Why I think Captain America: Winter Soldier is the best Marvel Superhero movie thus far (spoilers)

Watch this Movie

Watch this Movie

This post contains spoilers. The specific spoilers begin after the red text.

As a Canadian, I have never been a huge fan of cap. I don’t hate the character especially, but if I am honest the idea of a nationalistic superhero bothers me, no matter what the nation may be. Marvel manages to skirt around the issue quite well, especially post ultimates with cap acting as the man out of time, that ultimate allied soldier who is more of a representative of the distilled ideals of a generation than a particular country — you know those people who survived WWII and fought against the Nazis.

The First Captain America movie was entertaining, and much better than I expected it would be, but not on par with the Avengers or the first Iron Man. I went into the theatre for Captain America: Winter Soldier knowing very little about the plot and no spoilers. I came out of the theatre more pleased with the movie that I watched than I have been in a very long time.

In general the movie was good. The action scenes were crisp and varied. The banter was a nice mix of humorous and dramatic, with a surprising dose of heavy subject matter (more on that later). The effects were excellent. The acting was also very, very good, much better than I would ever expect from a comic book movie, even in the age of Robert Downey’s Iron Man. I would heartily recommend this movie to anyone at all, perhaps even those who do not like comic book movies.

Very specific spoilers begin here.

Here are five reasons why I think that Winter Soldier is not only worth watching, but actually kind of brilliant.

1) Black Widow: The marvel movies, despite bringing in Joss Whedon and some a-list talent to play female characters are not the best when it comes to female empowerment. I don’t blame comics for this, I blame the marketing department at the movie studios. I was happily that Scarlett Johanson’s Natasha Romanov got a lot of screen time with some serious action scenes, decent banter, and an integral part of the plot. I ma not the best judge of these things, but I did not find Black Widow to be overly ‘sexed up’. She wasn’t even involved in any romantic sub-plots. Which leads me to my next point.

2) No romantic sub-plots: There is a very tender scene in the middle of the movie where Cap visits the aging/dying Peggy Carter to talk about the past. It brought a tear to my eye, reminding me of recent visits with my grandparents who are part of the same generation as agent Carter, and suffering through the same, slow, brutal dance with age. That is the extent of the romance in the movie, and it is there to serve as a reminder of who Captain America is and what he values, not to titillate or tick off another item on the movies feature list. Cap does not date anyone and his only kiss in the movie leads Black Widow to make fun of him, with only a slight bit of sexual tension, if any. It is damned refreshing to have a movie this long with so little  attention paid to Romance. But then again, Winter Soldier is a damned serious movie.

3) The plot was predictable, but I didn’t care: Winter Soldier doesn’t really try to throw any curveballs. This is one thing I respect in most of the marvel movies. The writers know that the audience knows the source material well and aren’t watching for great new stories so much as to see their favourite characters and favorite stories retold on the big screen. The Winter Solider story, from Fury’s (fake) death, to the Winter Soldier being Bucky, to the various betrayals was not mean to surprise, but rather to emphasize the experience. The story, in the end, gives way to a discussion about philosophy, generational values, and the whole issue of security that is currently the western world, from drones to Edward Snowden.

4) The Winter Soldier has something to say, and it is fairly deep: I often feel that the politicians and thinkers who current dominate the Western world suffer from a James Bond complex. Security had become such a concern for some that it threatens the privacy, freedom, and quality of life for many. In the movie when Nick Fury and Cap argue about “neutralizing enemies before they become a threat”, I am immediately minded of the rhetoric that surrounds drone based missile strikes in countries like Yemen, where we redefine the dead as potential enemy combatants to avoid the sticky moral issues of killing people “who might be dangerous, but we aren’t really sure, and you don’t need to know about it anyways”. The movie wants you to draw this parallel, with huge carriers with automated weapon systems that can lock on to distant targets and eliminated them thousands at a time from on high, reducing the decision to destroy down to an algorithm and a moral view. In particular I found the use of Hydra to be quite good, as the people who take that ideal one step beyond where it is in reality and show us the naked possibilities of the slippery slope of the current security apparatus.

