Monday, January 6, 2014

Beware The Scarlet Plague (Wermspittle)

The heart began to beat faster and the heat of the body to increase. Then came the scarlet rash, spreading like wildfire over the face and body. Most persons never noticed the increase in heat and heart-beat, and the first they knew was when the scarlet rash came out. Usually, they had convulsions at the time of the appearance of the rash. But these convulsions did not last long and were not very severe. If one lived through them, he became perfectly quiet, and only did he feel a numbness swiftly creeping up his body from the feet. The heels became numb first, then the legs, and hips, and when the numbness reached as high as his heart he died. They did not rave or sleep. Their minds always remained cool and calm up to the moment their heart numbed and stopped. And another strange thing was the rapidity of decomposition. No sooner was a person dead than the body seemed to fall to pieces, to fly apart, to melt away even as you looked at it. That was one of the reasons the plague spread so rapidly. All the billions of germs in a corpse were so immediately released...

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London.

Calmly, Death Comes in Red
It arrived in the South Guard House of the Inner Ramparts in early summer. Some forager or scavenger returning from beyond the Weak Point fell into convulsions while their papers were being checked. He was dead inside of ten minutes. His body practically melted before it even reached the cobblestones. Then the members of the Wall Guard who had been near him started to show signs of a reddish rash-like discoloration. They went into convulsions. They died. Their bodies dissolved into bloody messes of corruption. Then those a little farther out were struck. The eerie thing about it all was how absolutely calm everyone was, up until they collapsed.

Outside the South Guard House panic ensued. The Wall Guard Commandant acted quickly. No one was allowed to leave the South Guard House. He ordered flame-throwers and mitrailleuses to be brought up from the other Guard Houses. He might not have bothered. No one survived long enough to get very far.

A cordon has been established. Three hundred feet out from the main entrance to the South Guard House is a Kill Zone. Nothing that goes in can ever leave. No one comes back from this place. Not under any circumstance. The area surrounding the South Guard House is extensively mined, strung with constriction-wire, and very well covered by every available weapon the Wall Guard has within their arsenal.

Every autumn a few small gatherings of religious misfits petition the Commandant for safe passage into the Southern Containment Zone. They rarely come back. Those that do, never leave the cordoned-off section. The galvanic weapons appropriated from the Sewer Militia have come in handy on more than one occasion.

Each year the Commandant of the Wall Guard must face repeated attempts to open-up the South Guard House. Surely the plague is no longer a threat, say those who stand to gain by rescinding the travel restrictions. It has been long enough. The plague is dormant. No new cases have been reported in decades, at least not officially. Of course that might be due to the revision to the standard medical texts that have re-labeled the Scarlet Plague as either a lethal red rash or some similar innocuous sounding bit of jargon, allowing the record to appear spotless, despite any inconvenient outbreaks. Besides, there's rarely any way to prove that it was the so-called Scarlet Plague and not some form of the Vile Transformation...

The plague takes 1d6x10 minutes to kill those who fail their Save. First there is a red rash, followed by fever and sometimes convulsions, then the victim slips into a coma-like state and dies. Victims' bodies decompose almost immediately, leaving behind a gory mess that remains infectious for 1d6 days. They remain perfectly calm through the entire process.

A successful Save indicates that the victim experiences the rash, fever and eerie calmness, but have the option of sacrificing 1 point of CON to gain an additional roll to Save. Each such attempt incurs a cumulative penalty of -1 on the Save. Whether they succeed or fail, the CON point is permanently lost. Those exposed can use as much of their CON as they like trying to get a successful Save. Those who have exceedingly bad luck and manage to hit zero become Bloody Bones Servitors. They should also consider getting new dice. Anyone surviving the Scarlet Plague remains marked by the red mottling, though the rash will recede. They are also noted for being very calm, almost emotionless, and have a +2 bonus on all Saves versus emotion-based spells and effects, such as Fear.

The spell Cure Disease will only be effective during the onset of the plague, once a victim falls into a coma, no spell will stop the disease. Those who succumb to this plague cannot be Raised, except as undead skeletons.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that describes the collapse of civilization in the wake of a horrific epidemic that spreads far and wide before anyone can do anything about it. The survivors are reduced to barbarism, forced to eke out a nomadic existence in the rapidly returning wilderness. Grim, cruel and ignorant, the feral children who have become the masters of the Earth in the wake of the Scarlet Plague do not believe in the tales of their elders who still remember a time before it all went to hell. The lights have really gone out, everything has been lost, and this is a somewhat depressing story without any attempt at a happy ending. It's not at all what I was expecting from the author of The Call of the Wild. Maybe it's because I'm getting older now, but I found this far more engaging than I probably would have twenty years ago. It also provides an interesting alternative/parallel to Lord of the Flies...

The Scarlet Plague, as well as many of Jack London's other books are available at Project Gutenberg. You can also read it online. There's a nicely done synopsis of the novel at the Boston Globe, if you don't have the time or patience to read the novel itself.

You can also listen to The Scarlet Plague at Libri Vox.


  1. Part of what elevates this series is you showing the inspiration, and letting it breathe, for the respect for the earlier creation of course, but also as a foil for where you yourselves take the thing, how you make it your own.

    1. Thank you. This series is a lot of fun to write. Jack London is one of those authors that a lot of modern writers and gamers might otherwise overlook, which is a shame. It's a lot of of see where we can take things, to really use it all as a jumping-off point, and not just copy things whole cloth...

  2. London's "The Iron Heel" is also worth checking out. It's about a workers' revolution in the U-S-A.

    1. Been reading through a few other stories, but that one is on the list, if it wasn't, it is now. There aren't any Guilds in Wermspittle, not after the big crackdown. but some of the more essential workers did collectivize, after a fashion. There's a post on that coming up. After we detail the Local Authorities a bit more...and the inner Ramparts...

  3. I really like the idea of a zone of permanent lurking plague.

    1. Then you're in luck, we've got several to share with you, starting with the South Guard House of the Inner Ramparts. Some of the Chapels are notorious plague-spots. We have a post on just plagues coming up shortly...


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