Natural Disasters are Serious- Play Them as Such- Oh and a Table

I had almost an entire post written for this, but hated it and scratched it.  Hopefully this one will pan out better than the tripe that was on my screen before.  I blame the apathy monster I mentioned earlier.

Last week was a bit of a bumpy week for the East Coast as we got hit with an earthquake (whether or not it was as serious as those felt in California is not the point of this posts, but I will talk about my observations on how people here in NJ handled it) and then we got slammed by a Stage 1 Hurricane/lowered to Tropical Storm by the end of Sunday.

Like I said, bit of a bumpy week and luckily nothing terrible befell me.  I didn’t lose power, my basement flooded slightly, but the pump spit all o’ it back up, and I was stocked up on much needed provisions (beer).  I literally played Deus Ex: Human Revolution and drank tons of tasty Oktoberfest beer.  Life is good.

However the reaction that people had around me in NJ during our little bump of an earthquake got me thinking about natural disasters.

I’m used to earthquakes since I grew up inCaliforniaand I know thatNew Jerseynever gets them, but that aside, people kind of lost their shit when it happened.  The epicenter in Virgina was a 5.8 and by the time it got to NJ it was roughly a 3.0-3.3.  Not bad at all.  Plants shook and monitors wobbled.

However people were genuinely freaked out.  The entire cell phone line infrastructure was tied up due to everyone calling at once.  I heard coworkers get all panic, “Oh my god.  I can’t get through on my cell!  This is bad.  This is bad.”

Now I’m not trying to undermine the seriousness of a natural disaster, but come on…  It was a small shake… Even if it WAS bad..  Losing your head about it doesn’t make it better.

Then with the hurricane, people were freaking out.  I went and bought two cases of water (each had 3 1 gallon bottles) and some canned food just in case, but I wasn’t freaking out or felt a real sense of urgency about it.  When I got my water I got the last two cases.  A woman came around the corner and threw a temper tantrum at me that she missed out and how I had ruined her day.  I told the old bag she needed to chill and that there were still single gallon bottles of water left, “I’m not paying that much for water!”

Well I guess she didn’t need it that badly.

Where Am I Going With This?

Rambling aside about idiotic rude people the whole Natural Disaster thing got me thinking about how I’ve seen it handled in games that I’ve played in and ran (which I haven’t done in a very long time) and I think I want to start handling it differently.

Looking at what happened with the small earthquake and Hurricane Irene, shit just stopped.  Shut down.  People panicked.

I know this is old news now, but look at how bad Hurricane Katrina was and how it affected New Orleans.  All the devastation, lack of supplies, preparation, the ineptitude of FEMA, and then add in the total failure of something that was supposed to work and protect the people, the levee’s, and you had utter chaos.

When I have play in a RPG’s where a natural disaster has occurred it always felt one dimensional to me and not enough focus was given to the event itself and the effects on the territory/city, but only on the navigating of the players through a certain number of challenges.

I know that giving a city a living breathing atmosphere is hard enough to do, let alone turn the whole thing on its head and express chaos, fear, death, starvation, desperation, and lack of hope.

I looked at some cases of natural disasters in olden times and began thinking about how people would have reacted physically, emotionally, or even philosophically to something such as a natural disaster.

To quote Lewis Black, “We’re three hairs from a baboon now imagine what we were like back then!!”

Putting aside human nature of being self-serving selfish asswads, thinking about the construction of buildings and how they would hold up against an earthquake or insanely strong winds is also another factor.  Reading that article showed that certain towns were completely leveled after an earthquake, killing hundreds of thousands to millions.

The thing the article does not go into is the aftermath, famine, fighting, rioting, thieving, murder, etc.

These are all things that, when I run a natural disaster, I want to somehow convey or implement in my game.

I think, going forward, that rather than having the natural disaster be the back drop, it will be the main character and the PC’s will become secondary.  I would run a natural disaster scenario in one to two sessions.  One would probably be the disaster itself while the second one would be the immediate aftermath and problems therein.

Even after those initial two sessions there would still be problems and themes that would be prevalent for several sessions to come.

So here is a table I came up with for some quick ideas for what could be going on due to a natural disaster.  I tried to keep it setting and system neutral.  As time goes on I will try to add more options to the table.

Feel free to make suggestions of events or things to be added to the table as well!

Here it is as a PDF: Natural Disaster Situation Table

Natural Disaster Situation Table


Bodies’ liter the street- smell of blood, rotting flesh, and excrement fills the air.  Characters must make save or become nauseated.


Something that should have protected the city (magic/technological) has failed and caused the situation to become worse.


Lack of preparation by public officials has caused a major situation.


City Officials make a choice of rescuing the wealthy and elite while leaving the poor.


Authorities are under equipped to handle situations and begin losing cohesion.


Fires rage unchecked through buildings.  Thick smoke blankets city.


Large decrepit building crumbles from the disasters onslaught and topples onto people below.


People fall to their knees and begin praying to their gods in hopes of reprieve.


Fetid water causes disease.


Supplies begin to run out and people begin fighting and killing to survive.


Gangs and Crime lords use the chaos and confusion as an opportunity to seize property or territory.


Flash floods in an area cause serious damage and cut people off from rescue efforts.


Mass transit vehicle over turns and crashes into a building killing or gravely injuring passengers.


People are being raped and victimized in the streets.


Crops completely destroyed before harvest.


Government collapses in aftermath.


Damage to ecosystem threatens to alter life in area.


The ports of the town are destroyed effectively ending trade/fishing for quite some time.


To reestablish control government institutes police state.


People begin to die of famine or plague in aftermath creating a new disaster/emergency.

About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

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