Dancing with the Daffodils

Eric Lis

How does a daffodil become the most precious resource in your campaign setting?

In the classic d20 and Pathfinder SRDs, a human hits the "venerable" category at age 70, and although the theoretical average human lifespan would be 90 years (70 + 2d20), we don't have statistical data that tell us how many humans actually live to their maximum without being killed by something else first. We tend to presume that even with the full benefit of healing magic, most people in a fantasy setting don't live long enough to develop dementia, given that the most common forms of dementia tend not to appear before the late seventies to early eighties. This isn't to say that dementia was unknown in ancient times -- cognitive impairment akin to Alzheimer's disease was described by healers in Ancient Greece, China, India, and Arabia -- but it was never really a major health issue prior to the 20th century. All that being said, there's one population which we most commonly imagine reaching a ripe old age even in a world without antibiotics: wizards. I'm prepared to wager that if I say "warrior," you picture a younger character, but if I say wizard, you think of a long, gray beard. The trick is that just as wizards may be the characters we picture reaching the ripest oldest ages, they're also presumably those who have the most to fear from dementia, since anything that impairs memory and cognition effectively robs them of their power, and one truism that human history unquestionably teaches us is that those with power will often go to incredible lengths to preserve that power when it's threatened. The question of how far a high-level wizard will go to keep hold of their power has been the seed at countless stories of liches, vampires, demonic bargains, and all sorts of subgenres of horror. A wonderful set-up for a story becomes all the better when you consider that dementia (and even more so those dementias which appear at younger ages, such as frontotemporal dementia) often manifest early with behavioural disinhibition and paranoia, which can potentially turn even the most benevolent of lawful good spellcasters into a deadly adversary.

I know, I still haven't explained the bit about daffodils. I'm getting to that.

In modern medicine, there's one class of drug which is primarily used to treat Alzheimer's disease. Drugs in this class are known as the "acetylcholinesterase inhibitors" (AChEIs) because they block the activity of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme in the brain which normally breaks down neurotransmitters. AChEIs don't reverse Alzheimer's, but they can slow or stop its progress, at least for a time, and although they weren't discovered until quite recently in history, it's easy to imagine that a wizard with a background in magical alchemy or with access to the right divination spells would see such compounds as a way to hold onto their power for a little bit longer. AChEIs are found in many sources in nature, including a number of plants. Specifically, the modern drug known as galantamine can be extracted from various flowers of the Galanthus genus (from which the drug gets its name), which includes the snowdrop, the Lycoris genus, which includes one of my favourite flowers, the red spider lily, and as you've no doubt guessed by now, the Narcissus genus, which includes dozens of species all of which are broadly known as the common daffodil.

Imagine, if you will, a campaign centered around three or four twentieth-level mages waging all out war against each other, each trying to jealously control the world's dwindling supply of daffodils so as to preserve their own deteriorating minds, while the player characters are caught in the middle. I think it has just the right mix of epic fantasy, absurdity, and plausibility to work as the basis of a plot. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on August 9, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system