“Okay, so you wake up the next morning and head east. Roll for perception.”
How many times have we heard a similar beginning to a day of travel? The referee provides no context for the characters’ actions, and they ride down a colorless road under a colorless sky looking for their next encounter. Only when the night watch decides to sneak around the camp does anyone notice the clouds in the sky or the phase of the moon.
Other referees work hard in pursuit of a truly immersive and detailed game, outlining deep characters, jotting down the histories of towns and cities, and even recording the specific flora and fauna of the adventure area. The politics of the local powers are recorded in great detail, and every ruin is mapped to the tiniest copper piece. Unfortunately one of the most powerful forces is often overlooked. The weather is just as important as a recent highway robbery, and can be more effective against rampaging armies than high magic.
Weather adds the kind of detail that immerses the players into the world their characters inhabit. A simple, “It’s a still morning, and you can already tell that the day is going to be hot as the sun rises into the thick air and the cicadas start to buzz,” establishes the setting for a whole day of adventure. This kind of realism also encourages players to role-play a little better as some characters decide to fold their cloaks into their saddlebags for the day (including that cloak of invisibility).
But weather is not just a narrative tool; it serves a far more sinister purpose. For example, you’ve prepared a small encounter: it requires the players to investigate a small cave in the mountains that they are travelling through. Unfortunately, the party is not interested in fights or caves at the moment, and they are unlikely to investigate a cave just because you point it out. What can you do? They hear the rumble of distant thunder and see a dark storm front approaching. There is no cover except a nearby rock overhang. As they wait out the rain they find a small cave. With nothing else to do they venture inside and find your little surprise. Weather can be used as a “steering” device and can give a referee a more subtle way to “encourage” players to enter certain situations.
Weather itself can also be used as an “encounter.” An ice storm turns a peaceful forest into a deadly labyrinth, and brush fires turn the rolling hills of Rohan into a race for your life. The trip to the equipment shop for feed and rations now includes the purchase of rain gear or extra waterskins. Coupled with the normal men and monster encounters, weather provides a level of detail that immerses the players in a realistic world.
Below are some common weather conditions and a brief discussion on how to use them in a game setting. The accompanying numbers are only for an indecisive referee who needs some weather fast; a skilled referee will choose arbitrarily. Temperature should vary according to regional climate at the referee’s discretion.
A cool breeze provides a sense of relief to the hot traveler, but wind can provide more excitement than simply cooling you off. It keeps flying insects from swarming around your head, and provides background noise for the scout trying to sneak through the forest. On the other hand, stillness can be used for suspense and anticipation, or to hinder that sneaky scout. High winds may stir up dust and cut down visibility and reduce the party’s hearing range, subjecting them to the possibility of ambush.
|00||Extremely high winds|
Precipitation in the form of rain has a dreary effect, and can be used to lower the morale of the party. Muddy boots, wet tinder, and cold food make for a pretty grumpy adventurer. Combine wind and rain and a party’s alertness drops alarmingly, allowing for surprise encounters.
A light snow has a calming, peaceful effect and provides for a beautiful winter scene. Deep snow prevents most people from travelling, unless they have some sort of snow plow. A blizzard can strand a party in the mountains for months.
Hard rain forces a party to take cover, and can produce heavy flooding; this is useful for destroying bridges and buildings close to the river. Resulting mudslides or sinkholes can add a sense of danger to an ordinary cross-country journey.
On the more fantastic side of weather are natural disasters. These are usually extremes of ordinary weather and should be used sparingly in a game world. Unfortunately, most natural disasters do not invoke a mood suitable for most fantasy games. A tornado might turn your Dark Ages setting into a scene from the Wizard of Oz. However, they may be more suitable for sci-fi or modern settings. For fantasy settings use hurricanes for port towns or ships at sea, electric storms for high mountain ranges, and earthquakes for settings with high volcanic activity.
Drought can make water scarce and shift the focus of the adventure from “going from point A to point B” to finding water to live. Forest fires or brush fires can add some danger to an already dying land (perhaps a careless band of adventurers have started one, destroying what little crops were still alive, making the kingdom very angry with them…).
The following should represent one event every few months and vary according to climate:
|11-40||Ice storm/Hail storm/Electric storm|
Using weather is a great way to add detail, a sense of the unexpected, and mood to an outdoor adventure (perhaps they’ll prefer the dungeon afterward). It’s a great narrative device, but a prudent referee will avoid reducing a game to a discussion in meteorology (unless you’re playing Star Trek and prefer a pseudoscientific discussion). When using weather to paint the scene, you’ll find that players will respond creatively to the environment and help maintain the atmosphere. It’s a great way to set the mood and to immerse the characters into the scene. As the scholars of High Magic say, “Master the sky, and you will master the earth.”