This is a rerun, it was originally posted on August 28th, 2009.
The cataclysm is the Greek expression for the Deluge, from the Greek kataklysmos, to ‘wash down’ (kluzein “wash” + kata “down”). Its analogue is an ekpyrosis (conflagration). It has also been used to describe events such as the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the tenth plague of Egypt. The modern usage of cataclysm is mostly confined to geological phenomena of high significance, such as the destruction of Pompeii, the Tunguska event, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Today the word is used to describe catastrophes of extreme devastation and magnitude.
Cataclysmic events have always been popular in fantasy roleplaying. There’s more than one campaign setting that actually started when one world ended in a cataclysm (like the shattered worlds in Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies or Sundered Skies for example) and was transformed to something new. If you think about it, cataclysms of all forms are a classic staple of fantasy.
Cataclysms are also used to help explain changes that were necessary when you want to bring a popular setting from one edition of a game to another. In order to make the world of the Forgotten Realms compatible with D&D 4th Edition the designers came up with the Spell Plague that not only helped explain the changes to how magic works but also allowed them to change geography, introduce new races and destroy whole nations.
So, why not make the use of this technique in your campaign? But beware, any cataclysmic event can easily make your game jump the shark. But if done right it can reinvigorate a campaign that had gone a bit stale over time.
Especially in fantasy worlds a cataclysm can have many forms. Natural disasters like a flood, eruption of a volcano, a tsunami, an earthquake, the impact of a meteor or comet always work. But there can also be magical cataclysm where the whole world is torn asunder but somehow survives or new continents arise in mere minutes. Another popular method is to let two planes of existence overlap which could lead to all kind of changes to an existing world. Just think of the background of WEG’s TORG.
Your cataclysm can also be a man-made desaster like a terrible war or an experiment gone awry.
Preventing the impending Cataclysm could be the goal of a whole campaign. The world is about to end and the player characters are the only one’s who can prevent it. Or the cataclysm just happened and the player characters are trying to rebuild their world.
Alas cataclysms are a bit tougher to pull off in SF settings. Something that threatens a single world for example is just a minor inconvenience in a star empire that stretches millions of worlds for example. In order to shake a far futre SF campaign you need bigger threats like a change in hyperspace disrupting hyperspace travel, an advanced computer virus that destroys the infrastructure of whole star empires, a terrible extra-galactic foe that devours whole worlds or leaves whole planets barren and lifeless. But even in a SF setting the impending end of the world as you know it can be an interesting premise for any campaign.
So, have you ever used a cataclysm to start, change or end a campaign? Or have you played in a campaign where a cataclysm was a major theme? What are your thoughts on this? Please let all of us know in the comments below!