We hesitated before running this piece, which was written prior to the disaster on Haiti. It is certainly not our intent to trivialise what has occurred or in any way to be insensitive to the ongoing emergency there. Ultimately, we chose to run it at this time so that we could encourage all those reading this to support aid and disaster relief efforts in response to the tragic earthquake. Donations to The Red Cross can be made from this page (choose the second option), or to The United Way from this page.
It’s tempting to use a disaster to show your characters that there will always be things beyond their power and restore a sense of perspective. When I originally conceived the idea behind this post, the topic was going to be how to go about doing so, but the more I thought about it, the less that made sense.
Why Is The Sky Falling?
Disasters are often a way for the GM to show off his power to the players, which is profoundly juvenile behaviour (to say the least). But there are more legitimate reasons for their occurance within a game, and that’s what the blog was going to be about – and in some ways, it still is on that topic.
What are those reasons? Firstly, the GM might wish to subject his campaign to a “Radiation Accident,” with the cataclysm serving as justification for a radical evolution within the campaign premise. The disaster is simply a mechanism to stir up the status quo in a campaign that has become (or is becoming) too predictable.
Secondly, the disaster might derive from some unique aspect of the existing campaign, or be be the logical end product and ultimate dramatisation of existing campaign trends. The best example of this reasoning is still “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov. There’s a reason this short story has won so many awards!
And finally, the intent might be to challenge the PCs with something a little more extreme (mundane or otherwise).
But – and this is where planning for this post went astray – isn’t that also the end goal of all the other justifiable reasons for a disaster? The intervening steps might vary, the disaster might be nothing more than a means to an end, but the objective remains the same, whether the challenge stems directly from the disaster, or indirectly by way of the aftermath.
A No-Win Situation
The more I thought about the types of disasters that could occur within a scenario, and the reasons for them, and how best to handle them as a GM, the more I came to realise that a full-scale disaster is a no-win situtation for the GM.
Either he frustrates the characters through their inability to prevent the cataclysm, or he permits them to do so (in the process voiding any reason he might have had for unleashing it in the first place).
The only ways out of this conundrum are to have the calamity take place out of the PCs reach, or to employ it purely as background for a more immediate struggle, or to downsize the calamity to a scale apon which the PCs can plausibly intervene to prevent the tragic outcome. What that scale is will vary from campaign to campaign, and genre to genre.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
What does moving a calamity out of reach of the PCs entail? Well, it means that the disaster has become inevitable by the time the PCs know about it. Either it has already happened, and the consequences are only now beginning to catch up with the characters, or it took place so far away that all there is left to do is to deal with the knock-on effects – in other words, placing the catastrophe trigger at a distance either temporally or geographically or both.
In this circumstance, it’s not the disaster that’s the story, so far as the characters are concerned, it’s the repercussions, and those can be dealt with in relative isolation or as a local impact, rather than dealing with the disaster as a whole; in effect, the disaster has been downsized purely by removing it from the PCs frame of referance.
Dark Shadows Across The Stage
Using the disaster as a background element, bigger than the PCs but only affecting them (and everyone else) indirectly, is the second approach that was mentioned. And once again, those effects are local and not global, though they may be ever-present, a constant consideration that impacts on every decision made by the PCs.
This is the approach that I am taking through the initial stages of my Shards Of Divinity campaign, in which Magic is failing and becoming unreliable. Right now, it’s purely a background phenomenon, but over time it will become a central factor in the life of each member of the party – at which point, they will have the necessary motivation to do something about it beyond idle curiosity and intellectual challenge.
The Lesson Of Ragnerok
I actually employed both these approaches in handling Ragnerok within my superhero campaign in it’s previous incarnation. Not only was the cause of the disaster something tiny and seemingly innocuous, by the time the PCs knew it was happening it was already inevitable. It then became a background element, providing motivations for various characters to act in ways that led to confrontations with the PCs. When the disaster actually struck, there was to be simultanious action in four different locations.
But the problem was that it overstayed its welcome. The sword of Damocles can only dangle overhead for so long before frustration sets in, and I let it linger there for too long while the campaign stagnated. Eventually, the only solution was to take a lengthy break while I fictionalised the climax, revealing all the answers that had been lurking behind the curtain, and setting the foundations for the campaign to enter a new phase with new characters, which is now known as the Zenith-3 campaign.
As a background element, Ragnerok was tremendously successful. It transformed the campaign. But not all of the ways in which it did so were either intended or even recognised at the time.
(As a side note – the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign have only recently discovered the causal triggers behind the circumstances that led to Ragnerok happening at all – and with it, the suspicion is growing that it’s not completely over yet…)
Getting back on topic, reducing the disaster in this way is simply another means of limiting its scope – since the PCs aren’t expected to be able to do anything to stop it, all they are left with is coping with repercussions.
If both the techniques for making indirect disasters tolerable within a campaign can be characterised as downsizing, how about circumstances where the characters are expected to actually confront (and possibly prevent) the calamity in the first place?
Well, either it’s too big for them and they are reduced to treating it as a temporary environmental circumstance, or they are up to the task and can confront it head-on. In either case, the disaster has either been downsized to something manageable or was already at such a scale by definition – in either case, the answer is the same. The disaster has been downsized.
