Wednesday, October 12, 2011

If We Could Have Real Weather...

If we could bring ourselves back to a discussion of the weather for a few moments, I'd like to discuss a difficulty in presentation that I've had for ... practically ever, or at least since I began to be as granular as I am with the game.

How do you retain the sense of the time period while giving information about what the weather is like?  If you want the slightest degree of verisimilitude, you can't just tell the players the exact temperature, or the dew point, or the number of millimeters of rain.  How would they know these things?  The thermometer hasn't been invented for most worlds, and it certainly isn't widespread in by 1650 (when my world takes place); a number of thermometers have been created by individuals, but there's no set scale yet - Fahrenheit isn't born until 1686.  Oh yes, of course you can just tell the players ... but somehow this kills the romance of the situation, as does any circumstance where you incorporate too much scientific precision into a game whose time period doesn't possess it.

I have tried to express temperature in terms of its general feel: the weather is brisk, or cool, or warm or very hot.  Rain can be described as light, moderate or heavy.  The wind as light, blustering or strong.   However, it is probable as the gentle reader considers those words, some of them have specific, measured meanings ... we know, for instance, that a 'gale-force wind' has a wind speed of 39-46 mph., or 62-74 km per hour.  We can look at the Beaufort Scale and see that the wind will cause "moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift, that some twings will be broken from trees, and that cars will be forced to veer on roads.  Progress on foot is seriously impeded."

But what does that mean, exactly?  It's defined very well for meterologists, but what precisely is the effect on player characters in the game?  Can they still travel?  How far?  How difficult is it for them to set up camp - how long does it take?  Can their tent withstand the wind or no?  What about if they set it behind this pile of rocks here, or between these trees?  How is combat effected?  How far can an arrow be considered accurate, or how far can you still throw a hand axe?  If there's debris in the air, what's the visibility?  How different is it now that its autumn as opposed to spring?  What would it be like if this were winter?  How much food do I need to eat if I have to work in this weather?  And so on and on and on.

The fact of the matter is that weather is largely ignored for RPGs and VGs because these questions are relatively unanswerable.  Even today, we retain a media where staged, filmed scenes do not feature so much as a stiff breeze (which is what, exactly, on the Beaufort scale?) ... even those filmed by David Attenborough for his Planet or Life series.  Cameras don't operate well, visibility spoils the clearness of shots, damaged equipment is ridiculously expensive to replace and so on.  We might get a shot of a lighthouse getting slapped by wave after wave, but these things are filmed from a distance, widescreen, and not from some idiot standing on the rocks waiting for the wave to come on.  At any rate, watching it filmed tells us virtually nothing about actually experiencing the event.  It's just interesting.

If the players are going to experience the event, vis a vis the game, it would be nice if they could have some sense of what it meant.  Unfortunately, mere descriptions are subjective and little more than window dressing.  I can say the weather is brisk, but it means different things to different people and if it doesn't stop them from travelling twenty miles today, what the hell do they care?  Even if it means they only travel 18 miles, so what?  It's just math to them ... it has no visceral impact, and because of that it remains fluff.

Weather is not fluff.  Weather kills people, weather is dangerous, weather affects everything about being outdoors.  Yes, we can create some table that describes how much damage a particular weather causes (more math), but that doesn't really bring home the feeling that the sky turning grey and the winter coming has huge implications for the party's probable well-being.  It doesn't often enter into their calculations for safety and so on.

Worse than the weather turning bad, however, is the weather turning for the better.  Consider: we human beings are immensely effected by the prospect of finding ourselves outside on a nice day.  It changes everything about our moods.  It is a wonderful, terrific thing ... but in D&D, it is utterly meaningless.  Again, it has zero influence over the actions of a party.  They can try to appreciate the description, even roleplay up to it, but it's an empty effort and well we all know it.  I can make a nice day as a DM on a whim, and well the party knows it.

So we come against the other really annoying thing about weather.  There is always, always a feeling on the behalf of parties that the DM is really just fucking with us.  Why is it raining?  Is there any purpose to it other than fixing things the way the DM likes?  If we're really running a sandbox, why is it the sun disappears so conveniently before we have to march off to Xanadu?  Why is it the rain is exactly as heavy as it is?  How come the mud is just this deep that my cart gets bogged into it?  My, my, aren't the gods heavily invested in making sure the weather is a hazard for us personally.

Seriously, don't you feel this way in real life?  How bad is it that you know the motherfucker behind the screen is doing it on purpose.

