Friday, November 18, 2011

Cataclysms & Catastrophes: Disastrous Campaign Frames

There's nothing like destroying the world to get your players' attention. That's why disasters offer an excellent campaign starter, event or frame. In my previous post Disastrous Games: RPGs & Cataclysms I mentioned some games which put the players in the direct path of these events. I want to expand on that with a few thoughts and examples of how I've put those into play over the years.

In my mind there's a hierarchy of terms- disaster, cataclysm, and apocalypse. A disaster is an event, something the players might be able to even stop. It affects a small area over a short time. A cataclysm is more fuzzy, covering wide area and lasting longer. Players can only work to reduce the impact of these things. An apocalypse, well, everything changes and players better think about their own survival first. It's a rough guideline, but one that works.

A GM has to think about several questions with a disaster game:

  1. Is there warning? Are there omens? Can the players get prepared? Can you steer them towards prep without giving the twist away? Can they alert authorities?
  2. What's the scale of the event? Can the players stop or at least ameliorate those effects? What kinds of scenes and skill challenges can you throw at them based on this? Is there a mystery at the heart of things or a physical challenge? How will this affect their loved ones? Is this going to be a scene, a session or a series of sessions? If longer, how do you break that apart to keep the pressure and energy?
  3. Does this change the world? How can you show those changes? Do you want to time-lapse or deal with the immediate results? How dark do you want to play this?
  4. How can players pick up the pieces? Is recovery and rebuilding a theme for the game or not? Is the game now 'post-apocalyptic'?
  5. Given that most disasters can be pretty grim, a GM needs to make sure they don't wear down their group. How do you offer small victories along the way? How do you offer hope?

Zombies. I really have to get those out the way right now. They've become the "go to" disaster in recent years, although I'd say rpgs were ahead of the curve on that. AFMBE covers nearly all the zombie genres, but we have many other games working that territory (The World of Aruneus, Outbreak: Undead). I don't know what it means in terms of society anxiety that the zombie genre has become so prolific across media (Marvel Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). They're an interesting disaster trope to me because they can be used to consider many kinds of issues, about identity, limits of survival, contagion. But I think GMs who go for zombies need to consider which of the two camps their players fall into: people who want to shoot zombies and people who want to survive. Depending on the balance of players, these campaigns can swing in radically different directions. It can even drive a wedge in the group- good perhaps for a short-term campaign, but less useful for a longer one.

A Rolemaster campaign really made me look hard at the concept of the disaster kick-off. We'd been playing for perhaps a session or two, trying to get a sense of the world. This prologue made us think we were pretty much in the same run around and kill things style we'd been in for the last several campaigns. Then the hurricane hit. A massive world-shattering hurricane that devastated the land. We went through a session of desperately trying to survive the winds, storm and water. After that we wandered in a world overthrown by the event. Of course it was worse than that, this being a fantasy setting. The hurricane heralded the return of a demonic foe who used the weakened defenses to begin invading. Of course, being adventurers, we had to face him down. IIRC we lost.

Violent natural disasters: hurricanes, floods, monster invasions, plagues of frogs, can be a great way to drive the PCs together at the start. They come from different places but are literally or figuratively thrown together. It allows the GM to begin in medias res, for the players to show what they can do right away, and creates a shared bonding experience. The other tactic I like is to let things get set up and in place for a few sessions before springing the big event. This allows the disaster to raise the stakes, offer an inciting incident or even completely change the direction and expectations of the campaign. For example, run a couple of sessions of a SWAT campaign. Then the players raid a cult compound to rescue children. However they manage to get in the middle of an apocalyptic ritual. When they come out they find a world transformed. If you've played the video game Nocturne- that's a great example of of set up before things switch direction. Doing this kind of trick does require the GM to have a pretty good sense of what the players want. If players came into the SWAT campaign really loving and expecting a tactical police enforcement game, then the switch up to something like F.E.A.R. probably isn't going to go over too well. How much of a change the disaster will cause can be tweaked. For example, in a set of parallel fantasy campaigns, I used a massive event to create changes to the world and to link both games. In this case, a massive piece of land fell from the sky into the ocean, causing a tidal wave that rocked the western shores. One group was on the falling land, the other saw the event and had a short time to prepare for the awful wall of water. The event shifted the political climate of the west, destroyed several nations and ended up driving the Dwarves from their homeland, events the groups ended up bearing witness to.

