As a DM, the scene is set with the Disaster as something to be overcome and it is up to the Party to come up with ideas on using their proficiencies, spells, and other resources to overcome the resistance.
- The party must brave a ferocious storm at sea to reach their destination.
- The village lies in the path of a storm that threatens to wipe it out – what can the party do to help?
- The party failed to stop the summoning of the Elemental Prince of Earth and the village is in need of a rescue.
Approach #1 – Skill Challenges
There have been plenty of articles and podcasts about using Skill Challenges to approach an abstract encounter. The short version – PCs make a series of rolls using a variety of appropriate skills against a set DC. They need to make enough successes (usually between 5 and 9 depending on the complexity of the task) before three failures. It runs really similar to achievement clocks in Blades in the Dark and as a DM there is plenty of room for creativity. The DM and Players get to work out between them if a success counts towards the goal, grant another player advantage, reduce the DC of a check, or cancel out a failure (that last option really prolongs things and nor recommended). At our table, we counted a critical as worth double towards success or failure but I know not all tables agree with that.
From our table, the Party journeyed on the Frostskimmer across the Sea of Endless Ice and had to survive a supernatural storm caused by the Old White Deathof Arauthator. Each player suggested a way to help the ship survive.
- Athletics (running up and down the riggings and keeping everything tied down)
- Perception (watching for the clear path through the ice)
- Use of a raven familiar to assist (advantage to Perception check)
- Strength (sheer back breaking rowing)
- Medicine (brewing up something to help the crew fight the cold)
- Other abilities that might have been suggested – Sailor background, Navigation Tool proficiency, Nature to better read the conditions.
And the declared consequence of three failed rolls before five successes was the loss of the ship and other physical consequences but not death. Killing off the party in a storm would have put a hard stop to the campaign. Loss of the ship and anything not being carried on their person was a pretty severe blow and they would awaken with a single hit point, a level of exhaustion for every failed roll, and starting off with half their hit dice on a very hostile shore. DM Note – never state a consequence that you are not willing to pull the trigger on, for sure enough as they each took their turn in making their rolls, the Frostskimmer did not make it.
Approach #2 – Crafting Hack
I lifted two very similar ideas, the first from Pathfinder on determining wages for practicing a craft and the second from a DM’s Guild crafting document. The key concept is that skill rolls are made towards making a thing, but not measuring it in terms of success but total value rolled. If the thing is not easy, set a base DC that must be rolled against for that roll to count. The second part is to determine what it being ‘built’. And finally, what those points represent in the end.
For example, in classic heroic narrative, the Party is called upon to defend a small village from The Threat, be it a hurricane, a savage raiding party, or even a volcano erupting. As DM, set up that the important things to build are Village Morale, Village Defense, and Village Hit Points. The Disaster when it hits will be targeted against the Defence (essentially an Armor Class) and dealing damage to the Hit Points (structural damage). As the Hit Points drop, the Village would get to save against it’s Morale or lose even more Hit Points (villagers flee shrieking into the storm or caught in collapsing buildings, etc.). DM Note – when I actually used this approach, I was largely making things up as I went to keep it abstract but give the Players the freedom to be creative.
Here’s what the Players decided that they would do –
- The fighter decided to train an emergency response militia (rolled totals went towards Morale, used CHA + Proficiency)
- The cleric worked on repairing an old shrine and the church (offered a choice of roll towards Morale or Defence as the shrine gave hope but the church would provide shelter, used WIS + Proficiency)
- The wizard offered to cast spells like Tenser’s Floating Disc to haul timber around for reinforcing the structures (rolled totals went towards their choice of Defence or Hit Points, used Arcana to roll)
- The other fighter lead a hunting party to gather additional food and resources (Survival rolls towards Morale)
- The rogue did lots of climbing to help fortify structures (had no real construction skills, gave it a DC 10 but allowed them to roll their Athletics towards Defence).
They had three days to prepare as best they could in leading the village. For each day, they rolled their appropriate check. We summed the totals for each trait (i.e. the rogue rolled a 15, 18, and a 6 so had a total of 33 as the 6 did not beat the DC, so we added +3.3 to the base Village Defence of 10, for a 13 so far; with the hit points we didn’t divide them by 10) and let the storm hit. For each ’round’ of the storm (we went in terms of hours for this encounter) we rolled a to hit against the Village, dealt damage to it’s hit points and occasionally morale, and even had a little random events table (with suggestions from Players and DM) for even more problems that the Party had to contend with (“The church roof is about to collapse if something isn’t done!”, “A child has been lost and the family will go seeking them if the party doesn’t intervene”, and so on – had a 1 in 3 chance of happening each ’round’). It was really abstract but it had a cool narrative feel to it, similar to The Magnificent Seven or about half the episodes of The A-Team.
Maybe it was making something a little too mechanical, but the Players had dice to roll that had a consequence when the Disaster hit and they literally had invested in that village emotionally and physically.
For the Volcano eruption, a DM could easily go either way – a series of skill challenges to evacuate the town or crafting totals towards an evacuation or fortification of the town against the effects of the eruption with a mini encounter / crisis to be solved part way through. It could even start one way and evolve into a boss battle, with a timer on how many villagers could be helped before the boss arrives. Will the Party ready their own defences or help the town folk? These are the juicy role play scenes I love to see at my table!
It’s getting late and that’s what I’ve got for the moment. Have you ever used Disasters as settings, encounters, or other set pieces?