5) Generational Values: When Cap and Fury argue early on, Fury brings up the view that “The Greatest Generation”, which Cap belongs to is not necessarily as good as people seem to think. From then on, the interplay of generational values becomes a deep and resonant thread in the movie, tying in very neatly with the theme of security and freedom. Falcon and Black Widow are explicitly called out as millennials, making it interesting that Natasha has the final word on Shield while Fury sort of retires. It is something that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately as we slowly lose the Greatest Generation, and the millennial generations make themselves felt. Currently the world is dominated by the interests of the Boomers —  that whole James Bond complex is part of their zeitgeist in many ways, having its roots in the Cold War. It is certainly a deeper discussion and a deeper point than I ever expected from a comic book movie and it may lead the curious into those discussions, which I think need to be had. It is a complicated and difficult and messy issue, and it is amazing to see a pop culture movie actually did into it in a meaningful fashion.

In a way, the movie speaks to me. These are things that I think about a lot. I am deeply worried about the people who take our freedom in the name of protecting us. Who spy on us for our own good and kill people in far off countries in our name with remote controlled death toys. I see the roots of this conflict in the zeitgeist of past generations. I am worried about what will happen when it all boils over. It is nice to see  movie that isn’t afraid to go there, explicitly.

Pretty good for a silly movie about dudes in spandex.

PS: also kind of cool that they are willing to drop Shield. That has real ramifications.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.10

The Shadow Wolf Sagas are an ongoing serial, written raw (first pass, draft style) so I can improve certain aspect of my style

The First Chapter

Last Weeks Installment

The Inn of the Willing Wench always seems to be the perfect temperature. Perhaps it is simply my love of the place. After my visit to the Pink Pearl and a series of violent encounters with some suspicious street thugs and a pair of novice assassins while investigating the origins of a peculiar poison, I was looking forward to lubricating my mind with the best bitters in the city. Brunor’s brews are rightfully famous even among the Nordan, traditional recipes passed down through the centuries. Tis one of the many reasons that the Wench is my favourite tavern in Myrrhn.

I was hungry for meat, a response to getting stuck by the would-be assassin I have no doubt. Whether the response was brought on by an actual physical need or a spiritual one, I cannot say. I devoured a delectable chunk of rare beef seasoned with cracked peppers, and then settled in to a pair of mutton shanks, a house specialty, finished with a succulent apple glaze. Normally, I prefer my meat plain and rare, but I made an exception for the Wench’s wondrous fare.

After wolfing down the second shank and my third tankard, I sat back and let out an appreciative belch. The place was busy, but not so packed that the staff was harried or the tables were over-crowded. Merchants rubbed elbows with mercenaries, and I would swear an oath in blood that at least one of the tables held a group of would-be adventurers planning their next ‘quest’; perhaps a search of the undercity caves for the lost treasures of the pirate lords who founded the city ages ago. One can make a fair bit of money swindling the gullible with ‘maps’ and ‘clues’ to these treasures I’m told. Myself, I have been on my fair share of strange expeditions, both here and in the North, and I have great respect for the adventurers of the world. I would hate to live in a world without them.

The decor of the inn is old wood and stone. This is what attracted me to the Wench in the first place. In Nordan Lands, timbre is plentiful of of exceptional quality, and thus most buildings are made with wood. Thus the inn felt closer to home for me in the early days of my exile.

The staff and clientele of Brunors ancient inn are a varied lot. Some have roots in the city as deep and wide as the ancient forests of the Verdant Court, but many are new to the city, looking for a welcoming place to work or to rest. It used to be that many of the women (and some of the men) who worked at the Inn of the Willing Wench were also whores on the side, but times change and while madam Glorianna’s girls are free to work their trade in the Wench, the staff is strictly off limits. It is a wise policy in my mind. It keeps the tavern out of guild politics, for one.

