Today I’m going to continue my discussion of illness in games, and how it can be used to make games more interesting. An important caveat: this is the kind of advice that you should think about carefully before using, because it causes fundamental changes to the game systems and very well may not be fun for many players.
Yesterday I discussed why even high fantasy settings will always have to worry about plagues and illness, both mundane and magical. Today I’m going to give some more concrete examples of how to handle illness in different systems. First up will by the various editions of the Cypher System, produced by Monte Cook Games.
This system, as simple as it is, thankfully has a relatively simple set of methods to represent this problem: the three stat pools, the damage track, and the recovery roll. Any given ailment can impact any or all of these. The simplest – and most common, particularly for ailments such s a minor cold – is to temporarily reduce the maximum value of one or two stat pools. A common cold might knock a couple points off a player’s Might and Speed pools, representing the malaise and fatigue the cold brings with it. Something more severe – a nasty case of the flu – could knock off half of the maximum of one Pool and a few points off each of the others; everything hurts, you tire easily, and you can’t think clearly without a lot of effort. Something more severe – a significant illness – might move someone a step down the damage track until they manage to recover, representing the toll the ailment takes on them. Something lingering – a recurrent illness, or something that they just can’t shake – might impact their Recovery roll, taking away a +1 or +2 from the roll; the lowest you can roll is 0, but that penalty is there for how hard it can be to rest when you’re sick. Any mixture of these can be used to mechanically represent most forms of sickness, leaving aside those with particularly horrible effects that are best handled with disease-specific side effects.
Eclipse Phase isn’t a game you’d initially expect to find disease; nearly every biomorph comes with medichines and a sanitized metabolism, taking care of most disease vectors and preventing them from gaining a solid foothold in would-be victims. There are three particular instances in which disease in some form takes on a significant meaning, however. The first is within the Jovian Republic, where their distrust of nanotechnology, ego backup, and genetic engineering leaves their habitats with an extra need for proper health care that may well be lacking in all but the most important areas and stations. The presence of flats (non-upgraded biomorphs no different from a modern human), high radiation levels, and crowded conditions without sanitized metabolisms and or the benefit of medichines means that each Jovian habitat is a petri dish breeding unique strains of everything from the common cold to exotic forms of life-threatening bacteria and fungi to outright cancer can become an epidemic.
Neo-primitive groups face many of the same challenges; even those inhabiting splicer morphs or uplifts will eventually have to face up to the fact that by living in a more natural environment, they’re providing a breeding ground that may serve to culture a unique strain of disease that can bypass their defenses. These situations become more likely the more primitive a neo-prim group seeks to be, to the point that some of the most hardcore groups are no better off than Jovians living in the worst-maintained habitats, if that.
Lastly, there are gatecrashers, who go wandering through wormholes and find themselves exposed to all manner of strange and alien pathogens; some of these have evolved (or been engineered) in conditions that give them an unusual edge over transhuman defense systems, or they attack the very material of those defenses, or the defenses simply don’t recognize them for being too alien in nature.
Penalties to physical or mental skills, reduction of a biomorph’s Durability, and increasing amounts of Stress can be inflicted as mechanical versions of the symptoms of a given disease. Some of the more exotic diseases may have other effects, as well – a xenofungus may well provide a natural armor bonus, as it toughens a character’s skin into a chitinous carapace, but these benefits are short-term and sere to make the character question when the other shoe will drop. Hallucinations, bizarre psi effects, and more can result from illness in the Eclipse Phase universe. Of the game systems I can think of, this is the one where the use of disease in this fashion is the most acceptable; a game of sci-fi horror has room for nightmarish ailments that make a character debate whether or not they really want to do an ego backup, or if they want to restore themselves to a fresh body and remember nothing of the disease’s effects.
As for other systems, these should provide a template to think about how to introduce more serious and severe illness to your games. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, as long as your players are on the same page with you on what can potentially happen.
So how would you represent serious diseases in your favorite game system?