Disasters just waiting to happen
Much is made of the idea that D&D is a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s true that many campaign worlds are littered with the ruins of civilisations that fell in some unspecified way. And if they can go, what’s stopping the current incumbent from going in a similar fashion?
A good disaster can really make life difficult for the party (and to be fair, that’s what DMs are there for, isn’t it?) I’ve come up with a few mega-disasters and some nightmare scenarios that a particularly sadistic DM might want to inflict on his hapless party. Some of the suggestions may well merge into others or lead to even worse developments. Others might be temporary as the party struggles to put right what has gone so very, very wrong.
An interesting idea is to have premonitions of the impending doom that’s coming to your campaign. The nutty guy at the street corner who proclaims that the end of the world is nigh may well be right this time. For sure, the party might not be able to do anything about it, but a little advance warning is always a handy thing. It might give them a chance to enrol on that course on Basic Ark Building, for example.
1) Meteorite – it’s huge and it’s coming this way
So what’s it going to do to your campaign? (assuming that Bruce Willis isn't available) Well, let’s see. First there is the impact. Anything within dozens to hundreds of miles of the impact is going to be vaporised. Then there is the blast wave that will flatten more or less anything standing for hundreds of miles beyond that. Then there is the fallout, as the clouds of ash and dust are sent into the atmosphere. Plants will die, the temperature will fall, life will grind slowly to a halt.
But a couple of years after that, the skies will slowly clear. What will the renewed sunlight show? Apart from a huge hole in the ground where the city used to be?
Consider that there are a lot of creatures who don’t like the sunlight and because of that, tend to live underground. For them the world after the impact may well be a perfect opportunity to get out onto the surface and party. Those pesky humans, or what’s left of them, will be so shattered and stunned that they won’t be able to mount a worthwhile defence.
Did I mention that a meteorite impact is also the perfect opportunity to redraw those areas of coastline that you really didn’t like. If the impact site is at sea, the tidal waves will be colossal.
2) Plague – bring out your dead
The Black Death of 1348-50 had far-reaching effects on the countries across which it raged. It’s estimated that perhaps 40% of the population died. With so few peasants to till the land, greater value was placed on labour and those who survived would be able to dictate the terms of their service to landowners desperate for workers. In fact, the plague was another nail in the coffin of the Feudal System. Towns grew bigger as people moved there in search of work, food and safety.
It is also likely that any big plague may have detrimental effects on the established religions of the campaign world. Those that may have prided themselves on protecting and helping may have few if any answers in the face of such a catastrophe. Different gods may move into the vacuum and use the chaos and disillusionment to establish their own power bases.
Of course, this is working on the assumption that it is a death plague that stalks the land. But what if the plague’s effects are non-lethal but nevertheless quite horrific? What if the disease turns its victims into cannibals? Or mutates them into monsters unlike any that the world has seen?
What might this do to the campaign world? Well apart from the obvious, there is going to be a fear of strangers who might well be coming to spread the plague. And what of the rumours that foreigners or demi-humans are poisoning the wells with plague so that the humans will be killed off, leaving the world for others? All bunkum of course, but what if it’s true in a campaign world? And of course, desperate times lead to desperate people, all willing to believe any crackpot cure hypothesis if the person proposing it is persuasive enough.
A plague is handy for sweeping old societal models away and ushering in brave new worlds in which the party can, with a bit of wit, luck and sharp swords, take control of matters and mould the new world to their liking.
3) Animal plague – all animals of a particular type die, or maybe they all die!
A mediaeval society or indeed any society of the world before the industrial revolution relied heavily on animals for food, war, work etc. What might happen if a species-specific plague wiped out all the horses? What might happen to the economy and the speed of travel? Wars would be fought on foot. Journeys would be made at walking pace.
If the plague hit cattle, pigs or sheep, milk and meat production would be wiped out; the population would become vegetarian or starve. If there was insufficient vegetable production, food riots may well ensue.
Or it might be that the plague hits all types of animal. Granted, humans are animals, so we might need to be a bit more specific. Remember the foot and mouth outbreak of a few years ago and how the slaughtermen were working overtime. In that case, foot and mouth disease is primarily a non-fatal disease and the slaughter was aimed primarily at preventing the spread of the disease and its effect on milk production. But what if the plague in question was fatal and dramatic measures were required to halt it?
