The weather is something that everyone always notices and talks about, but can’t do anything about. It is an important part of everyone’s life, yet it seems to be ignored in games.
It is seldom ignored in stories. Writers find weather to be the most important part of the setting because it is dynamic, it can change. Most of the setting is static. Buildings, mountains, and roads just don’t change. That is to say, they don’t change unless the weather acts upon them.
Take "the old Victorian house at the top of the hill," for example. Fairly boring I know, but these will be simple examples to prove a point. Think about how it looks in your mind’s eye. Now an author can describe its various aspects, but it is what it is. Now apply weather. The old Victorian house at the top of the hill stood calmly against the clear blue sky. Or, The hot summer wind blew leaves and paper against the old Victorian house at the top of the hill. Or, The lightning backlit menacingly the old Victorian house at the top of the hill, all the while the heavens wept from dark rain clouds. Or, The light spilled cheerfully from the windows of the old Victorian house at the top of the hill upon the soft Christmas snow. See how the weather (and related description) changed the look and the mood of the Old Victorian House? This same house now can serve the author’s need by setting a calm, abandoned/ lonely, scary, or cheerful mood for the piece. And the joy of using weather is that it can change again as the author needs it.
Weather does more than change the tone and feel of a story. It can enhance the drama. Which is more exciting, a "fight in an open field" or a "fight in an open field in pouring rain with thunder and lightning"? Which is more exciting, a "fight in an open field in pouring rain with thunder and lightning" or a "fight in an open field in the drenching rain, knowing any moment that the river will flood it?" Each additional layer of tension or mystery is added by the weather.
Writing (or playing) inanimate or natural objects seems difficult and unnatural (and to require a thesaurus). People cannot easily relate to the inanimate. To handle settings and weather, many writers personify them. By treating the setting and weather as a character, with its own view of the world and ways of interacting, the writers can use all their character tools and technique on their setting and the weather. This way they can use the weather and setting to set a mood, define a pace, add drama, and become an important part of the story.
Gamers might not know all the tricks and techniques of a writer, but they do know how to play and portray a character. By taking this writer’s trick, a GM can easily determine the weather and the tone it will set in the game. Simply select a character that defines the weather for the day, season, or region, for you. Think about that character’s temperament, abilities, and motivations. Then translate those actions into the weather, spinning any description to fit the character. This sounds hard, but it is not hard at all. Think about the how you would describe the actions of a hulking barbarian, and then think about how you would do it differently if you were playing a dandy elf rogue. It is something that most gamers are doing unconsciously. This "weather character" becomes a very important NPC you are portraying. He, She, or It determines the weather and how it and its effects are described in the game: setting or contrasting the mood of the game, effecting the pace, and enhancing the game experience.
There are five "characters" that I use for Winter in my various campaigns. For each one I will describe how I see them, give two examples narration (dealing with weather and setting), and explain a little bit about what I have done. Once you see it in action, you will see how easy it is to implement.
Old Man Winter
I see the Old Man Winter as a heavyset, heavily bearded, old man. He is dressed in fur-covered robes. He is old and cranky, but just as powerful as he was in his prime. When he gets his cranky up, he is mean spirited and capable about taking it out on people.
You are trudging down the road to Appleton. It is cold. Very cold. The wind is steady and strong. It is against you. No matter which way the road winds in through the hills, it seems to be against you. The snow is fairly deep and wet. When you get to Appleton you feel fairly beaten down. You can try to go on, but you are feeling very fatigued, as the cold has taken you down a notch.
As you step out of the inn, you note it went from an ice cold clear night, to a thick hard snow. The wind is strong and steady. Not enough to make a terrible storm, but just a few steps short. The groom brings up your horses, huddled over in two blankets like a whipped dog. You can see his breath as he walks them to you. You can see precious else farther away between the dark and the snow. player interaction With some effort, you get your mounts onto the road. The mean old wind pushes against you, slowly moving daggers of cold through your cloaks.
You can see how the weather is impacting the character’s lives. It is generating fatigue, disturbing their plans, and reducing their effectiveness. It sets a tone of harshness and despair. The short clipped sentences help convey the age and the crankiness. Sometimes I will use my "old man voice" when portraying the weather or an outdoors winter scene. The players can feel that Old Man Winter is against them, an opponent that would like to fight, but can’t.
The Ice Queen is a beauteous wizardess, dressed in blue and white gowns trimmed with sparkling ice gems and fur. She is well groomed, well dressed, well mannered, and the personification of polite. She is also very vain and fickle too. Best advice? Be respectful, stay on her good side, and give her complements. If you cross her, you will probably not live long enough to regret it. She will fight with her sister spring, so the end of winter will sometimes be dramatic.
You follow the winding road to Appleton. The morning is crisp, clear, but deceptively cold. The beautiful curvy hills are covered in a silky snow. The bright sunshine does little to warm you, but lights up all the ice upon the branches and puts a shine to the snow. No wind disturbs the delicate powder from this morning’s gentle snow. The mountains in the distance are draped in a couture snow; making the already impressive IronHeart Mountains, look stunning. It is enough to make a paladin wonder at the beauty of nature. Looks to paladin’s player to see if he picks up his cue
As you all step out of the inn, you see that the shining stars of the ice cold night are no where to be seen. Now, it is hail. Perfect little daggers of ice. The cold that has been there all day and night seems deeper. The Ranger knows this kind of cold can kill a man if he is not careful. The groom brings up your mounts. "It seems she be angry with you leaving," he said while he hands out the various reigns. "Don’t think she wants ye to search for another woman this night." player interaction You take your mounts out into the dark and deadly snow.
