Hair of the Monkey That Bit You

Eric Lis

Are your players bored and unimpressed when you attack them with wolves and snakes and other mundane animals? Time to hit them with monkeys.

So here’s something I discovered while looking up something totally unrelated: there’s apparently a fairly large scientific literature about monkey bites. This literature is by no means as rich as that on dog or human bites, but none the less, a certain number of research studies have been conducted on monkey bites, and the bulk of this research shows that monkey bites are surprisingly dangerous. We think of monkeys as being reasonably harmless, because they tend to be small and cute and cuddly and non-venomous, but the truth is that they can be vile little repositories of disease and pestilence… which is just another way in which they’re more like humans than we often care to admit.

Much of the research on monkey bites comes from outside of the US – very few US states having large native populations of non-human primates, after all – and much of the data has specifically been collected about, for example, tourism workers, pet owners, and soldiers. Monkey bites seem to actually be among the important health risks for American soldiers in Afghanistan, although the actual number of soldiers with serious health outcomes from monkey bites pales in comparison to, say, bombs and bullets, so it hasn’t drawn much media attention.

Monkey bites pose a danger in two broad categories: the physical trauma of the bite, and the infections which can follow. The physical trauma from small animal bites tends not to be terribly severe, but the infections can be major problems, particularly if the healers don’t know how high the risk of infection is and simply close a wound without properly preventing them. Monkey bites can carry a number of infections which North American doctors in particular aren’t trained to worry about. These infections include tetanus and rabies, which are fairly straightforward to use in a game and potentially tremendous fun to inflict on players, but also an atypical strain of the herpes virus known as B-virus. B-virus is a virus which seems to be normal to find in some species of monkey, and they seem not to suffer any ill effects from it much as we suffer no symptoms from being colonized by the bacteria in our guts. Humans, on the other hand, suffer an array of symptoms when infected with B-virus, the most important of which is brain infection. When the virus enters the body, usually in an extremity such as a hand, it enters the nerves and travels up into the brain, where it causes weakness, confusion, and death. With rapid treatment the spread of the virus can be stopped, but much of the neurological damage that it causes seems to be irreversible. On the one hand, B-virus is extremely rare and only about 30 cases have ever been reported, but on the other hand, about two thirds of those have ended in death and, based on the small number of cases that didn’t receive meaningful treatment, the mortality rate without care is thought to be about 70-80%.

Monkey bites might be a nasty trick for a storyteller to play on a group of PCs because, of course, PCs don’t usually routinely cast disease-removing spells after every fight. However rare B-virus might be in real life, a storyteller can always fudge numbers a bit in a game. Suppose that a jungle druid sends a swarm of biting moneys at a party, and every party member takes at least one point of damage. Within a couple of day, two or three party members begin to show signs of tetanus or rabies, which both cause ability damage and can be scary enough. The party cleric expends resources healing those characters, but unknowingly, a more insidious infection is brewing in another party member, who soon begins suffering Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma damage at an alarming rate. This series of infections may catch players as they run short of healing and restoration magic, forcing them to ration their spells as their ability scores drop or making them worried when the next person will fall ill. If they fail to make the link between the monkey attack and the infections then this may be so much the better, as this may set them off trying to protect themselves from magically-induced diseases or environmental miasmas or whatever other convoluted explanations their imaginations come up with. As with any good storytelling device, once you get the players started, they’ll do a lot of the storytelling work themselves and give you ample material to work with. 

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 September 26, 2015. 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