4) Magic ceases to work
"Because this is all we've got now"
Magic. Handy thing to have around. Makes light work of most dungeon environments. So what if, for some unknown reason, magic stopped working. Kind of tricky, huh? Suddenly, mages are just sad men in dresses and power devolves to the strong and their swords. It stands to reason that the magic users are going to want that back, big time. They’ll be looking for the reason why the mojo is gone and the party are going to be flavour of the month if they can come up with the answer.
It would also be very interesting if divine magic was unaffected by the cessation. Religion would certainly get a lot more adherents if the pointy-hats were feeling a little…under the weather.
Meanwhile, all those magic users who ever used their power to lord it over the rest of us had better start running.
5) Flood – get building that boat
Be it the slow but steady rise of the sea levels over months if not years, or a tidal wave that inundates low lying areas or perhaps some sort of divine punishment, or even an Atlantean style catastrophe, seeing one’s home country disappear under the waves can be a traumatic thing to have to see. Remember Waterworld? Oh go on, remember it. A quest for dry land can be a powerful motivator and suddenly to find oneself afloat on a hostile sea is a whole new ball game when it comes to adventures. You get to use that Ocean encounter table at last.
The boats are going to get very big. Entire communities afloat, fending off sea creatures, hungry cormorants, pirates, other hungry survivors.
6) Volcano! That thing makes Krakatoa look small
75,000 years ago, the Toba eruption nearly wiped out Homo Sapiens. The Deccan Traps are believed to have erupted over hundreds of thousands of years. You can imagine what might happen if a really big volcano decided to blow its top. Remember the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone? If that thing goes off, it could cover half the US in feet of ash. That’s going to make a real difference to the campaign world. Ash can choke, ash can collapse buildings as it piles up. What happens if the party gets trapped in a dungeon that used to exit to the open but is buried under metres of pumice?
And if pyroclastic flow can’t be outrun by a man on a horse, it definitely can’t be outrun by a bunch of adventurers all weighed down with armour. And gold.
7) Revolution – to the guillotine with all enemies of the people
Popular uprisings are great for overturning the established order. They’re often bloody, vicious and without mercy. Friends become enemies, fathers betray sons, the axeman is never out of work. Your campaign world is crying out for a revolution. If a revolution is not enough, you can then have a counter-revolution. Other countries will be only too pleased to meddle in the chaos if it gets them more influence with whoever wins. The only thing more fun than a revolution is watching the party trying desperately to decide which side they’re on.
8) War – just plain fighting.
Peace sucks. Your country would look a whole lot better with someone else's army walking the streets.
War breaks out and everyone must pitch in to help the nation. That includes the party, whether they want to or not.
And of course war eventually means one side wins and the other side loses. The losing side gets thrashed, those with suspect loyalty get executed, populations get sold into slavery to pay the bills. And what about all those lovely works of art and valuables in the Royal Palaces? They’ll be on carts heading back to the conqueror’s capital now. Carts are a whole lot easier to rob than heavily fortified Royal Palaces. And of course, the fighting doesn’t just end with the conquest. Foreign occupation means resistance by those still loyal to the old order. There’s nothing quite so hard as a die-hard.
9) Zombie horde attacks!
Brains! Brains! There are of course two options with this one. First is the “Graves break open and out come those rotting corpses” one, with the living having to fight off the dead. Second is the “Everyone is turning into zombies and I don’t know who’s next”. I really can’t make up my mind which is more fun, so why not combine the two and have the invading zombie horde from the underworld contagious with it?
Of course with all these undead walking (or should I say shambling) the streets, clerics are going to be in big demand. I mean, they can turn zombies. But only so many of them...
10) Dark Lord arrives with thousands of minions.
For aeons, the minions of the Dark One have been labouring towards his return. Usually, the forces of good manage to stop them but the forces of good were clearly busy today as guess who’s back? Now an immensely powerful incarnation of evil is stalking the land, rallying anyone even remotely unpleasant to his standard. And no kid with glasses and a lightning bolt scar is going to get in his way this time. Delaying the public enquiry until after the Dark Lord is defeated, the forces of good have some serious catching-up to do, starting on the back foot.
