Last night, my way home from work got blocked by an unexpected blizzard, which eventually resulted in me being three hours late getting home. This, coupled with the miserable visibility and the behavior of other drivers who seem to think each snowflake is an avalanche in disguise, got me thinking about weather in RPGs. Most systems have rules to try to encapsulate the weather in a mechanical format, but not many groups seem to bother with those.
I can understand why; the situational modifiers can be ugly and troublesome to keep in mind. Keeping track of a -2 on attack rolls from driving sleet, another -1 from the wind (except by the cliff, where the shelter it provides negates the penalty), the +4 the snow priest has for being in their god’s favored element, and so on can get tedious. Worse, it breaks down the flow of the game.
Which is why the GM should, in the course of preparing their game, make the adjustments to stats in advance. Powerful winds? Mark it down as a bonus to the armor values of everyone involved against ranged attacks. Rain, snow, or dust in the face making it hard to see, much less fight? Adjust the initiative bonuses, armor bonuses, and so on in advance. Doing the tedious part ahead of time will free you up during the actual events to make things keep flowing smoothly and put the freed-up time into making the scene come alive.
If you’re a GM that’s strapped for time, you can still work the weather into your stories; just calculate how a particular environment will impact the rolls, and standardize it so that you have a handy list to check when you decide to throw some inclement weather at the players. Minimize the work you have to do by doing it as far in advance as you can, and you’ll benefit from it for the rest of the campaign – and possibly into future campaigns, if it works out well.
Instead of juggling numbers and breaking the players out of the scene, you’ll be able to describe the wind whipping snow and sleet into their faces, the numbing cold as it melts and trickles down under their collars, the vivid hue of spilled blood against the snow, and the roar of the wind in their ears making it hard to hear their companions. Set it up right, and you can have conditions add to the story and make an average encounter into something unique. Rather than just another fight with an ogre and a few orcs, it becomes a snowblind ambush by the ogre, with the orcs hiding under furs buried in the snow until they spring out. A fight with a band of mercenaries becomes a soaked struggle where the wizard’s favorite fire spells fizzle in a downpour of rain, forcing the party to scramble for a creative solution. A raging sandstorm makes fighting lowly goblins into a vicious fight where the fallen disappear beneath the flowing sands in seconds.
Weather can make a significant impact outside of direct encounters, as well, allowing for mood setting and altering longer-term events. If the players are trying to track an enemy who has a lead on them, a freak snowstorm can add tension and a choice – do they risk losing the trail and wait for the storm to abate, or press on and risk the hazards of the winter weather? Traveling through a swampy landscape, they can expect regular rainstorms that bring mist and stir the water, making it harder to spot threats that might be lurking. Trying to escape pursuers, do they risk riding through a torrential thunderstorm with lightning almost as heavy as the rain or a storm front that threatens to drop tornadoes?
Approaching a mysterious locale, like an abandoned keep that may hold the MacGuffin? The land around it is cloaked in mists – nothing supernatural, just a consequence of the season and climate. Or they ride across what should be a harsh desert, but the storms that they’e been riding through, making their lives miserable, were the yearly monsoon cycle and the desert is covered in colorful fields of flowers during a break in the weather.
Focusing on the non-mechanical aspects of the weather – and getting those mechanical components out of the way as early as possible so that they’re unobtrusive – can augment a table experience enough that players will refer to it as “that time we got lost in a blizzard” or “when we outran the Kingsguard by going through the lightning storm” for years.
It’s worth the effort.