I was contemplating history, and perhaps signaling Sigi for another shank and a tankard to keep it company when my line of vision was eclipsed by three very large men.

“Greetings brothers,” I said, looking up at them. “Have you come to share Ragnar’s table?”

The largest and oldest of them, a mountain of a  man with a shock of red hair, like Furis himself, snorted at me while the others glowered. They were all Nordan, probably sea wolves, and naturally enough all of them were giant-blooded. I guessed that these were relatives of Sapphires deceased lover.

“Pfffft, I would not willingly share an exiles table,” he said. “I am here about my son.”

“And what makes you think that Ragnar Grimfang knows anything about your son?” I asked, meeting his gaze.

“I am Harald Magnison, called Ironmast,” said the red haired giant. “My son Bjorn was found dead this day.”

The table creaked as Harald’s gripped the edge. After a moment he continued. “I know that you are seeking his killer exile. Do not play games with me Shadow Wolf. We seek justice for Bjorn’s death. We will not be denied!”

“Where do I fit into this?” I asked, as mildly as possible.

“You will find his killer and bring him to us,” said Harald. His companions, a brother and a nephew or another son, nodded vigorously.

“And what If I don’t?” I asked, less mildly.

Harald looked at me as if I had just handed him Magni’s hammer. “Exile–”

I cut him off. “If  you want my help Harald Magnison, then you will cease to refer to me as exile. I have tasted death before Sea Wolf, and I am not afraid of any arms that you and yours can bring to bear against me. Save your threats. Now tell me, why should I help you?”

For a moment I thought Harald would swing. His companions certainly looked ready for a fight. Then he seemed to crumple, just a little, growing a little less fierce and a whole lot older as he did so.

“I have some influence in my Clan,” said Harald. “I would not expect you to hear of my deeds… Ragnar, for they came after your time in the North. However, my name carries weight, even here. See for yourself. If you help me, I will speak on your behalf and recommend you to my clansmen. I will also offer you payment as needed. I want justice for my son.”

Classic Characters: Caesar as an inspiration for Fantasy works.

Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar is an obvious favourite for any young lad who is excited by Roman history. Love him or hate him, he is certainly a figure that has inspired a vast body of literature. This is  partially because Caesar is a far more complex character than his own (professed) hero, Alexander the Great, which allows an author to portray him in a variety of ways and partly because one can come to know Caesar in his own voice, since he wrote several works that survive to this day, and many more that are discussed in surviving sources. What I wouldn’t give to read some of his lost poetry or his Anticato (a sort of written insult to a senatorial nemesis, Cato).

Caesar was famed for his skill as a commander in the field and in maneuvering the corridors of power during the era of civil strife that marked the end of the Republic. His early life rarely gets mentioned but is fascinating and engaging. Here are a few examples.

  • By the time Caesar reached adulthood, the Republic had already experienced a fair share of Civil strife. His aunt was married to Gaius Marius who contested against another favourite Roman of mine, Lucius Cornelius Sulla in a civil war. At one point Marius and his faction even nominated a young Caesar (sixteen?) for Priest of Jupiter. Naturally when Sulla defeated Marius for good, the young Caesar was on his list of people to purge, but influential relatives managed to save Caesar and he quickly made himself scarce in Rome. Given Caesar’s talent for politics it is quite likely that this stint outside of the heart of the empire was good for him in many ways, as is the fact that Sulla confiscated much of his inheritance, forcing him to work all the harder to achieve his ambitions (conjecture on my part, Caesar was very clever to begin with, but I have always felt that circumstances prevented him from resting on his laurels like many of his peers).
  • After Sulla died, Caesar returned to Rome, living in a poor suburb and making his living as a Lawyer. He became renowned for his oratory. Interestingly he gained favour for exposing the corruption of others.
  • Caesar was captured by Pirates as a young man, impressing them all with his demeanor. When his captors wanted to ransom Caesar famously pointed out to them that the ransom was too low, an action that provides many insights into his character and situation. He also told the pirates that if he survived he would one day return and have them crucified, which they took as a joke. Sadly for them, it wasn’t.
  • As a young Roman without a lot of wealth and bad connections Caesar was forced to move on from easy posts and take military assignments all over the empire. Although he complained about these, famously weeping (supposedly) when he saw a Statue of Alexander the great who had risen to rule the known world at an age when Caesar was just a minor officer, the body of experience he accumulated in his endeavors served him very well in later life.

