12 Disasters in Fantasy Campaigns

From Jim Davenport

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0464

A Brief Word From Johnn

D&D Marathon Was Awesome

I’m getting old because I call our 12 hour game sessions marathons. I’m sure convention goers and youngins scoff at such a small number, lol. For my group, though, it’s a notable day and fun achievement.

We gamed part way through the D&D 4E adventure Pyramid of Shadows last week during our marathon. The module is a lot of fun, however we’ve found our tastes have wandered away from long dungeon crawls. Next campaign, for example, the unanimous vote was to do an urban fantasy campaign.

One disappointment I had was we ended mid-module, so there was no climactic end to our epic day. Blame the game master for that. However, lesson learned, and I’ll be planning things differently next time so that the story arc reaches a conclusion or a great cliffhanger.

DMG II is Out

The Dungeon Master Guide II for D&D 4E hit shelves recently. It was a long wait for me, as – if you’ll allow me to toot my own horn for a sec – I contributed 16 pages to it. I just received my author’s copy and a life-long dream has finally come true – my name in the credits of a D&D hardback. Very exciting! Thanks to Wizards of the Coast for the chance to contribute.

12 Disasters in Fantasy Campaigns

Natural disasters are some of the most terrifying and life- altering events on earth.

Infernos, floods, and shaking earth all come without warning and can change everything. Why exclude these forces from your fantasy RPG campaign?

In a fantasy world, natural disasters will rarely be naturally caused. Most often, those who suffer from the disaster will look to the heavens (or to the Other Place) wondering why.

Were their gods displeased by their actions? More sacrifices and greater piety! Are their gods being capricious and uncaring? Find new gods or lose faith.

If evil powers are at work, can they be appeased? Can they be stopped?

Was the disaster prophesied and if so, by whom? Does it presage more terrible events to come? Is a meddling cabal of wizards upsetting the natural order or are the ley lines drifting?

Natural disasters can bring gritty, dark flavor to your campaign. You might stay in a purer ecological fantasy world, but I think you’d be missing out.

Let’s look at some natural disasters and how they might affect a fantasy campaign.


With the wide range of methods disease can use to ravage creatures and people, plagues can take many forms: fast- moving viruses, flesh-eating bacteria, slow-developing strains that focus on the young or only men or only one race.

The effects of the disease can be loaded with symbolic meaning, branding the sick physically, robbing them of the ability to create children, or deranging them mentally.

Wide-spread death would bring economic ruin, refugees, and other lamentations.

Since the concept of viruses and bacteria don’t fit your typical fantasy realm, all manner of scapegoats would be found: bad sacrifices, bad behaviors, evil people, or unclean races.

The disease could become an epidemic or even a pandemic.

Global Warming or Cooling

It might occur over generations. “The bards tell of times when rain will fall like soft feathers and lie on the ground like a cool blanket”

alternatively, it could be magically fast. “The sun has not been seen for a year and the sea slips away from us. We have wronged the gods!”

Global warming can have wide-reaching effects such as drought, flooding, species migration or extinction, and conversion of arable land to dust.

Cooling would draw the seas into ice and other opposites of warming. Weeks-long blizzards could freeze people and livestock, strand travelers, or shut down vital routes of trade for months at a time.

If caused by the gods or evil magic, the effects might only apply to one people or one region, perhaps that of a hated rival. The effect might be considered a weapon in war with a broader reach and effect than any of its individual symptoms.


Water is life. When the rain does not fall and the heat remains unabated, crops will fail, the livestock will waste and die, and famine will raise its claw over the hand, striking at the pained bellies of the children and the weak.

Plants will suffer and wither, leaving dry, cracked earth. Without divine or arcane relief, drought can slowly kill off a region of the world.

Perhaps the plane of fire is breaking down the barrier to the mortal realm? A bleeding sun or the eruption of volcanoes might accentuate the effect.


Too much water is not much better than too little. As the rains continue to fall and the rivers swell, riverside communities will be abandoned, crops ruined under the flood waters, valuables might be washed away or buried under new fields of mud and silt.

