Garden-Variety Treatments

Eric Lis

Modern science has long faced a quandary when it comes to herbalism. On the one hand, almost every ancient society produced huge volumes of information about the plants and plant extracts which its healers believed had beneficial health effects. Much of that knowledge has been lost over the centuries, but a wealth remains accessible to a researcher who knows where to look and it's likely that many useful and applicable medical discoveries await us in old, long-forgotten texts. On the other hand, even when these texts remain legible and translatable, we often run into a major problem: when you sit down and actually test those remedies and treatments in reproducible laboratory conditions or in large groups of monitored patients, you often find that the remedies don't actually work. It's hard for us to know whether we should be taking advice from a scholar who's been dead for a thousand years or not, knowing that they may have had access to one miracle cure but that they buried that secret in a textbook containing hundreds of therapies that are no better than placebo. This remains an important question for us, as gamers and storytellers, because the ancient texts which stymie modern researchers are often parallels to the contemporary texts in use in our games. The writings of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā aren't common reading in today's medical schools and pharmacy training programs, but your party's cleric probably carries a copy in his or her backpack.

Back in July, I commented on an article that discussed why people living in developing countries might choose to use traditional remedies rather than a trained healer. That article included a list of some of the traditional medicines of Suriname, in South America. Today, I'd like to do something along some of the same lines, but with some important differences, and share with you a recently-published review of herbal remedies which were popular in medieval Persia. Persian medical traditions go back well over a thousand years; when Europeans were scrounging in med and dying like flies from every plague to visit their neighbourhood, the Persians were performing successful surgical procedures in antiseptic conditions within well-organized medical colleges. Persian medicine would, in many ways, be a model for a relatively advanced form of medical science in a medieval fantasy world, and while it was far from being today's evidence-based, research-driven system, it remains one of the highlights of medical history. That's not to say that all of their treatments actually worked, of course, but in some respects, notably in preventive medicine, they may have actually been more advanced than us today. This article lists more than 30 herbal medicines in Table 1, both by their modern and traditional names, as well as by their believed uses, all of which is information ready to be dropped into your campaign with nary a change. Less relevant to gaming but perhaps even more interesting in all other respects is Table 2, wherein the authors show a list of which of those remedies have been tested in modern times and shown to perhaps have some genuine effect.

Here are a few examples of the drugs from the article, and some of the ways they might be incorporated into a campaign.

Soom: The root of this plant is widely believed to have an ability to slow the aging process. As such, it may be in high demand, and it's easy to imagine an aging and paranoid lord forcing serfs to grow nothing but ever greater supplies of soom in the hopes of staving off his impending death. Characters from a faraway land may be intrigued by legends of the root's potency, only to be disappointed when they discover that in their home-country, soom is better known as "garlic."

Agghovan: This flower is often touted as a sleep improver and may be in high demand by wizards and others who rely on being well-rested to be optimally battle-ready. Better known in some nations as feverfew, the flower is widely touted to also reduce fever and calm arthritis pain. In actual fact, it is probably as effective as placebo, but this may not stop desperate families from trying to procure a few petals when a beloved child falls ill.

Ahlilaj: A popular cure-all, ahlilaj fruit is widely reputed to have numerous health benefits, including improving memory, killing parasites, curing leprosy, unclogging blocked arteries, curing diarrhea. Like most cure-alls, it is also a popular aphrodisiac. In reality, its most potent action is that of a laxative, and its other effects remain unsubstantiated. When a deadly plague sweeps through a region, ahlilaj plantations may be over-run by fearful people seeking to stockpile this "miracle" remedy, and conflicts and even riots may erupt if supplies run low.

Badrajbooye: The leaves of the plant better-known to PCs as lemon-balm is widely-cultivated for a number of uses, most commonly to season food and to produce insect-repelling incense. Some believe that ingesting the leaves may improve mood and help an individual cope with stress. Adventurers may chew the leaf or inhale its oils for the calming, alertness-reducing effect, improving mental acuity and restfulness at the cost of impaired function on guard duty. In addition to reducing anxiety and causing sedation, the leaves may be useful to treat diseases of over-active thyroid glands. If nothing else, it makes nice tea.

Lawz: This nut, better known as an almond, grows from an oil-rich seed. The oil from these seeds is sometimes reputed to be a powerful treatment for pain, and especially for chronic, intractable pains that may not respond to ground willow bark or other common cures. Approximately one person in a thousand treated with these oils will turn out to have an allergy to them, and an unpredictable fraction of these will therefore die in at very awkward moment.

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 January 19, 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