Young Caesar make an ideal model for a classical character. Because he is such  a complex character, open to interpretation,  his life can serve as inspiration for pastoral styles or even grimdark. Many of us are familiar with the events of his middle years, the constant struggles with politics, debt, and his military triumphs, ending in a consulship and then the Governership of Gaul (all of it) where he gained his greatest fame (to modern audiences) as a military commander, and eventually becoming Dictator before he was assassinated. Along the way he meets Cleopatra, shows magnanimity to his enemies (a mistake? perhaps, given that they were attempting to conserve a system that he was a threat to), and crosses both the Rhine and the English Channel. However Caesar was a man of surprising talents, and did quite a few things which are often forgotten. Here are a few.

  • Caesar was entitled to a Triumph, one of the grand processions that were accorded to Rome’s great generals, for his victories in Spain. He wanted to run for the Consulship however, and the Triumph would have delayed that. He asked for an exception of sorts, the vagaries of Roman politics are very interesting at this time, but Cato blocked him. Caesar was forced to choose between Triumph and running for the Consulship — he chose the Consulship, looking to the future instead of resting on a sure thing.
  • Caesar was rumoured to have had an affair with a king of an allied province early in his career. He vehemently denied this, but it is interesting and adds more meat to the story. Mark Antony also said that Octavian used sex to gain Caesar’s favour, although this is often called out as slander.
  • Caesar was directly involved in class warfare. He supported Pompey’s land reforms (forcefully). Ronald Syne has an excellent book about the Roman Revolution, showing it as a case of class warfare of sorts. The love that the poor, and the military class bore Caesar may have rubbed off on Octavian, giving him the base of support needed to become the first emperor.
  • Caesar introduced the Julian Calender in 46 BC. The calendar was 365.25 days long with twelve regular months and an extra day every four years. We use a corrected variation of this calender, reformed later. Interestingly the calender was reformed partly because political meddling was throwing off the years. As a result of this reform the year 46 BC was 455 days long in Rome to bring it back into proper alignment with the equinoxes, which raised a few eyebrows. The adoption of this calendar and subsequent reforms and confusions outlasted the man himself by quite some time… Caesar’s most important contribution was seeing the problem and imposing a solution where others would have just been content to continue taking advantage.
  • Caesar essentially made Rome into a province to counter the view that those who were born and lived outside of Rome could not really be considered for high office. This reform was completed by Augustus, and was considered essential to transforming the Empire into a cohesive whole instead of a network of linked semi-states ruled by Rome. It also alleviated the complaints of many outside Rome who wanted to be seen as true citizens. I would guess that this reform really pissed certain people off — some people always resist change, however fair.

Caesar, with all his greatness and his flaws, is an exemplar of classical civilization, and his life could serve as inspiration for many different types of fantasy characters. Caesar appears in several guises in my works, as inspiration for Gavin and Marius, and even Sadira.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.9

A little serial, based on my old RPG, written raw for practice.

Blade Breaker 1.1 (start here)

Blade Breaker 1.8 (in case you missed last week’s)

I was cautious leaving Gregor the Grey’s grim fortress of a shop: in the North it is often said that bad things often come in three, and I figure the saying goes for attempts on one’s life in Myrrhn, if it goes at all.

I saw no sign of watchful eyes, rooftop shadows, or deeper darkness in the alleys as I stepped outside. Superstition will only take you so far, even as Nordan.

