Running Cataclysmic Games

The concept of cataclysm can encompass a wide variety of events, stories, and circumstances, creating a wide variety of scenarios which may or may not be compatible with the type of game you may wish to run. In the context of this book, cataclysms are destructive and often world-changing events, such as a natural disaster, the death of a god, or an ecological collapse.

The only constant to all cataclysms is that they cause immense devastation of some sort. They can come from a wide variety of sources, operate on a wide variety of scopes and timeframes, and fill a wide variety of roles in a campaign. That said, an effectively-written and effectively-executed cataclysm within a story has the capacity to engage and awe players in ways that few other events can. This chapter serves as a guide for creating and implementing cataclysms of various sorts into a game.

Cataclysms and Player Consent

Immense disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and droughts exist in real life and can frequently pose catastrophic death tolls. Due to traumatic experiences, concern that the game skirts too close to reality, or any number of other reasons, some players may be uncomfortable engaging with sequences of large-scale devastation. Player consent is paramount in any type of gaming, and any GM wishing to run a game involving cataclysms with real-life parallels should not only be clear with their players about such possibilities but should also obtain their consent before employing such set pieces. As always, safety tools such as the x-card should be set up at the table so that players can comfortably voice their discomfort with events of situations that cross their boundaries.

Cataclysm Themes and Tones

A cataclysm can elicit a wide variety of emotions in people, and a work of fiction involving a cataclysm has the potential to be even more malleable. There have been works written to be somber, biting, disconnected, hopeful, and even funny. Presented here are a few elements and guidelines on how they can be implemented.

Despair: The great losses that come with cataclysms are undeniably tragic, and the roleplaying of cataclysm can be used to explore such grief. Be it the mourning of lost loved ones or the emptiness that comes from the destruction of a nation, despair can be a powerful tool for roleplaying and storytelling that drives characters in whatever quest they are undertaking.

Dissolution: Disaster can often bring out the worst in people, leading them to mistrust their neighbors or commit heinous acts in order to ensure their own survival. The communities, creeds, and rules which people have come to rely upon may not apply anymore, and this dissolution can fuel a wide variety of conflicts and atrocities across a setting.

Hope: Amidst everything terrible going on, there is always some hope that things can improve. Cities can be rebuilt, the sick and injured nursed back to health, and in some cases the disaster itself could potentially be undone. Hope is a driving force in many cataclysmic adventures, be it hope for individual success or for a new world being reborn in the ashes of the old.

Horror: Cataclysms are understandably painful experiences, with great losses often terrifying people or making them question fundamental aspects of their identity and way of life. A disaster might reveal to somebody how little they matter in the cosmic scheme of things or expose them to hideous activities that they would rather deny. With nothing to fall back on, many threats or wounds can become much more scary for PCs.

Humor: The way people or societies act in a crisis can be quite funny at a distance, with characters acting out over nothing or comically underestimating dramatic threats. A cataclysmic game need not be serious all the time, and the absurdity stoked by a disaster can be fascinating for players if they are willing to drop the tension for it.

Mystery: In the wake of disaster, many questions start to emerge. Was there a reason for what happened? What could have been done to stop it? What was lost in the cataclysm and how much can be rediscovered? Ruins and remnants of what once was can be a great source of intrigue, investment, and danger for PCs.

Satire: There’s nothing like an apocalypse to make people realize the flaws in something they have come to trust, and cataclysmic stories can be used to make biting critiques of an ideology or structure through removal or exaggeration. This can be made humorous, but laughter is not strictly necessary to social commentary.

Survival: In a heroic fantasy game, survival means turning the characters’ impressive capabilities towards enacting positive change in a world where any concept of a future seems lost. When resources are sparse and people are always at risk of dying, PCs can act as beacons of hope leading people out of the darkness or employing their abilities to subjugate other survivors. Extreme circumstances may force the PCs to make tough choices, but the idea of things somehow getting better can be enough to keep people going.

Making Players Care

Oftentimes, it is personal connections that make all the difference between a cataclysm being a distant spectacle and being an emotional threat. In the cases of many real-life disasters, people tend not to care unless the crisis affects themself or those they love, and this distancing is even easier when roleplaying in a fictional world.

