Updated: Mar 23, 2020
I don’t know where you live but it’s getting quite cold as I write this in the UK in late January. The weather makes a difference to what we wear, what we eat and what we do and yet I think it’s fair to say that the weather is often overlooked in RPG’s – unless it’s a mysterious fog of course!
So, here are some ideas on how to remedy that and how to bring the winter chill to your games!
First, let’s look at what kind of weather we could have when the snow is falling as even in that you have a few different options. Which means you can immediately be more nuanced about the fact that it’s ‘snowing’!
These are listed from least to most severe:
Cold front – unstable cold air which can cause unsettled weather including minor snow flurries and a drop in temperature
Snow flurries - light snowfalls for a short period of time
Mild snowfalls – these are more prolonged than a snow flurry and will last for several hours – this is the pretty, decorative snow that we all quite enjoy. Some snow will likely accumulate on the ground but it won’t be deep enough to cause any problems
Snowstorm – a prolonged snowfall that can produce significant accumulation on the ground
Thundersnow – this is when snow falls accompanied by thunder and lightning. Most often occurs downwind of large lakes or in mountainous regions.
Winter storm - may bring hail, snow, sleet or a combination of these. Will be prolonged and accumulate on the ground and likely result in major snowdrifts, the obscuring of tracks and flooding when it melts!
Blizzard – the most severe winter weather this is characterised by strong winds and very limited visibility i.e. less than 400 metres visibility
Snow and hail come in different sorts too:
Snowflakes – soft falling snow that is likely to accumulate on surfaces.
Sleet/Hail – smaller ice droplets that fall quickly and hard often bouncing off the ground on landing. Can accumulate on the ground but tends not to last for long. Can contribute to flooding.
Hailstones – 5mm (a quarter of an inch) or larger droplets of ice which fall hard and fast. Can be painful to be under. Also, make a heck of a racket if they hit a metal surface…such as armour. Sneaking through a hailstone storm in metal armour…well…you could try…and hope the guards are deaf!
Meteorologist grade snow falling based on visibility which might be useful if you are running an adventure outdoors and are having the party scouting around.
Light snow – visibility of 1km or greater (3280 feet plus)
Moderate snow – visibility between 500 – 1000 metres (1640 to 3280 feet)
Heavy snow – visibility less than 500 metres (under 1640 feet)
Snow on the ground comes in different forms which could make for some tense moments in a game if you design it out with a little thought. Imagine a fight on a snow-covered field with parts that might collapse underfoot or were ridges in the snowfield obscure and hide waiting opponents.
On the ground the types of snow are:
Snow crust – harder packed snow created often by some melting then refreezing of the surface snow. Can often sit on top of a layer of softer snow.
DM Ideas - put too much weight on the snow crust and it will break, potentially plunging a person deep into the snow as they fall through the broken crust and sink into the softer snow underneath. This might even deposit them into an unseen underground area...
Snowdrift – a pile of snow blown into a more sheltered area. Usually soft snow although it might accumulate a snow crust.
DM Ideas – locations that the players are looking for could easily be obscured by snowdrifts. Equally, a snow creature could well have burrowed in waiting for prey to walk past…you could justifiably have something fairly large hiding in a big enough snowdrift.
Cornice – a pile of snow sculpted by the wind to create a snowdrift with an overhanging top (looking a bit like a mountain peak). Potentially dangerous as they can collapse.
DM Ideas – perhaps a cornice presents a tempting shortcut to somewhere the players are going or it provides a tactical vantage point in a fight…naturally, if the opposition is smart they might find a way for the cornice to collapse. Alternatively, as DM you might decide that the cornice will collapse after a certain amount of weight has passed over it…or…that the chance of it collapsing increases as the weight on it increases.
Sastrugi – snow forms ridges in open areas or on bodies of water. They look like rows of sand dunes or frozen waves – although they are not frozen water but are formed by wind and ground temperature variations! Can be very tiring to traverse.
DM Ideas – Lots of potential for an ambush by creatures hiding in-between the ridges. It could also create problems for simply traversing the terrain. Perhaps slowing and fatiguing the party as they advance on an enemy camp…
So, you are now armed with lots of different types of snowfall, storms and terrain conditions. The other step for creating a winter theme is to describe winter.
Does people’s breath crystallise in the air when they breathe? Which incidentally occurs when the temperature drops below approximately 4-degrees centigrade (36 Fahrenheit). Is there a sheen of ice cover the buildings or are the sounds muffled by the soft blanket of snow on the ground?
Consider that walking in snow makes a crunching noise and is physically harder to walk in than clear ground. As it melts it also gets slippy. Any melee combat would have a good chance at random slips…perhaps those critical fails result in the character falling prone?
Ever had a fight in a winter forest? You get covered in snow - it gets into your eyes and can blind you. It can certainly make you feel cold. A fight in winter is not the same as in 'normal' moderate weather. Snow and ice interferes. It doesn't have to have a mechanical impact but it should impact on the scene description. But how do you do it? Well, there is an easy trick...
The trick to describing winter is the same as describing anything in an RPG…visualise it before the session.
Think back to a winter you’ve experienced or seen and consider how it looked, felt and sounded. Now consider the scene overlay that onto your scene in the adventure. Perhaps the party are coming up out of a dungeon in the heart of winter. You are planning an ambush. You have two choices.
You can either design your encounter and overlay your remembrance of winter or take the winter scene and build the encounter on top. The first option is quicker as it is likely you will only be adding descriptions. The second option is a bit deeper – the melting snow can create sinkholes that will plunge people through the snow crust or the sudden hailstorm will blow from the south and disadvantage anyone facing that way and trying to perceive enemies or fight into the wind.
In other words, when you build from the winter circumstances out you can build in more mechanical representations of winter. It makes for a deeper and more engaging experience but it will take a bit more time.
I hope you haven’t got too chilly reading all this and that it’s given you some fun options to challenge your players with.
Dungeon and Games Masters you might also enjoy https://www.thegrinningfrog.com/post/10-ice-sculpture-story-hooks
Until next time, stay warm!