Headaches and trembling
5. High fever
6. Weakened and locked muscles
7. Open sores and rashes
8. Constant effluvia
9. Blindness 
10. Vomiting bile

1d10 Dubious Cures
1. Urine
2. Bloodletting

3. Heat and bundling
4. Bludgeoning
5. Prayer day and night
6. Ice cold water
7. Branding
8. Crushed pearls
9. Rainwater mixed with lime and gelatin
10.  Wine mixed with charcoal

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