Of course, disasters don't have to be natural. In a couple of cases, I've begun with the destruction of the players' community- driving them off into the wild, changing them and giving them a central purpose for revenge. In one case, the players were members of a common military and priestly order (Agrikan from the Harn setting). After a session or two, the players traveled to a major convocation of chapters. In the middle of those festivals, the winds of political fortune shifted and a trap was sprung. Their order was declared heretical and the group just managed to escape the purge. They returned home, only to find the attacks had been carefully planned and their compound razed. The campaign then shifted into several stages of their travels as the PCs reconstituted their order, gathered forces and planned on taking revenge against the other chapters. There's more than a little echo of the fall of the Templars in that plot.

I used a similar approach in another recent campaign opening, but in this case I gave the players a heads up that there would be a shift and we would begin with a prologue. I had them make up relatively youthful characters. All of them had come of age in their isolated community at relatively from the same village. They were sent off together as a rite of passage. When they returned, they found a magical enemy army laying waste to their town and families. They used a device they'd found in their adventure to make an escape. At that point, we cut to five years later. Each player had the chance to advance their character. They also drew a set of random details they had to integrate into their life story (Imprisoned, Haunted, Made a Noble, Awful Master, etc). It ended up being a potent device- giving players a strong, shared background and a driving purpose. That campaign's nearly reaching the point where they will be able to take the conflict to their enemy's front door.

A couple of times, I've begun with the classic crash device to kick a campaign off. You remember this from such famous sources as Gilligan's Island, and its later remake Lost. This is a great way to bring together disparate characters and give them a common purpose. In one case, I began simply enough with the players on a ship suddenly struck by a massive sea-monster. We jumped into the middle of things, with players making survival and swimming checks right out of the gate. In this case, the question wasn't whether they'd live or die, but what kind of shape they'd be in when they finally got there. Immediately they had a crisis and a struggle, and I had their attention. In a Steampunk campaign, on the other hand, we began with the characters meeting in the passenger lounge of their airship. After some low-key establishment of personalities and roles I introduced the disaster. The ship came under a strange assault. The players had the chance in this case to act and attempt to mitigate the damage- or at least better prepare for the landing. They crashed, revealing that one of their fellow passengers had been a strange robot in disguise. If you've played Arcanum, you may note that it begins in a similar way (though I did it first!).

In both cases, the games began with questions of survival, determining location and reaching civilization. Right away the players had to work together to function- and other agendas got set aside in favor of that purpose. In the two cases, I ended up going in different directions. The sea-monster of the first campaign was purely a device, and something which only reappeared in the final session, as a way of bookending the game. On the other hand, the attack on the airship had a sinister purpose to it, and unraveling that led to the main threads of the steampunk campaign.

Another approach I've used with some success, especially for one shots and short-term campaigns, is to begin in the middle of a massive failure, sometimes with the PCs as a party to it. For example, in one scenario, the players were entrusted with recovering a magical artifact for their lord. This had to be brought to the battlefield where he engaged a magically potent adversary. However, the PCs opened the session returning too late. Now they had to figure out how to perform their duty or if they would carry that out at all. Artifact in hand, the game shifts to a freeform planning exercise- will they charge in or will they take a more careful 47 Ronin response? In a supers campaign, I began with the PCs being recruited as a kind of B-Team for a smaller Midwestern city. However, in the middle of their initial meeting, they hear news of a catastrophe at the super-villain containment center. A massive battle between the major super teams, good and bad, resulted in the deaths of most of the participants (think of the end scene from Kingdom Come). Suddenly the players had a major responsibility- moving from secondary heroes in a nation filled with superbeings, to among the few left. It was way to have a history of superbeings, while at the same time putting the novice characters into an important position.