I was interested that Gregor was one of the ascended, that smaller personhood into which I was born a second time. The case at hand, however, was far more pressing, so I committed that information to memory, for later use. So far I knew that Sapphire and her Nordan lover had been killed by as assassin of no small skill, but one who had crossed the line from professionalism into passion in doing the deed. The poison, the rape, the slow torture, and the mutilation of the bodies indicated that the killer knew Sapphire and felt some claim to her.

I considered returning the the Pink Pearl and asking around. I discarded this idea almost immediately. No matter how much the other women liked Sapphire, it seemed unlikely that any of them would risk the wrath of the Guild to help catch her killer. Prostitutes in Myrrhn, even the most pampered, had well honed survival instincts. It would take someone with stones like Madam Glorianna to risk butting heads with the Nightblades.

Aside from the knowledge that I was looking for an assassin who was in love with Sapphire, I now knew that he purchased his specialty poison from Gregor the Grey, making a rush order and paying the princely sum of a gold trade bar. The rush order confirmed to me that the assassin was not acting rationally: the act was planned, but impulsive, almost feverish. The gold trade bar meant I was dealing with someone well paid — in assassin terms that meant a prolific journeyman at the very least. That ruled out the pair who attacked me outside of Git’s, who despite drawing blood, were likely just out of training at best.

I considered this as I walked past dreamy eyed addicts and made my way to the nearest bridge. The larger islands that make up the various districts of the city are tall and jagged rocks and it is much easier to take the suspension bridges than to take the boardwalk or water taxi. The later were very popular for other reasons, mostly involving smuggling and other illicit activities.

I reached the bridge just as the twilight rush began.

There is a certain beauty to the sudden chaos of rush times. Tens of thousands of people spill onto the streets in a matter of seconds, a tidal wave of people. Everyone on the streets is swept up by the influx, which moves of its own accord, like blood pumping through the veins of some great stone beast. Orcs run shoulder with dwarves, students with merchant princes, and thieves with watchmen, all moving as one great mass. There is a certain logic, a pattern to the madness, that makes these times peaceful and profound rather than riven by disharmony. I believe it is simply the expression of an overwhelming mass consciousness, the will of the city made manifest in a brief, glorious storm of people that is as powerful and sustaining as the rain that accompanies Magni’s own thunder.

Another description of the rush that I am fond of, is that it is like marching with an army, only an army with a peaceful purpose and no particular organization.

The twilight rush is a combination od the movements of the shop-keepers and bankers leaving work, combined with the dockworkers, sailors, and day labourers moving towards their favourite taverns and whorehouses for the evening.

This bridge was a great span made of black stone, supported by steel cables and massive pillars sunk deep into waters below. It was decorated with ugly gargoyles, some possibly even real, and gave the impression of endless solidity.

I decided to head back to the Inn of the Willing Wench rather than risk a trip to the Black Tower before dark. It is best to deal with the Guild in broad daylight, even if you are a Shadow Wolf. A leg of lamb and a pint of Brunors Bitters would certainly help clear my mind and replenish all of the blood that I had lost. I was not retiring for the day, merely changing my investigation strategies. Anyone who had additional information for me would look for me at the Wench first, I reasoned.

Besides, if I was still being followed by a pair of neophyte killers, I figured it would be better to take them on in a stretch of ground that I was more familiar with.

Plus I really wanted a drink…

 

IOU

I had a great blog post about Caesar planned for today, alas I spent the entire day moving and now need to write like a maniac to reach my word-goal for the month. So… uh… IOU.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.8

The ongoing saga of Ragnar Grimfang, exile, twiceborn, blade-breaker.

Blade Breaker 1.1 (the first)

Blade Breaker 1.7 (previous)

One of the nice things about having one foot out of the grave is that while I bleed like a mortal man, the bleeding generally stops of its own accord. I have heard tell that some of us twiceborn have even survived having their throats cut or major vessels opened. I cannot say that I am eager to see if I am made of the same mettle. Still, I was happy that I was no longer bleeding by the time I called on Gregor the Grey.