Villages might be swept away with no evidence left after the floodwaters recede. The floods also bring disease for livestock and people. Refugees will take the illness with them as they pull up their roots and try to migrate elsewhere.

The water will be poor to drink after the rains end. Noted figures might have been swept away and thought drowned. Perhaps the floods occurred upland, swelling up behind a natural barrier, only to break through and deluge a major city or an army in the field at the crucial moment in a war.


More of a surgical strike in the world of disasters, tornadoes can rip narrow paths across miles of land. Clusters might destroy a small town, but don’t last in a city.

The effect would work best at a personal level; the complete destruction of a single homestead while the nearest neighbor is left untouched is bound to bring suspicion.

Perhaps you can take a cue from the Wizard of Oz and have tornadoes be violent portals to other places.

Hurricanes, Cyclones and Typhoons

These are storms at sea that strike the coastline, bringing with them a storm surge of water and massive flooding.

High winds could tear things apart or throw people around. Torrential rains could cause flash flooding, trapping or drowning individuals or small groups.

Their effects can last many hours, making them a perfect setting for that adventure you wanted to run with some extra challenge to it. A race around a city becomes much more interesting fighting hurricane force winds and flooding.

Naturally, surviving such storms while at sea can be a tremendous challenge, sinking whole war fleets or opening a portal to an undersea kingdom.


By definition, these can shake up an adventure or campaign. If the heroes are in a dungeon, the shape of the dungeon could change radically, becoming unstable and making them race to get out alive.

Prominent buildings or even Wonders of the World might collapse due to the quake. Is it a god stomping upon the face of the earth? Is it the anger of the spirits inside the deep underground?

An earthquake at sea can cause a tsunami, a towering wave of water that smashes into the coast, destroying everything up to a mile from the shore.

Uncontrolled flames could erupt into fires in cities or forests. An earthquake might even unleash a volcano from the depths.


These monsters have many ways of hurting you: the initial blast of the eruption with fires searing ash and rock out over a large area, the flow of lava – either crumbly, gluey, or super hot and fast like a pyroclastic flow – down from the mouth, and clouds of ash for days afterward choking people and animals, piling up and abrading surfaces.

All sorts of fire-related causes could be at play: the birth of a nest of red dragons, salamanders invading from the plane of fire, the heart of deep earth unleashed by unwise or careless mages, or dwarves delving too deep.

Forest Fires

The same sources of volcanic wrath can be blamed for forest fires. In addition, the lightning strike of storm giants or breath of dragons might light the blaze.

The fire destroys great swaths of forest endangering or destroying forest-based civilizations such as elves. Homes, villages, crops, trapped people and livestock can all be burnt to ash.

Complain to a druid and they might explain it is all part of the natural cycle, allowing the forest to renew itself.

Landslide, Mudslides and Avalanches

Up on the slopes, the vertical movement of land and snow can change the face of everything, swallowing up people, things, and places in a few moments. But it can also reveal entrances to long-lost tombs high on the mountain side.

Lower down, slides tend to be of dirt, either dry or water- logged, which can have similar terrain-shaping effects. If earth elementals are involved, the slide could actually be the beginning of a war.

Thunderstorms and Hail Storms

At the right time, even thunderstorms can feel like a natural disaster. Imagine scaling that mountain face to the remote cave in high winds and lightning, footing made treacherous by horizontal rain.

Heavy storms can create mudslides or may be accompanied by hail or other bizarre atmospheric effects.

And nothing says mood like a thunderstorm, gently herding our protagonists to the house on the hill as the only shelter from the violent storm.

Impact Events

This happens when something falls from the sky – hard. An impact could knock down millions of trees, create earthquakes and tsunamis, or even touch off a firestorm if it explodes just above the ground.

Some explode in the atmosphere with a huge fireball. Surely this is a message from the gods!

Consequences of Disaster

Even if there aren’t malevolent forces at work, a disaster can still carry a story purpose. Heroes can emerge in times of calamity; empires can be weakened as the rules get changed overnight.

If used carefully, a big disaster could help you do a reboot on your campaign world. In mine, a massive earthquake caused an ancient lost city to rise again. Naturally, it was the PCs who triggered the earthquake.

