The History of the Plague

Enough game mechanics about horror suvival in GFYG!. Well, at least for now. I need to look at background information. Just like a tell my students, “When you do history, start with the five double-yous and the aitch.” Works for 5th graders. I don’t see why it won’t work here.


To start with, I need a time for when the plague first started to spread. In keeping with the apocalyptic theme, I’m going to pick 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, and the final links in the chain of events leading to the U.S. Civil War were forged. For many Americans, Lincoln’s election was seen as the beginning of the end: the end of the Union, the end of states rights, the end of slavery, et cetera. Well, in our survival horror game, the first outbreak of the infection took place in late November 1860.


The plague isn’t like anything ever seen before. It makes smallpox and the bubonic plague look like the common cold. This deadly bloodborne pathogen spreads quickly, has no known cure, and mutates its hosts into monstrous killing machines.


In 1860, travel was pretty limited. Most people still walked or road in wagons. The railroads were around, but they were mainly used for shipping freight, not transporting people. Travel via water was still widely used. In modern pandemic apocalypse stories (such as the film Contagion), the disease spread globally quickly because modern folks travel globally quickly. In 1860, this wasn’t the case. In order for a mid-19th century plague to gain purchase and spread rapidly, it needs to hit a major population center that is also a hub for transport and travel.

In 1860, that means New York City.

About half of the cargo and people entering or leaving the U.S. via the Atlantic passed through New York City in 1860. The Big Apple is about 190 miles from Boston, 250 miles from Philadelphia, about 300 miles to Washington, D.C., and about 750 miles to Charleston, South Carolina. Those are overland distances. All four cities were also on major waterways as well as on rail lines.

Not to leave the south and west out of the picture, let’s have an outbreak in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the early days of December 1860. From New Orleans, it’s a short hop to Galveston and Jefferson, Texas, both important ports (the latter being a steamboat port). New Orleans also opens up the possibility of international problems as it is relatively close to many Carribean islands and Mexico.


Well, obviously, the plague spread because the infected bit people who then escaped being eaten long enough to become infected themselves. Then they bit people, et cetera, et cetera. In New York City and New Orleans, the plague spread quickly. Communications and travel were slow enough that by the time militia and/or U.S. military personnel arrived to restore order, the battle was already lost in those cities.

Efforts were made to quarantine both cities. Once it became clear the infected could not be safely treated, a shoot-on-sight policy was implemented. People whose loved ones were infected often disagreed with this policy, and at great risk to themselves, smuggled bound and gagged infected out of quarantine zones to seek treatment in other towns. This, of course, didn’t result in any cures, but instead facilitated the spread of the plague outside the quarantine zones.

By the end of January 1861, the infected were rampaging along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Fortunately, the cold winter months helped slow the spread, especially across the Appalachian Mountains into states like Tennessee and Kentucky. Also, the swamps and bayous in southern Louisiana inhibited the travel of the infected westward into Texas, and the Ozark Mountains had the same effect going to northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

By March 1861, when Lincoln was inaugurated, the U.S. was in the throes of a pandemic the likes of which the world had never seen. States with low rates of infection spoke of secession, and President Lincoln tried to preserve the Union from within the battlements of the White House.


This one’s easy. The infection doesn’t discriminate. Rich, poor, slave, free, white, black, native, or immigrant. It doesn’t matter to the plague. Among the hardest hit initially were doctors, nurses, and others who treat the sick, such as members of the clergy and religious communities. Those who keep the peace, such as police and the military, have also been widely affected.


Here’s where some ambiguity gets injected into the setting. No one knows why the plague started. There are a variety of competing hypotheses, any one of which might be true. Or, maybe none of them are true.

The Democrats: The plague was released somehow by Democrats upset at the election of a known abolitionist to the Oval Office. Unfortunately, the Democrats couldn’t control the disease’s spread and have plunged the entire nation into blood-drenched chaos.

Divine Judgement: The plague is God’s judgement on America for so long tolerating the evil institution of slavery. Or, maybe, it’s God’s judgement on America for so long tolerating the abolitionists. It all depends on which group is making the claim.

Foreigners: The plague was brought to the U.S. by foreign immigrants and/or travelers. This hypothesis dovetails nicely with divine judgement (“America for Americans!”), the Jesuits (“Servants of a foreign power!”), and Mexico (“Revenge for Texas!”).

The Jesuits: Conspiracy theories about the Jesuits go all the way back to just about when the order was formed. Given the widespread anti-Catholic sentiments popular with many Americans in the 19th century, who’s to say those black-robed Papists haven’t finally launched their plan to crush democracy and subjugate the land of the free to the Pope?

Mexico: Mexico is still stinging after its embarrassing defeat at the hands of the U.S. in the Mexican-American War. Mexico lost thousands and thousands of square miles of territory under the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The plague was unleashed in the U.S. by Mexico as revenge for its defeat. This theory fits in nicely with the foreigners and Jesuits hypotheses.

The Republicans: The plague was released somehow by Republicans to punish the Southern states for slavery. Unfortunately, the Republicans couldn’t control the disease’s spread and have plunged the entire nation into blood-drenched chaos.

Voodoo: Slaves started the plague with their devilish voodoo practices.

Right now, I lean toward avoiding any particular origin to the plague. In survival horror films, the victims very often don’t have a clue why things have gone horribly wrong. They don’t know who’s to blame, and that’s part of the horror. Can the government be trusted? Are those doctors really trying help? If you don’t who’s guilty, you don’t know who’s innocent either. After a while, maybe everyone becomes a suspect.

In a similar vein, I’m not worried about going into much socio-political detail. Survival horror isn’t about the big picture. It’s about small groups of people cut off from conventional sources of help trying to stay alive from one day to the next. Before Tex McGraw was eaten in the saloon, he didn’t care what President Lincoln was doing in D.C. He wasn’t waiting for the federal marshal to come riding in to save the day. He was trying to get a bottle of whiskey and that shotgun from under the bar.

In other words, survival horror is a style of game that almost requires the start small and gradually develop the big picture style of play.

Giant Boy just asked, “What’s the current year?” Not sure. I’d be inclined to start a GFYG! surival horror campaign circa late spring 1861. The mountain passes would be thawed up nicely by then. Perhaps a good starting point for such a campaign would be with a small group of survivors trying to keep the infected from swarming through the Cumberland Gap.

June 18th, 2012  in RPG No Comments »

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