Not all disasters need to be literal or physical, social disasters can spur a campaign. If players owe fealty or loyalty to a suddenly disgraced lord or group, they may have to join them in exile. Uncovering conspiracies, regaining status, forging a new name could all be keys to such a campaign. Perhaps the exile is literal and distant, forcing the players to uproot and travel to a new and strange place. The dramatic downfall of someone they respect- or their own disastrous decline- could easily motivate players. Legend of the Five Rings lends itself especially well to this. I ran a Dragon-Blooded Exalted campaign which opened with a variation on this. The players were younger members of a single house, tainted by battling a Sidereal Exalted who had ruptured the lines of fate. The family didn't want to lose the characters, but neither could they allow those dangerous wyrd magics and fractures to harm the house. So the PCs were sent away to make their own fortune in a distant place- if they could forge a fate of their own, they would be allowed to return.

What I've talked about has had players dealing with the immediate impact of a disaster, either as the kicker for a campaign start or as a major event in the course of play. Obviously, the bigger genre has been post-apocalyptic, dealing with life well after the collapse. Anxieties and fears over nuclear disasters sparked games like The Morrow Project, Aftermath!, Twilight 2000, and (perhaps less so) After the Bomb. These are interesting in a different way than the straight disaster genre. The threats can be less immediate- dealing with questions of civilization and new political environments. These settings usually take up far enough away from the initial incident for new structures, societies and technologies to have evolved.

Beyond those classic future war or economic collapse settings, we seen a number of interesting twists on the approach. In the fantasy realm, we have Desolation where the characters pick up the pieces of their world a little over a year after the big cataclysm, in this case a host of disasters of biblical proportions. Midnight posits a fantasy setting after a Sauron-analogue has won the war. Earthdawn has a world recovering from and living in fear of The Horrors. Those serve as a reason for isolation and a constant threat hanging over the campaign. Of course the big daddy of post-apocalyptic fantasy has to be Dark Sun, with a world depleted and worn down. For my own campaign, I inserted the disaster of the "Parade of Monsters," essentially a mad creator god deciding that the world had too few animals and dumping new beasts across the land. This destroyed all but the central heart and most fortified cities of the nations. It also explained why you couldn't walk outside your village without having a random encounter. Over time we've considered the ecological impact of that event- and how various monsters rose to the top or became eliminated from their new ecological niche.

Other genres offer non-nuclear takes on post-apocalypse as well. In science-fiction, Greg Christopher's excellent Cascade Failure has the players rebuilding their world after an space empire-wide disaster. They have to reestablish contact and order with other devastated worlds. Traveller: the New Era took a similar post-collapse approach. Some modern apocalypses take unique turns such as GURPS Reign of Steel's android war, the post-Hastur world of Yellow Dawn, or Summerland's world engulfed by forest. For alternate history, consider The Day After Ragnarok which has a post-WW2 world devastated by the combination of an atomic bomb and the Midgard Serpent. Or Clockwork and Chivalry which has a combination social and magical disaster arising from the killing of the sacred monarch. In supers we have eCollapse which presents an awful future or Necessary Evil which simply has the villains winning.


I've done a version of post-apocalypse for supers, but with a slightly different take. I'd just finished reading a run on The Avengers which had their old adversary Kang taking over the world for several issues- complete with devastation to New York and super-powered internment camps. The Avengers won, of course, but by the next issue, the world seemed to have returned to business as usual. The events hadn't faded away, as characters referenced them, but it seemed more like a blip on the radar screen. For the short campaign I ran, the players founded a new group in a city recently devastated by a superpowered event. In this case, the goal and theme of the campaign wasn't so much about repairing the city, but about repairing the local's faith in heroes- in building a reputation and fighting back against that ill will. I don't know how successful that was- but I think that's an interesting approach. Consider how players might deal with the fallout and recovery when they're either responsible for tied to those responsible for a disaster.