If the DM has an adventure pre-planned, even in a sandbox setting - where presumably its something that's waited in that copse of trees since the DM postulated it three years ago - can you tell that the weather was rolled randomly?  Is that DM ready to run that awful, pre-ordained frozen village where there's three inches of frost on everything in the SUMMER, too?  Or have we insufferably insisted that it's never summer on this particular hill, which of course goes unnoticed by the 21st level druid that manages this particular continent?  Probably the latter.  Rain and snow are such wonderful mood-setters, we can't give them up just because they're not in season, right?

I could really use a set of clear, precise rules on the effects of a particular temperature, or a particular intensity of precipitation, or of a particular wind speed, on a party and its doings, in such a way that when things do come together to form a nice day, it's noticeable.  That would be very nice.

Eventually I'm going to figure out how to make that happen.


Carl said...

I used this:

You can get historical weather for just about every city in the world for every day back to 1996. Now, granted, medieval Europe had a different climate than we do now, but I don't know that it was so radically different that using weather data from 15 years ago would just ruin all suspension of disbelief.

I used a calendar, and I used it without fail. Because of this, I knew exactly what day it was in my campaign, so using a tool like WunderGround was a snap. I didn't have to roll random weather that didn't make sense, and I didn't have to give players anything more than, "It's hot and humid today. You're sweating and it's only hour 3 of the morning."

I've had a problem with random weather for a long time. Weather trends. There are suprises, yes, but for the most part, it trends. You're not going to get snow in July, unless you're in Finland, and probably not even then.

Alexis said...

Carl, love you and all, but I wasn't actually looking for a generator. Nothing in the post said anything about needing a generator. I need a way to convey the generator's result to the players in a way that it MEANS SOMETHING. That seems to be the part of this post you missed.

As far as wunderground goes, it's shit. It's inconsistent, it misses information for certain days, even two years ago, it isn't as international as it claims and it actually disagrees with itself, with a page saying there's rain but 0 rainfall. So, actually pretty useless.

Um, here in Canada we can get snow in any month. In the mountains, in particular, it can snow in any month once you've climbed a certain degree. Trends, yes, but ice storms are not trends, fogs do not necessarily trend (or are all the same), and rain doesn't always fall when its expected. The difference between raining and not raining, in the wilderness, is a very great deal. So, like I said, love you buddy, but that's actually pretty lame and wrong.

One of the worst kinds of comments is someone who gives you advise about something you didn't ask for, or talk about, particularly when it's useless and inaccurate.

Tom said...

I suppose you'd first have to create a baseline. Given your proclivities, I'd say you'd need one for each character, because what the fair-skinned redhead son of Erin finds pleasant will no doubt differ from what the runaway daughter of the Caliph will enjoy. Then there’s those cursed ‘Eternal Sunshine’ folks who seem unaffected even while waiting for the bus in a -30C Blizzard, but I digress…

Based on that you could easily get a day that is utterly dreary for one or two PCs, ideal for some other and just sort of 'meh' for the rest.

Set several bell curves based on humidity, cloud cover, temperature, wind and whatever else you'd want to separate out (possibly including light for those Drow PCs who’d prefer to 'Have a Night'). Then, based on how far the conditions vary from the baseline, grant bonuses and/or penalties (which can cancel or reinforce one another) to the PC for things like movement, perception, reaction rolls (or Conflict! Cards) or again whatever crunch you want it influence, to whatever degree you find a reasonable maximum.

So for instance, today hereabouts it’s 13C, Partly Cloudy, 15 KPH wind, the Humidity is 30% and the UV index is low. For our above mentioned Son of Erin, it might be a little dry out, but other than that this is a Good Day with whatever benefits of extended travel, friendly interactions and head-up visibility that grants. Whereas the Caliph’s Daughter finds it quite cold and a little damp. For her this is at best a ‘meh’ day verging into bad, again with whatever penalties that would accrue.

Carl said...

Perhaps weather conditions could also impact encounter tables, increasing the likelihood of meeting truly dangerous and rare critters on a crappy day (somehow I think that trolls and the sort have a very different idea of a "nice" day and would love a stroll in the freezing rain). Nice days could also impact reaction rolls, making the guardsmen less likely to overreact to a perceived slight, for instance. Or even have weather influence random treasure carried (everyone is in their Sunday best, adorned with family heirlooms on this beautiful day).

Oddbit said...

