"Lo! I am made young again when I recall Commoriom, when in this grey city of the sunken years I behold in retrospect her walls that looked mountainously down upon the jungle, and the alabastrine multitude of her heaven-fretting spires. Opulent among cities, and superb and magisterial, and paramount over all was Commoriom, to whom tribute was given from the shores of the Atlantean sea to that sea in which is the immense continent of Mu; to whom the traders came from utmost Thulan that is walled on the north with unknown ice, and from the southern realm of Tscho Vulpanomi which ends in a lake of boiling asphaltum. Ah! proud and lordly was Commoriom, and her humblest dwellings were more than the palaces of other cities. And it was not, as men fable nowadays, because of that maundering prophecy once uttered by the White Sybil from the isle of snow which is named Polarion, that her splendor and spaciousness was delivered over to the spotted vines of the jungle and the spotted snakes. Nay, it was because of a direr thing than this, and a tangible horror against which the law of kings, the wisdom of hierophants and the sharpness of swords were alike impotent. Ah! not lightly was she overcome, not easily were her defenders driven forth. And though others forget, or haply deem her no more than a vain and dubitable tale, I shall never cease to lament Commoriom."
Passages like these, from The Testament of Athammaus, give me tons of ideas and hooks for campaigns. The lyricism of CAS never ceases to amaze me. This particular snippet, resounding with doom and loss, make me wonder how the Player Characters would react if their world setting was, suddenly, struck by such ominous prophecy.
I don't mean something in the indefinable future (as in most White Wolf settings, like the old World of Darkness and Exalted), but a concrete event, for example: "The lands shall fall beneath demon waves with rising of the Red Eye, on the thirteenth moon to come!" That's what I'm talking about here: an ultimate deadline.
The PCs should be able to literally see it coming. Imagine well-know campaign settings, like Faerun, Oerth or Golarion consumed by an eschatological event. How would the various races, cultures and pantheons react? This is great background material for any campaign focused on a different feel and approach (or as a way to deal with the famous – and dreaded – Gamemaster’s burnout).
I titled part of this post as “Setting Events", but I think I could also call it “Setting Templates” because that is how I see they working in my home games: a chain of events around a well-known or strong theme, that can be universally applied to any campaign setting.
If I remember correctly the idea isn't exactly new and was used by Monte Cook's Malhavoc Press in Requiem for a God and When the Sky Falls. These sourcebooks (for D&D) detailed a number of causes, consequences and mechanic for two particular and wide-ranged effects: the dead of a god and a meteor strike.
I think we can make a basic list of more “Setting Templates":
- The End of Times: You can use either the classic Monotheism eschatology or the Ragnarok-style divine onslaught. Most campaign setting already provide enough material for both kinds of events, like abundant rivalry between certain deities and legends pertaining to old chthonic forces ready to rise back and rock the world’s foundations. The difference here is that you are actually making these legends come to a conclusion. This doesn’t need to be the literal end of the cosmology, for the character can just as well witness the birth of a new cycle (like the Norse or Indian myths).
- Ice Age: Since Magic The Gathering I’m a fan of this approach. Just cover the entire world in a magical nuclear winter and let mayhem ensue. It’s amazing how easy it is to predict the reactions of famous races, cultures, deities and NPCs. For example, in Faerun we could see a mass migration to the Southlands, with the civilized races running from the massive humanoid and giant hordes (themselves running from the things a lot worse leaving the old frozen north). Maybe the weather alteration can also change cosmological and planar characteristics, like strengthening ice magic and themes associated with cold and winter.
- Invasion: Pick the classic monster or humanoid horde (every setting has one) and let their next invasion works*! Create an orc empire, giant feudal states or a dragon dominion in the middle of the player’s beloved setting. And don’t forget the classical githyanki invasion from the Astral Plane using red dragons. Another cool invasion (now totally stealing from science fiction) is a massive force of mind flayers (or neogi or ethergaunt) coming with spaceships (either spelljammers or real spacecraft, both work fine!). If you want a crazier example, try an invasion from a parallel reality: my favorite tactic here is to use an “anti-setting” – a reverse world where, for example, the good guys from the PCs setting are the bad guys (orcs could be a powerful and civilized race while deities like Lathander or Heironeous could be totalitarian sun-gods with an “Old Testament” feel).
- Wasteland: In many ways this Setting Event works like an “inverted ice age”. Instead of freezing, everything burns and dries. Think of Dark Sun, but use your favorite setting races and geography. Better yet, let things get really interesting by mixing themes. For example: technology. Maybe a planar rifts link the world with a dimension where technology is the ruling force. Ta-da! Instant mash up between Pathfinder/D&D and Gamma World. Of course, you can keep things strictly “magical”, but draw inspiration from the post-apocalyptic genre. Establish that the massive use of magic created a chaotic world where constant planar rifts appear and disappear (pick a plane and fix it to the world, like Mike Mearl’s excellent suggestion of using the Abyss as a location in the setting, instead of a plane); create “mutations” generated by some form of concentrated magic material (like a dust or metal); make desertification works in bizarre ways (working like areas of high magic, where spellcasters rule almost as kings, but are subject to be possessed by horrendous Things From Beyond); establish that too much spellcasting can open small rifts and summon outsiders (the barrier between realities is very really thin here).
- Exodus: This is a simple event but it holds also great potential. Maybe a massive flight of dragons descend on the PC’s world, forcing a massive dislocation of a race or culture. Maybe a god dies and his body spreads a plague over a region. This event can start wars and alter the way old allies or enemies interact. It can even start new religion or legends – about the fabled “promised land”, or haven, beyond the mountains (or seas or deserts). Other potential trigger event for an exodus is the sinking of a continent (the players will surely love to actually witness one) or the retreat of an ocean (revealing dark things).
- Zombie Plague: I couldn’t end this post without mentioning this one. Every setting has a dark deity or force devoted to undead, so I can only assume that it would be interesting (and very funny) to see it finally winning at least once. Myrkul, Orcus, Nerull, the Whispering Tyrant… pick your champion and start rising the dead. Use infection rules (and easy access to necromantic magic that enables resurrection with “collateral effects”) to guarantee the proper mood and let the players hunt for a solution.
*Actually, this advice about “let it work this time” should hold true for all the Setting Events above. Want to see what I think to be the “wrong” way of doing this? Check the various editions of the Forgotten Realms, where we have all kinds of apocalyptical events, but they rarely change anything or – more important – when they do it is for the wrong reasons (usually following the eternally dumb “lets-sell-more-books-to-new-players” mentality).