Pathfinder Diseases: Magical Maladies

Masque of the Red Death as interpreted by an attendee of the Comic-Con 2012 Masquerade
Masque of the Red Death as interpreted by an attendee of the Comic-Con 2012 Masquerade

The section on diseases is one of the worst things I’ve encountered in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide so far. It has a page and a half worth of space in the book, but as best I can tell it’s nothing but a fun-leech. Something that Arneson came up with, and Gygax added complications to.* I’m honestly not sure why either of them thought rolling each month to determine if players caught a life-threatening disease would be fun. It strikes me as the kind of mechanic added because the designer places too high a value on creating ‘realistic’ games. Yet both Gygax and Arneson demonstrated elsewhere that they understood the dangers of excessive realism. Gygax even writes in the opening of the DMG:

“As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it [D&D] can be deemed only a dismal failure.”

So I’m really not sure why they chose to go this route. But suffice to say, I think it’s bad.

But the idea of diseases itself is not inherently flawed. Only AD&D’s application of it. And I don’t think I’m alone in that, as I’ve never seen anything even remotely resembling that disease rule in any other edition of D&D, or any retro-clone, that I’ve read. Diseases are still present somewhat, but they’re treated much more like poisons than anything else. The bite of a diseased animal or being cursed is the most common way to get a disease in Pathfinder. And while I don’t think that’s inherently bad, I think we could do better.

But before I move on to discussing my thoughts on how to fix the mechanics of how diseases are contracted, I’d like to bring up a second problem: how diseases are identified. The diseases in Pathfinder include such maladies as “Blinding Sickness,” “Cackle Fever,” “Devil Chills,” and Slimy Doom.” As fun and pulpy as these disease names are, I agree with Delta: diseases work better when they’re rooted in the real world. I get what they were going for (I’ve done it too), but goofy fantasy names like these never sound as good as they do in our heads. I do appreciate that Pathfinder includes more grounded diseases like Bubonic Plague and Leprosy, but I wish they’d stuck to Mummy Rot and Lycanthropy by way of fantasy diseases.

That doesn’t mean that I’m completely opposed to fantasy diseases. I just think they need to be integrated better. A fantastic disease should have a fantastic cause. It should also be more distinct and memorable than 1d4 strength damage once per day until 3 consecutive fortitude saves are made. The two I mentioned above are perfect examples of what I would deem to be good fantastical diseases. Mummy Rot is one of the most dreadful attacks possessed by a low level undead creature, with the potential to completely turn the target to dust. While Lycanthropy is so uniquely fantastical that I don’t even need to justify it. You already know why it’s awesome. For today I’m going to focus on fantastical diseases like these, while tomorrow’s post will cover more commonplace conditions.

Magic users of various stripes control energies well beyond the understanding of normal mortals. Normally these casters are well prepared to handle the energies they summon. However, if for some reason they fail to bring their spell to completion, the magical energies can be released into their body, and left to contaminate them in one way or another, often making them ill.

If for any reason a spellcaster fails to cast a spell after they’ve begun casting it, they are at risk of contracting a magical disease. The GM should roll 1d20 on the chart below. If the result is equal to or less than the level of the spell being cast, then the magic user contracts the indicated malady. If the number rolled is higher than the level of the spell which was being cast, then nothing happens (even if that number would otherwise correspond to a disease).

For example, if a sorcerer attempts to cast a 5th level spell, but is attacked and fails their concentration check, then they are at risk of becoming ill. If the GM rolls a 2, then the caster contracts “Mystic Frailty,” because 2 < 5. On the other hand, if a 6 is rolled, the caster will not contract Energy Leak,” because 6 > 5. Unless otherwise stated, all diseases last a number of days equal to 1d4 times the level of the spell which was failed.

1 – Glitter Sniffle
2- Mystic Frailty
3- Unsteady Casting
4- School Lock
5- Reachlost
6- Energy Leak
7- Spelldraw
8- Commoner’s Disease
9- Soul Breach

Glitter Sniffle – While most magical diseases are a severe inconvenience, Glitter Sniffle is more of a nuisance. For the duration of the illness, the caster sneezes at least once every 15 minutes. When they sneeze, a glittering, glowing light effect erupts from their nose, momentarily causing a harmless flash of light. Bits of mucus continue to glow for an hour after the fact, which can leave an obvious trail if the care is not taken.

Mystic Frailty – All spells have their effects reduced by half (number of die, number of creatures, duration. Whichever is relevant). Aside from feelings of general mental weakness, the casters spells are much less impaction than they ought to be. Though the caster may put twice as much effort into their attempt to cast fireball, the flames they produce will be significantly less intense than normal.

Unsteady Casting – Magical incantations which normally seem quite simple are more difficult to understand and express. Gestures and magical words are slightly off, causing the spell’s effects to be weakened. The saving throw for all of the caster’s spells are reduced by half. Any spell which normally does not have a saving throw, gains one.

School Lock – Whichever school of spells the cater was attempting to cast from when they failed is the only school which they can cast from at all for the duration of the disease. The magical energies specific to that school have permeated the caster’s body, causing spells of any other school to become mangled, and fail. This effect counts even if the failed spell was from the universal school, or the caster’s prohibited school.

Reachlost – The ability to designate a target for a spell is a complicated one which casters must practice hard in order to perfect. The Reachlost disease completely blocks the caster’s access to the mental muscle they need in order to accomplish that feat. For the duration of this illness, spells can only be delivered as touch spells. Magical items which increase a spells range, or metamagic feats which do so, will not function.

Energy Leak – The magical energies that the caster normally holds within their bodies leak out constantly. Anytime they attempt to cast a spell, they must make a concentration check, DC 10 + [Spell Level]. If they fail, then the spell was lost, and they cannot attempt to cast it. Additionally, the leaking magic attracts many types of magical bests which can sense it. Denizens of the lower planes are particularly sensitive to this trail, often sensing it from miles away.

Spelldraw – The shifting, roiling mass of magical energy within the caster is so powerful that it draws other magic towards it. If any spell’s target is within a number of feet of the diseased caster equal to 10 * the failed spell’s level, then the caster of that spell must succeed on a concentration check (DC 10 + [Spell Level]) or that spell’s target will become the diseased caster. The diseased caster also receives no saving throws against spells while afflicted with Spelldraw.

Commoner’s Disease – Magical energies become completely inaccessible to the caster for the duration of this disease. They are unable to cast any spells whatsoever, but can still use scrolls and magical items.

Soul Breach – This is bad. The magical energies you let course through your body have somehow entwined with your soul, corrupting it. This effect does not end until it is cured, and curing it may be difficult. Each time you cast a spell while you have this disease, make a will saving throw, DC 10 + [Spell Level]. Upon failure, this corruption spreads, and the caster gains 1 negative level.

If the disease cannot be cured, the caster faces a difficult decision about what they value more: casting spells, or being alive?

*My understanding is that the disease rules found in the DMG first appeared in a simpler form in the “Blackmoor” supplement, written by Arneson.

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3 thoughts on “Pathfinder Diseases: Magical Maladies”

  1. How would you make this mechanic balanced? I love the idea, but applying it without nuking casters might be hard. Or are you assuming that wizards are overpowered enough by the time they’re casting level 9 spells that the risk of Soul Breach only levels the playing field?

    1. For my own purposes, I think the mechanic is pretty well balanced. I rarely see casters get interrupted, and even if they do, the worst case scenario is a 55% chance of not contracting a disease.

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