If a GM is utilizing a cataclysm, they should take steps to make sure that the players are directly invested in the outcome. This does not always mean that they PCs are at direct risk, and such affairs can simply reduce a cataclysm to another threat to be overcome. Non-combatants and locations are often put on the front lines during a cataclysm, and a GM should leverage any emotional connections that the PCs have to such things. Nonadventuring family members could be put at risk by a plague or magic storm, or a hurricane could destroy the academy or guildhall in which the PCs trained together. If the PCs are in some sort of leadership position, they may be bombarded on all sides as crops are destroyed by rains of fire and the ensuing rebellion shatters the alliances they had struggled to build.

These webs of connections are more important to a cataclysm than the event itself; the “how” and “why” of a cataclysm are often much more important than the “what”.

Cataclysm Implementations

A crucial fact to remember when running a cataclysm in Pathfinder is that the game and system are built around certain paradigms of heroic fantasy. Characters are durable and have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, with resources like food and water typically being inconsequential (especially when magic is involved). This is not to say that stories of cataclysms cannot be utilized in heroic fantasy. In fact, many of the most iconic fantasy stories utilize cataclysms of various sorts to create their most iconic moments. However, the expectations of Pathfinder are geared towards a specific set of interactions with disasters. A low-power campaign where the players are constantly running from conflict and counting every morsel of food in their supplies, for example, would be better suited for a different system. Meanwhile, an adventure where the players travel across a blighted, monster-filled wasteland or attempt to rescue an entire city from an earthquake or tsunami would be more suited to the mechanics and player expectations of Pathfinder.

The focus on catastrophic, large-scale events should not take away the fundamental heroism of the PCs. Even if they cannot solve the larger issues of famine, war, or ruin, they should still be able to use their abilities to help others or further some sort of goal amidst the ruins. Growth and progression are another fundamental aspect of Pathfinder, so the PCs should be able to find some sort of resolution even in an apocalyptic world.

Disaster may spur the party to action, but it should never leave them in a position where they cannot do anything.

Introducing Cataclysms Into Your Game

A cataclysm can be introduced in a variety of ways, but is best employed at moments of greatest ease or highest tension. A “black swan” event sowing mass devastation in a peaceful time is sure to be noticeable, while the extra ruin of a cataclysm when all hope seems lost can either horrify players or provide them with an extra kick to get going. Multiple cataclysms can even stack upon and exacerbate each other. However, too many destructive events can quickly induce fatigue in players, diminishing the impact of a cataclysm. Cataclysms should thus be reserved for crucial moments when they can cause a lot of damage to the players’ resources or their morale.

A cataclysm need not be stagnant across a campaign, and could very well be treated as a villain who evolves as the PCs grow stronger (this is especially appropriate for god-induced cataclysms or other sentient forces of destruction). New facets or consequences of the cataclysm could continue to emerge over time, providing development long after the initial event. If the cataclysm is somehow foreshadowed, these developments could even take place before the event, with NPCs making preparations that somehow endanger the PCs or those close to them.

Cataclysm as Catalyst

Most stories require some sort of inciting event, and cataclysms can perform this role exceptionally well. A local disaster could drive the characters out of safety and security and force them to venture forth to either find a new home or repair the damage done to their home. Meanwhile, a larger cataclysm could encompass an entire adventure, affecting characters and goals across the setting. It is common for settings to have immense or even unfixable cataclysms take place prior to the adventure starting, these consequences or limitations helping to shape the identity or themes of the setting.

When designing a cataclysm to serve as a catalyst, it is important to consider how it may affect both the players and the world. Creating a disaster which severely inhibits magic or starves players of important resources may not result in a fun or interesting game for certain players or characters, and a GM wishing to run a game in such a world should let players know about any persistent restrictions prior to play. Likewise, a GM should take steps to ensure that the catalyst is implemented consistently across the setting and its various factions, else it might just feel like an arbitrary railroad or handicap rather than a distinct element of the world.

Cataclysm as Threat

Cataclysms which occur in the field can be an engaging way to create set pieces or change the dynamic of a combat. A shipto- ship battle in the middle of a tremendous storm has the potential to be much more compelling than a fight on still water, while an escape or rescue sequence from an earthquake or volcano could test and thrill players in a way that may effectively replace combat. Wild magic, shifting planar geometries, or other magical effects could add extra layers of danger to place or time, and the natives may even know how to utilize such hazards to their advantage against the PCs.

