Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Tiniest Space Monster: Space Disease

Star Wars draws its inspiration from the sort of stories where one can always punch ones opponents in the face.  That would seem to preclude disease, but Star Wars also draws a great deal of inspiration from history, and plague has always been a major mover and shaker in the annals of history.  Furthermore, Action has an entire section on dealing with major breakouts.  Of course, Action features a medic while Psi-Wars doesn't, but Psi-Wars does have Psionic healing and mystics who can easily specialize in it.  Furthermore, disease is definitely an issue when wandering around in jungles, so disease already has a presence in Psi-Wars, and thus it might be worth exploring further.

Star Wars actually features one disease already (at least, in the Old Republic): Rakghoul Plague.  The Expanded Universe makes references to a variety of diseases, including imperial bioweapons. It also has a great list of possible diseases on wookiepedia, most of which I've never heard of, but this is illustrative: Star Wars tends to treat disease as either a plot device, or a bit of color.

I think we should follow suite.  The point of Psi-Wars isn't to solve the mystery of the disease, as it might be in Heroes of the Galactic Frontier, but to deal with the fallout. Heroes will do one of the following:
  • Show compassion to the afflicted
  • Race against the clock to prevent a major breakout from occurring
  • Deal with a minor, inconvenient disease in a location appropriate to disease.
Thus, we can break diseases down into three broad categories:
  • Troublesome afflictions that do not kill the victim but nonetheless result in his misery and social isolation, like Leprosy.
  • A spectacularly lethal weapon that, should be it be unleashed, will doom an entire world (like weaponized Ebola or other nightmare-inducing thriller bioweapons)
  • Inconvenient background flavor (like "Swamp fever").

Space Leprosy

If a disease kills you, it's generally by accident.  The ideal disease, as it were, exists and persists within you, more of a parasite than a plague, because a disease that kills its host is like a man who burns his own house down.  Most "spectacularly deadly" plagues hop from one species to another, and then behaves as though it was in the original species: what gives a chicken the sniffles might well kill you (or vice versa). Leprosy is a good example of a disease well-adapted to living in humans.  It slowly and carefully devours its host.

We care about this not because the biology of space diseases matters all that much, but because the social context does.  Stories (historically accurate or otherwise) are replete with sick beggars clawing at heroes to save them, to heal them or to just give them a few coins.  What exactly are those beggars sick with?  The answer varies considerably, but "leprosy" is as good an answer as any.  Lepers were cast from communities, forced to live apart, as beggars and untouchables.  They also presented an opportunity for saintly heroes to work their magic and heal the sick and afflicted.

The key mechanical feature for Space Leprosy is Social Disease.  This accounts for a great deal more than just leprosy, including HIV and most annoying, sexually transmitted disease (though, to be clear, Social Disease does not require sexual contact to pass, rules as written).  These generally fall below the radar of what we might find interesting in Psi-Wars.  I'm sure there's a  space gonorrhea that makes it irritating to pee when it flairs up that you might have picked up from an inappropriate encounter at a space truck-stop, but I don't think your fellow players or GM wants to hear about that.  We include the Social Disease disadvantage to represent the fact that someone else could become afflicted by it.  This forces the character into isolation, or means they have to be especially careful.

Our Social Disease should also be a little more dire than a minor inconvenience or something that will kill you in 10 years.  Thus, we can create a disease package containing Social Disease and additional disadvantages.  While nearly anything will work, some suggestions:

  • Appearance: Scars, pustules and other disgusting marks will rapidly ruin one's appearance.
  • Bad Smell (B124): As the body slowly dies, it produces an awful odor.  Furthermore, we tend to associate bad smells with disease: your affliction literally gives you a miasma announcing your slow decay.
  • Chronic Pain (B126): a great use of the chronic pain problem, as the disease explains the sudden flair-ups nicely.
  • Distinctive Features (PU6 14): If your disease is visibly plain to people, or worse, creates marks that readily identify you.
  • Epilepsy (B136): this isn't a transmittable disease in the real world, but seizures can be caused by transmittable diseases.
  • Hemophilia (B138): someone with some sort of blood disorder might find he needs to be much more careful when injured.
  • Neurological Disorder (B144): your disease harms your nervous system.  I wouldn't go worse than mild.
  • Numb (B146): What Leprosy actually gives  you, if you want to literally do Space Leprosy
Diseases could include plenty more traits, including personality-changing traits, or even supernatural traits for a psionic disease, or exotic traits for some sort of nano-borne disease.

We should also consider what treatment, if any, could cure the disease and why it hasn't already been eradicated.  If a cheap drug can cure the disease, then only the most poverty-stricken will be afflicted (in the real world, Leprosy has been nearly eradicated in the West, and most of the remaining cases are in the poorer parts of India).  If an expensive or rare drug can cure it, then it might be highly sought after, especially if there's a break out.  If nothing can cure it, then psionic healers and masters of Communion might be sought out for their magical abilities.  When making this choice, I would like to note that Social Disease specifically notes that it is "anti-biotic resistant."  The "standard medical treatments" can never be enough to fix the disease.  There must be some special consideration.

Next, we should probably work out the danger involved in close contact.  It could be automatic, or it could require a HT roll at a penalty or a bonus.  I recommend that players definitely be allowed a roll, especially as some might have taken Resist Disease.  Note, further, that it requires fairly close and constant contact.  A sneeze or a handshake isn't going to do it, and if it can, then the character should get between +4 to +10 to resist.

