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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Weather as the Adversary - Can it be a Heroic Opponent?

Whenever weather goes extreme and is in the news every day (2 feet of snow in /nyc, flooding in Texas, tsunamis and the like) it always makes me think about integrating such into an RPG adventure. Instead of heroic acts killing the bad guys, it's heroic acts saving the common folk.

Now, part of the problem with implementing that is that earlier editions of D&D and it's clones really stressed combat. Sure, and argument can and will be made that ealry editions were all about the money and the expo and avoiding combat was usually more effective than engaging in it. While that might be true, I've never played in or run a session for a group that wasn't eager to engage in combat. Stealth be damned, half the group is usually wearing chain mail or better anyhow.

Of course, since D&D has it's roots in wargaming, none of this is a surprise.

With all that out of the way, how would you integrate weather as an adversary in your campaign? How do you make them heroic without the incentive of gold and combat? Fight the ogre tribe or rescue peasants from flood waters?

I know you can use extreme weather as obstacle, but my desire is use it as something that will bring out noble, or at least, decent deeds from the PCs.

Throw some thoughts my way.


  1. Of all of the various antagonists available to literature, movies, etc. nature is the most boring. It has no motivation, it cannot be reasoned with, it has no emotion and cannot have a conversation. In context of an RPG, that severely limits player options and also limits the "surprise" factor for me as a DM/GM/Referee.

    If I were to ever use a natural disaster in context of an RPG, it would be in terms of forcing PCs to make a tough decision. They have their nemesis on the ropes and they've never had a better chance at defeating him/there is a short window of opportunity to nab the big treasure hoard/whatever goal you can think of that has time factor limiting access vs. their home town just got plastered by your favorite natural disaster and people are dying.

    Even in such a case, I would probably hand wave away the specific details of the rescue operation (if the players chose that route) because what matters more are the consequences of the choice rather than the natural disaster itself.

  2. FrDave is right, weather is boring as an "opponent" as all one can do is cope with it. Maybe a wizard can cast some spells on it. Even in super hero RPGs, saving folks from flash floods isn't very interesting when compared to matching wits with Dr. Doom--and then I would incorporate the weather as part of the villain's plot. Maybe an evil sorceress can unleash a tsunami on the little folk of the Shire and the PCs can go on a quest to stop her. Otherwise, blah.

  3. Agreed as above; tough to kill the weather.

    I'm running a correspondence campaign right now with pc's battling the after-effects of (3 weeks of) torrential rain. Anything and everything that ever lived in a deep dark hole is emerging, drowned or angry. Ain't much to burn, either. Wharves destroyed by high water. Commerce bye-bye. Roads effed. And muck.

    A town on the teetering edge of chaos. The pc's are recently paroled (brawling and goat abuses) to chase rats, for starters. Glamorous and heroic work, the stuff of legend.

    The foreboding rain clouds gather again.

    We'll see how it goes. Thusfar it's been quelling panic and avoiding footrot.


  4. I've always thought weather could be interesting, but I generally think more about surviving it than saving others. If you wanna bring out the nobility, it might be best to get a little more detailed. M.A.R. Barker related a story where he once took a more descriptive approach with a priest's human sacrifices and the player could no longer go through with it (pansy). Yours might have a harder time letting people die if they feel more concrete

  5. Over the years I mostly used weather as hand waved color for my games. Sometimes using it with more bite like a fight in a sandstorm or a storm at sea.

    My most successful use of it was actually in a newer edition of D&D. It was an Arctic adventure. Where the party found themselves stranded at the top of the world after having a portal closed off on them in the ruins they came to investigate.

    The trip back was a little abstract but it worked really well in that I used weather as a form of an ongoing challenge that put pressure on their resources both in terms of equipment and their physical beings. The way you would use the depths of a dungeon and supplies.

    Except here healing and regaining of spells wasn't possible due to lack of shelter as they crossed the frozen world. And the area belonged to an ice demon that would punish those who didn't show it respect.

    But, in the newer system I used healing surges to show environmental damage from the weather. From exposure in the blizzards, getting banged up on hidden crevices, or the constant chill. It worked better than hit points since it meant healing spells did no good.
    Most healing used the caster's healing surges. So if a character eventually found themselves in dire straits where healing surges were gone and they were taking direct damage. Then a party member was literally risking their own life to save your character's life by healing you. Or they had to debate using those precious spells for healing things like frost bite or snow blindness.

    They also eventually learned from slowly befriending the elusive locals of the ice fields that expending blood (a healing surge) each morning showed respect to the demon. This gave them a bonus on my random charts for weather and encounters. They also learned a few survival tricks from these natives that allowed them to rest properly when conditions and weather permitted.

    So by being disrespectful to the demon the weather and encounters had a chance to be on a sliding scale toward being more nasty. Weather would slow them down, cause saving throws or skill checks against some effects like snow blindness on sunny days when travel was faster, and other horrible things I read about in some books writing the adventure.

