Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Campaign Catastrophe: Winter is Here

Whatever the cause - magic, malign cosmic entity, or divine retribution - the climate has changed. Out of the north, great masses of ice, sometimes hundreds of feet thick at the edge, move south, encroaching on the towns and settlements there, or even overrunning them. With the glaciers come strange new animals: bears the color of the snow and ice that prove difficult to spot and white wolves that breath the cold itself, preying upon solitary explorers, or falling in force upon small villages at the edge of the glaciers.

Glaciers themselves, though we always think of them as slow and relatively nonthreatening, can move 30 meters a day! For the metrically challenged amongst us, that's nearly 100 feet, or enough to envelope my home and front yard twice over in the span it takes to recover from a particularly wild party. Traversing the glacier itself is even more dangerous because unlike the ice we curse at on the sidewalks in winter, glaciers are riddled with cracks, chasms, and buckles that can prove quite deadly. Not to mention can provide homes for creatures like white dragons, yeti, and the like.

The advance of a glacier - or, if the world is anything at all like Earth, the return of the glacier - is like to scour existing landmarks clean. The strongholds of the mighty, having withstood a thousand years of war and strife, will be wiped away entirely in the space of only a day once the ice reaches the walls in its inexorable creep. Perhaps not even the dungeons would survive as great boulders a hundred feet in diameter are carried along, gouging great rents in the ground. I have visions of a castle being wiped clean, and only a single oubliette surviving. Inside, a man left behind by evacuating forces, trapped beneath the ice, doomed to an eternity as a ghoul or wight gone mad from long isolation and starvation, unable to escape until the ice recedes. Forgotten place indeed.

As the ice advances, devouring the arable land used for food production, civilized areas will face famine as food runs short. They will be forced to push into other areas in search of land to farm, perhaps clear cutting forests to make room for cereal crops and grazing land. Sylvan races will, of course, be less than pleased.

All around the world, the seas will recede as more and more water is locked up, exposing land that was at the bottom of the ocean for the last five thousand years. Perhaps even the ruins of a civilization that prospered during the last cold period will be revealed, leading to a free for all as treasure hunters look for lost artifacts to sell on the market, wizards seek clues to ancient and powerful magics, and the foolish seek excitement and adventure. A temple to a long forgotten deity emerges from the surf almost over night and leads to a crisis of faith for a theocratic port city that now finds itself landlocked, its docks and quays miles from the shore. Certainly priests are to be sent to investigate these matters and discover if the city is being punished for its opulence. Perhaps citizens will flock in droves to the temple, reviving a god who had long ago passed on from this realm as the faithful remnant inaugurate an inquisition to stop them.

Of course this is not quite the shot in the dark that a falling asteroid is, or a midnight military coup in the capital, but the creeping doom of advancing, seemingly eternal winter can open the doors for a campaign. Not least is the possibility of adventuring parties being hired to plumb the depths of citadels, cities, and dungeons abandoned before the advance, sites now under a thousand feet of ice.

Perhaps another option is the exact opposite. The planet has begun to warm again after many centuries frozen. Port cities and coastal farms are inundated by the advancing oceans and the retreating ice exposes long forgotten ruins that somehow survived the grinding forces of a billion tons of stone and ice and then the flash floods of melt water, forming new lakes, rivers, and swamps.

At the very least, it's an excuse to dig out the Wilderness Survival Guide and have fun with figuring out what temperatures of fifty degrees below Celsius will do to exposed flesh.

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