Following the publication last week of the rules on Windchill and other weather-based environmental effects, I was asked a very profound question by Rob, one of several GMs that I associate with on Twitter:
Any tips on the drama side, Mike? My players have always felt a bit meh about weather – deadly but dull as they put it.
This question, and conversations on the subject with others such as John Kahane, give me the impression that a lot of GMs have similar problems. And I think they all stem from one primary mistake that many of them are making.
A supporting character
The mistake made is a natural one, in a lot of respects. People make bad weather the star of the show instead of a member of the supporting cast.
It might seem a trivial difference between having an encounter in which the weather is the dominant factor while the creature encountered is the icing on the encounter cake, and having one in which the creature is the point and the weather simply accentuates and enhances the danger posed by that creature, but – as I said at the start of the article – it is a profound difference.
“But weather can be dangerous enough on its own”
Yes, it can be. People die in winters, people lose fingers and toes to frostbite. You can be struck by lightning, struck by flying debris hurled by the wind, blinded by light reflecting on the snow, drowned by floodwaters, hurled into the sky by a tornado.
But its not something that the PCs can fight. Always, at the heart of any game, is the question of what the PCs are supposed to do about the situation that they currently face.
There are some climatological phenomena that characters can do something about, even if that something is simply enabling themselves or others to survive, and I’ve been working on an article dealing with those very phenomena. Things like floods and hurricanes. So let’s set those aside for the moment, beyond simply noting that what characters are dealing with are not the phenomena themselves, but with the effects and impacts that they present.
That leaves weather events like extreme cold and extreme heat; storms, heavy rain, snowfalls, and the like.
The first two are environmental conditions, and the others are events. There are obvious differences between them, so let’s consider them separately.
Storms, Heavy Rain, Snowfalls and the like are singular weather events. There’s not much that characters can do about them except take cover from their effects, and that’s not exactly the stuff of adventure. But what if we downplay their potential intensity just a bit, take these events off center stage and simply use them as a backdrop to some other event? What if we treat these weather events as though they were Weather Conditions?
Extreme heat and cold can be lethal. But there isn’t much that characters can do about them except hole up. Sounds familiar? It should.
But at times where the weather conditions are less extreme, the characters can be hindered by the conditions and yet still active. That’s what I mean when I say that weather conditions should form a background against which some other events occur, and that the weather conditions should be a supporting character in the story and not the star of the show,
By considering weather effects as environmental factors that hinder or help the characters, they assume an entirely different significance within adventures. The central focus is no longer something that the characters can do nothing about, but instead becomes a means by which GMs can raise or lower the difficulty levels of encounters and tasks. The closer these weather effects come to the spotlight, the more difficult it becomes for characters to deal with anything other than the weather effects themselves.
There are three broad categories of impact on characters by weather events: Perception, Manipulation, and, Damage Capacity.
Perception effects are things like heat haze, fog, and so on. They alter a character’s ability to perceive the world around them. Rain and snow also have perception effects. These have minimal effect at close range, and grow in significance as range increases, so they isolate characters from awareness of the environment around them. Sandstorms are particularly dangerous because they can damage the eyes themselves, inflicting permanent harm on a character’s perceptual capacities.
In effect, perception effects mean that characters remain unaware of objects and creatures within their environment until they are closer to them than would be the case in less hostile conditions. Creatures which may be better adapted to the environmental effects will be less affected, and so may become aware of characters long before the characters are aware of the creatures.
Adding to this under most circumstances are the natural propensities for creatures to have camouflaging hides or fur. In a snow environment, survival favors white furs for the combination of warmth and camouflage, and so on.
Perception effects can also pose navigational difficulties, taking characters to places where they would not necessarily have chosen to go. This is especially true of heat haze, because it can lead characters away from life-saving water sources, but tropical monsoonal rains and winter snowstorms can also make navigation far more difficult.
Finally, perception problems can make fine manipulation more difficult. The next time you experienced some moderate to strong winds, take a single sheet of newspaper, go out into the wind, and try to read it! Earth and soil color differences become far less noticeable when the ground becomes wet. In particular, it becomes very hard to see the difference between disturbed soil and natural – a decided disadvantage when something may lurk beneath that soil awaiting prey. It’s entirely possible to mistranslate an inscription that can barely be perceived because driving rain or snow as “my hovercraft is full of eels” when it is in fact saying something along the lines of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” or “beware the jabberwock”.
Heat can make fingers slippery with sweat. Cold can make fingers numb and unresponsive. Wind can push walking characters off course, or simply make it almost impossible to go in the direction they want – search youTube for “morons walking in a hurricane” or “A Guy Walks Against Extremely Strong Winds” for visual proof (or just click on the links).
These same effects can make it harder to attack enemies, especially with ranged weapons. It follows that any enemy that PCs prefer to deal with at a distance is advantaged by climatic effects.
It is important to apply the same hindrances to the enemy, though they may not be affected to the same degree. It is even more important to be seen to do so by the players.
For any given weather condition(s) there will be some creatures who are advantaged relative to the PCs and some who are disadvantaged, in comparison to a moderate-conditions conflict between the two. This enables the GM to utilize a far broader spectrum of opposition whilst maintaining something close to parity with the capabilities of the PCs. He can take creatures who would normally pose little threat and make them dangerous; take moderately-dangerous creatures and make them deadly opponents; or take devastating opponents and make them only very dangerous.
