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I have been consuming a lot of LARP, bushcraft, and military survival content lately, but I've noticed something about material hygiene and cooking that's got me thinking about fantasy cooking/survival in general. In all the kitchen-type cooking I've seen, hygiene (especially with meat) is paramount. Having clean hands, clean tools, and cooking things to safe internal temperatures prevents food borne illness.

However out in the sticks, we don't always have the luxury of having access to a kitchen. Sometimes you have to make and eat something (which may include killing it first) but you only have dirty hands/tools to do it with. No one stuck out in the middle of nowhere would waste clean drinking water rinsing their hands, and using a local stream/river could pose just as much of a threat (assuming one even exists). Taking the time to filter and boil water specifically for disinfection seems like an unlikely waste of time/resources.

Tools made of metal (cooking pots, forks, tongs, etc.) can survive the heat of a fire, and while they might not be 'clean' of dirt, debris, or food particles, exposure to heat will pretty much kill all the pathogens on such surfaces. This is a luxury that wood, cloth, and flesh do not have.

That being said, are there any 'fantasy' type disinfectants/antiseptics that would be appropriate for Dungeons and Dragons or a LARP? How would they be used/applied? Are they really necessary?

For clarity:

Antiseptics are applied to living skin or tissue to prevent infection, whereas disinfectants are applied to surfaces, equipment or other inanimate objects. Disinfectants are stronger and more toxic than antiseptics because they are applied to surfaces, not living tissue. Source

I make mention of the difference since it would be more convenient to carry one item that could do multiple jobs. The simplest that comes to mind is high-proof grain alcohol (40-90 proof). In most fantasy settings, such a spirit would likely be difficult and expensive to produce. While it could be used as a painkiller, disinfectant, and antiseptic, it would likely be priced more into the 'this is meant for drinking' range, outside of commonplace use.

My other thought would be concentrated white vinegar. It would be somewhat common, and therefore cheaper, but while it is an excellent cleaning agent, it can't exactly be used on wounds either (ouch), it can corrode metals, and it isn't a great disinfectant. But it does kill E.Coli and Salmonella which might be 'good enough' for an adventuring party of miscreants. Another option could be lye soap. Cheap, available, but requires water to function. Although a poor job of cleaning something you eat from could poison you, unlike the other two.

The only way I could think to apply these would either be:

  • Brushing on with a dedicated brush and wiping (somewhat inefficient and slow)
  • Pouring directly on (wasteful)
  • Misting (mechanically complex)

Of course, if the risk of actually contracting something from ill cleaned tools/hands was tiny, none of this would matter anyway. Although I know D&D, I'm asking somewhat generally (for any game/edition and any historical context) since I've never seen anything in RPGs that realize this as a mechanic and I'd like to make some house rules for 5th edition D&D. Food poisoning and dysentery can kill just as easily as any arrow or dragon. Information and ideas are welcome!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This may be easier to answer if you limit it to a single system (especially as you are looking at house rules for D&D 5e). There are a lot of systems and game worlds out there. The text talks about D&D but the tags say system-agnostic, can you clarify that? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ D&D was the main system I was thinking of, but I put system-agnostic as I am not sure if there even are any other RPGs that have done this. Given that I'd be making house rules though, updated for 5e specific tags. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 7:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question because campaign research questions are off topic. While you are playing D&D, and intend to implement these ideas in a D&D game, this is unfortunately not a D&D question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 8:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Rivers, streams and wells were almost always safe to drink from in pre-industrial societies. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 8:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question seems to be based on the false premise that people in the middle ages treated washing as wasteful. They didn't, washing hands and utensils was pretty normal, and roads was generally put alongside the rivers, streams and lakes so that you wouldn't need to go without access to fresh water for more than a day or so. People back then wasn't stupid or suicidal, they knew dirty plates cause stomach pains and the like, and stale water makes you feel bad, so they planned accordingly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 12:13

3 Answers 3

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People in medieval settings had no concept of germs

In the real world, bacteria were discovered only in 1676, way after the medieval period that games like Dungeons & Dragons are set in. People did not always cook drinking water to desinfect it. Up to colonial times, people - including children - drank small beer, which was safer and nutritious.

Diseases in D&D 5e are infectious, and the disease rules on p. 256 DMG talk about becoming infected and about incubation times, but the characters would have no idea about bacteria, viruses or modern standards of hygiene. They would either suffer through and heal naturally, or they would use magic like lesser restoration.

In a medieval fantasy setting, germs play no role when cooking normal food, and the game has no mechanisms that call for desinfection. In 5e, not even getting wounded by sword cuts or bitten by normal beasts carries any risk of disease. Only specific monsters have features that cause diseases, such as the variant Diseased Giant Rat. (Some other games, like older editons of The Dark Eye had a risk of gangrene every time you got wounded.) So by the rules, desinfection is not neccessary.

Buying and managing high-proof alcohol or other substances to desinfect your stuff regularily makes no sense based on the understanding of the world that the characters have, and is just going to be an administrative chore for the players. It also is not very heroic. I think it makes good sense for the game to ignore this simulationist instinct.

If you are interested in more detailed tracking or want to introduce diseases in your 5e games, you can use the Sewer Plage (p. 257 DMG), a disease that states:

When a humanoid is bitten by a creature that carries the disease, or when it comes into contact with filth or offal contaminated by the disease, it must succeed on a DC 11 Constitution saving throw or become infected.

As for cleaning, you can by soap for 2 cp on the equimpment list (p. 150 PHB).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 14:05
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It depends on use case, honey for example is a pretty good anti-bacterial/fungal that can be used to preserve food. Salt is also a classic that most people have seen used for preservation, lightly coated does some but curing is more efficient. Finally there's smoking which can help food preservation, but not completely solve the problem (usually needing one of the prior two as well). These are all things that could, theoretically, be found within a standard forest in some form (who knows what magic effects they could have too), the smoking will even help the next part.

As for soap, it's actually incredibly easy to make essentially requiring animal fat (hunted), ash (fire is needed for heat), and water (so does living). I've never knowingly used soap made from animal fat, but according to a quick google, it's indistinguishable from other bar soaps.

If you're following the PHB for water requirements p. 185, then you'll need 1 gallon per day (or 2 on hot days), each gallon is roughly 8.4 lb. This is a considerable amount of weight for a party to carry and would need topping up regularly. Going to the river may be dangerous, but not going is even more so.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I've never knowingly used soap made from animal fat, but according to a quick google, it's indistinguishable from other bar soaps." my grandmother used to make such soap. It was boiled first, then the mixture left to harden, which gives you one big soap, which is carved into chunks. The main differences to a store bought soap is that the home made one wasn't scented. But otherwise it was used interchangeably with store bought soap. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 9:28
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In practice it is not necessary

There are no rules for getting infected during the course of normal adventuring. There do exist rules for getting infected through contact with disease-bearing substances -- for example, there's a spiked pit trap in

White Plume Mountain

where taking damage from the spikes may lead to contracting a disease. But antiseptic won't help with that.

Diseases are fairly easy to remove. A first-level paladin can spend five points of lay on hands to cure any disease. A third-level cleric or druid (or various other classes) can prepare and cast lesser restoration which cures any disease.

I've played many games and never encountered a DM who made disease risk a part of their game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 thank you for the reminder that the spell formerly known as cure disease is now lesser restoration. Old habits die hard. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 13:13

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