You want people to like a nice day and not seem entirely vindictive? Make the 'nice day' a bonus for everyone in it, make the no penalties no mods a 'dreary day' and make bad or terrible days give big penalties... drawing the lines however is another story...

And yes, I did just use subjective terms in an attempt to aid you to solve making weather less subjective. This is theoretical.

Eric said...

I know this is two editions too late, but most of the weather effects here seem like a decent starting point. Skip the Random Weather table at the top, of course, and sub in penalties to surprise and Find Traps for Spot/Listen and Search, respectively.

Heat and cold are simple- make a saving throw or take nonlethal damage, with the frequency of the save going up as the temperature gets extreme. Once you take damage, you're fatigued.

As weather rules in RPGs go, these are fairly detailed-the Beaufort scale has pretty clearly been cut down for use here, but there's still seven different grades of windspeed.

Beyond that, a couple of things strike me.

How about morale and reaction bonuses/penalties based on the weather? Your hirelings will tend to sneak off more if it's nasty out and harder to keep an eye on them, and noone wants to stand there parleying in pouring rain.

How to model the effect of protective gear, and how weather damages and eventually destroys that protective gear, exposing the user to the full brunt of the elements? That's a hard one that I don't have a clever answer for yet....

Alexis said...

After deleting my first, really nasty response ... I don't like third edition rules.

Eric said...

Hey, I'm not saying "eliminate casting times" or "add skill ranks..."

And your combat system is pretty third-editiony; you've copped to this.

If you really don't want me to point out anything from third edition, I can do that; I just thought this particular one was relatively system-neutral and useful-looking.

Alexis said...

Copped to what? The link is flawed.

I'm not OD&D, that's for sure. But I'm not looking for neutral, I'm not looking for kindergartenish ... in fact, I'm not looking, as I said earlier today. I'm describing the problem.

My personal system, always being tweaked, never ready for publishing, is based on excessive, detailed data, distinctive for the date and time where the players are ... not for silly systems where every kind of rain is the same.

You think I haven't seen tons of this shit already? I read, you know.

Alexis said...

I worked out what post Eric was referring to ... it's this one, with the link to the Same Universe wiki.

Apparently, if I'm dumb enough to say one time that I'm inspired by something I see in a 3rd edition book 15 years ago, I am on the hook for everything.

Truth be told, the 3rd edition page that gave me the idea pretty much fucked up everything, and I had to work hard to come up with my own system of times and movements in order to make the thing work. Who knew I did that only so someone could throw it in my face one day.

Carl said...


I love you, too.

I posted my Wunderground shit because I thought one of the other readers of your blog might find it useful. You already have methods for determining weather. I was sharing (selfishly, on your blog!), and you're right to slap me down for posting something that isn't useful to you.

There have been reams of material written for all editions of D&D on what weather does to characters. I think it's all shit. As much I hate to say it, the Wilderness Survival Guide, stinking piece of shit that it is, has the most comprehensive AD&D rules on weather effects. Take that as you will. It's a start, much like the rest of the AD&D ruleset. I'm sure you can improve upon it. In this case, improving may mean tearing out the pages to line the bottom of the cat box. However, you did note that you read, and so you're probably aware of this resource.

If you want a set of really clear, precise rules on the effects of weather you're going to have to write them yourself. Most D&D players and DMs don't find this kind of thing interesting or even particularly useful, being "story-driven" and all that. It rains when the DM needs it to, and the effects of that rain will be what the DM needs them to be for that particular chapter of his/her adventure.

Good luck, my friend.


Giordanisti said...

I apologize for the commenting on an old post (perhaps you have already solved this problem), but I have been working on a weather system for my own campaign and I have an idea of how make players actually THINK about how weather affects their traveling.

Each type of weather has a table of ill effects that can occur while traveling, and the severity of said weather determines how often it is rolled on (say, every five miles instead of every twenty miles). Once the effect has been determined, all players make a roll-under stat check to see if they were affected (characters with 9 dex are more likely to get a sprained ankle in the mud than 16 dex characters, ditto with pneumonia and constitution). If the players know what the tables are, they can gauge whether to travel or not based on clear risks to themselves.

This way, good weather is a goddamn blessing. Only a 2% chance of losing our mule today? Fantastic! On the other side, a strong risk of breaking limbs or frostbite will make a party tentative to move out. Perhaps it's the middle of a winter storm, and the party travels five miles miraculously without ill-effect. Will they chance another five miles, or make camp here and wait for the storm to pass?

Any thoughts? I haven't play-tested this yet, but it feels like something players will be forced to think about.