This article was first broadcast in Episode Eight on 17th January 2018.
Ryu: Ok, I’ve fixed the spell, try the lights again
Lennon: *click* Ahh, that’s bett–gah!
*a crack of thunder, the sound of rain*
Ostron: Hmm. That’s… ominous… although now I can barely see the script
Ryu: Let me just cast the Light spell…
Ostron: Much better!
Last time, we discussed using weather as an encounter. While this is one way to incorporate weather into a campaign, if your party members are all equipped with slickers +2 vs hailstones, forcewall umbrellas, and galoshes of dry socks, you might have overused the tactic just a smidge. On the other hand, now that your players are paying attention to it, you can begin to expand the role that weather plays in your adventures beyond just weather encounters. Since D&D is a storytelling game, it’s appropriate to look at how weather is used in literature to expand our repertoire. When weather has a role in a work of fiction, it’s there for a reason; if a storm happens in the woods and it doesn’t have any impact on anyone or anything in the story, why waste a paragraph on it? Likewise, when weather happens in a D&D game, it’s helpful to have a reason for it to appear.
One way to expand the role of weather in your game isn’t far from using it as an encounter; when using a weather event as a story element, it affects or instigates something that the players can respond to. The simplest way to do this being having a weather encounter happen to somebody other than the party. An important caravan the players have been waiting for loses some important goods while crossing a rain-swollen river, requiring the party to recover them; a storm drives a mysterious ship onto the nearby rocky coast, putting the players in a position to investigate and/or salvage; heavy fog allows an entity to approach, escape, or traverse a region unseen. This may be used to create plot hooks for the players to act on, like investigating the beached ship or recovering the lost goods. It can also be used to establish background elements that plant seeds for future plot hooks, or enhance the realism of the campaign setting. For example, heavy rainfalls in the region not only cause travel delays, but a few days later the party starts seeing trickles of refugees coming to town from villages destroyed by landslides.
Weather over the course of a season works well for developing the world in the background. There’s no such thing as “we lost our crops after a few days of hard drought”; some things will take time to really have an impact. A bumper crop is the result of a summer of good weather, and any region enjoying such a crop will see greater trade in their cities, with merchants coming from further away and offering goods that might not normally be available in the region. Likewise, a drought takes a great deal of time with little to no rain, and the party will be seeing some of the signs well before harvest; the drought will be a common topic in the markets and bars where the farmers gather, relevant churches will see more people flocking in to pray for rain. As the drought deepens, wildfires will threaten fields and communities, livestock will suffer, and the threat of a lean winter will force many to scramble for goods to stockpile to make it through to spring, even while their potential future income continues to plummet. Even if it doesn’t affect the party’s immediate plans, they should be aware of what’s going on, because the rest of the world around them certainly will be.
Another way to incorporate weather is to use it for ambience; a deadly confrontation has a different feel during a storm-lashed night than it does during a bright afternoon with a playful zephyr; a seaport will be more real to the players if you include the brisk breeze carrying the tang of saltwater and fish; and nothing drives home the fact that winter is coming quite like waking up to a world covered in frost. Weather as ambience is useful whenever you want to add sensory information to a description, bringing temperature, humidity, windiness, weather-related scents, visibility, or any number of factors in to enhance the scenes you set, making the world that much more real for the players. However, you can also use it to help build a particular mood: tension, unease, dreariness, cheerfulness; with the right weather, you can help cast the upcoming encounters in a fresh light, and make them more memorable.
If you’re not sure what kind of weather you want to include for ambience, you may occasionally want to use it symbolically, representing some aspect of the current situation or story. Suppose the story element in question is the arrival of a delegation from a neighboring country; storms on the horizon signals an ominous threat, fog plays up the unknowns, while a calm, sunny day signals an optimistic, peaceful outcome. In general, it’s best to avoid trying to make actual omens out of such events, but rather play off the players’ feelings. A storm threatening on the horizon should reflect the players’ own worries about the arriving envoy, rather than telling them they ought to be worried. If the players start treating this kind of weather event as an omen, they’ll tend to start turning them into self-fulfilling propecies (e.g. taking the storm as a bad omen and launching a preemptive attack on the envoy, thus inciting war). If you’re worried your players are using your symbolic weather events to try to metagame and get an advantage, feel free to change things up to throw them off. While the players are enjoying a bright, cheerful day in the market, word comes that the envoy has murdered the local baron and seized the castle, reminding them that the weather’s predictions are generally less useful than predictions about the weather.
Of course, in some cultures or campaigns, omens happen all the time, including those based on the weather; consider the stock the Ancient Romans placed on their auguries, observing the movements of birds to learn what the future held in store for them. If your campaign does use omens, then the weather can reflect what’s happening within the story, although often with limits. It may only happen when involving the leaders of the lands, or the fate of a particular cult or church, or a single family. Even when such omens are common, however, they don’t have to be clear and straightforward; a storm threatening on the horizon as a large, unknown army approaches the city could indicate destruction in the face of an overwhelming power; but the storm, while fierce with thunder and lightning, blows over without even raining, while the enemy force had hoped to bluff to get a surrender before the defenders realized how weak it actually was. Ultimately, whether used symbolically or as omens and portents, this technique is the hardest to use safely, so it’s best used sparingly.
Lennon: Ah, the lights are back
Ostron: and the rain has stopped
Ryu: Good, because I need to get a certain hat from a certain vault for a certain game tonight, and I really don’t want that place to get flooded out. Back in a bit!