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  • Writer's pictureAaron K

Rethinking Viruses

Hey Reader!

As my wife and I sit in our house during the Conornavirus quarantine here in Virginia, I've gotten to thinking about viruses and how they are used in literature. So I got to thinking, "Why not - let's think about how to reenvision viruses," as it seemed apropos for the situation.

Viruses come in many forms, most commonly in modern and sci-fi stories (though you do see threats of viruses appearing in some medieval and earlier timeframes, most commonly in zombie stories). Like our post on cannibals, we'll start by looking at what we see most commonly across literature, and then move into a discussion on how we can reenvision it to make it more interesting to our audience.

I. Viruses: The Unseen Stalker

Viruses - whether computer-based or biological-based - appear everywhere in fiction. As we look at viruses, the first thing we need to realize is that viruses differ from bacteria. Whereas a bacterial infection simply reflects a growth of a foreign organism within your body, viruses up the stakes by taking over your cells, starting a mutiny of sorts against the host. And with faster mutations and adaptations, a virus is generally harder to stop than a bacterial infection.

Now, on an unrelated tangent, you do see bacteria in some stories as well - perhaps the most well-known example (which has served as a template for future books and movies) is H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. In this case, we have the threat of a tiny organism wiping out supremely powerful beings due to their lack of immunity, and this also applies to viruses.

Do you know what is terrifying about viruses? There's not much you can do against them with an axe or bow. Problems that are typically solved by fighting-centric skills are good and should exist in most stories, but a viral (or bacterial) problem typically cannot be solved in the same way. So it stretches the skills of your players and allows other skills (and players) to shine.

Viruses are most commonly distinguished from bacteria by two things. First, they mutate at an alarming rate. Unlike bacterial strains, viruses are designed to mutate quickly, making it much harder to kill off quickly. This is also why software viruses (which we'll discuss later) are referred to as viruses rather than germs, as the algorithm is designed to adapt and change to avoid being quarantined and destroyed by the firewall.

Second, and perhaps more compelling for your story purposes, is that it is a partial organism designed to thrive off the host. Bacterial strains are fully self-sufficient, using nutrients from the host but otherwise being self-reliant. Viruses are parasites in this regard, requiring a host to thrive. Unlike bacteria and other microorganisms, viruses are extremely streamlined in their biology: they have almost no systems, as they rely on the host for most of it.

Viruses are also excellent challenges because they are not sentient. You can't reason with a virus: it just spreads. It's non-discriminatory: if a target host can contract the virus, the virus is open to infecting them. And the result is, in most stories, if a person contracts the virus it is nigh impossible to 1) get rid of it, and 2) keep people in close proximity from also contracting it. Thus you end up with your zombie virus or Zerg virus from Starcraft, where the answer is destruction of the hosts or fleeing from them.

And of course, there's the immaterial software virus. Sometimes this is used for good (Independence Day being a great example, but really any story that involves hacking into a computer), but often is used as a challenge: can you stop the computer virus from accessing what it needs to access. So suddenly it's your computer nerd in the chair rather than your doctor that's protecting everyone from the virus.

Viruses are most commonly transmitted by physical touch and/or bodily fluids, with bites from werewolves or zombies typically denoting an immanent contraction of the contagion. But viruses can be transmitted in other ways. In Starcraft the Zerg virus is airborne, meaning simply living in a place that has spores results in contracting the disease.

With this in mind, let's talk about how we rethink the use of viruses in stories.

II. Rethinking Viruses

So, for starters, there's nothing wrong with what we saw above - the threat of a virus is a unique challenge comparative to other encounters a party will face: generally speaking you can't fix a virus problem with an axe (though in the case of zombies that's not true). So in a campaign it's not bad to use any of the examples above: just be careful about using something that's overused to the point of it being less of a challenge or threat because of your players.

If you are running a biological virus, for example, and your game system has some classes or characters that are immune to disease, take that into account. I'm not saying don't use them, as it's cool to bring to the forefront the fact that someone is immune to its effects. But be mindful of the fact that those who are unaffected will need to be stretched in different ways by the virus because they don't suffer from it.

My wife and I were watching a sci-fi show recently where one of the characters was infected by a microorganism that caused blindness. One of the characters was immune, but the big defender was blinded, leaving him unable to shoot at things while under its effects. This is a good challenge: players that are used to doing X with ease have trouble, and the one (or more) that are not affected have trouble filling all the roles, so they are stretched as well to find the cure. So don't think, "Ugh, I have a paladin who is immune to disease": just challenge the paladin as he strives to cover for the party while a solution is being found.

Second, there's nothing wrong with a zombie virus, but consider other ways to make this interesting. Perhaps the zombie virus doesn't animate dead matter, but instead causes living beings to decay rapidly through apathy. The person stops being hungry and drinking, goes for days without sleeping, and their body deteriorates until it is nothing more than a withered husk, held together by the virus that needs its limbs and frame to travel to the next colony of hosts (but not its organs). Perhaps the virus is spread not by spit or scratches, but by garments, with thicker garments carrying the disease more readily to the new host. In cold climates no one is going to go out without a coat...

You get the idea: you can use common tropes, just find ways to put a slight twist on them to make them interesting. The big reminder though: keep it believable. As a general rule of thumb, people will think more highly of twists on tropes if it makes sense. Necromancy causing a zombie apocalypse makes a whole lot more sense than a meteor strike causing it, but if that meteor had small microbes on it that could add life to a lifeless corpse and was disseminated into the air upon impact...maybe that could work too. You just have to make it believable enough that your players will accept it.

Third, don't be afraid to make it simple. A person went overseas and brought back a virus that no one was prepared for. Now the village is dying, and everyone is blaming it on the outcast. That's not a bad situation for a group of adventurers to encounter (who may also not be trusted now, as they roam around a good bit), and it's believable off the bat, as we've all heard of viruses transmitted by traveling overseas. Most of fiction tries to do something spectacular or unique when it comes to viruses: there's nothing wrong with saying, "This town has the flu, and they are not ready for it. What would you like to do?" Players get a good grasp of what's going on in a short amount of time, and then get to problem solve. And if you have a nurse as one of your players, so much the better, as he/she gets to show off what they know.

And finally, have a plan for resolution. How does the party solve the virus? Do they need to collect ingredients for a remedy? Do they need to perform a specific ritual? Is it something that can be purged with fire? Have a plan for how to fix the problem, and then let them find ways (perhaps even bizarre ways) to go about doing that.

Technically you could go the Protoss route in Starcraft of saying, "It cannot be fixed: you must destroy them all" (as most zombie stories do), but I'll go out on a limb here and say that in the main you shouldn't do that, and here's why. If the answer is, "We can't solve it," the party's only left with two choices: destroy the hosts or flee. If there is the potential for a cure, these two options are still on the table, but you add an almost infinite number of other things they can do to go about procuring the cure. And in the main, that level of diversity of options tends to make for better games.

There is a notable exception to this, and that is the zombie apocalypse scenario. While I think many people would love to find a cure for it, if you tell them, "There is no cure," I think most everyone is okay with that. And some relish it, because who doesn't want to live out our plans for avoiding the zombie apocalypse? But for the most part, give the party options, and they'll generally find the experience more interesting and engaging.


There are many more things we could discuss, but suffice it to say for now, viruses will likely remain a common trope for a while, especially as technology improves. As your tech level goes up in your game, the likelihood of viruses goes up with it. So give some thought to how you can make viruses more interesting.

Until next time,

Aaron K


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