11) Police state overnight – your co-operation will ensure freedom is restored as soon as convenient
Some national emergency or other threat to life, liberty and the prosperity of the land-owning classes means that normal society has been replaced by something that makes the Gestapo look like the Teletubbies. People are being arrested left right and centre, the door knockers are going off at midnight and Curfews are the new black. Camps are filling up, sinister holes are being dug in secluded woodland and the spell-using classes are being requested to use their mind-reading powers for the good of the State. Is the party a bunch of Winston Smiths or are they on the side of the jackbooted ones?
12) New ice age – brrrr!
It probably won’t happen as quickly as the Day after Tomorrow but who could resist a continent-wide cold snap that makes the campaign world one huge Frost Giant and White Dragon theme park? Does the party know how to survive when it’s twenty below? There are all sorts of ways that people can suffer when it gets really really cold. You owe it to the party to ensure that they experience every single one of them.
13) Huge crop failure – no food!
A famine strikes the major crop of the nation/region/continent. Perhaps some guy in a Technicolor dreamcoat had a dream about some cows and the King was perspicacious enough to lay down stocks. Or maybe it takes everyone by surprise and now there’s a horde of hungry peasants lynching every hoarder they can find. Lean times make for interesting opportunities for those who are used to fighting and taking. Let’s not forget that the party has to eat as well. In fact, stored food could become the new currency.
14) Ethnic strife – rivers of blood and more!
For some unknown reason, the population has turned against one particular group, either another ethnic minority or perhaps a particular type of demi-human. Tempting though it is to make it the hobbits again, why not decide that this time, people assume that anyone with pointy ears whose race rhymes with ‘self’ is an agent of the devil? The half-elves might have to prove their loyalty or face dire punishments, internment or worse. Or it could be that a King has realised that those runty beardy dwarves have a lot of precious metal and gems and he’d very much like to get his hands on them.
15) Humanoids come out of nowhere and overrun the kingdom
Those pesky humanoids. Usually they lurk underground or many hundreds of miles away, on their side of a line that says Borderlands. Only now something’s got them on the move; yes, in the same way that Europe fared so well against the Huns and the Mongols, your campaign world is going to have to stand up to a concerted attack by an enemy that hasn’t committed to a vision of civilised values and progress. They don’t fight fair, either. The party are going to be heading up the resistance for the foreseeable future. Think the beleaguered humans from the first Terminator movie. But with orcs.
16) Dragons! Thousands of them!
You thought they were birds but they’re so much bigger. Something has woken them up and now a cloud of dragons that blots out the sun is heading straight for the campaign world’s major population centres. Who can stop them? Probably not the party but it’ll be fun to watch them try. Suddenly the Orbs of Dragonkind are top of the Quest list.
17) The sun is going out!
It’s getting dimmer month by month. It looks feeble when it rises and when it sets, it’s with a sigh of relief. Plants are starting to wither, the days are getting colder. Has someone forgotten to make a sacrifice somewhere? Short of sending a huge ship into space with a burning lump of coal (although if you like Spelljammer, this is a go project), all suggestions seem rational. Can the party find out how to get Mr Sun burning again before he finally goes out altogether?
18) It's getting hotter and hotter! Pretty soon, things are going to start burning!
The exact opposite of the previous one. Mr Sun is getting angry – temperatures are increasing and deserts are spreading out into what was once fertile land. Water will become a precious resource. Fires start almost spontaneously. I don’t even want to think about what’ll happen to the ice caps. At least the rising sea levels will put out the fires.
19) Animals/insects/birds turn nasty and start to attack
The good thing about the wilderness is that you can always leave it behind and get back to civilisation. Where animals know their place and things are safe. Unless, of course, nature turns nasty (perhaps thanks to an irritated or vengeful druidic order) and our feathered/furry/buzzing friends decide to mount an attack. You never knew there were so many of them until the point at which they all started heading for you at the same time. Yes, you could run but they’re probably faster, better at scenting you out and have sharper teeth and claws. The Monster Manual has stats for them all.
20) Banking collapse!
Tying it all in nicely with my previous bunch of hooks, the main bank of the country in which the party live/adventure/hang out/spend their loot has just done a Lehmann Brothers and now the nice, trustworthy manager who assured the party their gold was safe with him is carrying his stuff round the streets in a cardboard box. No-one knows what’s happened to their money, prices have gone all Weimar Republic and those Unity through Strength guys are waiting in the nearest bierkeller.
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