Reviews & Ideas: Weather in RPGs

Weather & Atmosphere

You awake that morning to a consistent downpour. A deep fog has settled throughout the woods. The caravan you have been hired to safely escort to town is already having problems with the thick mud outside the inn. Your travel time will be significantly slowed.

Weather effects have always had much too small of an emphasis in many RPGs, relegated to a mention in some generic world-building chapter or the occasional supplement. In the “stereotypical” life of many Americans, weather is actually just a mild background to life. People awake in their climate controlled home, get into their climate controlled vehicles, and work in climate controlled buildings.

Swirling ever faster above you, the deep unnatural purple sky starts pulling itself towards the ground. You are whipped around by powerful winds tearing at your cloak as the tornado begins to form. That crazy mage has delivered on his threat. If you don’t get to safety soon, everything you’ve worked for will be in vain.

I live in one of the most intense weather cities in the continental USA: Chicago. Our summers are scorching and humid, our winters frigid and biting, with brief transitions between the two. We have thunderstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, hail, high-speed wind, flooding, extreme temperatures, very rare earthquakes nearby, and the occasional gorgeous day. Many folks in the city, like myself, do not own cars; we bike, walk, roll, and take public transit. Many of us also get by in life with no air-conditioning in our homes and landlord-controlled heat during winter (which, of course, is set to the minimum legal temperature). Weather has an incredible impact on daily life and I don’t even have to worry about a farm, pasture, angry gods, crazy mages, or unpaved roads.

The second moon rises over the canyon wall; crisp and cold. The night sky blazing with stars bright enough that you can see your breath in the glow. Cruelly, the evening has stolen away the overwhelming heat of the day to be replaced by dry, bitter, freezing air.

Weather could be an effect that is established just for atmosphere or could be a large influence on the actual story line progression. Typically, before beginning a new session or in-game day, I announce what is happening with the weather before proceeding. It is one of my signature GM moves, but I have had players tell me of their own accord that it helps bring them into the world of their characters and prepare them to now focus in on the game.

The sun has risen in a bright blue sky without a cloud to be seen. Birdsong resonates through the open window of your home. Gentle morning dew evaporates in the light. This is going to be a perfect day for the beginning of the annual town festival.

Think about the weather and/or climate of the world the players are in. Is it desert, mountains, tropical, arid, prairie, swap, temperate? Is the weather regularly impacted by large natural or magical influences that could create catastrophic disasters? There are so many options. If it is a planet of some kind, then there are weather patterns that also play into those climates. Earth is a fantastic place to begin researching, though I often find myself reading about the climates of the other planets in our solar system as well.

Stumbling on the path, you rest your hand against a tree in order to steady yourself and get your bearings. The blizzard has erased any sign of those you have been pursuing and it unfortunately has also muddled your senses and you are now lost. Stranded, your companion suffering with a broken leg from a hidden patch of ice, your mind is as blank as the white billowing snowfall.

In the fantasy RPG I run (loosely using the Hackmaster Basic rule set), the main starting town is in a four-season temperate zone with flare. Since it is an improvisational game, each new day I randomly roll to see what the weather brings, and on occasion it becomes a large impact on the lives of the characters. Sometimes, I will intentionally select what is going on with the weather, for dramatic or “other” reasons unbeknownst to the players. Below is the table I use.

Summer Weather Patterns for local Glyndael area – 1d6:
* 1 – Sunny
* 2 – Sunny
* 3 – Partly cloudy, clears in the afternoon
* 4 – Partly cloudy, 20% chance of sprinkles
* 5 – Mostly cloudy with fog patches, 40% chance of sprinkles
* 6 – Other – 1d10
** 1&2 – Drizzle
** 3&4 – Thunder and lightning storm
** 5&6 – Rain
** 7&8 – Sunny and almost magically perfect day
** 9 – Tornado close-by, 5% chance of hitting Glyndael
** 10 – Supernatural effects are occurring: purple sky, unusual winds or clouds, omen type weather, etc

Disease is spreading around the ship. It is so damp from humidity that the walls are covered in droplets of water. Ever since the air purifiers and regulators went off-line, the circulating air has been carrying around a nasty airborne virus from the planet. What is the better choice? To stay on the ship and risk catching the illness, or try and get back to the planet where the war rages on?

For sci-fi games that are taking place on a space ship, or other fully-controlled environments, there is still room for random effects. I can’t imagine that the life-systems, run by machines and computers, are always going to function as they should. Perhaps a system has partially failed, resulting in extreme humidity or freezing cold or sweltering heat.

It is time to reconsider the roll that weather plays in your game. How would your life be different if you were reliant on unpaved roads, when two days of storms create landslides or inches worth of mud that cover the ground? That is just a simple question. Ask yourself many more. Your characters are living on a planet, so make that planet more alive… for in the end, we primates are nothing in the face of nature and all its power.

[tags]Role Playing Games, Game Mastering, World Building, rpg[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Reviews & Ideas: Weather in RPGs

Add yours

  1. You’ve got some fantastic descriptions going there, and way to bring it into Sci-Fi too. I think as a new writer here on Troll ITC that’s one of the things I’ll have trouble with the most, I’m a deeply rooted Fantasy game kind of guy. I just don’t think in Sci-Fi terms nearly as much.

    Really well done, definitely something to think about in future games.


  2. Thank you for the compliment! You’ll have to let me know if you try to integrate more weather into your game and how it goes.

    I actually was just reading your piece on “Playing a Story in a Believable World” this morning. That fine balance between plot and choice can be tricky, yet oh so rewarding!


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