Nerds on Earth
The best place on Earth for nerds.

Hooks from Books: RPG Ideas from The Dire Earth Cycle

There is a wealth of media out there waiting to be mined for RPG hooks, both for short term adventures and long term campaigns. With so much already out there and more coming every day, it can be easy to miss some of the best ideas. For the GM who spends more time planning and running games than consuming media for hooks and ideas, Nerds on Earth is here to help, bringing attention to books and stories you can pull into your games.

The Book

Sometimes there are books that crawl into your brain, begging to find a home at your gaming table. For this second installment of Hooks From Books, I will be looking at The Dire Earth Cycle, which is practically a campaign guide in novel form.

A trilogy of novels by Jason M. Hough, The Dire Earth Cycle is a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes set on Earth several centuries in the future. Five years after a plague has swept the globe turning those that it didn’t kill into ultra-violent creatures, the sole remaining safe zone is the city of Darwin, Australia, which is protected by the aura of a space elevator placed by aliens without any communication between the species. A fraction of a fraction of humanity survives on the ground eking out a semblance of life with the aura. Meanwhile: far above the surface, a group of scientists, the rich, and the well-connected live in a series of space stations ringing the elevator.  

Dire Earth Cycle series covers

The machines necessary for life are kept running, and the black market thriving, thanks to scavengers who leave the aura to scour the ruins. The scavengers fall into one of two groups. The first consists of near unique individuals who are immune to the plague, able to leave without any extra protective gear. The other is made of those desperate or foolhardy enough to go on the scavenging runs in protective suits with internal, safe air tanks.  While the scavengers scour the ruins of pre-plague Earth to the extent their ships will allow, a series of catastrophes disrupt life in Darwin.  Threats both human and inhuman force reluctant heroes to take charge on Earth and in orbit.

The Hook

The last bastion of civilization standing on a ruined world, like Darwin in The Dire Earth Cycle, makes a perfect setting for a West Marches-style campaign. Created by Ben Robbins, there are a few key features that separate a West Marches game from a more typical campaign.

A West Marches game does not have a central plot, relying on the players to guide the story instead. In that same vein, rather than a single group of players meeting at a regular time, these games are run on an ad hoc basis with the players drawn from a pool of people. Since these games are focused on exploration and dungeon delving, they are usually set on the edge of a frontier, a newly discovered world, or some other unexplored part of the map. West Marches campaigns and the ruins of a plague-ravaged world are two great tastes that go great together, especially if you’re, like me, trying to set up a game for a large group like through your FLGS.

From the Page to the Table

To translate this from page to table, I’m going to use Forbidden Lands which has the advantage of already being designed around exploring ruins and other adventure spots after a long period of isolation using a easy-to-learn rule system. (Curious to hear how Forbidden Lands plays?  Check out the first three episodes of The Fortunes Untold Podcast (RIP).)

The Forbidden Lands stronghold creation rules allow the players to set up communities of their own as they explore the wreckage of the world. This game will also break from the standard West Marches style to include the option for social encounters involving the various factions in the city and have an overarching plot involving the origins of the plague and the changes to the world outside the city. 

A change in setting is next, going from the traditional pseudo-medieval fantasy setting to a more technologically advanced post-apocalyptic wasteland as the players stumble on old machines that have developed unusual functions in the long years of plague or magic/machine hybrid monstrosities left from earlier eras. 

That change in setting will also mean more work since I’ll need to develop rules to cover the advanced technology the players will encounter. Drawing from the source material, the main hub city that the players start in will also be the last city struggling to hold on against an all-consuming plague and against the machinations between the factions struggling to rule over the final bits of civilization as the life-sustaining resources begin to dry up within the safety of the aura.

The players, then, will be magically protected scavengers scouring the world outside their gates thanks to a ritual created and developed by the most powerful of the remaining wizards rather than relying on the vagaries of fate and genetics to produce people immune to the plague. Once beyond the gates of the city, it’s entirely up to the players whether they work to help the city, join a faction or play them against each other, or turn their back entirely and form a community of their own.


There is a wealth of adventure hooks, encounters, and challenges for your players to be found in all manner of pop culture sources and your friends at Nerds On Earth will be here to bring attention to those you may have missed or might not have noticed.  Stay tuned for further installments and stay in that aura!

ICYMI: The first installment of Hooks from Books was drawn from the pages of The Lies of Locke Lamora!