Your players have defeated evil necromancers, prevented kobolds from razing the village, and secured ancient arcane artifacts. If you are wanting to switch up the challenge from typical fantasy tropes, try incorporating these natural disasters into your D&D 5e campaign! In some cases, a campaign or quest will begin with a widespread disaster. Rather than simply ‘setting the stage’ and telling your players about what happened, let them experience it! Mother Nature can end up providing a greater challenge than some of the toughest creatures or dungeons.
This article will discuss the following disasters:
For each of these disasters, I will provide an example of what the description may sound like to your players. Additionally you will find information for how it affects players, mechanically speaking, in a typical disaster scenario as well as how the disaster may affect players in an extreme case.
With the majority of these the severity will depend on how long your players endure the disaster without any cover. Some of these will start abruptly and finish within a few minutes while others may start more gradually and could last a handful of hours.
If players quickly find a way to avoid the negative effects of the disaster:
You may opt to simply narrate the remainder of the disaster “passing over”, and ask players if there is anything they would like to do in the meantime.
If players do not immediately have a solution:
You may find it useful to switch to combat-time. This provides them opportunities to react to the game’s chaos in-the-moment while still maintaining some sense of order in real life. This does not necessarily need to be an official combat-time (with players rolling initiative and taking turns), but can be more generalized.
Depending on the disaster, I like going in one-minute intervals and literally asking players “What are you doing for the next minute?“. This helps the game move along and feel dynamic, rather than bogging it down by only allowing them 6 seconds to react at a time.
Keep in mind: some damage effects found below are occurring ‘once per round’ or ‘once every other round’. If you opt to use one-minute intervals, the damage for these effects is going to be either 10x greater or 5x greater every time you go around the table.
Regarding Leomund’s Tiny Hut
By using this spell, your players can essentially “hunker down” and wait out the disaster without having to worry about the deadly environment around them. With a duration of 8 hours, this spell will likely last longer than any of the following natural disasters.
As a Dungeon Master, you may feel frustrated when your players negate something monumental that you had planned. However, you have to remember that this is Dungeons and Dragons, and your players will – almost without fail – thwart everything that you had planned. This is totally okay and completely normal! Please don’t punish your players for using their abilities appropriately.
I will offer you this simple suggestion, should your players use this spell:
An important detail about Leomund’s Tiny Hut is that the casting time is 1 minute. If the event is happening suddenly to your players, this could cause a problem for the party’s spellcaster. They may not have a full minute before feeling effects from the disaster.
Although this spell is NOT a concentration spell I would, as a DM, force the player to undergo a concentration check to see if they can complete casting the spell while being torn apart by a sandstorm, or as their fingers go numb due to frostbite.
Reminder: the spell save DC for a concentration check is either 10 or half of the damage taken, whichever is higher.
I don’t think this is unreasonable.
Imagine doing any other difficult skill that requires a full minute, while being ravaged by mother nature. It’s not going to be easy.
If the player fails the check:
They can certainly try re-casting the spell (without losing a spell slot, in my opinion, since they didn’t finish casting it), but if they are still in the danger zone they will be subject to another concentration check.
If the player DOES finish casting the spell:
Try giving a short description of the disaster taking place around them and then simply ask your players if there is anything specific they would like to do in the following 8 hours (or until the natural disaster passes over).
Try to remember, the point of these “encounters” is not to outright kill your players, leaving them with zero chance of escape. Rather, these natural disasters should be presented as a creative challenge where players are forced to quickly think on their feet in a situation that is neither combat nor a social encounter.
Now, without further adieu…
Sample Description: As you travel under the blistering sun of the Kathyrian Desert, the wind begins to pick up and howl. Just above a nearby dune, you notice a giant plume of dense sand billowing towards you. Before you have a chance to react, any exposed skin is immediately shredded and torn up from fine grain sand and small debris. You find yourself in the middle of a sandstorm.
