The Rubber-Cutters' Outdoor Disease Dungeon
The Amazon rubber boom (1879-1912) was an explosion in the export of rubber, mostly from Brazil, driven by an equivalent explosion in demand. The rubber companies lured men to the farthest reaches of the Amazon with the promise of striking it rich. In their tiny, isolated camps deep in the jungle, countless rubber-cutters labored and died. These camps had an interesting layout that’s surprisingly applicable to dungeon design. Let’s take a look at how we can use one and the human tragedies it contained to build a unique and memorable dungeon!
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Image credit: Melanie Dinane. Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
New rubber-cutters lived in camps of about a half-dozen men. They often had a local guide, an employee of the company, who brought them to a site he picked out, showed them how to do the work, and then returned to the company town downstream. Upon arrival to the site, the rubber-cutters first built a hut where they could string their hammocks above an elevated platform out of the rain. Then each man built the small coop where he would smoke his rubber. After that, each man cut two paths through the jungle. The paths, called estradas, shot from rubber tree to rubber tree, perhaps fifty per path, and formed a loop or figure eight that led back to camp.
Every day, each rubber-cutter worked one of his two estradas. He went into the jungle, cut a gash in the bark of each tree, and nailed a tin cup under the cut. In the afternoon, he went back with a bucket to recover the white latex sap that filled the cup. Then he took the bucket into his coop, rubbed the latex on a stick, and exposed it to smoke to harden it. By adding progressive layers of latex, he formed a ball of coagulated rubber perhaps two feet in diameter. The next day, he worked the other estrada to give the trees on the first time to recover. That was how newbies did it. Veteran rubber-cutters lived in solitary camps working five or more estradas, cutting rubber at night when the flow of latex was greater.
New rubber-cutters were assigned to group camps because the company knew most of them would die. There was the risk of snakes, jaguars, pumas, and black caimans, but the real killer was disease. John C. Yungjohann was the only survivor of a camp of seven. His whole camp repeatedly caught fever, and every time, Yungjohann was the only one well enough to physically move. The first time, one rubber-cutter died in his hammock and Yungjohann was too weak to move the body. So he tore up the platform planks beneath the corpse, slowly and painfully dug a shallow grave with his hands, cut the hammock so it fell into the grave, then covered it with dirt. The next time, he had to do it for two bodies. The next, it was the other three and Yungjohann was too weak to bury them at all. He just cut the hammocks and crawled into his smoking coop. When he was well enough to leave, he found the animals of the jungle had reduced all three bodies to clean skeletons. Once Youngjohann repeatedly caught and survived each disease, he built up a certain immunity. But even the veteran rubber-cutters constantly fell ill – the symptoms were simply less debilitating.
Rubber-cutters also couldn’t leave. The companies used a sort of debt peonage where they sold supplies at marked-up prices. Laborers paid their debt by selling rubber to the company, but it was almost impossible for them to dig themselves out of that hole until they learned how to live off the land. That usually took several years. Naturally, the companies controlled the only boats downriver to Manaus and wouldn’t let anyone buy a ticket if they had any debt. Once someone learned to live off the land, it became possible for them to earn a small fortune selling rubber to the company, but few men lived that long.
This is a good time to note that this was only one way the rubber companies acquired their product. The other way was outright slavery. The rubber companies captured entire villages of Amazonian natives and put them to work. Those who didn’t meet their quotas were lashed, shot, or cut to pieces. This is harder to use in a game, but I couldn’t in good conscience fail to mention it.
The layout of a rubber-cutting camp is a good template for a dungeon: a central camp with twice as many estradas radiating out as there are workers. The paths leading off are kind of like hallways in a dungeon, but with a twist. Sure, you can leave the path if you want. But unless you’re a practiced hand, you’ll get lost almost immediately in the dense, all-obscuring foliage. Yungjohann reports in his memoir that it took him two years before he could leave an estrada and reliably arrive where he intended to go. Even traveling between two estradas is tricky. You might think “I’ll just walk in a general direction until I hit another path”. But even if you don’t get turned around, you might not realize it when you reach the next estrada. The jungle so voraciously consumes paths carved into it that you can get lost while walking down an estrada and fail to realize you’ve left the path. Using the jungle as the walls of the hallway gives the PCs the option of going around an obstacle or ‘room’ in the dungeon, but introduces new risks as well. It’s a fun trade-off!
