Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Me. I Want It.

It was -27 C when I came to work this morning (-17 F for those of you still living in the 19th century), the sort of morning where the stillness of the air only improves one's awareness of the skin tightening as the outer surface freezes. On a day like this, packed into three layers of clothing, hands in gloves and stuffed into pockets, snow crunching underneath and beneath the snow the thin sheen of ice left over from the warm day last week, so that one's feet might fly out at any moment, I find myself wondering about D&D games that always seem to take place in sunny California.

Admittedly, from time to time I have waxed on about the importance of weather and its influence on real life. In the game, of course, weather is an inconvenience. Weather gets in the way of fighting, of travelling, of getting safely back to town and so on. Who needs that, right? Generally, not players. And that's understandable. If I could have the real world go my way, it would never be freaking -27 on a day I had to go outside.

Not that -27 is particularly cold. I remember working outside in -45 ... which is pretty close to the same number in Fahrenheit. I'm Canadian, though. We're constructed differently. Takes more than 2 inches to shut the whole fucking city down (looking at you, Atlanta).

So yes, players would rather not put up with the weather. And since the weather is a hassle to construct, and a hassle to generate even if you have a generator, and the exact results of the weather are non-specific, it all seems like a lot of effort for not payback. It's not like the players are ever going to gain experience for dealing with the weather, so screw it. Let's concentrate on things that matter.

Maybe it's because I'm Canadian. Maybe it's because every winter I think, it must have been nuts having to deal with all this when people did not have central heating, insulated transport and modern winter clothing/boots. There must have been a bloody miserable four-month period in the lives of Europeans where one just did not get warm. Even by the fire, one could only warm one side at a time.

So the thought keeps coming back to me ... make the weather more important. Make is so damn important that one nice day, without wind or rain or dust storms, without lightning and thunder and spontaneous tornadoes, causes the party to go, "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

My poor online party. They've just gone through a winter that took something like 14 months of real time on the blog to play, and only now it is plainly becoming summer (it's May in Paphlagonia for them). But I haven't heard anyone say yet, "Thank god that winter is over." (perhaps they're bitterly resenting my implementation of weather and they're too polite to say).

Most temperate cultures very definitely had celebrations for specifically this. The cold weather is gone. We can lie in the sun and be warm. No more late night trips out in the snow and the rain to pee. Hooray!

I want that response. I want a party to shout when the weather is warm. It just ... feels like that's how it should be.

I know, I know, I know ... I'm crazy. What I really want to do is make weather much more affecting of the game. Where certain temperatures mean rolls for colds and other maladies. Where players risk losing toes and therefore dexterity if caught out in winter. Where rainstorms reduce combat effectiveness. Where everyone's hit points are reduced 10% on overcast, miserable days, and only amount to their full capacity when it's sunny. That night produces a lower wisdom, and so does fog. Where the party awakes to find their metal tools and weapons covered in rime, or just stone cold, and virtually unusable in combat because the pommels are too damn cold. I want more and more of this shit, and I'm absolutely certain I'm the only one.

The worst part is that every idea I have about the weather is perfectly justifiable. We are none of us as effective on a spiritless, gray-clouded day as we are when the sun is shining and a fresh wind is blowing. It cannot be denied that this must have been TEN TIMES more meaningful to someone living in a world where a gray day was truly gray. If weather is an annoyance to us, what must it have been to cultures without all these distractions and proofs against it? Why shouldn't the temperature or the look of the day diminish one's capacity to face it?

Yes, okay, no one wants that. No one.



Tom said...

Well I want it too. But then I've always had a soft spot for the Wilderness Survival Guide...

JDJarvis said...

One of my players lost his PC (and a horse) racing down a mountain road in a snowstorm withan undead horde in pursuit... he loved it.

Lukas said...

I would try it.
But I cannot guarantee that it would be an experience I would appreciate fully.

Tedankhamen said...

I am from Labrador - the weather was deadlier than any polar bear or imagined beastie. I'd like to make it the centerpiece of my heartbreaker, Iceships & Inuit, if I ever crawl out from under this degree...

Ozymandias said...

I want it. I've been slowly collecting real world data with a mind toward building a functional weather system. But that's the crux, in't it? To make it truly viable, it needs to be accessible and relevant.

A question: would people from five hundred years ago really be so affected by the weather? We're spoiled by modern convenience. Effectively, we have a lower tolerance. Would freezing temps be as bad for them as it is for us?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Whether they would or not undermines the sheer pleasure of making a player's life miserable by telling them that no, sorry, its still not sunny today.

Homer2101 said...

You have probably already seen this, but NATO did a study on energy expenditures of marching under various loads over various surfaces. There is a lot of interesting data unrelated to the post at hand, but it also shows the effect of terrain on march speed. Since snow and rain can heavily alter a surface, it might be relevant.

The full report for common military tasks:

I agree that weather in general should have a big role on a surface-world campaign. Weather alters terrain -- unsurfaced roads can become quagmires after even a light rain; a few inches of snow can significantly slow a body down. Driving wind, snow, and rain reduce speed, and reduce visibility and range at which things are heard. In the opposite direction we have heat, whose impact can be quite different depending on humidity.

But these are obvious. The impact of such weather is both obvious and quantifiable.