How it affects players: Reduced visibility to 15 ft+ 1d4 slashing every round.
In an extreme case: Reduced visibility to 5 ft + 2d4 slashing every round. Players trying to move have at half of their normal speed.
Duration: 2-5 minutes
Sample Description: Trudging through snow in the forest, you find yourselves surrounded by massive pines and aspens. The temperature seems to be continually dropping as the blistering wind begins to pick up. Snow is blowing completely sideways as a winter storm starts up. The tips of your fingers are beginning to lose feeling.
How it affects players: Every other round players must pass a Con save (DC 14) or take 1d6 cold damage. You may consider granting advantage to players wearing heavy furs.
In an extreme case: Every other round players must pass a Con save (DC 17) or take 2d6 cold damage. Visibility is reduced to 15 feet and movement becomes difficult.
Duration: 3+ hours
Sample Description: The floor beneath you begins to tremble slightly. Suddenly the entire room is violently shaking. Paintings fall off of the wall, bookshelves are knocked over, and glass in the windows begins to shatter. The integrity of the building itself is in question as portions of the roof begin caving in and the floor starts to give out.
How it affects players: Players must make an Acrobatics save (DC 15) or fall prone to the ground. If players are near large objects they may take 2d8 bludgeoning damage if they are unable to get out of the way.
In an extreme case: Players must make an Acrobatics save (DC 17) or fall prone to the ground. If players are within or near buildings that begin to collapse, players may take 5d8 bludgeoning damage from large chunks of debris if they are unable to get out of the way. Players may also become trapped under rubble if a building collapses.
Duration: 1-2 minutes
Sample Description: A thick, dark cloud cover rolls in overhead. A light rain begins as you innately notice a change in the atmospheric pressure. Soon the drizzle turns into a fully-fledged downpour. A flash of lightning across the sky precedes a deafening crack. And then there’s another bolt of lightning…and another…and another…
How it affects players: Every minute, roll a percentile dice. On a 70-85, lighting strikes nearby a random player dealing 2d6 lighting damage, while 86 or above causes a direct hit to a random player dealing 3d10 lightning damage. You may consider allowing players to perform a Dex save (DC17) in order to dodge out of the way, however I believe that lightning is too fast even for heroic characters.
In an extreme case: Every minute, roll a percentile dice. On a 50 or above, lightning strikes a random player dealing 3d10 damage. Additionally, if there is a player within 5 feet of the lightning strike they will take half of the damage.
Duration: 30-60 minutes
Sample Description: Trees violently sway back and forth as the wind picks up. A slight rain turns into a torrential downpour. Abandoned food carts from the market are tumbling down the street on their own. Poorly made buildings have doors ripped off and windows shattered. You notice a small gnome outside trying to hold on to a street sign, when suddenly the whole sign is uprooted and the gnome goes flying out of sight. Enormous waves slam into buildings, slowly breaking them apart.
How it affects players: If outdoors, players must make an athletics check (DC 16) to prevent themselves from being swept/blown away. If players are securely holding onto an object, they may make the check with advantage. Players who fail the check fly away 30 feet.
In an extreme case: If outdoors, players must make an athletics check (DC 20) to prevent themselves from being swept/blown away. If players are securely holding onto an object, they may make the check with advantage. Players who fail the check fly away 60 feet away. Additionally, large debris is flying around and will cause bludgeoning damage if it strikes a player.
Duration: 12-24 hours
Incorporating natural disasters can be a fun and effective method of changing up the challenge for your players. The majority of the disasters found in this article can be avoided simply by utilizing appropriate cover, though if players fail to find cover the results can be devastating. Try to reward players for thinking ‘outside the box’ when coming up solutions for these scenarios. Lastly, feel free to modify the damage or effects for any of these. They are just my thoughts on the matter, and are certainly not the only way to handle running natural disasters.
Have you ever ran a natural disaster for your players? How did you handle the mechanics, and how did your players fare? Let me know by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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