Sometimes you need to break up the monotony of the flavor of the week Big Bad Evil Guy, shadowy cabal, evil empire, or dastardly cult. Other times you just want to hit the reset button on something in your campaign world. Disasters are a great way to mix things up.
There are two different types of disasters, natural hazards and anthropogenic (people-caused) disasters. The great thing about adding disasters to your game is there are abundant examples of each disaster type in our own world.
First let’s look at natural hazards. These are easier because you don’t have to do much legwork for the why of something happening, you can sum it up as weather, chance, the unpredictable nature of… nature. Or it could be the gods’ will. The latter can be a great way to segue in a new plot line.
Avalanche/Landslide/Mudslide – Need to take out a convenient mountain pass or annihilate a small town? Convenient for all seasons.
Blizzard – Cabin fever, deep snowdrifts impairing travel, risk of death by exposure, starvation? Delightful.
Cyclone/Hurricane/Typhoon – Make things from the shore to many miles inland disappear. High winds and rains flood, knock over buildings, put two-by-fours through doors, and your trampoline in your neighbor’s tree. Could be a good way to scatter the party members for some short solo adventures if that’s your thing.
Drought – Sometimes there’s too much nature, other times not enough. People who don’t have food and water are apt to riot, before they starve or die from dehydration.
Earthquake & Tsunami – Earthquakes are awesome. They shake and rend the earth, collapse buildings, and then they’re gone, except for the aftershocks and tsunami threat. Earthquakes pack a punch, giving you multiple disasters for the price of one.
Flooding – Water, water, all around. Few things will screw up an adventuring party’s day like a complete and utter lack of ground to stand upon. Plus it’s an excuse to use sahuagin… and say sahuagin.
Hailstorm – Big or small hail is at least an annoyance. At its worst it’s deadly. It’s a good way to get those pesky PCs off the road and keep them from reaching their destination. Or add it to an outdoor fight as an environmental hazard.
Heatwave – Nothing leeches away life quite like oppressive, broiling heat. Days on end of being able to cook meals by sunlight alone can make things interesting for your world and its inhabitants. Make your players balance the risk of heat exhaustion on top of everything else.
Limnic Eruption – A lake saturated with dissolved CO2 suddenly and violently releases that CO2 to the air. The effect? Well, it can create a lake tsunami (awesome) and a lot of CO2 in the surrounding area that kills people and livestock by asphyxiation. Let your players come across the aftermath of this event and leave them scratching their heads trying to unravel the mystery.
Meteor – Hey, if it’s good enough to kill dinosaurs it’s good enough to kill adventurers. Check out the Tunguska Event to learn more about meteors and their destructive power. You’ll roll your eyes at any mention of a meteor spell going forward. It’s basically cart blanche to redevelop big sections of your world map.
Pestilence – Nothing like a good ol’ plague; hard to beat the classics. Nothing causes wide spread panic like invisible death sifting through the masses. No cure and no place to run.
Swarm – Aggressive or just destructive they will ruin your day. Rat swarms, locusts, bees, dire water buffalo that crave the flesh of man. Let ravaging packs of these swarms loose in your world and let them wreak havoc.
Volcano – Iconic. It can also cause earthquakes and tsunami. You know Pompeii, maybe even Krakatoa, this thing will kill your friends and family then preserve you all in your death pose, providing a grim menagerie for the future.
Wildfire – Does the party try to fight it? Do they help organize an evacuation? Do they just run for their lives? It’s nice to throw some challenges at your players that can’t be quick fixed with a sword or spell. Wildfire also works as an invisible wall if you absolutely need to redirect the PCs in another direction.
These disasters are caused by people, either by intent or accident. Usually these disasters will occur in or around a populated area. They can make for great side adventures, distractions, or plot hooks for a more grand story.
Civil Disorder/Riot – Since the advent of television immediate coverage of civil disorder has been broadcast into our living and dining rooms. Luckily that means you don’t have to go far for inspiration. The causes of this can be social injustice, tyranny, or famine.
Disease/Poison – Disease/Poison can either be manufactured or naturally occurring. Why this is an anthropogenic disaster is because of the impact and deadliness of the issue when it strikes densely populated areas. Human history is rife with epidemics and their devastating effects of population. A note: it’s not always done with intent. Mercury poisoning, Smallpox blankets, lead poisoning, even poisonous mushrooms can be an accident.
Fire Accident/Arson – If there’s buildings there’s fire. This is an especially lethal event if you are running an area where timber construction is behind most of the buildings. And don’t forget, there’s a reason why it’s illegal to scream “Fire!” in a theater.
Industrial Hazards (Explosion, Fire, Hazardous Material Release, Environmental Damage) – Could be smog and air pollution, toxic waste pumped into the water, nuclear fallout, rapid deforestation. These things happen quickly and usually it’s too late before someone notices a problem. They can also have long lasting effects.
Transportation Accident – Shipwrecks, train derailments, broken wagon axle, motor vehicle accidents. Isolated they seem relatively benign, but an oil tanker spill is just a shipwreck right? Accidents of this nature can completely shut down arteries of transportation and shipping. Don’t forget to think of who might be involved in the accident and what they might be transporting.
Structural Collapse – Buildings fall down. When a shack falls over there isn’t a big to do, but when a major monument, skyscraper, or bridge topples there’s a serious problem. The immediate impact is a lot like an explosion and the lingering problems are no better. Not only does it keep whatever the structure was doing from working properly it shuts down everything in the immediate area. Maybe have a corner tower of a castle detach and topple into the nearby street.
War Ethnic/Political/Religious – What is it good for? You can run entire, grand campaigns around wars. Assuming your PCs aren’t actually combatants in the war, it puts a serious thorn in the side of everything you do. Random, heavily armed people without a uniform are not looked upon lightly. But also, privateering and mercenary work is a great way to shoehorn your players into a big war plot. Mercenaries and privateers were utilized extensively from the fall of the Roman Empire to the advent of Nationalism in Europe. Check them out for inspiration.
Adding these elements to your games will make your game world feel very real. Natural disasters and man-made problems happen all the time. Go check your newsfeed and you can see these events are happening all over the place. For an even more devastating effect combine some of the events: famine and bread riots in Paris helped spur the French Revolution.
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