Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Diagnostic Ward

This is a short game that could make a great ice-breaker or filler for 4-6 players; it's partly inspired by the mechanics of Bring It but rather than being a high-octane action-adventures, this is a game of pseudo-medical mysteries taking place in a very unusual hospital.

The Ward

This is a storygame taking place in a realm of myth, fantasy and legend, where all our fairy tales are true: in this realm, there is a place that treats those who are sorely afflicted by magic and cannot turn to any mundane healer or physician for the help they need. In this story, you the players will take on the role of the patients and doctors confronted with hexes, curses and bad mojo, seeking a cure within the magically-protected environs of The Ward.

"Next patient please."

All you need to play are lots of six-sided dice and a good imagination, along with some familiarity with popular fantasy tropes; also, if you've seen at least one episode of House in your life, that really helps a lot too. Everyone who wants to gets a turn to play a patient while everybody else takes on the roles of the doctors who are trying to treat them. There are two types of case The Ward deals with:
  • Ordinary patients with extraordinary symptoms
  • Extraordinary patients with ordinary symptoms
In each three act story, someone plays the patient who presents with symptoms: when you're playing the patient, you stage the story by narrating a teaser scene that depicts your character and their affliction, such as:
  • A swarthy barbarian draws his mighty sword to fend off an ambush by trolls... when suddenly, the steel blade in his hands droops and sags. All parties gaze in bewilderment at the impotent weapon and the barbarian says, "This has never happened to me before..."
  • A forest nymph skips daintily through the glade, picking flowers as she goes... whereupon a mighty sneezing fit takes hold of her, as the pollen from the flowers hit's her nasal passage.
  • A despicable landlord is busily evicting the residents of an orphanage for late payment of their rent, when he notices his clothes no longer fit him, hanging loosely from his body; he's shrinking... or is he getting younger, rapidly?
  • The devout cleric of a benevolent god is laying hands upon the sick to cure them of their disease... but her touch sets them on fire!


"Wait, are you sure this is the MRI?"
After the teaser, the doctor players hold a diagnostic conference where they may each put forward their idea for what might be causing the patient's symptoms. How will you know what the cause is, you may ask? You make it up, that's how; here are some ideas to get you started.
  • Curse: the patient triggered a latent curse, something tied to a place, an object or their bloodline; the curse was always there, waiting for someone to transgress against the terms of it. The patient might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, broken a pact, oath or promise made by themselves or their ancestors or just angered the wrong demi-god or spirit.
  • Backlash: the patient is suffering from the unintended consequences of misused magic, either directly (they were dabbling with a scroll or ritual) or indirectly (they paid for someone else to cast a spell for them or they used a flawed magic item.) There is not necessarily any malicious intent behind this, it's the equivalent of food poisoning.
  • Possession: something has hitched a ride in the patient's body or soul; it could be a demon, a ghost or a magical compulsion, but whatever it is, it's making them act out of character, doing things they don't remember doing or simply acting through them to carry out its goals, using the patient as its meat puppet.
  • Heritage: the patient isn't what they appear to be, with the blood of elves, dwarves, fairies or dragons in their veins; this wasn't a problem until some change in their environment caused a common reaction that is uncommon for their true kind... or vice versa. They've been brought up all their life as a dwarf or gnome, but actually they're just a short human who was adopted as a foundling, but what is normal for a dwarf isn't always good for a human being.
One of the doctor players starts the ball rolling by suggesting a diagnosis; they take 1d6, roll it and place it in front of themselves. Any other doctor can now agree or disagree with that diagnosis.
  • Agree: Say "That fits with their..." and name another symptom the patient has, making it up if you have to, but don't make it more extraordinary than the first symptom they presented with, keep it simple and even medical if you like, so rash, elevated heart rate, low oxygen saturation, whatever you like. Take 1d6 and roll it, then place it alongside the die rolled by the doctor you are agreeing with.
  • Disagree:  Say "That doesn't explain..." and, as above, name another symptom the patient presents, then suggest an alternative diagnosis. Pick up as many dice as the doctor you are disagreeing with has in front of them and roll them; if your total is higher than the total in front of them, you're right, so take all the dice on the table, roll them and put them in front of you. Otherwise, you're wrong: the doctor you disagreed with gets to belittle you and explain something obvious that you've overlooked or ignored (really, you need to watch House to get this.)
When you disagree and are right, then it's up to the remaining doctors to agree or disagree with you; this continues until every doctor has had one chance to agree or disagree, at which point whoever has the dice pool in front of them moves on to Treatment.


Once consensus has been reached (i.e. the doctors have completed a Diagnosis phase by all having agreed or disagreed with the current diagnosis), then the doctor whose diagnosis won through goes to treat the patient, along with any doctors who agreed with them. They now play out a scene where they interact with the patient, attempting to treat them, or at least run tests on them to confirm the diagnosis. Tests or treatments can take any of the following forms, or whatever else you can imagine that fits the magical theme & setting of the game:

  • Divination: casting the runes, dealing the cards, looking at tea leaves, peering into a crystal ball or even opening up the patient to read their entrails then put them back again.
  • Witch Trials: sticking the patient with a pin, examining them for the mark of evil, putting a holy book or symbol on their bare skin or just sitting them in the ducking stool.
  • Superstition: throwing salt over the patient's shoulder, nailing a horseshoe to the end of their bed, getting them to pick up a penny or pin from the floor, having a chimney-sweep or sailor visit them or bringing them a gift of salt & bread.
  • Folk Remedies: lining their socks with sulphur, giving them a mercury-based potion to drink, sprinkling them with salt, putting leeches on them or popping a toad under their tongue.
  • Divine Intervention: blessing them in the name of a deity, sprinkling them with salt, lighting a candle for them or holding a full on exorcism (name the right demon or it's bad as administering the wrong anti-biotics or anti-toxins!)
  • "Another 5,000,000ccs of saline solution, stat!"
  • Ritual Magic: go the whole hog by drawing a magic circle around the patient and enacting a full ritual with summonings, bindings, drawing blood, dropping powders into a burning brazier and so on.

