A classical painting of a market town.

I’ve got nothing against a good war – in fiction anyway. War provides immediate, large-scale conflict for our stories and as such will always be a valuable tool. But just like no one wants to eat the same thing every day, it’s boring if every fantasy story is about armies and sieges. So if we’re not using war, then what provides conflict? This isn’t usually a problem in small-scale stories, as inter-character drama is more than enough to drive the plot. For stories bigger in scope, it’s a little trickier. You need a problem big enough to threaten large groups of humans, possibly entire civilizations, but humans are usually the most threatening thing around. Fortunately, you still have plenty of options, and today we run through just a few of them.

1. Material Shortage

An empty market at sun down.
Empty Market at Dusk by Anne used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

More than any other animal, humans are dependent on things, be they tools, fuel, buildings, or any of the other useful inventions our species has developed. All of these wonders require certain materials to make or operate, which means the right type of shortage can have serious consequences.

For the shortage to cause major damage, it must meet two basic criteria. First, the material must be vital to your civilization’s way of life. Second, it must have no easy substitute. Once those conditions are satisfied, you must then decide how the shortage has come about.

Keep in mind that your explanation will need to justify why there’s currently a shortage and why people originally thought it was a good idea to make this material so vital to their way of life. A good option is to use a material that at first appears plentiful but has a low upper limit. As long as it looks like there’s plenty of something to go around, the humans in your setting might not have the knowledge or foresight to consider how much there actually is. Alternatively, perhaps there actually was plenty to go around, until some evil villain destroyed the supply.

Once you’ve figured out the specifics, you can show how even mundane activities grind to a halt. No one in your steampunk empire can go anywhere when the coal stops flowing, and the wizards in your Arcane City can’t summon the slightest cantrip when the mana wells run dry. Depending on your plot’s timeline, you can establish how long it will be until reserves of the material run out. Maybe there are a few months left until things get really bad, or maybe society is already falling apart.

A fascinating historical example is tin during the late Mediterranean Bronze Age. Tin is needed to make bronze, and most tools were made of bronze during this period. But tin is actually one of the rarer metals found on Earth, about as common as uranium. While a few tin mines seemed to produce more than enough, once those mines ran dry, finding more was extremely difficult. This is likely one of the factors that contributed to the Bronze Age collapse.

How Do the Characters Deal With This?

The most immediate way your heroes can interact with this conflict is by striking out in search of a new supply. Perhaps they’ve heard that far over the Weeping Mountains, there lies a great forest where ensorcelled trees grow fruits full to bursting with mana. This is a great setup for a travel story.

If you’re more interested in a political story, then your heroes might be politicians working to promote sustainable policies. In this scenario, it’s not that the material is unavailable but that consumption has outstripped replenishment. Alternatively, your story might be about a group of alchemists working to synthesize a substitute for the rare material, as long as they face interesting challenges along the way.

2. Earthquake Swarm

Fallen Columns at an archaeology site.
Fallen Columns by Dana used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A single earthquake can be absolutely devastating, but they don’t usually have the scope to threaten an entire civilization. That’s why you need to up the stakes with an earthquake swarm, * two words that shouldn’t ever be combined like that, but here we are.

The concept is simple: multiple earthquakes take place over an extended period of time, each with its own aftershocks. Usually, this happens over the course of days or weeks, but earthquake swarms can sometimes stretch out for years or even decades. The number of individual quakes also varies dramatically, ranging from a single quake every few weeks to dozens of quakes a day.

Even a low-magnitude earthquake swarm can be unnerving and dangerous, but a high-magnitude one is an existential threat to human civilization. Not only will buildings be leveled, but it will be impossible to rebuild since another round of quakes is just around the corner. Most people will be left without shelter to face whatever the elements can throw at them. Roads will be damaged or destroyed, making escape difficult.

As if that weren’t enough, constant earthquakes can shift the course of rivers, start rockslides, and otherwise alter the terrain to further disrupt people’s lives. It’s also just really difficult to get any work done when the ground is constantly shaking, so the production of everything from luxury goods to basic foodstuffs will drop dramatically.

How Do the Characters Deal With This?

In most settings, the only way to deal with a really bad earthquake swarm is by relocating, and your heroes can be the leaders of that migration. They won’t be traveling by themselves but with all their people in tow. That means they’ll have to consider the logistics of how to feed everyone on the journey, not to mention the problems of negotiating passage when they reach someone else’s territory, all the while on the lookout for a new place to call home.

With more advanced engineering and spaced-out quakes, it’s also possible for your characters to be engineers working to make earthquake-proof structures. This isn’t as inherently exciting as leading a migration, but it can still work, especially if you find ways to work the engineering problems into your plot. Or you can go the full fantasy route and send your heroes deep beneath the earth to confront the demon that’s causing these quakes in the first place.

3. Epidemics

A stone carving of death with a skull face and scythe.
The Black Death by Leo Reynolds used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Disease has been a prodigious killer of human beings for as long as there have been human beings. Even in war, it’s common for more soldiers to die from disease than the actual fighting. While even mundane illnesses can provide plenty of conflict for small-scale stories, for epic conflicts you’ll want to kick things up to epidemic levels.

An epidemic occurs anytime an unusually high number of people are infected in quick succession. These are bad enough in the modern day, when we have powerful medicines and an advanced understanding of how illness spreads. In a fantasy world, it’s easy for entire communities to be wiped out before they truly understand what’s happening.

