Where were we?
Ah yes! Natural disasters.
One of the most important decisions to make when adding a natural disaster to your game is how it will be unleashed. Building tension is a big part of the fun and how you trigger the calamity will determine the flavor and tempo of the game.
Trigger Points – The disaster doesn’t strike until the characters reach a predetermined point. For example, reaching the last chamber in a dungeon. This is how most computer games handle it and it’s an acceptable gaming trope.
It’s also lazy. An adventure designed this way leaves the disaster sitting there, waiting for the PC’s arrival, and it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly the players make their progress. It can still be a fun ride, but when the players see it they will recognize that their actions had nothing to do with it.
I am reminded of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure B3 – Palace of the Silver Princess, where no matter when they enter a specific room the party is just in time to stop a magical ritual. It’s still a fun set piece but you wonder what they’ve been doing while the party mapped out the rest of the dungeon.
This setup is good for natural disasters you can’t see coming, like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Though with a little effort and a dose of magic or super science any disaster will work. Also, despite my misgivings about this method, it works with just about any type of game you want to run. It is particularly good for games with a clearly defined objective that will decide success or failure and it gives the GM control over when the disaster will strike. This is helpful if you’re running a plot-driven game.
But still, this is my least favorite method.
The MacGuffin – A variation on Trigger Points is the MacGuffin. This only takes a little more effort but is more engaging for the players. In this situation the natural disaster is omnipresent but held at bay by some force. For example, an eruption is held off by a ritual that keeps the volcano god asleep, or the typhoon can’t reach the harbor while the station’s energy screens are up. The MacGuffin could be an object, a ritual, a computer program, or a person, as long as it is something that the characters can interact with.
In this case the actions of the adventurers are the direct cause of unleashing nature’s fury, perhaps by grabbing a golden idol or killing a temple guardian. Mechanically it’s not that different from using a trigger point, but the nod to player agency makes a difference. However the GM should be prepared for the players not to trigger the natural disaster, or for them to find a way to circumvent the trigger. The GM should reward exceptionally clever players who avoid the unavoidable disaster.
Remember, no plot survives first contact with PCs.
Like the Trigger Point, the MacGuffin is a flexible device. However the GM does need to provide a link between the MacGuffin and the natural disaster, otherwise it’s just another Trigger Point.
Randomized Doom – At the other end of the spectrum the natural disaster can be based on random rolls. In cases like this I recommend a progressive system, where each failed roll builds towards the final cataclysm. This also lets you build tension as you describe how the storm is rising or the tremors are growing stronger.
There are two ways that come to mind for using a random system. The first is where the disaster will provide complications and threats for the characters but not bring the adventure to a halt. This works for objective based games, where the adventure hinges on obtaining an item, defeating an enemy, or crossing through a danger zone. It’s better suited for storms, wild fires, or floods and would not work as well with a volcano or earthquake. In this case the disaster makes things more dangerous, but the characters can still achieve their goal.
The other way is to make the disaster a time bomb. This works well with the cataclysmic disasters and is ideal for a good old fashioned dungeon crawl. Use this method for a game that isn’t about reaching an objective or saving the kingdom, but about the players pushing their luck and risking their lives to grab as much treasure as possible before the hammer falls.
For example, a sleeping volcano has rumbled back to life and the tremors have broken the seals on an ancient temple. Legends say it is filled with countless riches and unknown dangers. When the volcano erupts it will destroy everything, but if you act quickly and luck is on your side then fame, power, and glory will be yours.
It sure is getting hot in here, but maybe just one more chamber…
Timed, Blind – In practice there isn’t a lot of difference between a randomized disaster and one on a hidden time limit. The GM has control over the length of the gaming session and the players can assume that they have a reasonable amount of time before the disaster strikes, but beyond that the same basics apply. The players can try to guess how much time they have left based on clues from the GM and reading his or her intentions, but they are still pushing their luck.
Randomized Doom is a natural disaster game of craps, the Bind Timer is poker.
Timed, Known – Taking the “time bomb” idea quite literally, you put the disaster on a countdown. With a known time limit the players are aware of how long they have before the disaster strikes and can act accordingly. Decisions are made based on how many precious minutes they have left and unexpected problems will drive the players to new levels of urgency. Side goals must be weighed, a process which itself costs time. Analysis Paralysis becomes a more dangerous enemy than any monster.
You now have 30 minutes to reach maximum safe distance.
Known time limits are good for the disasters you can track, particularly things like hurricanes and sand storms, though more cataclysmic disasters like asteroid strikes can also be used. This setup is well suited to tournament play or any other situation where the session is limited to a specific length. It’s also a good match for “caper” adventures. Anything that has your players humming the Mission: Impossible music should be right at home with this setup.
How you implement natural disasters will determine the atmosphere of the game. Is it a race against time? A tense gamble? Or a brooding menace hanging over everything else. Whichever you choose, it can add a refreshing challenge to your games.
I think we stayed a few rounds too long.