    Along the way, from trading with natives and raiding the dead of the land, they came across pieces of survival gear that improved their chances, skill checks, and saving throws. Primitive eye protection saved them from snow blindness or a fur from a large mammal become more valuable to them than magical swords and armor. They picked their fights carefully and went out of their way to avoid some of the more dangerous but worthless for survival supernatural beasts. Trying their best to save their resources for the road and weather. It was really an intense experience and I never saw players so glad to reach the end of a trek with a sense of accomplishment.

    But, it was interesting to see them try to create tactics against the weather. They would make camp and risk the cold to wait out bad weather before crossing very dangerous ridges - knowing the winds and jagged ice would do worst, debate to chase prey or figures in the distance heading in another direction, and so forth. The weather mixed with the terrain forced them to consider both very carefully. And yes, there were heroics such as characters opting to reduce their chances of survival to give comrades easier checks.

    I would love to do it again with a jungle motif. Esp. after reading a book like Green Hell, with its detailed threat of dying from thirst in a jungle, native ambushes, getting lost, and so forth. In RPG's it seems easier to do the long trek as a dramatic simulation. A more short term threat like a flood or sand storm may be lethal but I am not sure how to build the tension and that "WOW, we made it!" happiness mixed with relief.

    1. That right there is the type of game I've always wanted to run, and the coolest use of healing surges I've ever heard!

    2. Sounds like a fantastic gaming landscape, fully realized while also nuanced. You mind my asking how many hours (prep and actual gaming) the entire A-Z adventure set consumed? Seems like you had an in-room group to work with.

    3. This weird 4E thing that lets you regain 1/4 of your health, and you can easily have several in a single day. Crazy, right? I don't care for 'em normally, but I like faux's idea. The amount you regain would have to be lowered to something more reasonable (like 1%) before I'd use it, though

    4. I see. Never played any editions past 2nd and only have OD&D and 1st AD&D. Not my cup of tea. Not really into the superheroic PC style. I like the PCs to consider combat a danger and use their minds to avoid altogether or at least use tactics to minimize chances of death.

    5. I actually got the idea of using healing surges in this way from the DMG 2 for 4th edition and its chapter on weather and environment. For a flawed game it had some interesting mechanics that could be adapted as both flavor and threat rather quickly in an abstract way. Not that hit points aren't abstract in their own right. And I found that you could impose great danger in the system by bottle necking resources or creating chains/overlapping of threats.

      To be honest prep wise ... I kept it very abstract and simply spent a night making weather, terrain, and encounters charts. And I have to admit I wasn't very interested in balance with those charts. Since I had no idea what condition they would be in when running into a more powerful supernatural creature or how a combination of weather and encounter could lead to some real nasty situations. I only knew it would take them 1 month of navigating in the right way to reach safer climes of the upper continent where they could find villages, food/water, and shelter. Everything after that was randomized on 8 hour blocks. And they kept a primitive map of the landscape as they "discovered it" and could go backwards if they found a ridge or break in the ice they couldn't cross. I kept a check box system of blocks showing progress towards safety. They gained a box for a travel period or an extra box for good travel days or lost boxes when they had to backtrack or got lost - wandering in a circle basically in the same locale. Weather had a chance of staying and some of the terrain entries had the chance of including a mini location like a collapsed igloo inhabited by ghoulish victims of the ice demon. The encounters included everything from an abandoned dogsled, or days old footprints, scary howling in the distance, to Bulete like ice whales. The narrative sort of created itself and some of the elements that didn't quite resolve were just mysteries of the ice. So one night of prep fueled by some reading of Peter Freuchen and Kabloona. It was played over 2 longer sessions of about 5 or 6 hours. Those sessions were over 2 years ago in real time and about 9 levels behind the players. They still view the top of the world as a terrifying place. Some new player will suggest going there for some reason and the players who were there start talking like old fishermen about the dangers of the far north. I swear they only whisper the ice demon's name. That fills me with a bit of DM pride.

    6. It would likely work just fine in a more old school system. Since the key is reducing their access to regaining spells and healing with the search for safe shelter to properly rest. And the slower healing of the older rules would really make it a challenge in its own right. But, you could use HD levels perhaps instead of healing surges. So when they do manage to heal or rest their max hit points are dwindling as they journey further and further into the waste. There had to be points where they found good shelter to give them hope. I rated shelter based on whether it allowed full rest, half rest, or no rest. I could also see using 5E's ability score checks or LotFP's simple Specialist skill system in a modified way to mimic the checks you need. Since at some point you need to see if the tired and frost bitten explorer can climb the icy wall or dodge the crumbling ice, or find true north in a blizzard.