Disasters have many consequences. People will come to different conclusions about the cause of the disaster. This is why a disaster might cause the resurrection of a death cult at the same time the traditional good religion has resurgence.

In some places, a minority might be made scapegoats and persecuted. Multitudes of refugees could be sent into dangerous lands or overrun nearby cities. Starvation and disease might become rampant, taxing the abilities of clerics to respond.

The shape of the world might be changed not just physically but also politically. Economic fortunes can be made or lost because of a disaster: a merchant fleet lost at sea, new veins of gold exposed, spiking prices for basic goods now in short supply.

Nations, merchant houses, and powerful families could be raised or put down in the aftermath. Populated areas might be stripped of their people, empty lands might suddenly be filled by refugees or opportunists. Ancient and long lost places, artifacts, and ruins might be unearthed through the power of disaster. New monsters might be unleashed.

As terrible as they are in our world, disasters might be even worse in a fantasy realm – the Rule of Biblical Proportions. You don’t just have flooding along the main river system; you flood the world for 40 days. Diseases could spread across many species, people, and plants.

If people are prepared for the event it might not result in a disaster. An area prone to earthquakes might have magical preventions or ways to keep people and buildings safe, minimizing the effect of the natural hazard on the people.

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Jim Davenport owns Dragonlaird Gaming and is a freelance writer and game designer.

His credits include the Gaming the Movies column in Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine, and theSerenity RPG / Battlestar Galactica RPG / Cortex Engine. http://cortexsystemrpg.org/

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Reader Tips Requests

How to introduce your family to RPG?

Roleplaying Tips reader A.E. has this request:

There are no gaming groups where I live, so I am considering introducing my family to roleplaying. However, I’m not sure how to get the idea across to them as none of them have encountered RPGs before. Also, both my younger siblings are already showing powergamer tendencies, my brother is likely to become a Rules Lawyer once he learns the game rules, and my parents, if I bring them into it, will just act silly. How can I introduce my family to RPGs and make it work?

Player Achievements Ideas

What are some ideas for notable player achievements? These are things good or bad you could track and recognize players for, perhaps with a homemade trophy or pocket points. The intent is to callout great players or do some friendly ribbing.

[Pocket points – Tips From Da Pit Fiend — RPT#262 ]


  • Perfect attendance
  • Creating their 5th character in a campaign
  • Great roleplaying
  • Great combat tactics
  • Best munchies

Please send your tips for A.E. or ideas for player achievements to [email protected].

Thanks very much!

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Fall Sale with Expeditious Retreat Press

Fill your shelves with XRP’s fine products in our Fall Sale! From now until November 1, you can pick up XRP’s 4e and True 20 products for 50% off, plus $5 off our Magical Society titles and $3 off our 1 on 1 Adventures and Advanced Adventures titles.

Expeditious Retreat Press Fall Sale

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Zombie Murder Mystery

Have the time of your life while PCs struggle to hold on to theirs!

Zombie Murder Mystery is a party game of who-done-it with a zombie infestation twist. Learn this roleplaying game in just a few minutes and start having fun with your friends with no preparation!

One player is the evil necromancer. Will you find him before he finds you? You’d better work fast, the clock is ticking down to the necromancer’s ultimate victory. Or maybe it is your ultimate victory?

Games Dungeon Mastering

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Getting To Know Your Players

From Sean H.

One of the biggest things I have learned is that before anything is created you should get to know your players a bit.

Sit down with anyone you have not yet played with and go over the types of games they like, the depth of the worlds they enjoy playing in and their preferences for what can occur in the game you are creating.

For players you know already you should be able to guess most of it accurately, but it can never hurt to ask them anyway just to be sure.

I have found this to be of great value to my campaigns as it prevents me from wasting many hours on a part of the game my players could care less about.

I love creating the deities and all the religions, interactions and belief systems out there, but my last group of gamers could have cared less about religion. They loved the idea of the different nations and their politics, something I had not gone into depth with that required a lot of on the fly thinking.

