Saturday, March 7, 2015

Using Seasons in Role Playing Games (general thoughts and another construction site for LSotN)

Writing a D&D Frankenclone like Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is always (the way I see it) a contemplation about what's lacking in D&D. Sure, it's also an exercise in game design and what not, but when I search for topics I need to discuss while developing LSotN, I always start with the question how D&D solved the problem in the editions I know. If the answer is unsatisfying or uninspiring, I start looking at other games and the blogosphere for ideas. Only after that I start writing a post and think about how I want to handle the problem at hand in my game. So here we go and talk about how seasons should have an impact on a gaming system.

Oh seasons, where art thou?

It's not that it's impossible to have seasons in a D&D game, it's just not part of the system in a meaningful way. Sure, you'll have some rules about characters being harmed by unusual conditions and all that, but the impact seasons should have on a setting is mostly ignored or reduced to flavor text. I consider this to be a major oversight. 

Winter is coming!

Okay, I couldn't resist this one. But it is a good example not only how important seasons could be in a setting, but also how much more they really could be. With Mr. Martin it's winter for the years to come and some really strong monsters that need the season to roam the land. Although I wouldn't go with the first*, I'd definitely give the second idea some thought.

What if, for instance, monsters driven by cold and hunger are considerably more dangerous than usual? Give them a higher morale to begin with. They fight to the death because loosing would mean death anyway. Give them more hit dice, because surviving under those harsh conditions for weeks has made them fierce and filled them with despair. Or have them fight like berserkers (including a reduction of their armor class, because they don't care that much anymore about being hit ...). Just by changing how monsters behave in winter, the season will have a considerable effect on the game.

But there is more. Monsters only active in winter is a good start, but I'd imagine it to be done to death by now. A very hot summer could allow access to ruins covered by snow and ice for a long time now and it could free some horrors long forgotten. Not only monsters, but weird magic or diseases. The slaughter of a legendary battle, frozen until the sun melts it's way to a long belated revenge. Or, if you want to go there, cannibalism as the dark secret in a small town that had to endure an especially cruel winter. 

Or take the old legends of a Wild Hunt occurring only in the darkest nights of winter. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page (but read the whole thing, it's full of great ideas!):
"The hunters may be the dead or fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead). The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Theodoric the Great, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, the Welsh psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd or the Germanic Woden (or other reflections of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer("Wuodan's Army") of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.)." (entry is liked above)
They steal babies from their crib and leave changelings behind. People mocking the Wild Hunt were cursed and had to join the hunt, but there also was the promise of gold for those joining voluntarily (as some legends would have it). The Hunt also left black dogs behind that either had to be exorcised with trickery or had to be kept and tended to for a whole year (a great random adventure seed, I might add).
The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892) [source]
The seasons, where they occurred, always had a great impact on the people experiencing them. And not only on their lives, but also on the legends and stories they tell. All this pretty much shows that the seasons regulated their lives and should do so in a fantasy setting, too.

Adventuring and the seasons

The best way for a DM to get this done in a campaign is to plan the seasons of a year with the setting. How early is spring? How hot will the summer be? How long and cold will winter be? Some random tables should take care of that. And knowing it beforehand will allow a DM to have it expressed during the sessions. You might have peasants doing some forecasting in some tavern or just describe how the weather has changed after the characters had spent some time in a dungeon.

It should have an impact on equipment. Not only do the characters need warm cloths in winter, but wearing to much should be very hard on a hot day in summer. Weather doesn't need to be extreme to have an impact on travel. Regular spring will make crossing rivers very dangerous most of the time and a few weeks of normal rain will do the same. Insects are a pest as soon as the weather allows it and even on warm days perfect for travel, you could have some frost at night that'll make camping quite uncomfortable (just listen to the magic user bitching when he realizes he won't be able to memorize spells ...).

Furthermore you'll have times where the characters couldn't go on adventures, even if they wanted to. Worse even, they might be stranded in some backwards town with the beginning of winter, with nothing else to do but waiting for better weather and a population getting more and more upset about the additional mouths they have to feed (I'm just putting cannibalism back into the text here ...).

