This article was first broadcast in Episode Seven on 10th January 2018.
Ostron: It’s raining bears and frogs out there
Lennon: Okay, the expression is cats and dogs and plate armor isn’t good in rain-
Ostron: I’m going to stop you right there – look out the window.
Weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. To be fair, most people can’t do anything about it…unless they’re the DM, in which case they can make it rain frogs for weeks because someone wanted frog’s legs for dinner. But aside from petty revenge and/or cheap laughs, it’s hard to know when or why to include weather in the game. In modern times, it’s largely demoted to be the bane of the commuter, but in earlier eras the prosperity of sailors, merchants, farmers, soldiers, and more depended heavily on the weather being cooperative. Since travel above-ground leaves the party exposed to the elements, it’s surprising how little impact weather has in some campaigns.
Even when weather is used, it’s hard to get the players to pay much attention to it; it’s just one more bit of background information that is usually forgotten if it doesn’t impact the game. But how can you keep your players interested on what’s going on in the sky? Simple: make it an encounter. When they start getting XP from dealing with threatening weather, they’ll be sure to love it…assuming they survive.
Before going into specific examples, it’s worth reviewing what a weather encounter should do to qualify as an encounter. An XP-worthy weather event should force the characters to expend resources to clear the encounter, make an existing encounter more dangerous, or force a story-affecting decision or branching point. Quick examples include weather events that injure members of the party, weather that delays or diverts the party, and weather that forces them to consider changing their planned route or take on some side quest. If the party has to debate over what to do with it, there’s a good chance that it’s worth at least a minor XP reward.
A hailstorm poses an obvious hazard to the party; no one’s going very far if they’re barraged by several icy sling bullets every minute. A party trapped in the open during such an event will certainly lose a good deal of health and will likely have to use spells to defend or heal themselves. But if the party finds a cave to secure themselves, they may lose a few hours, or perhaps a day, but otherwise come out unscathed. Similarly, a heavy fog may delay or mislead a travelling party, but is unlikely to harm them. Are those encounters? Do they force a use of party resources? Does it affect the story progress?
Let’s add the other components, then. Suppose the party is being pursued; the enemy forces’ power is sufficient that facing them is perilous and uncertain…and the storm is approaching. To seek shelter and wait would protect the party from the storm, but might allow the enemy to catch up to them. By fleeing through the storm, however, they can likely escape their foes, if they can protect themselves (and their mounts!) well enough to get through to the other side. In either case it can be an encounter: in the first example, the party is expending time, and may need to make checks to hide. In the second, the use of resources and skills is obvious.
Of course if the party charges ahead they might run off an unseen cliff or get turned around and head straight back towards their enemies. If they’re clever, though, the fog can be an opportunity. The wizard might use a scroll of Find Familiar to quickly change his ferret into a bat, while the druid likewise uses wild shape, allowing the two to scout ahead and lead the party unaffected by the fog. By their actions they can either greatly improve (or worsen) their chances of being captured. It could be argued that the fog is not an encounter in and of itself (and thus not worth XP), but it does serve as a complication to an existing encounter, and thus dealing with it should increase the XP received for dealing with the pursuit.
Adverse weather can also be used to make a fairly safe scenario dangerous. A party travelling along a mountainous path with a wall on one side and a drop-off on the other is in fairly little danger most of the time, as long as the path itself is stable. Add heavy fog, and the party is forced to travel slowly or risk straying over the edge. Add freezing rain and high wind the party has to consider how to deal with it, such as waiting out the rain in some kind of shelter, tying the party members to one another to try to keep anyone from going over the edge (at the risk of possibly pulling EVERYONE over the edge), or consider backtracking to take a safer route (through the Mines of Moria). Depending on the severity of the weather, the risk of failing might be low, but the penalty for failing could prove fatal, and successfully dealing with that and coming out intact should be rewarded.
By including these type of events, you can help the party see the value of their wood-wise members, who can help the party find shelter, lead them along the safest paths, or otherwise help the party navigate its way safely under inclement conditions. You could even have them roll Wisdom (Survival) checks to allow them to know what weather is coming, possibly giving the party time to prepare gear to help their survival, or possibly even take advantage of the incoming weather event; the party that knows the night will be foggy will be better able to plan an infiltration than one taken by surprise. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.
Once your players are used to the idea of weather actually having an impact on them (and their XP totals!), you can bet your players will pay attention when you mention rainfall or wind in the future, and with that, you can start incorporating weather as a story element, which we’ll discuss in our next installment on Weather in D&D.