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RPGs Saving The Earth – NASA & FEMA Use Tabletops For Asteroid Strike Prep

5 Minute Read
Apr 29 2019

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, RPGs might just save the world one day. Even folks at NASA and FEMA are using “tabletop exercises” to prep for an asteroid strike next week.

This week, a team comprising members of NASA, FEMA, the European Space Agency, and other international partners will be teaming up to defend the Earth from an asteroid impact. There’s no cause to go running for shelter, or even to call Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Steve Buscemi…

…it’s not a real asteroid strike, just a simulated one that the international team will be responding to live via social media over the next few days as part of a “tabletop exercise,” to show how observers, researchers, emergency responders, and the general public might respond to an impending asteroid strike. This event is a part of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference which is officially the coolest (and also probably incredibly important) conference I’ve ever heard of. And one of the centerpieces of the conference is this tabletop exercise, which comes with no end of warnings that, though realistic, there is no current danger of an asteroid strike:

The conference will include a hypothetical NEO/Earth impact event scenario that will be part of the conference (similar to what was done at the 2013, 2015 & 2017 conferences). Conference attendees may also use the hypothetical scenario as their topic for papers and presentations.

Although this scenario is realistic in many ways, it is completely fictional and does NOT describe an actual potential asteroid impact.

And though the scenario might be fake, the benefits of this exercise are quite real. It gives teams a chance to see what would happen if a situation requiring Bruce Willis’ brave self-sacrifice should actually come about. And not just how would you react, but what do you do in response. How do you handle the public response. How do you handle unforeseen circumstances? These are questions that roleplaying games are great for answering.

Sure, this might not be a formal roleplaying game with a whole bunch of editions, but in practice this is exactly what any good RPG does. It gives you a chance to play through scenarios–the same is true whether we’re talking social skills and confidence, or handling conflict and confrontation–one of the best things RPGs have given us is a space to play around with what if. Where there are still consequences–if you go punch the king in the middle of his speech there will be a reaction–but the stakes are low enough that you can make mistakes and learn how to correct for them.


So it goes with this asteroid exercise, which sounds incredibly fascinating. Here’s the scenario writeup, courtesy of Gizmodo. Just as a reminder, all of this is fictional:

On March 26, 2019, astronomers discover an asteroid in the night sky, far dimmer than Pluto to their telescopes. They name it 2019 PDC. Initially, it appears that the asteroid’s eccentric orbit bring it within approximately 18 times the Moon’s distance from the Earth, with a chance of hitting the Earth at one in 50,000 in 2027.

Astronomers continue to track the object as it gets closer. They learn it could be somewhere between 100 and 300 meters wide—the size of a skyscraper. After a month of tracking, the probability of collision with Earth is now 1 percent—the threshold at which international organizations have agreed they must take action.

Astronomers are able to create a “risk corridor,” measuring where the asteroid might hit. Its potential paths intersect the United States, some of western Africa, and the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.


  • 2019 PDC approaches the Earth for well over a month after discovery, and it reaches its closest point of about 0.13 au on May 13. Unfortunately, the asteroid is too far away to be detected by radar, and it is not expected to pass close to the Earth again, until 2027.
  • Astronomers continue to track the asteroid almost every night, and the impact probability for 2027 continues to rise. As of April 29, 2019, the first day of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference, the probability of impact has climbed to about 1%. The rest of the scenario will be played out at the conference.


The whole scenario sounds like it’d make an awesome campaign. You can track it real time via social media thanks to the European Space Agency’s feed, or the ESA’s Rocket Science Blog to see how it develops.

We’ve already talked about potential benefits, here are a few actual benefits that this roleplaying exercise has brought to NASA and FEMA, according to a NASA announcement about the event:

What NASA has learned from working with FEMA is that emergency management officials are not focused on the scientific details about the asteroid. “What emergency managers want to know is when, where, and how an asteroid would impact and the type and extent of damage that could occur,” said Leviticus Lewis, Response Operations Division for FEMA.

But the scientific details are what determine these things, so NASA-funded researchers continue to develop capabilities for determining more exact possible impact locations and effects, based on what could be observed about an asteroid’s position, orbital motion and characteristics, to be ready to produce the most accurate predictions possible in the event an actual impact threat were discovered.

So there you have it. Though there might not be any d20s involved over the course of it, roleplaying games and exercsises like this might just save the world one day.

Happy adventuring!


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