The descriptions have a female flare to them, impressing on the beauty she brings. (I also use an elegant and cultured tone of voice.) Underneath the beauty is always the underlying danger there. This foreshadows any weather related danger, so anything you throw at them after it is fair game. In general, if the players are careful, respectful, and appreciate the winter’s beauty, the weather will be on their side. If not, they are steps away from evil winter magic.
In addition to mood, this type of weather will also foreshadow the young woman they are searching for is a deadly beauty. (She peeved the Winter Wizardess off, now anyone outside will pay for it.) See how the narration about the weather will help set their expectations about anything beautiful. It may save their life, because they will be thinking of the cold beauty they are "rescuing" rather than just assuming she is an innocent maid.
Mad Winter Wizard:
Imagine a wide eyed lunatic with a wintery wand of wonder. He mumbles to himself, occasionally ranting to the wind. Ill kept and unpredictable, he is the kind of villain people hire players to stop before it is too late.
The late summer rain was turning to ice as you dashed towards Appleton. The familiar road seems wrong under the unseasonable, even unnatural, darkness of the rain. Halfway there, the wind picks up a wild blow. It is like the winds have gone mad, blowing the gentle rain sideways and freezing it as it did.
There had been an almost spring like thaw for the last few days. It looked like Winter’s grip had loosened some. Yet now, the snow was wet, icy, and deep… dangerous to travel on. It is like the weather is conspiring to keep you here.
As you leave the inn, the dump of snow that occurred over a candlemark earlier, has left the sky cold and clear, like the terrible storm of the late afternoon never happened. It appears the weather has no surprises for you now, as the groom brings up your mounts. But you never know. ‘Here you go," says the groom handing all of you your reigns.
The Winter Wizard is a mad man, Winter gone unpredictable. The weather seems to be coming from a random weather chart (and sometimes does). This unpredictability sets a tone of chance, that anything is possible. I choose this kind of weather when I wanted to promote risk taking in my players.
The Snow Angel is a beautiful girl, with white fluffy wing, in a white robe. She is always smiling and happy. While she can be mischievous, she is never cruel. She helps people when she can. While winter can sometimes be dangerous, it seldom will be on her watch (unless the person is really, really bad and deserves it).
It is a pretty day as you meander the road to Appleton. The sun is shining. The air is warmer than it has been. The snow is dry and bright. As you crest the last hill before Appleton, you hear children’s laughter, and those of you who can make a perception roll can see the children throwing snowballs in the orchard before you. GM to players, "Any characters have similar happy memories?"
As you leave the inn to go on your rescue mission, you see the sky is clear, the stars and moon are winter bright, and it is warmer than you expected. Your mounts prance a bit as the groom brings them out. The night is quiet, except for the hooves crunching the light powder from the earlier playful flurry. player interaction Your mounts move easily to a trot through the town which is all tucked in for the night warm and cozy under its blanket of white.
The mood the snow angel projects is happy, helpful, and fun. The weather is windowdressing rather than a problem. I have to admit, this is my default winter weather persona. Note: Normally you should never mix narration and game mechanics. I added a bit of game mechanics to the first narration. It enhances the feel for the scene rather than distracts the players from it. Also by giving "stage directions" to my players, I can help enhance the mood I am looking for. (Note I did such with the Ice Queen’s examples as well). The players can take the opportunity for roleplaying an aspect of their history, or they can ride on. It is there choice. It was stage directions, not a "YOU HAVE HAPPY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES! TELL US WHAT THEY ARE RIGHT NOW!" command.
The Classic Big Jolly Guy. He is what Christmas stands for, not what it has become.
The road to Appleton has been easy going, despite the snow and cold. The wind has been gentle and at your back, rather than the biting wind you felt last time you were here. You see a farmer and his littles doing some wood cutting a little ways in from the road, as you pass. Cresting the last hill, the wind shifts and brings the delicious smells you remember from the Inn at Appleton. The snow is deeper in the little valley, and the road is not cleared. It is still fairly easy going. There are children playing in the Orchards you are passing through… and it seems a few adults too. As you approach Appleton, you pass by cottage where the mother has put up the garlands for wintertide in the windows.
As you leave the cheery inn, you note the sky is bright and clear. Though the snow is deep, it will not hinder you in your search for the lost girl. The Groom, munching on one of the famous Appleton winter apples, brings your mounts up. "Here you go good sirs, and madam. I packed a few apples for your mounts in the saddlebags. " player interaction As you ride out, you can hear the chimes of a sleigh coming towards you.
Weather, season, and the setting always go together. The weather and season define the "actions" the larger setting can take. When using Santa Claus winter, it is always friendly and warm (thought still cold enough not to melt the winter wonderland). The mood is always joyful and family oriented. That mood is reinforced by the weather and people’s responses to it..and their general mood. By contrasting the difference in winter from the last time the players were here (Old Man Winter examples), I enhance and reinforce that it is different this time and that everything is basically right with the world.
The weather is something that everyone always notices and talks about, but can’t do anything about. It is an important part of everyone’s life and now Game Masters everywhere can make it an important part of their character’s lives. It is as simple as creating the "characters" that best reflect their "Winter" (and "Spring", "Summer", "Fall") for their campaigns. By simply playing their important new NPCs, the players will experience a new level of weather and gameplay.