When a cataclysm serves as a threat, it is important that players are given the opportunity to understand what they are up against and potentially prepare for it. A TPK which results from a random tunnel collapse is not fun for players, nor is a dam burst which the party has no way to anticipate. Threat cataclysms exist to make the world more dangerous, so a GM should make sure to integrate such cataclysms into the world in a believable way before springing them on the PCs.

Cataclysm as Consequence

Actions have repercussions, and sometimes those repercussions can be disastrous. The players might fail to stop the cult’s ritual and wind up having to deal with the massive portal to Hell which they opened. Maybe the cataclysm is something that the players themselves end up causing; a wildfire blooming in a hectic battle or a disease used against an orc camp spreading into other nearby settlements. The actions of the players or NPCs in the campaign could spiral into tremendous events which negatively impact a great number of people.

While it can be fun to create domino effects which echo across the adventure, it is equally important to maintain player agency when designing cataclysms as consequences. A cataclysm which feels inevitable to the players or which does not follow a logical progression of cause and effect is simply an imposition of disaster rather than a development which would make players reflect upon their actions. Similarly, not all player actions should lead to disaster, and the actions of the party could avert or diminish the impact of cataclysms in various ways (possibly resulting in a net positive for the party).

Cataclysm Types

Natural Cataclysm

Natural Cataclysms are the most common and easiest to implement in most games, encompassing events such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues, famines, meteors, and other disasters which stem from natural forces.

Natural cataclysms are impersonal and random, embodying a universe which cares not for mortal machinations. As they are often unpredictable and impersonal in nature, natural cataclysms are particularly effective as catalysts or threats, forcing players to contend with limited resources or all-encompassing threats that cannot easily be defeated or negated. Some examples of natural cataclysms in gameplay include:

  • A tsunami devastates a city, killing many civilians and creating resource shortages which are exploited by an opportunistic cult.
  • An earthquake causes several underground tunnels to cave in, forcing the entombed PCs to navigate an altered labyrinth of passages in order to escape.
  • A blight of locusts destroys a nation’s crops, forcing civilians to take drastic measures and possibly turn on adventurers to ensure their survival.

Magical Cataclysm

Magical Cataclysms are oftentimes similar to natural cataclysms (oftentimes overlapping in mythology), but they oftentimes possess a more supernatural or personal element. They could be magically-generated events brought about by a curse upon the royal family, an angry god unleashing their wrath, or an atrocity scarring a location’s psychic imprint. Magical cataclysms can also impact the functions of magic in some way, and these sorts of cataclysms are particularly potent as threats due

to their ability to upend conventional problem-solving strategies. Magical cataclysms also tend to work well as catalysts, as the methods by which players might break a curse or appease an indignant deity are oftentimes clearer than those which might undo a natural disaster or repair a polluted landscape. Some examples of magical cataclysms in gameplay include:

  • A river around which a city has been built has its waters transformed into caustic acid by a god whose worshippers were exiled by a royal order.
  • A nation has been partially pulled into the Plane of Shadow, causing creatures, landmarks, and even entire towns to flicker in and out of existence.
  • A failed attempt by a society of occultists to bind a demon lord resulted in a massive outpouring of chaotic magic, causing wild magic effects to trigger whenever a creature casts a spell within 10 miles of the ruined fortress.

Artificial Cataclysm

Oftentimes more localized or more slow-burning than natural or magical cataclysms, artificial cataclysms created by mortal action can be no less potent as conflicts or challenges. Artificial cataclysms tend to have more long-term effects due to their unique genesis and can be uniquely powerful storytelling tools due to the acknowledgement that it was mortals actions and goals which created them. Artificial cataclysms can work well as catalysts, threats, or consequences, but the extended time frames they work on may require additional worldbuilding on the part of the GM. Some examples of artificial cataclysms in gameplay include:

  • A forest is cleared out to create weapons and fortifications in a prolonged conflict, depriving the soil of nutrients and forcing the population to move in order to grow enough to survive.
  • Excess pollution renders a lake or shoreline inhospitable, resulting in a once-thriving port city collapsing into starvation as its fish market implodes.
  • A group of invaders sets fire to a city, forcing the adventurers to fight the blaze, evacuate civilians, or escape the flames intact.
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