Disasters are the stuff of adventure. They can be the ticking clock of doom that the PCs race against, they can be the jumpstart to an adventure, or even set the scene of an ancient city now in ruins.
For our Princes of the Apocalypse game, the growing threat of the Elemental Cults was reflected as a regional effect. It seemed like a given that natural disasters would present as one of the advancing fronts of the Cults.
- Unseasonal heat leading to drought and brushfires driving farmers from their fields were but one example of the growing strength of the Circle of the Scarlet Moon.
- An increased number of storms and sea creatures of unusual size have port villages frightened and praying for some safety. A handful of individuals are visited in dreams with words of forgotten rites to appease the ancient Temple of the Crushing Wave.
- Escalation by the Black Geode resulted in at least one village swallowed up by a massive earthquake (triggered by an Orb of Elemental Devastation) and permanently changing the landscape. It demonstrated the stakes if the PCs failed, added to the overall Terror level of the region (borrowing an idea from boardgames, namely Pandemic Legacy and Eldritch Horror), and revealed a new region for exploration with the tunnels that opened up within the chasm. The party map tracked towns destroyed or overtaken by the cults. If not stopped, entire sections of the valley were at risk at becoming torn asunder as earth motes.
The Forgotten Realms setting has frequently been shaped by disasters, natural and fantastical. In most of these cases, these events were either significant plot points connected to other media (video games, novels) or as a lore based justification for the mechanical changes between editions (ala DC Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths being used to simplify lore).
- Neverwinter in the current 5E still bears the scars of a massive chasm and lingering signs of Mount Hotenow’s eruption a generation ago. *(Way back at our table with the release of the 2nd Ed. Forgotten Realms describing the War of the Gods, our DM at the time described one of the aftereffects was ‘a great chasm just outside the city walls, as if someone needed a natural 20 to hit but only got a 19’ and I continue to think of that when looking at the map of Neverwinter)
- An entire continent appeared from another plane with the arrival of 4th Edition, ripping apart many locations of the surface and Underdark. These changes created new regions to explore, new conflicts to be part of, and new creatures to encounter. Think of it as a ‘new content release unlocking explorable areas’ (as if 4E didn’t have enough complaints about its similarity to MMORPGs …)
- The Spellplague rewrote the laws of magic, justifying mechanical changes to spell casters, reshaping the landscape, the creatures, and even the gods. It’s a great opportunity for a DM to clear the pieces off the table and set up their own house changes to the lore. The original Forgotten Realms boxed set encouraged DMs to personalize their own version of the Realms.
The scope of the disaster can affect shape one corner of your world or it can entirely define it. The Eberron and Dark Sun settings are rooted in a great disaster that still has lasting repercussions and adventure hooks. The first being what appears to be a magical nuke that has created a wasteland, a mystery to be solved, a hook for any fearless treasure seeker, and a source of DM homebrewed Nameless Horrors. The Mournlands (as they are called) removed the biggest political power from the board and reset all alliances. Meanwhile, Dark Sun takes The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (among other apocalyptical fantasy settings) and turns that grim dark survival dial up to an 11 with mechanics that reflect the scarcity of magic and other basic resources that came about from the wanton excess or magic in an earlier age. My preference is Eberron for a number of reasons, including that entering the wasteland is something that is a matter of choice and the relentless survival mechanics are not where I derive my enjoyment from.
Need a way to remove a chunk of lore from your game? Unleash the wrath of a god and scourge it from the surface or merely open up a crack and let it fall into the Underdark (is it a mystery as to why? is there coin or magic to be discovered in delving into those cursed depths?). Need an NPC to answer some lore question you haven’t a clue about? They nod sagely and reply, “Well, just been that way ever since The Blink” and gesture meaningfully at that abandoned wizard tower that you are trying to lead the PCs to. Need a motivation to spur the party into action? Have a disaster looming at the end if the Quest is not completed in time. It doesn’t have to be something that always spells the end of the world, just maybe “Journey to Blue Wizards for the cure to this curse upon the prince that shall come to fruition with the third full moon” or “If the bones of the dragon are not retrieved and replaced soon, then fire and destruction shall be unleashed onto the village”. After all, this is a fantasy setting after all and not all disasters have to be natural. Fantastical creatures can be as much a disaster as anything, such as the Soulmonger found in the Tomb of Annihilation adventure.
(more on disasters as encounters and enemies to come later …)