When The Coming Storm Blows Into Your Campaign
  • When The Coming Storm Blows Into Your Campaign

    This column is running late because I am waiting out one myself, and because of that I have been spending the last couple of days thinking about how to use a coming storm as a part of the story of an ongoing gaming campaign. Either a literal or figurative approaching storm can bring some interesting drama to a campaign.

    The other night I was re-reading the opening story arc of Grant Morrison's run on the X-Men comic franchise from a few years ago. In it he introduced an apex predator of mutants as an antagonist: the character of Cassandra Nova. In the space of this first arc Nova managed to: brutally attack the X-Men as a feint, create a new breed of Sentinel and use them to destroy Genosha and kill most of the inhabitants, use a seeming defeat as a method to get into the X-Mansion so that she could possess Professor X and then use his body to take off to the Shi'ar Empire, so that she could come back later with bigger and nastier alien space weapons to use against the X-Men. This is the tl; dr version of a storyline that took part over the course of a year or so of X-Men comics.

    This is an example of a figurative coming storm that can be used in a game. While the characters might not realize it (in fact the one character who knew that Nova had possessed Xavier was made temporarily comatose by Nova before she left the planet…I know, comics) the players will know that something is coming and it is big and bad. In fact, a lot of the time if you have the idea that "something is coming" in place, you don't even need to fill it in beforehand because the players will probably do a better job of filling in the blanks than you might have as a GM. So all that you have to do is pay attention to what drives the characters, and give them what they want.

    For example, a few years back in the first Swords & Wizardy game that I ran, the action was split between a small town on the borderlands of civilization and an extensive dungeon, and hive of chaos activity, under the nearby mountains. The town was originally sketched out just enough to give the characters someplace to sleep when they got tired of cold, dark dungeon floors, and someplace to spend the gold pieces they would find on alcohol and food. The cleric in the group was, however, a bit of a zealot, and he began to think that the corruption of chaos from the dungeons might have spread into the town as well. In his view, the local clergy was lax, considering the proximity to evil and chaos, and there was obviously something odious going on at the town's inn.

    Yes, the clergy was lax, but that was because they were far from the reach of the structure of the church itself and could relax a bit. They rarely had to deal with zealous clerics, or any of the church's leadership. There wasn't any actual sinister intent to the local clergy, they were mostly just happy to collect fees, kick a share upstairs within the church, and not have to work too hard out in the boonies. Of course, none of this stopped the cleric from further "investigating" the local clergy. In the character's mind, there had to be a reason why chaos had taken root locally.

    Yes, there was something "odious" going on at the inn. The women who ran the inn were encouraging their employees to make extra money off of adventurers drawn by the lure of monster killing in the dungeons, and the occasional passing merchant caravan by plying their wiles and engaging in the oldest profession of any world. In fact parts of the player character group were pretty profitable to this enterprise.
    The cleric knew that there was something big and sinister going on, so the player started creating the coming storm through his character's actions. Eventually, it turned out that the innkeepers had come from the dungeons themselves, and were priestesses running a chaos cult with the help of employees of the inn. They were using their wiles to corrupt the local powers that be in town (except for the clergy, because they had a vow of celibacy obviously, and were about the only thing actually uncorrupted by the forces of chaos in the town).

    The thing is that none of that was actually intended when I sketched out the idea for the town. It was a couple of sessions before the town had a name besides "dirthole" since most of the action took place in the dungeon. My original idea for the town was just a place to rest and for the characters to have somewhere to eat, drink and be merry. Then the storm came through, and the actions of the cult started springing up as the cleric started digging around. Monsters suddenly attacked the party outside of the dungeon (where they had previously politely kept themselves in place) and people in the town started acting odder than normal towards the outsiders. All of this ended up leading to a big encounter at the inn that left the inn barely standing, and most of the staff dead. The party also ended up on the wrong side of a chaos goddess who was the patron of women in the oldest profession, and who the cult worshipped. One of the two priestesses survived to bedevil the characters a couple of times after that.

