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Natural Disasters in Games, Pt. 1

22 Apr

Last night we were watching a documentary on the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption called Volcano! Nature’s Fury.

It was an excellent documentary containing a lot of interviews with vulcanologist who were on site during the eruption and it focused on their attempts to ascertain what the mountain was going to do. The show did a great job of capturing the tension felt by everyone involved and the tremendous stress the scientists were under. They were mostly certain that the mountain was going to erupt and that there was a good chance it would be enormous, but how soon and how powerful the eruption would be was nearly impossible to ascertain.

Their base of operations was at Clark Air Force Base, well within the radius of the planned evacuation zone, where the team had to convey the vagaries of the mountain’s behavior to military personnel used to dealing with specifics, a military staff facing the monumental task of evacuation of staff, civilians, and materials.

The mountain was not being helpful. One scientist recounts heading to a briefing expecting to tell the military to commence evacuations, only to have the mountain calm down while he was en route. He delivered his briefing, now counseling against evacuation, and returned to his facility to find that seismic readings were now off the scale. Nervously he debated calling the base and telling them to evacuate, knowing that being wrong in either direction could spell disaster. When he couldn’t stand it any more he went to contact the base, only to see the readings drop back to normal again.

That’s the greatest source of stress in such a situation. Make the call too soon and thousands of people are displaced, possibly for nothing. Make the call too late and people may be killed. It’s easy to say, “better safe than sorry,” until you’re faced with the reality of evacuating a major population.

In the end they did make the call at the right time. The public was evacuated early enough and the military kept a skeleton crew on site with the scientists until after the major eruption occurred. The remaining personnel evacuated under a driving rain of pumice and ash, more than a little worried that they’d waited too long and a pyroclastic flow was bearing down on them. The Air Force general in command later joked that he knew it was time to go when one of the scientists ran past him saying, “I hope you have jam in your pocket because we’re about to be toast.”

It was an excellent show with great details and had more human drama than any “reality” TV could hope to conjure.

Of course this got me thinking about gaming.

Using a natural disaster for a backdrop is something that shows up frequently in fiction but not so often in adventure design. Dangerous environments are common, but even the most dangerous settings for gaming are still usually a stable system. You can plan for them, the risks are known. Conversely a natural disaster is a time bomb that forces the players to work quickly to achieve their goals.

The type of disaster will have an effect on the flavor of the pressure it exerts on the game. A volcano or earthquake provides a building menace with lots of warning signs but no way to predict when the cataclysm will strike. Throw varying levels of tremors onto your random encounter chart and watch the players squirm in their chairs. Make them roll Dex checks to stay standing for good measure. I am definitely doing this if I ever get to run The Halls of Beoll-Dur.

A hurricane is another matter. These disasters can be seen coming and they can be monitored and tracked, providing a more definite time limit and replacing the tension of uncertainty with anticipation. Can they complete their objectives in time? Do they try to ride it out? Describe the wind picking up, the increases in the storm surges, the screaming sound outside as the adventure progresses. Another advantage of the hurricane is that the players could conceivably strive on as the storm is raging around them. It’s not an advisable course of action, but then few things that adventures do are advisable.

Tornadoes and tsunamis are two different flavors of more rapid, uncertain disasters. These are good for sudden games, where the players are given little time to act. A location under a tsunami warning will be unnervingly calm, with beautiful weather and people going about their lives as normal. There is no reliable long range way to tell if a tsunami is bearing down on a coastal site and when the warning signs do appear there is little time to act before a wall of water comes crashing in. Conversely a storm system that generates tornadoes makes its presence clearly known, but where the tornadoes will form, what path they’ll follow, how many will appear, and how strong are all unknowns. Adventurers facing such a challenge won’t know what they are up against until the funnel cloud is ripping its way across the landscape.

These and other natural disasters offer a GM new ways to challenge players and shake things up. In part two I’ll talk about different ways to integrate them into a game, specifically regarding how the disasters can be triggered. I also have some adventure seeds swirling around and urging to get out.

Are there any published adventures that you’ve come across that use natural disasters?

 

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