There also really is such a thing as "underground weather", so harsh weather conditions above ground will have an effect underground (to name but two: heavy rain will have water trickling down the walls of a dungeon and depending on how deep you are, frost and cold will have an impact, too).

A DM would miss out not integrating seasons (and the weather that comes with them) into his game. There are just too many opportunities for a better game. In every game.

LSotN and the Seasons (Construction Site #2)

As I stated in the beginning, I think having the seasons being present in a gaming system is a great chance to improve the gaming experience and I want this in Lost Songs as integral part of the game. Here are some of the ideas I'm chewing on right now.

Every time a quality (think "ability score") falls below zero, the character won't be able to regenerate the damage he received below zero. He'll be scarred for life. If a character is ever to reach the point where he couldn't regenerate any quality points because the negative damage was to high, he dies appropriately. At least that's how I formulated the early rules for this.

But then I was reading a bit about the Pendragon RPG and how time works in the game. A player in Pendragon is not playing a character, but a lineage and adventuring is pretty much seasonal (I also found +Kelvin Green's post about Pendragon a few weeks ago rather enlightening and can only recommend it and the other posts in his series). It's a brilliant concept.

Now I'm thinking it would be neat to give characters the time to regenerate some of those lost points by taking some downtime between quests. Winter would be the perfect time for this as it is a natural break and goes along well with how it actually was.

So for every uninterrupted month back home (there will be a chance for interruptions, of course) and only for as long as winter allows for nothing else but waiting, a character may be allowed to regenerate 1 such point. Having a caring family and wealth will allow for one additional point each (but only for the whole season, not per month). There might be more possibilities to factor in (like coming back as heroes, for instance), but this is the main idea.

Making this mandatory for getting some of those points back should encourage players in taking those breaks serious and the results are quite narrative, too, as it is easy to describe why and how those scars healed or why it wasn't enough.

There's also the idea to change scope a bit in those times. Dungeon World gives some good examples for that when handling travel or making camp. The important thing here is to have it somehow expressed in the rules with something the players can do instead of just having the DM roll some random encounters/incidents. Instead of thinking in minutes or hours it should be about weeks and months ...

Well, seasons will have way more impact than that on the setting for pretty much all the reasons I gave above. But that's mostly pretty vague right now and for future posts to elaborate on.

*And yet, if seasons never had an impact on your campaign, you could at some point go and say "Okay, folks, winter is coming and you don't know how long it will last ...". It sure would change a setting in an interesting way.

1 comment:

  1. It was reading Pendragon that made me take time seriously in D&D campaigns, particularly in my projected Arthurian campaign. If there is a developing narrative in the background (as there was in my campaign - the idea was the players got to influence the events around them but other people were actors with their own agendas too, and if the players didn't stop them, the powerful NPCs would do x and y) then time needs to be taken into consideration. You move beyond 'what does the NPC do in the next 10 seconds?', to 'what does the NPC do over the next 3 months?' or even 3 years.

    Along with the need to know what NPCs are doing over time comes a campaign calendar. Then it becomes easier to think about seasonal changes - my current campaign is taking this idea and applying a passage of time - I know that it's early in the year of 1701 by the old imperial calendar (the equivalent I suppose of 1701 years after the founding of Rome, so maybe like AD950). The snows are melting in the mountains, things are stirring that have been dormant over winter, and I'm expecting that over the course of the year there will be different challenges from weather (I know for example that as the party didn't search the Giant Spider lair properly they didn't find the eggs, and in 2 months or so another plague of Giant Spiders will emerge) - and by the time 9 months of game-time have elapsed the weather will be closing in again and the wintery animals and nonhumans will be sniffing around the civilised areas. I'm also assuming that the campaign should be progressing over several game years. In this conception, experiance levels may be more linked to time than directly to fighting/XPs - a year equals a level, let's say (another idea developed from Pendragon).

    I do like the idea though that the characters have been in a 'summer' lasting 5 years (or however long) and 'winter is coming'...

    I've posted some things that relate slightly to this (and the Arthurian campaign) over at my blog -