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By Pierre Nuss
When you’re playing a campaign, its in-game duration can span over several years of a character’s life. Some of our groups’ Game Masters have the characters live quiet and eventless winter times, compared to the rest of their adventurers’ lives.
This article deals mainly with the winter phases in historic-leaning (before the 18th century) Role-Playing Games, or in Heroic-Fantasy. We’ll discuss two main tendencies when it comes to gaming winter time: the fantastic aspect, and the realistic aspect. We’ll also give some scenarios leads that can keep your inactive Player Characters busy during the frost.
The easy, surrealist winter.
This is the easy solution, for both you and the PCs : you let the characters walk up and down in the snow without inflicting any movement modifier, without having them suffer from extreme cold, frostbite, wolves, or even the implacable feeling of loneliness whilst facing chilling winds whipping through damp clothes.
In this type of winter, not everybody is strolling around on the roads as in summer: only the hardiest keep on roaming about, such as our heroes, who must accomplish their mission at all costs! This gives the PCs an aura of exception, affronting the cold whereas the common folk stay indoors. The stoics PCs struggle against the frost, fearing neither danger nor malady. Classy, very classy.
It would thus be interesting to improve their image through the recognition of this achievement that they are among the few to undertake.
The realistic winter
First thing regarding realistic winters, which should never be omitted, otherwise you risk boring your players : the harshness of a season is variable. A winter can be more or less rigorous. It may even happen that no snow falls on the plains; or on the contrary, any given winter may be more violent than usual.
Think about it, if you’re running a campaign spanning several years.
The passes are closed or impassable due to the snow falls. Nearly all of the merchant guilds cease their activities and rest after a year’s swarms through the main commercial districts and trading posts. Roads have become deserted, since the local armies have taken their quarters in their barracks, and have stopped protecting the routes from the bandits who erect road barriers to rob the few reckless travellers still out and about. Otherwise they just move to the cities to find something to steal.
Gradually, life slows down. Everyone prepares to live through a rigorous winter.
Take a look at Wikipedia’s entry for avalanches. There are a lot of ideas to take from the description of powder snow avalanche.
Travel and movement are thus much more complicated because of the elements, snowfall and migrations of wolf packs. Then there is the risk of avalanches: snow avalanches occur when the load on the upper snow layers exceeds the bonding forces of a mass of snow if the under-layer; everything then collapses and rushes down the slopes without warning. This can also happen when the thick white blanket melts, around March or April.
It’s much easier for PCs to winter in a city, waiting for the season to end – a period that would last from the end of December to February or March, but it depends on the region.
This winter pause technique allows the GM to mark the notion of the passing of time during a long and exacting campaign. PCs – and players – can realise that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and that they are at the mercy of the forces of nature.
They may stay in the warm shelter of an inn, which allows them to heal their old wounds, to craft weapons, to train and master skills, or obtain important positions in the city. The stay at an inn can be restful (or not) and allows the GM to encourage the PCs to squander the fortune they so painstakingly built up during the previous seasons, just to have the right to room and board.
Being trapped indoors gives rise to oppresive situations, such as in the movies like Key Largo or the Shining
You may prefer to avoid a halt at the inn – I personally find it a little too impersonal, unless you do a huge amount of writing an adventure indoors, as the PCs are blocked in by the bad weather. In this case it would be interesting to insert in your setting some nobles or commoners, with whom it would be important to keep up good relations by doing them a service or winning their friendship. This would provide a better locale to spend the winter. If the PCs find sponsors, winter is more comfortable in a warm manor belonging to “powerful people”. Thus the GM has the possibility to add many secondary quests, since the PCs are tied to the life and routine of the household.
Otherwise the PCs continue their adventures. In which case, the risks are greater. [Rulewise, apply as many negative modifiers as you see fit. Now to address the aspect of game mastering…]
Technically, it’s quite difficult to run a winter adventure with realistic conditions of travel, and also because of the scarce economic life at this time. Winter is a time of rest for all (from orcs to humans, even elves), in a fantasy setting.
Winter provides multiple possibilities of role-playing, but it should not be taken too far; a scenario set in a realistic winter should not be common and should remain an exception, so that the players may appropriately feel the importance of the moment. What’s more, don’t forget that GMs should be lenient towards the PCs and should let them exercise, copy their spells, carve out a reputation for themselves, practice their handicraft skills. Also remember that it’s the only time of year the PCs can visit their families, notably their wives, and father children. It’s an aspect which shouldn’t be neglected, as having a social life other than dungeons may appeal to our heroes…
Some leads and synopses on winters
We hope those little notes on winter will help you designing and running your games.
I would like to thank all the members of http://www.cerbere.org/ who contributed to this discussion. And you’re invited to send us ideas on this topic for our forum.
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