Why waste time when you can spend it on creating the world and dungeons your players crave, making it a win for everyone?

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Atlas Obscura

From Loz Newman

I found a site with photos of interesting places, like hanging palaces and double-decker bridges grown from roots. There’s text explaining each place’s history, which could be used to springboard scenario ideas.

I’m still exploring it, but so far, so good. If you can’t get at least one “Oooh! That gives me an idea!” thought from it I’ll be very surprised.

Atlas Obscura Globe

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Looking for NPCs?

From Bobby Nichols

Here are some great NPC related generators:

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Naming Fantasy NPCs

From Logan Horsford

To name NPCs I come up with two words that could describe the character and combine them.

Honorable and ambidextrous: Amboble or Amoble Unhappy and widowed: Unow or Unwid

Nobody ever gets what they’re from and you can take great license when smoothing them out. And, they might stick in your brain better than one randomly generated.

[Editor’s note: I do that for names, too, which is why I made the Name Jumbler to automate and randomize the process. – Hannah]
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Treacherous PCs

From David F.

re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=456#R5

It sounds like this was poorly implemented and the players felt there was favoritism or as if the carpet were yanked out from under their feet.

I disagree that betrayal within the party is a universally a bad idea. Yes, it will break the unwritten rule that all the players are automatically on the same side. And this kind of play will definitely not work for most groups. Heck, probably most would agree that it is just wrong (like my wife).

However, if done with proper foreshadowing and clues so that the other players have a chance to figure it out (just like you would with an NPC villain in the party) it can work.

While the players might be surprised by the betrayal, they should be able to look back and see how events led up to this point.

The betraying player needs to be willing and wanting to play a villain who is likely to die at the party’s hands.

In short, this is a another tool in the toolbox of story telling, one that must be used with care and lots of forethought.

I think the real message is that this plot device will fail to deliver fun for all more often than not.

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Flavor Text and Game Mechanics

From Will Hopkins

Connecting flavor text with game mechanics is one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs for a game master. As a GM, I’ve struggled with figuring out how to make my cool idea into a workable game concept.

Many people don’t think in terms of game rules when they come up with an idea. For example, you might be walking down the street and have a great inspiration for an assassin who’s also a librarian from the Eternal Library. But how to make it fit?

Here are a list of questions I use to figure out how to connect the flavor text of a character, item, or locale with the appropriate game mechanics.

What system am I using?

For me, this is the most important question to begin with. Each game system is (mostly) unique and has different ways for dealing with new creations. My personal favorites are Dungeons and Dragons and Savage Worlds. Connecting flavor text to game mechanics is different in each.

How powerful do I want this item/idea/character to be?

When creating anything new for a game consider how powerful your concept is. In D&D 4E, for example, you should think about what tier your concept will be in since it will help balance the concept within the game mechanics.

Is there something in the game that mostly fits my purposes?

Chances are there’s something in your game system or campaign setting that can be adapted to fit your purposes. A rogue can be turned into an assassin, for example. A Deck of Many Things could be made to have only a few magical cards with specific purposes. A Professional Edge can be modified to turn a Woodsman into a Commando, and so on. Oftentimes all you need to do is tweak what you already have.

What is my core concept in one sentence?

If you can define what your idea does in one sentence, use that sentence to tie it into game mechanics. The core of your idea is usually all you need to get started. It can define the purpose for the character/class/item, explain its most powerful ability, or just summarize it in a convenient package.

Good examples of tying flavor to mechanics can be found in the Roleplaying Tips magic items supplemental [Roleplaying Tips Weekly Supplemental #22 “Making Magic Items Interesting”].

In this case, writers went backwards from the game mechanics to the flavor text, which is often easier.

When going from mechanics to flavor text, consider the established history of the setting in which you are working. As a game master, you can adapt any part of an established setting or create something from whole cloth.

Once again, try the core concept in one sentence tactic. It will give you a basic summary, simplify integration into the campaign, and give you something to work with.

Also consider related concepts, regardless of whether you are working from mechanics or flavor. Picking out three or four related characters, items, or classes makes integration of new material seamless and gives you easy hooks when it comes time to play the game.

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