Corpse Medicine

Grave robbing is a huge component of fantasy tabletop role playing games. Exploring ancient crypts, tombs, and catacombs are perhaps more fundamental to a game of Dungeons and Dragons than the dragons! The dungeons can be many things, but whatever they are, more often than not, they contain the dead. Typically, a gang of dungeoneering adventurers will loot the bodies and then leave them where they are. In this post, I want to provide incentive for characters to not only want to take the treasures entombed with the corpses, but the corpses as well!

I won’t go too much into the actual practice of corpse medicine, which was used in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have only done a modicum of research on the topic and from what I can tell, it was widely practiced at that time. There was also a certain logic to it that I think makes it easy to incorporate into the tabletop experience. The thought was that tinctures and potions made from the dead contained a bit of that person’s spirit, which imbued the remedy with it’s power. You would take ground up skull for a headache, or use blood to cure an ailment that effected the blood.[1] While we now know that most these “cures” don’t work, some of them actually do! [2] In a fantasy world with real spirits and magic, corpse medicine would certainly be an effective form of medicine, and one’s mortal remains could ask a high price!

The references below contain some fascinating inspiration, however, I believe it is simple to incorporate this morbid medicine into a game. Each part of the corpse is used in a cure corresponding to that particular part. So a hand would be used to cure an ailment on one’s hand, perhaps numbness or a rash. Intestines could be ground up and used to cure an ulcer or other stomach ailment. Furthermore, the bodies of demi-humans might also have different characteristics based on the characteristics often associated with those demi-humans. For example, the hand of an elf may grant extra potency in magic. The heart of a dwarf may grant a bonus to constitution or strength. Even a tincture made from the remains of a non-humanoid would possibly be of value, swiftness from the hooves of a unicorn, resistance to cold from the teeth of a yeti. Allow characters to take whatever remains they desire, and make some use of them. Use this simple logic to determine what the effect should be and grant it an efficacy based on the challenge of obtaining the ingredients. I also recommend that you are tracking encumbrance, dragging every single corpse the players find back to town should not be possible.

I’ll be incorporating this into my games, and if my players go for it I’ll hopefully have some great stories to tell about it in future posts. If you decide to implement corpse medicine into your campaign be sure to let me know in the comments how it goes!

[1]The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine
[2]  New Morbid Terminology: Corpse Medicine
Mummies and the Usefulness of Death