Plague, Famine, War, and Death
There are lots of mechanics in systems for dealing with these. Saves vs. diseases, rules for starvation, mass combat rules, and of course how to deal with escrow when your character buys the farm. These are all great, but can also be somewhat tedious as I’ve always liked these to be motivators for characters in stories rather than something players directly interface with because it seems kind of anti-climactic to have a character die of dysentery, the pox, a random bit of shrapnel. So I humbly submit some ways to incorporate these horrors into a setting without squashing the players, or reducing these tragedy's to some dice rolls.
Plague. Disease comes in a wide variety of vectors, fatality rates, and horrible symptoms. My rule of thumb is give a 1 in 10 chance each time a player returns to an area/building where there is an NPC they would normally interact with (inn-keeper, shop-keeper, or named NPC), the NPC is unavailable due to the plague (sick, dead, or dealing with family in those states). Mind you the black plague is given the variable of killing 30-60% of Europe. Have the occasional NPC cough or express a minor symptom (feel free to fake some rolls here if you want to keep the players on edge). Express the smell of sickness is in the air.
Quarantine: An NPC expresses the plague symptoms in the building the characters are in and the building is quarantined until everyone with the symptoms dies.
Random encounters all have their initial reaction reduced one level due to fear that the PCs might be carrying the plague.
A character receives a message that a far off family member has contracted the plague
Light: Headache, light sensitivity, cough, congestion, light headedness, gas, indigestion
Moderate: Nausea, Constipation, boils, oozing sores, breathing issues, fainting
Severe: Vomiting, Dysentery, bleeding sores, cough up blood, coma,
Famine. The law of supply and demand. Food is available, otherwise everyone would just die in a week. The problem is there are too many people for the food available. Food should be expensive. Double or triple the price. Paint the scene by expressing the lack of what is normally in the background. Animals are scarce, dogs aren’t heard barking and cats aren’t meowing when characters approach. When they see other people eat you can describe how portions are merger, or lacing in variety (only potatoes, or mushrooms). When the players eat though, describe about how good the food tastes, and that they lick their plates and fingers clean savoring every morsel. The meals may be bland but when the character is only eating once a day, they don’t have the luxury of complaining about meals without spices or only contain stringy meat. Have people be less lively. They aren’t eating and are tired so service is slow, people as to be excused for staying sitting. Up the encumbrance penalty by a level for the players in their weakened state. Save the starvation rules for when players are stuck away from civilization and rations have run out. If the players have animals, have the townspeople stare at them hungrily.
Players witness a public execution for food theft or hoarding
The constant crying of an infant because a woman who cannot feed her baby. She isn’t eating enough to produce milk.
A family stops feeding or exiles an elderly member because they would die soon anyway
Meat is temporarily available, but no one will talk about where it came from
War. Until modern times more people died from the first two during wartime than actual battle, and for good reason. If disease caught hold of an army, you had a large group of people, with poor sanitation so it would spread rapidly. These mobile armies needed a large amount of supplies to maintain and logistics were at best dodgy, so they were often supplemented by scavenging the surrounding area (a good reason to be fighting in someone else’s territory) so non-combatants would feel the effects of war, through rationing, pillaging by hostile and friendly forces, the drafting of fighting age men, and the disease that could be brought along with them. All of this added to the disaster that would come if your town if it had any strategic importance and became a battleground itself. Like famine increase prices, only affect all items on a random basis due to the fortunes of war. 1d4 1) +25% 2) +50% 3) +100% 4) +200%
A recruiter is drumming up new enlistees (or draftees) for the war effort, the players look like healthy, strapping folks who are loyal to their king…
A small group of Soldiers have been left behind in the town due to their wounds and left in care of the townsfolk
While traveling through a recent battleground with carrion bird flying overhead, or feasting on the remains of the dead, discarded equipment by the fleeing forces. A lady from the nearby town is stepping through the corpses and then kneels weeping over the body of her husband
Death. All of the above can lead to a lot of dead bodies very quickly for a variety of reasons. These can then in turn spur a vicious cycle of the others. Enough dead farmers can lead to insufficient hand to bring in the crops that rot in the field and which leads to famine. Improperly cared for bodies can lead to contamination that spreads disease. Enough dead from any cause may lead to blaming leaders and a revolt and bloody battle to gain the necessary resources or change the status quo. People will develop coping methods to deal with the death all around them. Children play morbid games, and people develop a gallows humor. In a metropolis high fashion grieving clothing is all the rage.
The town is rotting. There aren’t enough living left to care for the dead. A miasma of putrescence has settles on the town that spoils food and curdles milk pre-maturely.
The treasure form an encounter is made up of precious metal fillings from teeth and wedding bands stolen from a mass grave
A doom prophet warns that the end time has come
A man is collecting the dead into a cart (this could be someone collecting specimens for medical research, or a necromancer, or something else).
A snake oil salesman is selling a trinket that will ward off/ cure the cause of the death.
These events can be the fallout form the actions of a major villain, but also can be incorporated into the backdrop of an adventure. The plague, famine or war is not a problem for the characters to solve. It is not a "big bad" to defeat. These events can be useful to reduce an excess of player resources, but hopefully these will serve to help the players feel that they are part of a bigger world with events going on that they are not directly involved in.