Terror Spells

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

Bioterrorism is one of the few areas of human ingenuity which is unquestionably more advanced in medieval fantasy.

We all know that healing is easier in a fantasy setting, at least for those with access to magic. Although “medicine” itself tends to be much less advanced in fantasy than in modern life – still more advanced than it was in analogous moments in our history, but whatever – the availability of healing magic, which generally requires little to no knowledge or intelligence to use, makes healing mindlessly easy. Unlike in our hospitals, where treating two identical -looking infections may require vastly different approaches depending on causative organisms, other medications being used, and a host of other factors, a healer with access to cure and remove disease spells only needs one basic approach for every patient. The flip side to this is, of course, magic such as contagion, which means that every brainless loser with access to third-level spells has the potential to bring about the downfall of civilization.

Bioterrorism can be practically defined as the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other agents used to cause illness or death in people, animals or plants, where the intention is causing casualties, terror, disruption, or economic loss, so every time a character casts contagion, it’s potentially an act of bioterrorism. Even when contagion is used in the middle of battle to actively debilitate a specific target – a use that I’ve never seen any character make of it, although presumably someone, somewhere, has – the intention is to weaken and frighten a target as much as, or more, than it is to kill a combatant. Much more commonly, at least in my limited experience, contagion is a spell which gets wielded outside of combat: as a covert tool of assassination, or as a means of destabilizing a town, or perhaps just a way to very effectively distract one guard. The goal may very well be for the target to never know that they’ve been the target of a spell, but it’s still to cause incapacitation and distress. Whether or not the spell constitutes an act of bioterrorism probably depends on the second part of the word’s definition, which is that the act is inspired by ideological, religious or political beliefs. One could argue that every time an adventurer kills an orc, it’s ideologically or politically motivated, but obviously that’s not quite what the definition is meant to imply. If contagion is used to momentarily sicken a single guard so that an adventurer can slip through a door, that’s unlikely to constitute bioterrorism, whereas when an evil cleric unleashes a plague to cause panic and weaken a kingdom, that is bioterrorism. There are an infinite number of situations in between, but I’m prepared to wager that if every campaign were studied, more castings of contagion qualify as bioterrorism than not. When the goal of the act is something other than terror or disruption, it still qualifies as “biocrime,” a less well known term which been gaining increasing attention in research.

It’s important to consider that the definition of bioterrorism depends on disruption and panic, and not on the number of people who actually fall ill or die. Detonating virus-bombs in a city to infects thousands of people is bioterrorism, but so is mailing a single envelope of anthrax if the result if that ten thousand people become afraid to open their mail. If contagion is used to start an infectious outbreak that infects hundreds of people, the end result may actually be less disruptive to a city than if a non-infectious illness eliminates one single politician, general, or other public figure.

The main thing limiting bioterrorism in our world is that it’s actually pretty unfeasible. Almost exactly twenty years ago today, Francis Hummel made bioterrorism look easy and affordable, but in practice it takes a lot more than dumping a body into a river to make a city sick, even in a fantasy setting where that river provides people’s drinking water. Getting one’s hands on viable and useful disease-causing material is fairly complicated, simply because there aren’t that many deadly infections in the world that are 1) readily available and 2) not already widespread in large parts of the world. In the cases of diseases like leprosy, many people are naturally immune or relatively resistant to many of the really scary diseases out there, while organisms such as HIV are simply so delicate that there’s no practical and cost-effective way to weaponize it when building a cheap bomb or buying an assault rifle is so much easier, cheaper, and faster. This is where fantasy worlds differ from ours, because contagion makes it possible to just give someone an illness without having to worry about such annoying limiting factors as vectors, immunity, route of exposure, or fragility of the causative organism. Bioterrorism in our world requires resources, expertise, and infrastructure, whereas bioterrorism in medieval fantasy requires little more than a wisdom score of 13, a dollar’s worth of material components, and a clammy handshake.

Fortunately, most would-be world conquerors in fantasy seem to want the fame and glory that comes from victory in battle, or else this sort of thing would presumably be a much bigger problem in all of our campaigns.