Code/Switch – Disease, the Scourge of the NPC.

Welcome to Code/Switch. I want to thank Anthony Li (The Man Behind the Screens) for covering for me last Tuesday, his piece was great, you should check it out. Today, I want to talk about the deadliest thing in Pathfinder.

Dragons, Goblins, and Mice?

In Pathfinder you typically play as a hero, villain, or edgelord of incredible ability that becomes cooler as you accomplish greater and greater feats of might, cunning, and magic. The Player Characters in Pathfinder embody the Olympic athlete equivalent of adventures. A lot of low-level canned material has you helping a towns “Greatest Hunter” who’s equal to or of lower ability than the player characters!

It’s exactly at this low level of power that player characters are susceptible to the greatest killer in the entire world, disease. After a few levels, the Player Characters innate ability increases and exuberant wealth safeguard them from almost all non-magical diseases, granted they have the ability to get to a place to use them both, which is pretty often.

I’ve Never Been Killed by a Disease, How Bad Could it be?

Exactly. It’s very difficult in Pathfinder to die of a disease as a player character. When one of your team falls ill you have 3-5 other people willing to use their amazing Player Character skills and opulent Player Character wealth to help you. In my Skulls and Shackles game very early on, run ins with disease came very close to actually killing characters with no wealth and limited ability, but even they managed to survive. It’s just the math of how most diseases are that keeps them from being deadly, unless you’re an NPC.

NPC’s are much more susceptible to death by disease due to their reduced starting statistics and reduced wealth as compared to PC’s. (Funny enough, the NPC save progression is just like a Player Characters, except in the Commoner Class.)

Why Does It Matter if NPCs are Weak, I’m a Player Character?

Did you make your own sword? Are you picking your own reagents in the fields? Did you build the inn you’re staying in? NPC’s are the worker ants that keep all your facilities going, and without worker ants the colony fails. Disease can be a very effective call to action for Player Characters in game to help do things that reduce the chance of disease. For low-level characters that may mean fighting pests that carry the disease, for medium range characters it may mean a manhunt for an insidious operator or unwitting incubator, for a high-level character it may mean a fight against a powerful fiend bent on the annihilation of all life. Disease is powerful in so many ways.

I want to give an example of how devastating a disease can be to an NPC, so we’re gonna do some math (Yay!). Some of the most common real world infectious diseases are cholera and tuberculosis, and the Pathfinder equivalent of these diseases is that old standby Filth Fever. The statblock for Filth Fever reads as such:

Type disease, injury; Save Fortitude DC 12

Onset 1d3 days; Frequency 1/day

Effect 1d3 Dex damage and 1d3 Con damage; Cure 2 consecutive saves

This means in a nutshell that if you’re bitten by an infected creature you have to roll a 12 on a 20 sided dice to avoid suffering its effects. (Sidenote: Filth Fever gets slapped everywhere in sewer water, landfills, etc. its CRB entry is just injury.) You need to roll a 12 or higher twice on two consecutive days to “beat” the illness and have it leave your system. If you fail on either of the consecutive days, you lose your progress and have to try to save two consecutive days again. The save you make is a Fortitude save, a measure of your physical endurance. For Fortitude saves, your level in a class gives you a +0 to +2 bonus to the saves with increases based on your class progression. Your Fortitude save is further modified by your Constitution score modifier, if its positive you add that number to your Fortitude save roll, if negative you subtract it.

According to the Core Rulebook chapter for creating NPCs, your Basic NPC has an 11 Constitution Score for a modifier of 0. If they’re human, they can put their +2 into Constitution which we’ll be nice and do. This theoretical commoner, uhh, JoeSue has a 13 Constitution Score for a +1 modifier, yay! JoeSue has done a fair bit of work and has worked their way up to 2nd level, which gives them a class Fortitude Save modifier of… +0, boo. Somewhere on JoeSue’s daily routine, they fall ill. They come home and try to sleep it off.