So how do you turn a camp into a dungeon? Lean into those diseases! In a campaign with dungeons, it’s probably reasonable that there are spirits of disease as well. This rubber camp is cursed for a reason appropriate to your campaign setting. When each of your fictional workers should have died, she didn’t. Instead, she was possessed by the spirit of the mosquito-borne illness that should have slain her. She became a walking plague factory, pumping out disease for mosquitoes to carry into the world. She retreated down one of her estradas to a defensible location and hunkered down. From their bolt-holes, these monsters spread their plagues over the surrounding jungle. The resulting waves of supernaturally intractable diseases should attract enough attention to get the PCs involved.
Let’s assume there were seven rubber-cutters and one guide (as in Yungjohann’s case). Seven is too many to have lurking down the estradas. It’s repetitive to have to fight seven different spirits of disease. So maybe we only have three spirits of disease, with the other four workers acting as servitors and the guide left as a dying victim. Let’s look at how we might break this down – and maybe do some gross-out horror along the way!
Image credit: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/). Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
When the PCs arrive at the rubber camp, they find the guide lying in her hammock. She returned to the camp after a month away to check up on the workers. When she found the camp abandoned, she poked around and contracted supernaturally-terrible cases of elephantiasis, malaria, and yellow fever. Her legs are grotesquely swollen, she has a high fever, and her chest is spattered with coughed-up black blood. She’s delirious, but if the PCs can help her, she might be a source of information.
The camp is lousy with mosquitoes. There’s no rolling a constitution check to avoid getting infected, and normal spells for curing disease can’t help you. Magic and first aid can, however, ease the symptoms. The only cure is killing the disease spirits. Every midnight, randomly determine if each PC manifests symptoms and if so, of which disease(s).
Yellow fever starts with a flu-like infection. Then you recover. In 15% of cases, a day after you recover, you start to bleed from your mouth, nose, and eyes, and throw up black blood. If this happens, it’s fifty-fifty if you die. On the bright side, you can only catch it once. Around the entrance to the estrada where the yellow fever spirit lurks, there’s a swam of mosquitoes leaking blood. The ground near the entrance is soaked, and there’s a perpetual mist falling from the swarm. The estrada leads to a caiman-infested lake. When the light catches it right, the water shines scarlet. The spirit-possessed worker resides on a moving island on the lake. The island is a dense mat of foliage – so dense trees grow upon it. The wind catches the trees like sails, and pushes the island around the lake. Figuring this out and then finding a way through the hungry giant caimans should be a fun puzzle. Every time the PCs reach the lake, there’s a 50% chance the island is in a different place than it was last time and a 10% chance it’s currently in motion.
Malaria has symptoms a lot like the flu, but with particularly intense tiredness and pain. In severe cases, it causes seizures, coma, and death. The disease is cyclical on several levels. Symptoms come and go throughout the day and intensify every two or three days before dying down. If you beat it without medical treatment, the bug is probably still in your body, and you’ll fall sick again in a few weeks. As it repeats, it eventually grows milder. Usually. The estrada where the malaria spirit dwells is watched by a swarm of mosquitoes flying in a circle: an ever-moving ring of buzzing bloodsuckers. The four workers who weren’t possessed wait on the estrada as undead that are burning hot to the touch. Every time you defeat them, you encounter them again farther down the trail. The malaria spirit’s defense is, appropriately, cyclical. The possessed worker hides in a rubber tree near the farthest point on the estrada loop.
Elephantiasis is a swelling of the limbs or genitals. Tiny worms carried by mosquitoes get in your body and plug up your lymphatic system. Unable to flow, lymph accumulates in your limbs, and they grow profoundly swollen. The disease makes it tiring and painful to move, and it’s so gross that victims often become ostracized. The plants around the entrance to the elephantiasis estrada are covered in perched mosquitoes. The insects are obviously swollen, and if you investigate closely, you’ll see there’s something moving inside their guts. The possessed worker lurks in a cave that split open at the top. Lianas and trees grow in the partially-lit depths, but the spirit hides its bloated body from the light. Unlike the other two spirits, elephantiasis won’t fight back. This might provoke compassionate PCs to find some other solution than violence. If so, reward creative approaches!
Image credit: kevincure. Released under a CC BY 2.0 license.
Obviously, you’ll want to further populate this dungeon. Maybe other disease spirits (dengue, leishmaniasis, Oropouche fever, etc.) are hanging out on the estradas without possessed bodies, complaining how unfair it is that malaria took extra workers they could have claimed. Confused predatory animals might set up ambushes along the estradas. There might be other adventuring parties in various stages of succumbing to these supernaturally potent diseases. There’s also the matter of the valuable rubber these workers harvested before they succumbed. Some of it may still be in camp, but if the spirits recognized it as valuable, they may have brought some of it back to their lairs.
Source: White Gold: The diary of a rubber cutter in the Amazon 1906-1916 by John C. Yungjohann