    A literal coming storm would be, well, a storm. Having an actual coming storm gives characters a different set of threats to deal with, things that wouldn't necessarily be of interest to all gaming groups. Rather than a direct antagonist (as with the above example), the characters could deal with things like scarcity (finding water or fuel that would allow them to get out of the storm's way before it arrives) or possible societal breakdowns due to the scarcity. If your group isn't as interested in those sorts of threats in their role-playing games, then you could look at more direct conflicts like swarms of weird creatures driven before the coming storm. Are they fleeing the storm as well, or are they the harbingers of the disaster, softening up the resistance of the world before the storm comes.

    A literal coming storm also doesn't have to be an actual storm, with thunder, lightning, rain and all of that. It could be a swarm of qlippothic beings from a negative energy dimension. It could be clouds of gigantic insects that devour everything in their path. It could be Galactus coming to convert the world to energy and devour that. All that is has to be is big, bad and overwhelming.

    The idea of the coming storm is that it is something that takes a bit more work to overcome than simply swinging a sword at it, or throwing some oil and setting it on fire. While the coming storm should be something that has a way to be destroyed through the valiant efforts of the player characters, it should still be something that is a threat to them and to the world. A coming storm can not only make for a change from the straight forward carnage of dungeon delving, but it can be a method of change for the campaign itself.

    Whether it is the chaos cult that has secretly corrupted the city, or the qlippothic creatures whose mere presence causes the world around them to burn, these coming storms change the world that surrounds the characters. The coming storm doesn't have to be an Apocalypse with a capital A that tears everything down and makes a different world in its wake. It can be a small A apocalypse that changes the campaign's focus. In the case of our Swords & Wizardry game, the players decided that they should probably move on from the town after destroying the inn and killing a number of the locals (after the cleric had the local clergy send a notice up through the channels that there was probably a need for inquisitors or witch hunters in this town). One thing to remember is that your real life can always have an influence upon the worlds within which you game, even when that real life is being spent waiting to see if a tropical storm is going to come blow your house down much like the Big Bad Wolf.
    Comments 9 Comments
    1. vpuigdoller's Avatar
      vpuigdoller -
      I agree! I liked the storm in I10 ravenloft II. I have used a few storms in my campaigns.
    1. megamania's Avatar
      megamania -
      After dealing with Hurricane Irene some 5-6 years ago in Vermont, I was inspired to do a hurricane related story. I do a lot of Eberron so the party was below ground in the sewers when a hurricane struck. It became not a hack n' slash game but a how do we escape this water and flooding with all the crazed critters also in fleeing and desperate.

      It made for a memorable story.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Very clever, and an idea I think I'll use. Often we present our players with problems in the form of NPCs (often hordes of them), traps, and the like - all very personal things. Something massive and utterly impersonal, like a storm, would present a very different challenge and would feel different. I'm going to think on this.
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      Now I'm going to put a plague of locusts into a Dark Sun adventure.

      And I'll have to re-read Leiningen and the Ants because I don't remember how he 'beat' them.
    1. Superchunk77's Avatar
      Superchunk77 -
      I think Warlords of the Accordlands had some kind of "Storm" entity in it. The setting wasn't actually half bad, despite being created from a card game.
    1. megamania's Avatar
      megamania -
      Chris- saw you are near the possible epicenter of Irma..... I'll be thinking of you in the next 72 hours
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Hurricane Irma, yep, I'm waiting out that Big Boss, too.

      What Challenge Rating is it though?
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by megamania View Post
      Chris- saw you are near the possible epicenter of Irma..... I'll be thinking of you in the next 72 hours
      We ended up evacuating (we are in the first evacuation zone) to Orlando, and then of course the storm followed us there instead. But other than a couple of trees, and a whole bunch of tree limbs, down we ended up okay. Just away from home for about a week.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Superchunk77 View Post
      I think Warlords of the Accordlands had some kind of "Storm" entity in it. The setting wasn't actually half bad, despite being created from a card game.
      That is kinda like saying that the Hobbit book was not half bad despite being based on the Hobbit movie.
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