There are all kinds of potential disasters: train wrecks, ship wrecks, plane wrecks, burning buildings, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, as many as you can think of right now and more besides. Yet we don't pay the kind of attention to this sort of event that we used to. Many of us have forgotten just how close we are to disaster at all times, a fact I was reminded of the other day when re-reading Monty Egg detective stories.
There's a moment in one train-set tale when Monty tells the detective that he sat in the middle of the carriage, because that's where it's safest. That's true enough, but it's an old story: when trains crashed, the wooden carriages used to fold up like accordions, pressed on both ends by unbelievable force. If you were sat at the end of the accordion, you'd be mashed into paste. Monty Egg was a 1930s detective, and he knew enough about train wrecks to know what to do; but we've come a long way since then. Carriages aren't made of wood, and train wrecks are much less frequent than they would have been in the Victorian period, which gave rise to the lore that Monty's drawing on.
From a Keeper's perspective, there are many obvious advantages to a disaster story, among them the following:
- The crisis provides an immediate impetus for action. Players sat aboard a train might spend hours guessing and second-guessing the plot. Players sat aboard a train that is just about to crash know exactly what's going on.
- The crisis provides an immediate opportunity for heroism. Yes, the Titanic's sinking, but what do you do about it? Do you give up your lifebelt, or your seat in the rowboat? Do you help the third class passengers past the locked gate that is keeping them trapped below decks? Alternatively, do you as a male passenger put on a dress and try to escape drowning disguised as a woman?
- The setting is immediately established, and understandable. This last is particularly important: in a globe-trotting situation where the plotline is elaborate, peppered with double and triple-crosses, players can easily lose track of what's going on, or even where they are in the story. Not everyone knows what a thoroughly modern office building looks like, or what the difference is between a Japanese thoroughly modern building and a similar one in Los Angeles or Moscow. Yet if you set that building on fire and put the characters right in the middle of the mess, all becomes clear. Nobody's going to wonder about the security system, or even the building's layout. Their only concern is, where's the fire? And how can we get away from it?
- The crisis can be immediate, or it can be prolonged, or both. A plague is different from a train wreck; its effects last longer, and there is a lack of immediate action. Yet suppose a train wreck should occur in the middle of the wilderness. There is the immediate crash-bang of the event itself, but that is followed by some time - days, even weeks - with lack of food, medical supplies, or outside help. That sets up an escalating scale of challenges, all of which the protagonists will have to deal with.
- As an aside, remember the Orient Express, the byword in luxury train travel, caught in a snow drift for 10 days in 1929. As it happened, that event ended without incident - though it did inspire at least one novel - but it could have ended very differently. There are many different ways to plot a disaster; crashes and bangs are only one option.
- It provides the perfect opportunity and setting for a spectacular confrontation with the main antagonist, whoever that may be. It's one thing to chase down a mummy in the tombs of ancient Egypt; quite another to deal with the mummy and a sinking luxury liner at the same time.
- The novel The Beetle features a spectacular train crash at its conclusion. Imagine for a moment a different-but-related scenario: say the protagonists are chasing a vampiric entity, and have cornered it - or so they believe - aboard the train. There is an unexpected wreck, and in the devastation it seems as if the main enemy is destroyed. But it has been spreading its contagion among the passengers, and now rather than deal with one 'adult' vampire the group has to contest with several fledgelings, all of whom want only to escape. Or perhaps they're too hungry to care about escape ...
- It has a natural and understandable plot arc, with achievable goals. The initial goal is blindingly obvious - escape with your life - but that leads to other goals, all of which spring from the first. Saving innocent lives, finding out how the disaster occurred, preventing further disasters, surviving the aftermath of the disaster, all of these goals flow from the first incident and don't require a great deal of player buy-in to make sense. There's no meeting-mysterious-strangers-in-taverns here; it's all perfectly straightforward. Consider narratives like the Swiss Family Robinson, or Robinson Crusoe. The initial disaster isn't the whole of the story; it's only the prelude to a series of adventures based on the set-up that the disaster provided. Jules Verne's Mysterious Island takes a very similar idea and turns it almost otherworldly, by adding his techno-pirate Captain Nemo into the mix.