Buildings in Myrrhn seem to be built in a jumble of architectural styles, mostly because the city is both old and fad driven. While most of the newer buildings that sprout from the city’s thirteen islands follow a style called Thraxian Coppertop, they are forced to share the streets with Ancient Archaen, Neo-Archaen, Haute Myrhnese, Loragonian Pastoral, Dragmarian Uber, Westmarch Faux Pastoral, as well as many styles that are less well known or perhaps just individual tastes. Gregor the Grey’s shop was likely one of the later, a tall slab of grey stone that rose like a ship-breaker out of the pall of fog and smoke.

The street nearby was crowded with the human debris of misery and addiction, along with a shady looking tavern that no doubt appealed to the worst kind of customer. Several of the later watched me from just outside the tavern’s exterior, eyes measuring me before they glanced quickly away. Gregor’s shop-face was clean and accorded respect, which was noteworthy in a place like this.

The entrance to the shop was more like the entrance to a fortress, complete with a portcullis on the inside and two rather massive guards. The leg-breakers were well equipped and well paid, with that very-friendly-but-very-ready attitude that I learned to adopt when I was a doorman at whorehouses. They did not ask to take my weapons, even the obvious ones. Gregor the Grey was not a nervous man. I nodded my respect to both men, acknowledging my appreciation of their professionalism. It rarely hurts to be polite to men with swords, I find.

The alchemist manned his own shop, a rarity — especially for someone so wealthy. He was tall but nondescript except for a shock of long grey hair done up in a pony tail, at odds with a young looking complexion and dark, steady eyes. He regarded me with definite interest, which I took to be sexual at first, but quickly realized was him recognizing another ascendant. Twiceborn, Paragons, Legends, and all the other various paths to ascendancy can recognize each other. It is an odd sensation, like a piece of a puzzle falling into place, only you aren’t putting a puzzle together and aren’t quite sure what to do with the knowledge. It is often the catalyst for violence or intense posturing.

“Gregor the Grey, I presume?”

He nodded.

“I am Ragnar Ironfang, Exile from Clan Shadow Wolf,” I said. “I am investigating a crime that involved a particularly specialized form of poison. It paralyzes the victim, keeping them fully conscious and able to feel at the same time.”

“And what makes you think I would help you twiceborn?” asked Gregor, a note of curiosity in his sonorous voice.

“This poison was sold to an assassin,” I said, keeping my tone conversational. At times like this I like to pace slowly with my hands clasped behind my back, imitating some long forgotten bard from my youth, no doubt.

“I’m not sure how that piece of knowledge is meant to dislodge my tongue,” said Gregor. “The nightblades are the last group that a cautious man would want to alienate.”

“True, they do run this town after a fashion,” I said. “However, this particular assassin has made some errors which might cost him. Firstly, he murdered his lover and one of her ‘friends’ in a crime of passion. Probably took a contract out on her to keep within guild rules, but I expect they are not going to be happy with the results. The woman he murdered was a favourite of madame Glorianna, the man was one of my people — someone important.”

The second bit of information was a guess. For one, a place like the pink pearl was too expensive for just any Sea Wolf on shore leave. I used to dream about a night in such a place in the early days of my exile. How time changes our tastes… Secondly, he was a big, strong lad with some giant blood in him, which among a people who respect physical prowess would earn him a name. If he wasn’t important himself, one of his relatives would be. An easy gamble.

“I see,” said Gregor, frowning. My people are not well understood in this part of the world — our reputation in Myrrhn is that we are unpredictable and warlike, which is probably partly because we have attacked it a few times over various disputes. Madame Glorianna was also a powerful figure in the city. I could see Gregor weighing hsi options. “I won’t tell you who, but I did sell a poison like that to someone who I suspect of being affiliated with the guild.”

“What did you charge for the poison?”

