On this side of the computer screen we’re still picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after a rather nasty hurricane. And this has got me thinking not just about flood insurance, but about the uses of weather in table top RPGs.
Firstly, of course, there is weather as mood enhancer. “A dark and story night”, fog-bound ghost ships, manic thunderstorms over the old castle, mist-shrouded forests, and all that sort of thing. While that is all terribly effective (it wouldn’t be cliché if it didn’t work), it might be fun and surprising to subvert your players’ inner meteorologists. Suppose the haunted house – chapel of demons and pit of madness — sat atop a sunny hill, surrounded by flowers that grew just a little too healthy. Or suppose that the scared grove, where waited the healing ministrations of nymphs and dryads was drenched, not in ambrosial sunlight, but cold driving rain. Try mixing up you weather forecasts: rain can be cool, light, and refreshing, sunlight can be harsh, unforgiving, and scorching.
Another way to use weather at the gaming table is as an adversary: survive the storm, swim the raging river, get hit by a thunderbolt! It’s Man vs. Nature and it’s a classic literary technique. Unfortunately, it does not translate to the table well. At least in my games – and I’m a pretty emotive GM usually able to lure the PCs into scene – weather-related challenges often come down to simple dice rolls: did you build a fire? Did you find shelter? Well, good. Next scene, please! One of the things we like about RPGs is the chance to make meaningful decisions and live with the consequences. Even in combat with a mindless mook, there are always choices: run away, knock him out, talk him down? But if you are blown into an icy river the only real choice is to get out. There is also the fact that, as a mindless force (in most games!), the weather doesn’t offer the PCs an actual opponent to second-guess, outwit, or gloat over.
Of course, the right GM and the right players can make any game exciting, but I would suggest not using the weather as adversary or merely mood, but at setting, handicap, and plot. A significant weather event can completely change a familiar game. You’re fighting zombie is your small wooded town – suddenly Hurricane Bruce strikes! Your shelters are blown over, your houses are flooding, the power goes out, the roads are impassable, rain and wind make your guns almost useless, flesh-eating corpses are blown through the 2nd storey window! Or torrential rain floods the dungeon your party is exploring! A freak snowstorm can make even the most mundane combat more exciting, with reduced visibility and rolls needed to stay on one’s feet. Weather can play havoc with high-tech gizmos, particularly –er – less realist ones: a crystal-infused mist could scatter lightsaber blades in a brilliant and dangerous fashion! Weather can be an equalizer, robbing the PCs’ of their favorite weapons or tactics (mud in the servos, too rainy for spellbooks, too foggy for guns), for a scene or two, and forcing them to think up something new.
As a key plot element, the elements hold even more potential. In a horror game, “blood-rain” could be actual blood, spreading panic and frenzy. Weather could be used as a weapon by mad wizards or evil geniuses. Literal blue moons could herald the return of the Fae or a rain of fish or jellyfish could announce the rise of some ancient sea-monster miles away. Sufficiently large space ships could park in front of the sun and threaten the natives with a never-ending eclipse. Ball lightening or St. Elmo’s’ Fire could start a witch-hunt in the proper game. How could triple ghost images of the sun not be seen as some kind of omen? For a red herring in spooky marine mystery nothing is more dramatic than a water devil (or a dust devil if your game’s landlocked). And certainly nothing will confuse your players more than an 80lb sphere of ice falling out a clear blue sky. Or what could a planet-wide aurora possibly mean? Alien invasion? A magical portal to another dimension? The return of the Roman Gods?
Are these strange events just random weather, the work of evil demons, or the last desperate cry of help from Earth herself? The answer depends on your game of course. Your changeling character may be charged with a quest to rescue the Moon herself! Mythos investigators might recognize the mad weather as a sign that the Stars are almost Right! Starship crews may have to solve fiendish puzzles and battle numerous foes before they can fix the Atmospheric Master Control Unit that is tearing the planet apart.
Whether it’s dramatic or subtle, bizarre or comforting, it’s always good gaming weather. Even if the lights go out, you can roll dice by candlelight.