Peril lurks, however, if the PCs do not clearly recognise which of these two categories the disaster falls into. This is especially likely in high-level Fantasy campaigns, where characters have the magic to deal with extraordinary conditions; in high-tech sci-fi campaigns, where they have the technology not only to intervene, but usually to see the potential train-wreck coming; and in superhero campaigns, where an ‘immovable object’ is merely a figure of speech (as is an irresistable force, for that matter). These guys and gals are used to dealing with cosmic level threats; disasters, either natural or artificial, are unlikely to faze them.
A secondary peril is that characters can be left out. While the high-level Wizard might be able to cope with a flood, there isn’t a whole lot that the high-level fighter can do about it.
The solution to both these dangers also lies in the concept of downsizing. Let the fighter lead a heroic attempt to reinforce the levee banks while the wizard is seeking the source of the greater problem. The campaign is better served by treating the disaster as a local phenomenon as much as possible – in other words, by downsizing it.
The story isn’t the flood, it’s the saving of the town from the flood.
With that realisation behind us, let’s look at some specifics…
Really Really Big Disasters
These resist downsizing after the fact. The sun going nova; time getting stuck in a loop in which nothing can change; the planet (or just the PCs) getting sucked into a black hole; a planet-killing asteroid heading for Earth; Ragnerok… well, you get the idea.
There are just two ways to downsize these into manageable proportions: either you violate the precept (whatever it might be) that prevents post-cataclysmic downsizing (time may be stuck in a loop but there can still be changes; Ragnerok isn’t the end, it’s merely a transition; or whatever) – or you let the party discover the imminant disaster in time to do something about it.
Locally Cataclysmic Disasters
Famine, Plague, Flood – think Biblical. Volcanos erupting, tidal waves, earth runs out of fossil fuels. Wars and Invasions. These are all disasters, but they are small enough that the consequences can be dealt with locally, so the GM doesn’t have to be afraid of letting them happen; the techniques already provided are perfectly suited to these, especially the maxim of focussing on a succession of consequences that are localised to whereever the PCs happen to be at the time.
And the same is true of everything smaller. A leaking gas main, a burning building, a small avalanche, even an icy street – just keep it all local to the PCs and all will be well.
This is a completely different kind of disaster. It encompasses everything from losing one’s job, to being framed for a crime (or actually committing one in a moment of madness or poor judgement), to being diagnosed with a fatal disease, to having a loved one so diagnosed, to being tricked by a swindler, to investing badly and losing the kids’ college fund, or the house, or whatever.
Some of these are hardly the-end-of-the-world-as-the-character-knows-it, others should so affect the character so strongly that they will never be quite the same again. Individual dispositions and psychology should have as much to do with such differentiation as any absolute measure of calamity.
But here’s the problem: if you inflict one of these on a PC, at least one of three things had better be true: either there’s an easy way to undo it, or it is done with the player’s active and willing cooperation, or it turns out not to be as bad as it seems – in other words, it is downsized. And in any of these cases, there had better be a good reason for it in terms of the plotline of the campaign.
The reason is that if these are not the case, then you are arbitrarily inflicting discomfort and inconveniance on the PC in ways that he cannot fight, and for no good reason. That lands us right back at the unacceptable reasons for a disaster that I described at the start of this article.
On the other hand, if just one of these conditions are true (plus there’s a good reason for the event), then the personal tragedy is analagous to any other form of disaster. It is either projected into the background with only the repercussions affecting character decisions and plotlines – that’s the same as a personal tragedy for the character that’s inflicted with the cooperation of the player – or the calamity is reduced in permanence or in significance.
In other words, the disaster is either unacceptable or it’s downsized.
Once I percieved this general rule, I tried very hard to find exceptions. In the end, I only found one: When the disaster is something that is unique to the game setting – the campaign world or the game system – then it is actually beneficial to play up the disaster.
By “unique to the game setting”, I don’t mean just that it affects a race that is unique to the world, or that such a race be the focus of responsibility for the disaster (though that might be the case); I mean that the phenomenon itself is somehow directly identifiable with this particular game.
Emphasising such disasters not only emphasises the unique aspects of this specific campaign, it makes them stand out against more mundane catastrophes as something exceptional.
In D&D for example, a plague that only afflicted divine beings would get a lot of attention. So would the failure of magic.
In a sci-fi campaign, it’s always fun (but a lot of prep) to mess with one of the universal constants. Or perhaps an alien race deploys some sort of energy field that makes hyperspace wildly unpredictable. Or something has happened to the flow of time. Or someone is running an experiment that could start a chain reaction, destroying the whole planet. Or there is something happening that could make the sun go nova. Or an anti-matter asteroid is about to strike an inhabited planet.
Most of those work in a superhero campaign as well, as does the rise of some Nameless Horror Man Is Not Meant To Know.
In Cyberpunk, some sort of computer virus is always fun because of all the man-machine interfaces. Or perhaps a drug that leaves the AIs in control of implanted cybertech, or a computer becoming self-aware, or a flesh-eating virus that only affects clones (including a PC who didn’t even know they were a clone?).
All these disasters deserve prominant attention, should they occur. But they are the only class of disaster that I could think of that can in any way be considered an exception to the general rule.