Finally, we should work out the context of the disease. Who does it afflict?  Is it one race, or a variety of races (or any race)?  How do people feel about it?  Do they have some sort of symbolism associated with it?  Perhaps it's related to a particular war, or a particular class of people, or a particular world?  And what does it look like?  If you see a victim with the disease, what do you see (or smell!)?

Okay, so what happens if your players go to the space leper colony and make out with space leper for an hour?  Well, they'll probably catch space leprosy, but what about your edge cases?  Presumably, going to a leper colony should be at least somewhat dangerous (hence their ostracization) but gaining a disease like this is a major character change.  It can easily amount to -20 to -30 points!  My suggestion would be that if player characters put themselves in danger of gaining a long-term, character defining illness, you can let them roll, and if they fail, give them the option of gaining the disease.  If they choose not to, they must spend 1 impulse buy point to overcome this.  That creates a nice compromise between realism and character integrity (and gives the character who invested in Resist Disease a benefit).

Space Swamp Fever

The Dungeon Fantasy genre (which definitely impacts Star Wars: see Knights of the Old Republic) loves to include "disease" as a nod to realism (as the medieval world was rife with disease) but in practice tends to keep the diseases relatively tame: A minor stat penalty for a few days until you recover.

"Adventuring disease" should definitely play a role in Psi-Wars, as characters who go into the Space Jungle should risk Space Malaria, but Space Malaria should be an annoying problem, rather than something that removes their characters from play.  If you're playing a game and you drink some water that you shouldn't, you shouldn't be out of the game, but you should still be penalized in some way for your choice.  Likewise, the character with Resist Disease should benefit to some degree (he can afford to take advantages of solutions, like drink tainted water or wade into disease-infested miasma, without facing the risks others do).

Dungeon Fantasy offers a solution of -1 to -2 to DX and IQ for a few days, or possibly a loss of Fatigue, or both.  I suggest codifying this, while still allowing some variety for the purposes of setting-uniqueness.

When exposed to a "Swamp Fever," a character must roll HT (at a penalty between -1 and -5).  Failure means that the character loses 1 fatigue (which cannot be recovered until the illness passes) and suffers a penalty, either -2 to DX and IQ or one to two of the following Irritating Conditions:

  • Coughing (escalates to Seizure)
  • Drowsy (escalates to Daze)
  • Nauseated (escalates to Retching)
  • Moderate or Severe Pain (Escalates to Agony)
the GM might use other irritations, but he should avoid incapacitating conditions except for NPCs. If a character fails his HT by 5 or more, the GM might introduce a second condition for that day or escalate to an incapaciting condition for NPCs only.  The disease lasts until the player succeeds at his resistance roll, or until the disease has run its course after a given number of days (2d6 by default), or until cured.

Medical care allows the character to make 4 additional recovery rolls per day in a hospital, or one additional recovery roll outside of a hospital. A dose of genericillin adds +5 to all rolls to recover from any Space Swamp Fever. For Psychic Healing, the penalty to curing Swamp Fever is the HT penalty for recovery.

Most such diseases are not contagious. The character gains them by being stung by an infected insect, or drinking infected water, or messing about with infected corpses or stepping into an infected tomb.  That is, it occurs directly because of player action, as a consequence for that action.  If the player determines that it is contagious, limit it to Mildly Contagious only: spending a day in a confined space with the victim (such as being in a unsanitary hospital room with them, or treating them directly).

Space Ebola

Realistically, exposure kills – WMD aren’t weapons of mass inconvenience – but slaying heroes isn’t fun. Exposed PCs instead get a “mild case,” and lurch around with 1 FP and 1 HP left (use current FP or HP, if worse), and -5 to all success rolls. Recovery isn’t possible until a cure arrives; see Medic! (pp. 40-41). The GM may assess other effects. 
-GURPS Action 2, page 29
We could work out the intricate details of a serious space plague, the sort that keeps the heroes up at night, but Action already has details for serious breakouts, detailed on page 40.  However, "Outbreak" is there to challenge the Medic, which Psi-Wars doesn't have.  The point of a deadly space plague in Psi-Wars is as a plot device.  An arctic bioweapon research post is filled with nothing but the decaying bodies of researchers; a dangerous terrorist with the last vial of liquid death as just boarded a highly populated space station, etc.  Thus, the way Action 2 proposes handling space plague is sufficient.

Characters handling space plague need to make a Hazardous Materials (Biological) roll to avoid exposure.  Characters exposed to space plague must make an HT-10 roll (via a failed roll, or dramatic arterial spray from dying victims).  Success inflicts 1d toxic damage to HP and FP, and some irritant for one hour, whereafter the character recovers (critical success means the plague has no effect).  Failure inflicts the Action WMD rules: You're reduced to 1 FP and HP and -5 to all rolls until you're cured.  Genericillin won't cure the disease, though there's always an antidote somewhere.   Treat cures and vaccines as macguffins to be sought after, rather than things invented.  Psychic Healers can try to heal the character with a -10.

Biotech is full of interesting ideas for strange plagues that turn people into  monsters, or drive them mad so they kill other people, etc.  Space Ebola doesn't have to be a bioweapon: it could be a dangerous contaminant locked away in a forbidding tomb, or a dangerous plague brought in from another galaxy.  However, when villains discover its dangerous properties, they always seek to weaponize it.
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