So, Dungeon Master, your party just defeated the Tarrasque (again!) and are bored with the yet another campaign against the evil archlich Evil McBadguy. They’re so powerful they yawn at any monster you throw at them and you can only use so many two headed, tentacled T-rexes. What to do? My first answer is play an edition of Dungeons & Dragons where the characters aren’t superheroes at 1st level but that’s just me. Get off my lawn.
Challenging D&D heroes through natural disasters
Well, you have a few options, says this old chick who’s been there:
- Retire the characters and start new ones.
- Politics. (yawn.)
- Rocks fall-everybody dies.
Let Mother Nature take over. That’s right — natural disasters. Nature will always humble the human race no matter how cocky we become. The characters may be able to stare down a beholder but can they stop an earthquake? They can? Shame on you for letting them become that powerful. But if they can’t? Or worse, they weren’t there when it happened, it’s a whole different story.
Disasters strike our planet fairly often. A quick google search resulted in this list: volcanic eruption, earthquake, tsunami, flooding, tornado, hurricane/typhoon, blizzard, avalanche, mudslide, forest fire. Of course, there’s also rare things like “comet hits the planet” but I’ll skip those. Okay big deal. How could these affect the characters? What adventure hooks could you beget from them?
Volcanic Eruption. Everyone’s heard of Pompeii, Italy, which was buried after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. Sure there was lava and tons of ash but neither are what killed most people. That was superheated gas, known as pyroclastic flow. You see, “It’s believed that the 400 to 900 degree heat boiled the fluid in the victims’ heads causing their skulls to explode and instantly turning their brains to lumps of ash.” Good luck with that resurrection spell. Also the gases rode with the shock wave so it greatly preceded the lava, taking so many victims by surprise. If you wanted to be extra nasty you could do efreeti surfing the lava waves or salamanders hunting the survivors for hors d’oeuvres. But why bother?
Oh, did I mention the effect the ash cloud has on global weather? For example, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted for eight months in 1783, not only killing thousands but also wiping out livestock and crops there. Also the poisonous cloud affected Europe, killing tens of thousands, and changed weather patterns in Asia and Africa, killing untold thousands, and even in North America where the winter of 1784 was particularly long and cold. Of course only the most powerful characters could have a hope of surviving that, if they’re there when it happens. I’ll come back to this.
Then there was Krakatoa in August of 1883, which killed over 36,000, but more died thanks to another after effect — the tsunami.
Tsunami. This is a huge surge of water caused by seismic activity like an earthquake or volcano. One such wave caused 230,000 deaths in the South Pacific in December 2004. Of course, there is also the Japanese tsunami in March 2011 which killed nearly 16,000 people — and they had an early warning. It also caused the Fukushima plant to melt down causing untold effects for decades to come. Not to mention the earthquake shifted the axis of the planet’s rotation. Could your characters hold off a wall of water from devastating a town? Yeah, right. They might survive it using various means, but stop it? Not happening.
Earthquake. An earthquake is tectonic plates sliding against each other. Small earthquakes are rather common around the Pacific basin. For years, people have been waiting for the big one to hit the West Coast of California (especially Lex Luthor — deep cut reference there). What would this big one look like? We have examples from history. The 1960 Chilean earthquake was the largest recorded in history at 9.6 on the Richter scale. However, the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake might be more D&D-ish due to the lack of technology and the government structure.
The tremors burying people in buildings and the liquefied ground (hard to swim in armor) swallowing people whole are horrors. The tsunami adds to the devastation. However, in a civilization lit by fire with buildings made of wood? That’s an inferno waiting to happen — and it happens after earthquakes, like in Lisbon. And in San Francisco in 1906 where it was helped by ruptured gas lines. Will your party’s druid be able to stop any of this? Guess again.
All of the information I’ve posted are from just a few easy searches. How about these?
- Hurricane/Typhoon. Winds in excess of 100 miles per hour, storm surge, fishing villages built of wood. Bye bye town.
- Flooding. Again, wooden villages go bye bye, as do crops. Followed up by famine and water borne diseases as well as lack of fresh drinking water.
- Mudslide. Add this tidbit to flooding to wipe out whole villages in a heartbeat, burying them alive with little trace.
- Tornado. Total localized devastation on a Biblical scale. (This also works for the Tarrasque walking through an area.)
- Blizzard. This is more effective in climates unused to it. Five feet of snow in a medieval setting with no snow removal experience means dead livestock and possible famine.
- Avalanche. So your fireball happy wizard launches a fireball in that snowy mountain pass. Smooth. Several towns buried. Make your avalanche disaster plans now in anticipation for Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden!
- Forest Fire. Said fireball or lightning bolt happy mage throws those spells in a dry summer forest, which is like tinder. I’m sure the nearby (mostly wooden) towns will be happy those three hill giants were destroyed until the massive fire sweeps through their fields and towns. Also, with the trees gone, see Mudslide above. Repercussions of one’s actions can suck.
- Plague. Any of the above can lead to this due to poor sanitation and corpses everywhere. Hopefully it can be contained. How many lesser restoration spells can a cleric cast in a day? Then there’s those who will say the plague is the retribution of the gods. Remember, there’s no science! Look up flagellants during the Black Death for some ideas.
- Insect Swarm. Your holy avenger will be really effective against 4 million locusts destroying the crops and causing famine as well as economic ruin. I know! Throw a fireball! That should kill a few hundred! Oops (see forest fire above).
Disaster dangers in RPGs
Okay, how can a DM use any of these without instantly killing the party? Easy. When whatever happens the party isn’t there! For example, your party is a few days away from poor Victimburg when they experience earth tremors powerful enough to do a little damage. However, word quickly reaches them the tremors were from a volcanic eruption that completely destroyed Victimburg and help is desperately needed for the survivors! There would be people buried in rubble, injured, probably a fire still in progress followed by challenges for food and shelter. Aand pockets of toxic gasses. What will you do, Sir Paladin McGoodguy? What about you, Mystic Minerva? Then there’s locating the party elsewhere:
- If the party is exploring the Craggy Caves of Creeper Crawler when the earthquake strikes, cave-ins become a potential danger.
- If they’re exploring the Dungeon of Evil O’Sinister when the earthquake hits — assuming they get out without cave-ins — they then discover their nearby home of Gonesville was destroyed by a tsunami and there are still many trapped and in danger, especially the barkeep with whom Singsong the Bard was flirting.
- Optima of the Light is awakened by a dream in which her god shows her that on the second night of the Harvest Festival a great fire caused by falling embers from the ritual fireworks show will engulf the town of Bad Luckstadt, destroying everything including the temple, which holds a relic of that god — the very flammable Toe of Tobias. That’s two days from now! Can Optima and her fellow adventurers make it in time?
- The tornado wrecked most of Trailertown including the chapel that stood for centuries. But wait — while digging through the rubble looking for survivors the party finds a long forgotten catacomb, which leads to…
As you can see, dear beleaguered DM, natural effects of an uncaring planet can add a new dimension of epic danger to the campaign and vault your group either to greater heights (or infamy) depending upon what they do in the next 24 hours. In any case their world will never be the same. Or, just put them in the way of the erupting supervolcano Mount Ivehadenough and watch their arrogant postures melt away. Either way, it will be a tale worth telling for years to come!