Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: The Flu

Recreated 1918 flu virions.
Recreated 1918 flu virions.

Have you caught the flu this winter season? I’ve caught it twice so far. Each time it was different. The first one was typical of what I normally experience. Chills, headache, lethargy, fever, loss of appetite. I laid on the couch a lot and watched all of John Adams. All of it. Except for one part with the guy from Dark City because I drank Theraflu and passed out. The second time I caught it, different animal. Headache and tiredness, throat issues, which is terrible for me since I already have larger than normal tonsils.  It’s downgraded into a pretty gnarly head cold that is still with me as I type this.

The flu is one of those things which seems kind of…mundane. While we hate being plowed under by it, it’s a part of life. ‘Flu season.’ We expect it. Flu vaccines are made, you’re told to get one especially if you’re a kid or have a compromised immune system. Yet when you’re hit by it, all you can think is “Why, why me? Who gave this to me? If I decapitate them, Highlander-style, will the sickness leave my body? I’m too sick to pick up a butter knife, let alone a sword. Where’s my kilt? Is that the bad guy from A Knight’s Tale wearing a fancy wig and talking to George Washington?”

However, the influenza virus mutates quickly and spreads rapidly. In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic hit the world. During the tail end of The Great War/World War I, troop movements and increased travel in general helped to spread this horrific strain of the virus which killed not the very young, old and infirm like most types of flu but the able-bodied, people who had been healthy just a few days before. It killed soldiers in the trenches and in military hospitals, inundating sick wards already filled with injured soldiers. The infection rate and mortality rate were catastrophic. The symptoms were atypical, causing the infected to be misdiagnosed and drowning people in their own fluids. The numbers are frightening. It’s said to have killed more people than the Black Plague. And mutations of this bug are still floating around, waiting on toilet seat handles, desks, doors, dressing room mirrors, in petri dishes being sequenced and observed by scientists. We’ve probably all had a mutation of this ‘bug.’ This bug was far from mundane. Genetically related to what we’ve all been passing around all these years, it’s a reminder of the power that lies within this tiny organism, undetectable to the naked eye.

It doesn’t matter if your STR is 18: if you have the flu, you will probably be in bed, or on the floor if you don’t make it to the bed. And even if you escape its chill-giving, headache-inducing, fever-addled grasp, a town ravaged by the flu will probably be hesitant to open its gates to you. If they do, you’re likely to find empty shelves and maybe a few days knocked out for yourself, if you’re lucky. As common as the flu is, it can put people out of commission, in some cases…permanently. Seasonal or not, the flu forces those affected to take it seriously.

For DMs

  • What kinds of seasonal illnesses sweep through the region? What are the symptoms?
  • When does it usually start showing up? Does it have a nickname?
  • Who usually catches the sickness? Does it usually start with a certain age group? Certain profession?
  • What are people told to do in order to prevent the spread of the illness? What is most effective?
  • What can alleviate the symptoms/speed the healing process? How long are people sick for?
  • When are people most contagious?
  • Where do people go to get healed? Do they stay home and administer home remedies? Go to temples and pray for sound bodies? Visit healers for the newest medicines?
  • What types of things would help an illness to spread quickly? A change in the weather? Improvements to transportation? Transient populations? Introduction of new animals/plants/substances? Holidays? Combat? What would prevent its spreading and how can this be effectively implemented?
  • How do people know when the illness has started to manifest? How is information about the virus transmitted from person to person?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are sent to ascertain symptoms of villagers; if the illness is deemed to be something serious and worth quarantining, the PCS are ordered to quarantine the locale to prevent further infection. What tools are at their disposal to enforce the quarantine? What criteria is given to judge the severity of the illness? Do they try to track down people who may have left the village within a certain time span? Who do the PCs work for? How do the villagers react when they hear they are being quarantined?
  • The PCs work border patrol for their country, their people staying neutral during a conflict between other national powers. Refugees are pushing at the borders, trying to escape the armies and severity of the conflict. However, the hardship of travel, crowded quarters and bad weather has caused the refugees to grow ill. People are demanding to be allowed to cross the border to escape the illness or to get help for their sick friends and family members. The PCs must guard the borders and keep the refugees from freaking out and pushing past the boundaries. Is the sickness limited to the refugees or are people from the PCs’ nation also sucumbing to it? How is the border guarded? Do they have orders to keep people back or are they allowed to evaluate cases and make exceptions? Who do the PCs answer to?
  • When a village has mysteriously avoided getting ill during the last epidemic, the PCs are sent to investigate how they were able to elude an illness that has greatly affected the rest of the nation. Where is the village located? How do they receive the PCs? How do they say they were able to stave off the illness? Are there any other contributing factors they may or may not know about?
  • When the countryside is overrun with a particularly virulent strain of a virus, a group of people try to leave to a more secluded area before they can be affected. The PCs are hired to guide them there safely. Who is in this group of people trying to escape the illness? Where do they wish to go? Why have they hired the PCs in particular? How are they sure to avoid infection during their travels? What other problems has the illness caused that they must deal with on the road?

For PCs

  • Do you get sick easily?
  • What is the sickest you have ever been?
  • What do you do in order to avoid catching ill? Are these family traditions, things you picked up through observation or did you read/hear about them somewhere?
  • How do you feel about sick people? Do you avoid them? Would you help someone if they were visibly ill? What if you knew they weren’t contagious? What if you knew for a fact they were?
  • How do you think disease is spread?
  • Do you avoid certain things to prevent getting sick?
  • What is the worst part about being sick?

Weird fact: The ‘Spanish Flu’ got its name because Spain was one of the only countries not involved during World War 1 and didn’t have as much censorship happening in its media. This led to reports of the flu’s presence in Spain being more widely known, giving the illusion it originated there. There are theories as to the virus’ origin but no one is really sure where the virus mutated into the strain that wreaked so much havoc across the globe.

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