      We reserved dice rolling for when there was distinct danger so it didn't turn into a shallow skill challenge. And allowed checks against conditions every 8 hours. I created "disease" blocks for frost bite, snow blindness, and malnutrition. Players often came up with solutions in RP fashion and once or twice a creative use of the much maligned 4th edition powers system out of combat. Using fluff text in the powers to describe how they used it to move blocks of ice or leap to safety. This was interesting since some of these were daily or encounter powers that couldn't be reused until a real rest. So once again forcing them to consider their resources.

      I found stronger players would risk themselves to help the weaker players. One character opted to take the healing surge loss of another player on top of their own lost by carrying the weak player towards the end of the trip. Another would scale the icy ridges ahead of the party to lower ropes and so forth to give those behind him better chance of not failing. At times they would do what are called group checks instead of individual ones. So that the party could try to carry the weak ones in some skills. But, risk everyone suffering on a group failure.

      The problem is that it is very intense experience playing through it. You wouldn't want all travel to be like this ...

    7. @Matt. I hear you on the power scale of this system. I ended up running 4e due to a challenge by my teenage son. It was a bit of an argument that role play and challenge could occur despite the system used. We have been playing the campaign now for 5 years (102 sessions) and had up to 12 players at one point and maintained an average of 6 at any one time. As long as there was interest in I had no qualms about the system. The players range in age from teens - 40's with most in their late 20's now. It works well for the types of fantasy that has influenced them. The system has been a challenge I have to admit at times. I really went back to the pulp stories to make the adventures. I used a lot less fights, removed magic items except for unique ones with properties, used inherit bonuses, and most fights have been with unique creatures with a name and history. And they have ran away, avoided, or found other means to deal with plenty of threats. Plus rewarded out of the box thinking that didn't require dice rolling. They also have a thick dead character folder they show off to new players and joke about a lot. There is a heroic scale to the game system. But, even at level 16 in this system they act cautious and take great care with the threats and situations. I am okay with that but will be glad when the campaign ends this year and we can try a new system. But, it has been fun and allowed me to check off that bucket list item ... Run Long RPG Campaign to the End.

    8. Sounds pretty cool. I prefer fewer fights and magic item rarity as well.

    9. @Matt: Yeah, I'm not into the superheroic style either, which is part of why I never got into 4E (that and everything about the mechanics is just wrong). I've actually had some good experience with original 3E, but part of that may've been because we stuck to low levels and it was mostly just me and the DM, so combat was never really an option, even with max hp at first level (especially when said DM sends Vecna at you during your first freakin' session!) I had to develop a silver tongue pretty quickly to survive. Lots of bribery in those games, and constant planning to safely renege on my end of the bargains. That was half the challenge, actually. I couldn't just think of a way to get out of a bad spot, but come up with a solution that would put me ahead

      @fauxcrye: That you've managed to get a game like that out of 4E makes you some kind of master. Color me impressed!

  6. My players once complained, ages ago, about all of our adventures taking place in the summer and autumn... So I tried to fix that with some extreme winter adventures and spring flash floods, etc. It was similar to what fauxcrye did above.

    After all these years, this post got me thinking again about weather as a "character".

    What about something like this? The characters noticed an increase in the intensity and frequency of terrible weather events. They eventually discover a connection between them all. That connection leads them to the revelation that there is a very powerful "Storm Elemental" which has power over all of the basic elements to create world-battering weather as its weapon? The characters must then figure out how to confront and destroy this powerful entity, or somehow disrupt its ability to wreak havoc. This might be an excellent higher-level adventure!

  7. I haven't played a character higher than Level 7 in thirty years, but anything creative and pursued to finish is always good in my book, er, spiral notebook.

  8. Rereading Tenkar's post I don't think anything we have commented really hits the mark for his question. My example had some heroics in the face of weather at the expense of self preservation. But, Tenkar's question hints at looking to inspire heroics external to the party itself. Why would a motley band brave terrible weather to rescue people or even put themselves in that situation. Unless it was something that came up while doing something else. For example while trying to retrieve the magical relic from the rising flood waters the party must race against another group looking to steal it. Using the setup of a terrible movie like Hard Rain they could find people needing rescue or used as hostages by the rival gang. But, it would still be secondary to the party's goals and why they were there. Perhaps it would work better for a long running campaign where the party was attached in some way to a village or NPC's who lived there. So when natural disaster struck they would feel the need to intervene. Not to say there aren't heroic types out there rolling dice.

    1. My suggestion to be more descriptive with NPCs was meant to address that issue. Apparently, making fictional characters seem more real makes it harder for some players to remain callous. It sounds strange to me, but I suppose it makes sense. Consider how much easier it is to be callous towards real people when we abstract them. Being confronted by a person in need is totally different from reading a statistic or hearing about others in a faraway country

    2. It's like when folks would say "Nuke 'em back to the Stone Age" re: Iraq/Afgahistan/threat-du-jour. much eAsier when discussing people you will never meet and know nothing about.