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The Deeper Well

Lieutenant Zip died this morning...

by James Bierly
Feb 17,2005


The Deeper Well

Lieutenant Zip died this morning...

By James Bierly

Catastrophe is a plot archetype that focuses on the protagonist's reactions to horrible circumstances outside of their control. Disaster flicks (Titanic, Pearl Harbor, The Day After Tomorrow), many horror tales (Dawn Of The Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and some tragic dramas such as The Grapes Of Wrath fit this mold.

A story focused on disaster progresses as the circumstances the protagonists find themselves in grow worse and worse, climaxing in the greatest misfortune or injustice. Catastrophe plots work excellently for one shot games in which the characters and situations are well defined. Within a larger campaign, however, this plot archetype provides some unique challenges and opportunities.

Disaster In The Campaign World

Version A- The Random Fury Of Nature- Allowing The Catastrophe To Take It's Course

A great natural catastrophe which occurs within the game world can shake up a stale campaign and add a feeling of realism. In order for it to have this proper effect, I encourage you to genuinely throw a wrench in the works of the campaign. Introduce a disaster, and then allow it to mess with the plots and plans already in motion as much as would be realistically expected. Don't think of the decision to add a natural disaster in terms of how it will affect it will have on PC goals and the plots you already have in motion. Decide to introduce a disaster solely for its own sake, and then work out the effects. It may completely alter the nature of your campaign. That's o.k. That's the nature of catastrophe.

Version B- Catastrophe With A Purpose

Catastrophe in the campaign world can also be created with the purpose of instigating a specific plot. Perhaps a natural disaster is being caused by the Big Bad. Or you want the PC's to be able to ascend to the throne, so the king's son is assassinated. Many a campaign has been fueled by the catastrophe of war. When instigating a catastrophe in the game world for the purpose of fueling certain plots, keep your purpose in mind when deciding upon the moment to unleash the disaster. For instance, if the players are currently hard at work fighting villain A, you may not want to introduce a disaster being caused by villain B until the heroes are available to deal with it. However, if you choose a time to introduce the disaster that is not conducive to instigating the plot you wanted, then the disaster serves the purpose of Version B. Either way, you win. Regardless of your motive, adding catastrophe into the mix of your campaign world is rarely a bad move.

Cause And Effect

When catastrophe hits your campaign world, it will have far greater effects than simply the event itself. The victims of a natural disaster may be exploited by criminals. Charismatic yet dangerous leaders may be turned to when disaster strikes. One disaster may lead to another, as a hurricane gives way to a plague. Make sure that the effects of your world-altering catastrophes linger and evolve. Always ask "and because of that, what now?"


A giant meteor is about to hit the world
Massive flood
Son or daughter of a powerful world leader dies/gets married/wants to assassinate their parent
The nature or function of magic/psionics changes suddenly
The gods die
Humans begin giving birth to orcs or vice versa
The dead begin to rise
Invisible beings become visible
The Planes begin to merge
Nuclear/magical meltdown
Economic Recession or Depression

Personal Catastrophe

This kind of catastrophe focuses more on the PCs than on the world around them. These are best instigated with the purpose of telling a certain kind of story or exploring a character, rather than as completely random GM decisions. In fact, I would personally recommend that a GM discuss these out of character with players before using them. That said, there are few things that reveal more about a person than how they deal with personal tragedy.

Possible PC reactions to a Personal Catastrophe

Doubt of faith
Putting on a happy face
Deep sorrow
Grim determination
Grudging determination
Utter despair
Bittersweet hopefulness
The development of a new personality trait or quirk related to the disaster
The development of a phobia or mental illness
Intellectual exploration
Striving to make themselves better

Possible Personal Catastrophes

The death of a familiar/animal companion/droid/loved one/dependant/party member
The loss of some ability
The acquiring of a curse
Having one's parents divorce
Getting sick or critically injured
Losing one's money
Finding out one's father is a homicidal psycho
Discovering one's past was a lie
Ending a relationship
Being defeated, perhaps for the first time
Dying and coming back to life
Being transported to an entirely different game world

The divine powers and suffering

Why is there suffering in the world? If divine powers exist, why do they permit this suffering? These are questions that will more than likely either need to be answered in the PCs minds, or in the cosmology of the game world, or both (depending on the nature of the game you run) if a campaign is to include a Catastrophe plot. A brief list of a few possible explanations has been provided for both players (for developing your PC's worldview) and for GMs (for developing the game world's cosmology).

Life sucks and then you die. Deal with it. There are no gods. There is no afterlife. Make the best of what you've got.

The gods are having sex. Or war. Or kidnapping people's daughters and taking them to the underworld for half the year. The gods often behave like oversized, overpowered humans. When the gods do stuff, it affects the world. And not always in good ways. Hence, catastrophe.

Good would stop suffering if it could, but evil is too strong. In some campaign worlds, the forces of good and evil are engaged in a never ending war. When evil gets the upper hand, either in the spirit world (natural disasters) or in the real world (human initiated disasters), than Bad Stuff happens. When good gets the upper hand, happiness flourishes.

Soul Making Theodicy. The purpose of life in the world is to be made worthy of the life to come. In order for people to learn things like grace, mercy and compassion, there must be suffering in the world and it must be distributed randomly.

It's all an illusion. The physical world does not really exist. Only the spirit world matters. So any suffering in this life is to just be taken as part of the illusion, and not dwelt upon.

Free Will Theodicy. Evil exists so that humans (and any other races not evil by nature) can by their own free will decide whether to follow the forces of darkness or of light. Because humans (and perhaps some other races) chose evil in the dawn of time, the world has been corrupted and therefore there is suffering and catastrophe.

Catastrophes can be used to make a specific statement about the nature of life. If you introduce a plot involving criminals exploiting disaster victims, you are making a statement about human nature. If a characters life is nothing but a string of failures and disappointments, a statement may be being made about fate and misfortune. Disasters reveal so many sides of human nature, and raise so many questions about the world, that they can be the impetus for some very serious and thought provoking roleplaying. Catastrophe allows players to enter new heights of character development, and allows GMs to introduce a feeling of cold hard reality into the campaign world.

Hope you all have a great game this week,

James Bierly

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