I'm not sure that a highly granular weather impact system is desirable. First, not everyone reacts to sunlight levels in an identical manner. Some folk love sunshine; others prefer cooler overcast days. Some folk enjoy the rain, others snow; some favor colder weather and others long for the Arizona summer. A game system should no more force all characters to favor sunshine and summer than it should force all characters to like raisin bread. At most, a system could require selecting most- and least-favorite weathers from a table.

Second, the weather's impact has to matter to the players. It should create meaningful choices and present players with more challenge than merely rolling a die and picking which toe falls off. A minor penalty from overcast skies offers no choices, and presents no challenge. Once in a blue moon that -1 to HP or AC or what have you might affect an encounter or somesuch. But odds are that it will be just another little detail to keep track of -- every so often the DM will announce that the skies have cleared, and players will remove the penalty, and then add it again some time later. No choices, no challenges; after a few sessions the penalty will become the new normal.

Big weather events -- snow and rain, have a substantial impact on terrain, movement, and senses. If the party needs to reach a rendezvous by tomorrow, an inbound blizzard presents them with a meaningful choice: strike out now and risk getting frozen but maybe make the rendezvous, or safely stay put and hope the other party is understanding about the delay. And because such penalties are intermittent and not continuous, the players don't have time to get used to them.

Ozymandias said...

But those granual details - a simple -1hp while enduring cold temperatures, for example - add up.

If I'm faced with a real choice, like the blizzard Homer cites, I will consider the impact of 1hp. There may well be bigger factors to account for. Yet that 1hp will come into play. And if I forget about it, but it's noted on my character sheet, or I'm reminded by a play or DM, it may well come to haunt me as my character stumbles and falls unconscious at -1hp instead of 0hp.

Is that one moment of tension worth the trouble of tracking a constant modifier? Yes. It must be, else the player would not care so much about the bonus she receives on attack and damage rolls...

JDJarvis said...

Probably should have mentioned it last comment: snowshoed on an overnight one winter and I had the worst gear of anyone on the trip my paranoia at this and my caution resulted in me being the only person in the group not to get a touch of frostbite (all minor but still frostbite), we each had a loaf of bread as spare backup food: they froze, I got woken up by my breath cooling on the tarp over my head and falling back down and stinging my face, my father absent mindedly liked his knife to clean it off after dinner and some of his tastebuds froze to the balde, we all recall the trip and are prone to mention it anyime anyone complains about the cold, groups of pretend adventurers should have similar weather related tales.

Homer2101 said...

Oz, we can make the system as granular as we wish. We can, for example, introduce penalties for parasitic infestations. George Orwell's experiences in Spain are instructive:

"All of us were lousy by this time; though still cold it was warm enough for that. I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds, and for sheer beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects, mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren’t resident vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. . . . In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae — every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles. We kept the brutes down to some extent by burning out the eggs and by bathing as often as we could face it. Nothing short of lice could have driven me into that icecold river."

It would be realistic to track lice for player characters. It would also probably be meaningless to the players, because the penalty would be near-perpetual. It's true that players seek out small bonuses, but in my experience they do not remark on bonuses already received until those bonuses are at risk or have been lost. An already-applied bonus is like one of the bridges connecting Manhattan -- no-one remarks on its magnificent usefulness until it is gone.

Similarly, odds are that players will eventually stop noticing ongoing penalties that span multiple sessions. So I don't see the benefit to handing out minor penalties for overcast skies and the like, especially in climates where clouds are the norm for most of the year. By the third session, I'm not sure the player will care much about the penalty.

I'm not saying that tracking very minor and long-lasting status effects is necessarily a bad idea, or that it is impossible. Maybe I'm wrong and players will care deeply about such small effects even if they are applied for several months in real-time. But my experience is that this won't happen. So I argue that negative and positive effects from weather should be intermittent and substantial and should ideally enable players to make meaningful decisions.

On another note, you asked about how weather would affect a person in a pre-industrial society. The human body is much more resilient than folk give it credit. We have access to period accounts from the nineteenth century. Studies of life in rural Eastern Europe, Russia and Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may be useful. Or even Jules Verne's "Fur Country."

Taren said...

I love the idea, unreservedly. Adds to the drama of the setting, and as others have pointed out, that potentially increases the tension and thereby the excitement!
Also allows for some great roleplaying. Different characters will react with greater and lesser drama to small weather variances...
I know that one snowy afternoon in Rhode Island my Florida-raised sister in law was genuinely distraught and quite incapable of continuing shooting sporting clays, while my commercial fisherman boyfriend wears t-shirts in February, laughing at our "winter" compared to his in the Bay of Fundy.

A perfect example of weather dramatically affecting and even controlling physical abilities: The Arrowhead 135. It's a grueling two day race across Northern Minnesota where even finishing is rare. That race becomes not a question of speed or ability, but of mental toughness. The first obstacle is handling the weather emotionally.

On another note, when I bicycled across Canada in July 99, the single toughest day for me was leaving Drumheller and heading east on Rt 9... we had a brutal headwind which presaged the snowstorm (in July, mind you!). I was defeated utterly and wound up on the side of the road sobbing... simply unable to keep pedaling. Weather 1, Taren 0. It was my emotions that couldn't handle it, not my legs. Worst thing? I had to keep going anyway.

And yet we have our PCs set out blithely on foot to travel miles and miles through woods and mountains, carrying armor, swords, rations, coins…

Alexis, you have it right... I think the weather is BIG.

Awesome post, thank you!