I recently read a book called Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, by Richard Sugg. Despite its title, it's not about monsters. Instead, it's a history of what Sugg calls 'corpse medicine' - the early modern practise of using bits of dead people in attempts to cure the living. Sugg can be a bit credulous in places, but he does a good job of establishing that human blood, fat, and bone saw fairly widespread use in both European folk remedies and 'academic' medicine during the period, giving rise to a range of often gruesome medical practises that, in some cases, lingered on as late as the nineteenth century.
Here are the most gameable bits.
Skull Moss: The theory went like this: during life, your brain is constantly sloshing around inside your skull, marinading the bone in brain juice (AKA 'vital spirits'). So after you die, some of the life-giving power of your brain juice should logically still inhere in your skull. You could just grind up a skull and use the resulting powder as medicine, and indeed many people seem to have done exactly that. But the best way to get the power out is to take a human skull and grow moss on it, preferably by moonlight or starlight. The moss sucks the power of the vital spirits out of the skull, and you can then powder and eat the moss as a remedy.
- 'My loved one is sick! Bring me the powdered skull of something with really powerful brain-juice! Maybe a wizard or a dragon or something.'
- 'Actually, what we really need is their whole skull, so we can grow moss on it in the light of the full moon. That won't be a problem, will it?'
- 'And we need the brain-juice to be super-fresh, so you'll need to either find one that's just died, or kill one for us yourself. Remember - the skull must be intact! No headshots!'
- If your PCs end up building some kind of freakish garden full of moss growing on the skulls of everything they've ever killed, then so much the better!
Strangulation boosts skull quality: If someone dies by hanging or strangling, then at the moment of their death their life force will obviously be trapped inside their head, unable to escape down into their lungs. This means they will die with a head full of super-charged brain juice, making their skull (and any skull moss subsequently grown on it) extra-potent for medical purposes. There was consequently a brisk trade in the skulls of the hanged.
- 'We need the skull of a [wizard/dragon/whatever] that died by strangulation. Any other death makes them useless to us. Here's a noose. Good luck!'
- 'Did you hear? They're hanging Horatius the Hexmaster tomorrow! Everyone's going to want his skull! We need a plan to get in first...'
Subdermal talismans: One particularly hardcore early modern soldier apparently wore a lump of skull moss under the skin of his own head, presumably by cutting a flap of skin off his forehead, pushing the moss under it, and then sewing up the wound and letting it heal. Probably the intention was to fortify his own skull with a double-dose of life-giving brain-juice. Apparently it worked, too, protecting him against being injured by sword-blows to the head.
- PCs should absolutely be encouraged to sew lumps of skull-moss from all the scariest things they've killed under the skin of their own heads. Give them mechanical bonuses for doing it. You should be able to spot a real monster-slayer from all the weird scarred-over lumps bulging out of their foreheads.
- An enemy with a sufficiently impressive skull-moss collection might be almost unkillable, requiring PCs to specifically cut away their subdermal talismans to render them vulnerable to harm - tricky if they're also wearing a helmet!
- 'I can't treat this injury - the poison is far too powerful! Find me the knife that made it! I'll treat that, instead!'
- Wounds could be used as a means of ensuring loyalty at a distance. 'Oh, that wound looks pretty mortal, doesn't it? But as long as you keep making payments, I'll keep applying wound salve to the knife I just stabbed you with...'
- Sugg doesn't discuss it, but there was also believed to be a 'powder of sympathy' which, if stabbed with a weapon that had been previously used to wound someone and which was still stained with their blood, would cause that person to experience sudden pain, no matter where they were on Earth. The potential value of such powder as a weapon (or, indeed, as a long-distance signalling mechanism) should be obvious!
- This scenario basically writes itself. 'Here's a bag of dirt, a bag of seeds, a sharp knife, a bottle, and a cookbook. Now get out there and end that feud!'
- Good luck convincing someone who knows you've been consorting with their mortal enemy that you've got a totally innocent reason for first cutting them open and stealing their blood, and then coming back and feeding them a bowl of herbs with questionable origins!
- A ruler or spymaster might maintain whole rooms full of blood lamps, one for each person they want to keep tabs on. Plenty of opportunities for sabotage by spiking one person's lamp with someone else's blood!
- 'I know he says he's fine, but how's he really doing? Here - take this lamp, steal some of his blood, and pour it into it. I just want to make sure that he's actually OK...'
- A particularly stubborn disease might need rubbing with a particularly powerful severed hand - perhaps one belonging to a dead cleric, wizard, etc. If you can grab some of his sweat while he's dying, that's a bonus!
- A curse or monster might inflict terrible swellings on those who oppose it, requiring the PCs to rub one another down with severed hands in mid-melee!
- A corrupt magistrate might be in league with the local executioner, having specific people executed on trumped-up charges because he believes their body parts are likely to fetch a particularly good price on the open market.
- In a region plagued by witches, different families might compete fiercely for bits of each person executed (and agitate constantly for more executions), seeing such corpse-talismans as their best hope for protecting their families from dark sorcery.
- A PC suffering from a magical curse or disease might learn that their only cure is the freshly-spilled blood of an executed man. When's the next execution happening, again? And they'd better be ready to fight for a spot at the foot of the block - they won't be the only ones there waving empty tankards around and trying to guess the likely trajectories of arterial spray...
- PCs tend to inflict a lot of violence and untimely death - what if they start selling the blood and bones of their victims, too? How will the local executioners react to someone trying to break into 'their' trade?
- 'No, I need someone really healthy. Get me... like... a barbarian champion, or something. Then tie him down so I can drink some of his blood!'
- Campaign start concept: the PCs are a bunch of random travellers kidnapped because their hardy, athletic frames make them ideal targets for the local lord's medical vampirism. Now they need to break out of his horrible castle before he drains them all dry like the ghastly, thirsty, geriatric monster he is. Good thing they're all such vigorous specimins!
- 'So what you need to do, right, is wait until he begins his big speech, and then pull his human-skin gloves off! His uncontrollable flatulence will finish his career on the spot!'
|Preserved scalp of the Red Barn Murderer, Richard Corder, and a book of his crimes bound in his skin. From 1828.|
- 'Find me a genuine ancient mummy, with a pyramid and everything! Then crush it up so I can rub it on my injuries. You can keep the inevitable cursed gold for yourselves.'
- PCs may kill a lot of people, but they probably don't carry giant urns of wine around on adventures with them. So for an extra pay-off, why not drag all those corpses back to the local wine-merchant and have them made into medicine? Let's just hope no-one asks any awkward questions about why you're dragging all these hacked-up corpses around...
- With all these mummies being traded back and forth, how long can it be before an undead one gets mixed in with the rest, and wakes up just as it's being unloaded from the ship? Imagine how angry some ancient priest-king will be upon discovering he's narrowly avoided being ground up for medicinal purposes...
- Some early modern doctors also broke into barrow mounds in search of ancient dead people to grind up into medicine. Think of all the furious barrow wights!