The Tiniest Vampires

Eric Lis
It struck me today that neither I, nor any storyteller of my acquaintance, has ever afflicted their players with bed bugs. For some reason, this seems to me to be a surprising oversight.
The bed bug is a parasitic insect which has probably been complicating the lives of human beings for about as long as there have been human beings. Several species of insect together fall under the category of "bed bug," but all share a few characteristics. They feed on blood, which right away might make you think that gamers would find them interesting and entertaining. They're not microscopic, but they're small enough to generally go unnoticed. They're primarily active at night, and spend daytime hours hiding in any number of places in the home. Despite their name, beds are far from the only places where they hide; they make their homes in cracks in the walls and floors, efficiently infest linens, and as I just recently learned while looking it up this afternoon, they're increasingly being known to hide inside books. Aside from the fact that they're among the most fascinating examples of a species being perfectly adapted to take advantage of their environment, it's worth knowing a bit about bed bugs because they're a common problem in the real world and could be an extremely tempting storyteller tool in the game world.
Do adventurers in your campaign have problems with bed bugs? If you' using much in the way of historical accuracy, it's almost hard to imagine that they wouldn't. Consider: adventurers are by and large individuals who travel around from dirty village to filthy town, staying in the cheapest inns possible, and rarely washing their clothing and equipment, all of which probably means that bed bugs are just one of any number of parasites that they pick up over the course of a single storyline. Of course, most parties will be able to deal with a little bedbug problem without any meaningful fuss and bother -- one simple spell will probably drive the infestation away -- but bed bugs are notorious for coming back within one to two weeks of their supposed eradication, and a cleric who feels that she has to use up one spell slot every day memorizing Repel Vermin instead of Cure Critical Wounds may provide a GM with some very amusing reactions.
If you're anything like me, it probably doesn't take you very long to think of a few ways you can use bed bugs against your players... or ways your player characters can use them against NPCs! A fighter whose armor gets infested may find that he has new bug bites after every fight, making him reluctant to strap that armour on. A wizard will regret stealing an enemy's spellbook after her own library becomes filled with vermin. A bard may suddenly become unwelcome when word gets out of bugs appearing in every site where he's performed. A mischievous party could no doubt think of a way to sneak bed bugs into the home of the political enemy who they don't have the power to fight head-on.
Although as I think about it, one has to ask the question of whether adventurers would even notice that they were having problems with bed bugs, or just chalk the new bites up to their pre-existing problem with lice ...

A little 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 February 24, 2013. 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