Overnight, unbeknownst to JoeSue, we’ll decide their fate. We pick up our D20 and roll, the dice shows an 11 and we add +1 from JoeSue’s physical resolve (Constitution modifier). When JoeSue wakes up, they’ll still feel gross but no worse for wear. JoeSue spends the day in bed watching a beetle climbing the same spot on a wall and quickly falls back asleep. The next night we roll again and get a 7, even modified by JoeSues might, the disease damages JoeSue to the tune of -2 to their Dexterity and Constitution score. The next night JoeSue’s roll will be harder because of that Constitution damage (As per the Core Rulebook For every 2 points of damage you take to a single ability, apply a –1 penalty to skills and statistics listed with the relevant ability.). So the next night JoeSue rolls an 11, and adds +1 from their Constitution modifier, but also subtracts one due to the Constitution penalty from the damage which causes JoeSue to lose more Dexterity and Constitution.

For NPCs an unlucky roll or two can really start a mudslide to death by diarrhea. I know that you’re also thinking “Why doesn’t JoeSue buy an antiplague and get a +5 to that save or ask a healer for overnight care or just buy a Remove Disease?” JoeSue could, is JoeSue had that kind of cash lying around. JoeSue is trained as a teamster, a really good one, earning 3 gold per week. An antiplague is 50g. If JoeSue wanted to buy an antiplague to help make the illness end, JoeSue would have to have 17 weeks of full back pay in savings. Show of hands, who has 17 weeks of pay current in a savings fun? I see 1….2.. way in the back, that’s what I thought. As a point of comparison a 30 day dose of Amoxicillin (A common antibiotic) is about $8. Even if you’re making $1.25 a day, which is the line the World Bank defines extreme poverty, you only need 7 days of back pay to afford a 30 day dose of a medicine that can treat infections. Diseases is expensive in Pathfinder. JoeSue could go to a church of a good faith and beg for aid, but churches aren’t charities and their resources are limited as well. At the very best they’d require JoeSue to work off the cost of the cure at a rate probably lower than JoeSue’s regular job, wearing JoeSue out and making JoeSue more likely to get sick again.

I Don’t See That, Clerics Have to Heal the Sick without Extortion.

Where does it say that? Look over the Paladin codes for your favorite deity and you’ll quickly find even good deities operate on a fee-for-services model. Even if you find a great underground cleric who takes on the burden themselves, in a given settlement how many sick people are there and how many clerics are there? Your settlement size determines your spellcasting services, so you may only have a low-level cleric with limited abilities to heal a finite amount of people. Consequently this is also how epidemics work, the pathogens circumstances outstrip the health resources of an area. That can be seen in the real world where cholera outbreaks happen after natural disasters ruin clean water sources and damage health centers. It was also happens when a new disease appears and there’s limited prevention or cures. SARS was a similar situation, a new disease with a virulent ability to propagate spread until the communities affected issued edicts to increase the health resources. In SARS case it was banning spitting, wearing doctors masks, and increasing hand washing campaigns. Yes, clerics are magic, but magic is finite and until you have enough to outdo what you’re fighting the disease will spread.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

I know I wrote about disease previously while I was being a big baby a few months ago, but I think it’s important to take a look at how the majority of your game world lives to understand why things are the way they are. Have you had any fun (or harrowing) experiences with diseases in Pathfinder, if so I’d love to hear them below. I really enjoyed the discussion on my last article about Golarion-International shipping; a lot of smart cookies read these articles.

James Ballod

James blossomed into geekdom like a piranha plant in the crack of a sidewalk. Watered by the muscle-brained lore of Warhammer 40,000 and nurtured in the rough bosom of World of Warcraft, tabletop RPGs came late in life to James. The rich lore and real-world influences in games like Pathfinder inspire James to explore them from every angle. When not being an annoying anime-fanboy he can be found discussing the history of various cuisines and over-analyzing real world influences in works of fiction.