But fine manipulation means so many more things – everything from taking armor or clothing off or putting it on, to disarming traps, to configuring controls, to simply picking something up (or dropping it in the first place). When we’re talking any campaign with magic in it (or some superpowers, come to think of it) the GM has to make a decision about whether or not manual spell components require finger-wiggling or is it enough to wave the arms? Or drawing a precise arcane symbol in the ground? Or measuring a specific number of drops of liquid? In extreme cold (and ignoring the possibility that the liquid has frozen!), all of these might be subject to manipulation problems. Have you ever tried undoing a frozen knot? While wearing thick or heavy gloves?
Damage Capacity Effects
Extreme weather effects can impact combat in a second way – inflicting direct damage and thereby effectively reducing a character’s capacity for absorbing damage. When coupled with the other effects described, the environment can be a pervasive factor in any encounter, critically impacting the PCs capabilities.
The goal is to never impact the characters so severely that they cannot function; it is to constrain and contain their abilities.
Other encounters that would be trivial events in more clement weather might assume new significance under certain conditions. Instead of merely fording a stream, characters might need to construct a temporary bridge – with cold-numbed fingers. This effectively turns the stream into a secondary encounter; the characters can keep trying until they get it right, but that holds them in place long enough for enemy critters (or actual enemies) to catch up with them.
These encounters require some planning on the part of the GM; if a character is in danger of putting his foot into a frigid watercourse, the GM should have means at hand to prevent the character from losing his foot to frostbite. Survival advice should be delivered to the PCs by someone who knows the conditions long before it is actually needed.
An example, in conclusion
I’m attaching a copy of “Worse Than The Disease”, the actual adventure from the Adventurer’s Club campaign for which last week’s climate effect rules were written.
I should probably state up-front that the native names, myths, ceremonies, rituals, and theology are completely fictitious and bear no intentional resemblance to anything or anyone in the real world. We felt it less disrespectful to invent something than to distort and manipulate real beliefs to suit our plot needs. No offence is intended toward anyone.
It won’t be completely satisfying to read, because it is completely unedited – exactly as we wrote it – and I can’t provide most of the 211 images used to illustrate the adventure for two reasons:
- Most of them are copyrighted; and
- They total 250.4 Mb! There are 211 of them, all high-resolution…
In fact, I have hand-picked just two: an overall map of the route (showing the with the alternatives), and a chart showing statistics on blizzard durations. In addition, I was able to use one that I had photoshopped the heck out of (adding blizzard weather effects) and shrinking it down to illustrate this article. (For the record, it’s Pic #125, “Village In Blizzard”.
The documents zip contains four PDFs: The adventure itself; the notes to be given to various players at the times indicated in the adventure; a possible family history for one of the characters that factors into an early phase of the adventure; and some medical reference for that character so that the player would know what the character knew about medical treatment and possible conditions that might arise in the course of the adventure. And, BTW, the player loved the proposed family background, and accepted it pretty much whole.
This adventure illustrates a number of principles. We make sure to tell the players and the characters the things they need to know, before they need to know it. We provided a couple of expert NPCs – and then had them disagreeing with each other at key points, leaving the PCs to make the key decisions. Both players and characters had the opportunity to try necessary skills out before things became critical. And, dangerous as the weather was, it was the creatures encountered that took center stage, especially the Tongark…
One final piece of advice
To conclude this article, I have some final advice. Avoid weather clichés like the plague – except when they are the last things the players are expecting, or when you can otherwise turn them to your advantage.
“It was a dark and stormy night…” Boooorrring! Don’t do it – except when a storm is completely unexpected. Out in the desert sometime, when the last thing the players are expecting is a storm – that’s the time to have one (a dry one, possibly) blow up, shifting tons of sand, half-buying tents, thunder and lightning, the whole nine yards. Maybe have one tent (unoccupied) uprooted by the wind and lost over the horizon, never to be seen again. And around mid-morning of the next day, the PCs discover that the storm has uncovered a long-lost temple, or monument, or something…
When It Works For You
The only other time I would employ such a cliché was when the mere fact that it is a cliché works in favor of the plot. Someone’s going to a great deal of trouble to make an old house seem haunted? As soon as the PCs show up, the night will be a dark and stormy one, and around midnight, the power will go out… the cliché helps support the “haunted house” effect simply because it is such a cliché and you have made it obvious that you aren’t going to use clichés without justification. The more strongly you have resisted temptation in the past, the more mileage you will get out of the cliché when the time comes.
Through The Looking Glass
All right, so there’s one more occasion when I might employ a cliché such as “dark and stormy night”, and that’s when it’s a metaphor for a completely different phenomenon. A passing temporal tornado momentarily fragments time so that past, present, and future are (temporarily) all jumbled up? At the end of such an adventure, I might use the phrase, as in, “It was a dark and stormy night, but all nights have to end eventually. By holding together, you have managed to weather the storm, and as the first light of dawn breaks over the bruised and battered skyline, you realize that today is a new day, full of promise, and hope, and opportunities. As you wearily stand down and head for your beds, you wonder what that new day will bring – and how long it will let you sleep before some new emergency comes knocking on your door.”
I’ve kept this article short because, with the PDFs, you’ll have quite a lot to read.
Weather is an environmental tool that the GM should use to provide variety and challenge. It should never be center stage, but when it is on-stage, it should be as fundamentally a part of events as the stage lighting. Use it that way and it becomes your friend and ally, and your players will never go “meh” about the weather again.