As they are conducting the above, each doctor presents engages in a conversation with the patient, learning more about them but also opening up about their own life as well; each player needs to pick some personal issue they are having, but if possible, the patient's issue should tie into or challenge the doctor's issues, like so:

  • The patient is a half-orc cleric, challenging a doctor's prejudices towards the orcs who work as service staff in The Ward.
  • The patient is trans-racial: though born as a human, they are transitioning into being an elf, or vice versa. A doctor facing big changes in their life or that of their family can ask the patient how they knew that they were doing the right thing.
  • The patient is Chaotic Evil, doing whatever they like to make other people's lives miserable: maybe the doctor will question why they hurt the ones they care about and lash out at those trying to help them with their problems.
  • The patient is an ethereal presence who only makes themselves know through moving objects in the room; a doctor might question their own distance & detachment from the things that are important to them.
  • The patient is an eternally youthful and cheerful fairy being, who makes the doctor an offer to come to the land of eternal bliss with them after this is over; what's keeping the doctor here and is it worth giving up the chance to live happily ever after? 

Once each player has established one personal issue that will be at stake during this scene, the patient starts choosing players who will take one die. The patient can choose from the players present in the scene in any order and they include themselves in this choice, but they can't pick the same player again until every other player has had the same number of chances. For example, in a scene with just one doctor, the patient could pick themselves, then the doctor, then the doctor again followed by themselves, but they can't just pick the doctor over and over again.

When a player is picked, they choose one die from the pool; if they are a doctor, they either take if for themselves or give it to the patient; if they are the patient, then they always take it for themselves.
  • When a player takes a die for themselves, they use it to further elaborate on their personal issue; if the die is a 1-3, then the issue is getting worse, by becoming more complicated or more urgent. If the die is a 4-6, then the issue gets better, with some of their load being taken from them or new opportunities opening up. During this, any doctors who are not in the scene can play other roles, such as nurses, friends, colleagues, relatives or visitors for the patient: these characters can help to illustrate the changes in the characters' personal issues.
  • When a doctor gives a die to the patient, their condition either improves (on a 4-6) or worsens (on a 1-3): narrate this change as appropriate, adding or subtracting symptoms if need be.
The Treatment scene continues until all the dice have been used up; each player should note down how much their personal issue improved and worsened by; the patient should also note down any changes in their condition.

Three Act Structure

It'd be a rather dull, not to mention short, story if the doctors were right first time, so here's the thing: they never are. No matter what happens in the first round of Diagnosis & Treatment, the patient is still afflicted at the end of it; the point is actually to explore the personal issues of the characters involved and possibly advance their goals, whether that's getting the promotion they're after, reconciling with estranged family members, beating their addiction or beginning a new romance with someone they're secretly attracted to. So, even if everything went right and the patient seemed to be improving, was even discharged from The Ward, they must narrate a relapse, complication or new symptom at the end of the first act.

After the first act, repeat the Diagnosis & Treatment phases again; at the end of the second act, the patient has one more setback, but the third act is also the final act of the game. Once the third round of Treatment is complete, the patient gets to narrate their final fate, whilst the doctors get to reflect on their personal issues.

  • If the patient's condition improved more than it worsened (i.e. it had more 4-6 results than 1-3), then their final Diagnosis was correct and their Treatment was successful; they return to full health, possibly after some recovery time.
  • If the patient's condition worsened more than it improved (i.e. it had more 1-3 results than 4-6), then their final Diagnosis was incorrect, therefore their Treatment was unsuccessful; the patient player narrates how their condition worsens and they pass away.
  • "I've got a good feeling about this!"
  • If the patient's condition improved and worsened equally (i.e. the same number of 1-3 and 4-6 results), then they were Diagnosed correctly, but there is no Treatment; the patient player decides whether their condition is manageable with continued care or is a chronic terminal condition.
Finally, everyone checks their personal issues; these resolve independently of whether the patient lives or dies, but they are related to the patient's condition.
  • If you got more 4-6s than 1-3s for your issue, it works out for you; if you got less than or equal to the number of 4-6s the patient's condition had, then it's complicated but ok; if you got more, then it works out fine for you. In both cases, you narrate how your issue resolves, but if it's complicated, then the patient player narrates that complication, including their own complication if they had one.
  • If you got more 1-3s than 4-6s for your issue, it doesn't work out for you; if you got less than or equal to the number of 1-3s the patient's condition had, then it's not all bad; if you got more, then it is all bad, In both cases, you narrate how your issue resolves, but if it's not all bad, then the patient player narrates something good that comes out of it, including their own good if they got any.
  • If you took no dice for yourself during the game, roll 1 die at the end: this single result determines your fate as above, so if it's a 1-3, then your issue doesn't work out for you, but if it's a 4-6, then it does.

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