Most transmittable diseases can become epidemics under the right circumstances, but the deadliest occur when a microbe jumps from one group of hosts to another. Given enough time, viruses and bacteria that kill too many of their hosts will usually burn out, but that doesn’t happen right away. That’s one reason the infamous Black Death* was so deadly. It was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which originally evolved in rodents. When it jumped to Homo sapiens, there wasn’t yet any evolutionary incentive not to kill every human it infected.

This can also happen between isolated populations of humans, as was horrifically demonstrated whenever European explorers made contact with a new group of Indigenous people. Vulnerable populations have no history with the disease to build any resistance, and it can be quite some time before that resistance appears.

Finally, microbes will occasionally mutate within an existing population, going from an everyday problem to an unfolding disaster. This is more likely with illnesses like influenza, which has an amazingly high mutation rate, allowing it to occasionally become super virulent like the global pandemic of 1918.

How Do the Characters Deal With This?

In a purely historical setting, there’s often not much anyone can do about epidemics except pray that they’ll be over soon. Fortunately, in fantasy we have more options. If your setting has healing magic or advanced medicine, then the story can become a medical drama. Clerics and plague doctors will hurry from patient to patient, no doubt trading witty quips and scathing political commentary.

If you’re looking for the dark and gritty approach, then your characters likely can’t cure the epidemic after all. Instead, they must try to limit its damage via quarantines, preventive care, and possibly even evacuating entire communities. It’s a grim business, but sometimes there’s no other choice.

4. Famine & Drought

Maize plants dying in the field.
Failed Maize Crops by Water, Land and Ecosystems used under CC BY-NC 2.0

A serious flaw in our human design is that we need food and water to live. Naturally, you can turn this into epic-scale conflict via famine and drought. Droughts are most often caused by natural shifts in weather patterns as moisture moves from one area to another. Sometimes these shifts are permanent, while in other cases they’re part of a cycle, though these cycles can last for years or decades.

People often go thirsty during droughts, but that’s not the primary issue. Rather, a drought means there’s less water to grow food, which is a major source of famines. Crop blights are another common cause, though anything that significantly disrupts the growing cycle can do the job.

After nature sets a famine in motion, human actions often exacerbate it. Particularly malicious leaders may intentionally cause famines among populations they don’t like, or the demand for nonedible cash crops may drive food production down even further. Apathetic leaders might simply not see it as their responsibility to alleviate mass hunger, forgetting that bread riots are a major cause of revolution.

No matter how your famine starts, the results are sure to be devastating. As people get by on fewer and fewer calories, the amount of work they can do drops. This can create a feedback loop where farmers don’t have the energy to fully plant their fields, making the food shortage even worse.

Famines are also a breeding ground for epidemics. The immune system takes energy to work properly, like any other part of the body, so people are more vulnerable to illness when they don’t get enough to eat. They also have a harder time recovering, since they were in poor health to begin with.

How Do the Characters Deal With This?

In a low-magic setting, your heroes will need to be influential leaders if they’re to have any hope of stopping a famine. The good news is that in most famines, there’s still enough food to go around – it’s just not distributed property. Getting that food to the people who need it will be a major undertaking, as those with money hoard whatever food they can find. It’ll be even harder if someone more powerful is intentionally setting policy to create the famine.

Another option is for your characters to be diplomats traveling abroad, employing foreign powers for help. This is a desperate mission indeed, especially if most of their nation’s resources are already spent.

5. Climate Change

A painting of a Medieval town frozen over.

We’re all increasingly aware of how big a deal climate change can be in real life, but what if I told you it could be an existential crisis in fiction too? How drastic a crisis depends on how severely you want the climate to change.

Even mild climate change can be absolutely devastating. Historically, the Little Ice Age dropped temperatures in Europe by an average of just 0.6 degrees Celsius over several centuries, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But remember, that’s an average. At the local level, there were often dangerously intense winters, which could cause famine through a reduced growing season. Because climate change is unpredictable and complicated, some areas also experienced unusually intense heat waves.

More intense climate change could easily render large sections of your world completely uninhabitable. Global warming might leave everything except the poles a baking desert, while global cooling might freeze the entire planet except for a narrow band around the equator.

How fast climate change happens depends on what’s causing it. In real life, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases built up for over a century to cause the changes we’re seeing now. In a fantasy setting, things could change much faster. An asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruption would rapidly cool the world nearly overnight, while a fire demon making the sun shine brighter would heat things up in a hurry.

The climate can also change extremely slowly, so slowly that regular humans won’t even notice unless they have good records. Slow changes in planetary orbit or solar activity can gradually change the climate over millennia, if you’re looking for a conflict with an extremely long timeframe.

How Do the Characters Deal With This?

Without the intervention of powerful magic, climate change will be an extremely difficult conflict for your characters to overcome. On the bright side, you have a lot of options for how they go about it, depending on how fast and severe the change is.

For mild climate change, you might craft a story similar to a famine conflict, since drought and famine are two major results of climate change. For more extreme climate change, a mass migration might be the only solution, especially if the change happens quickly. Your characters will have little choice but to lead their people south when the sky darkens and snow falls at the height of summer.

Each item on this list can be easily mixed with any of the others, depending on the story you want to tell. A shortage of bronze might mean fewer farm tools, leading to reduced yields and famine. An earthquake swarm might trigger volcanic activity that leads to a cooling climate. You can even mix war in there if you like. Nothing motivates peasants to rise up against their rulers like hunger, and powerful nations can easily be provoked to war over fertile land. The important thing is making sure your story has enough conflict to drive the plot, and these options will provide all the external conflict you need.

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