“Given the potency and the rushed nature of the job, I asked for a trade bar,”

I whistled, that was a fair amount of money, even for an exotic poison. A gold trade bar could keep a man in good ale and a fine bed for a year in Myrrhn, more elsewhere. The fact that my quarry did not flinch at this price spoke volumes of both Gregor’s reliability and my enemy’s affluence.

Incidentally, this meant that the attack outside Git’s was unrelated. That assassin who had bloodied me with her knife was after me for an entirely different reason, it seemed.

Disease in Fantasy

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

I have an annoying cold today, which, along with an episode of Vikings, inspired tonight’s topic.

Most of us who enjoy the benefits of modern civilization cannot quite fathom the  impact that disease once had. Disease has done far more to hold the human population in check throughout history than war. Times of plague could shape an entire narrative in a Fantasy world, especially when superstition and the politics of ignorance come into play.

The black death is perhaps the most famous of ancient diseases. It is best know for ravaging Europe, peaking in ~1350, a brutal time that is well recorded, but current theories have it originating  in the east and travelling along the silk road, the great east-west trade route that loosely tied Europe, the Middle East. the Orient, and Africa together. It reduced the world population from ~450 million to 375 million or lower, with a fatality rate of 30% or more at this time. Other outbreaks were reported, including a period in the middle of the eighth century that may have been just as bad. These are just general figures, but we don’t need to be exact to see how such an occurrence could be the centerpiece of a work of fiction.

In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves. — The famous quotation from Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron about the symptoms of the black death.

The Black Death had several interesting consequences. Naturally fanatics bloomed in many areas that suffered, seeking to blame the spread of the disease on whatever local group most offended them, feeling that the disease must have a divine origin. While it is a sad comment on human fallibility that these acts became common, this sort of madness makes great fodder for stories. The plague his some nations much harder than others, greatly changing the balance of power. It also hit cities harder than rural areas, changing that balance as well.

Disease is underused in Fantasy. My favorite use of diseases in Fantasy, excluding diseases that make you awesome like vampirism or lycanthropy, and zombie based diseases, are found in the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind especially. What I liked about these were the weird varieties of diseases that your character could encounter, each with its own symptoms and origins. Of course the fact that a simple potion or spell could rid you of most of them, made it less than arduous, but it was a nice touch. Many older tabletop RPGs had extensive lists of diseases, some of which could be the subjects of great quests to find cures.

Here are a few ideas to consider when using disease in a Fantasy setting:

  • What is the nature of your plague? Is the disease fatal, or just crippling in some way? Is it passed by fleas on rats, brought back by soldiers on crusade, or the result of the vicious spells of an insane cult? Is death quick or grim, blissful or horrific? In a way the disease is like a character in your work and should reflect the mood and themes you are trying to convey. The bubonic plague works much better for Grimdark than for a more pastoral fantasy.
  • How will people react to the disease? The emotional response of the characters to the disease is important to the story, and the attitude of groups and nations  to the disease is a key part of world building in a plague ridden setting. If fanatics lash out and blame, who will be there targets? If your world has visible, active Gods, what role do they and their priests play in the cycle of plague? What happens if the disease only targets elves? these are all rich considerations for story material.
  • How will the disease change how people live? If the population of the world dropped by half in a short period of time, things would change. Settlements and cities would shrink or be abandoned. Labour shortages could cause problems, but also create a rise in opportunity for those lucky enough to survive.
  • How will the disease alter the power structures? Some groups will use every opportunity that comes their way. If a kingdom is weakened by plague, another might decide to invade (which could, amusingly, increase the spread of the disease). A nation or guild might decide that keeping the cure to themselves is the key to power. Essentially you need to decide what changes the disease will bring to institutions as well as to individuals.
  • How will fantastic elements interact with the disease? How does the disease interact with magic in your world. If wizards hold the only cure they might become very popular and very powerful, but also make enemies. What happens if the disease interacts or changes magic somehow? The possibilities here are endless, but you should consider what effects the plague will have on the more unique and unesual elements of your world as well.