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D&D Burgoo: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Oh the weather outside is frightful.

Waiting four hours overnight in the parking lot of a Casey’s General Store for a snow plow to come by and clear a path home certainly provides plenty of time to think about the game effects of winter weather.

Historically, winter has been the bane of warfare. While there have been notable exceptions, the general rule was that armies suspended their campaigns once the snow started falling. Even in the modern age, with machines capable of overcoming piles and piles of snow, extreme cold can bring an army to a halt. Ice has ever been treacherous.

But your game world need not be so rigid. After all, your players are heroes. What’s a little snow to them? I bet you won’t catch them waiting around for a snow plow to make things easy.

In D&D, winter conditions present a great opportunity to challenge the players’ resourcefulness, especially if your game has previously only be set in some sort of endless summer. But be warned, the trick is not to let things grind to a halt.

4th edition

Exposure to cold is resolved by an Endurance check made against a target difficulty class. Severe weather is a DC 20, cold a DC 22 and frigid cold a DC 26. As for the effects of snow an ice in tactical combat, that’s a judgment call by the DM, using the modifiers from the Encounter Settings section of the DMG and Chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook. A light or heavy snowfall might be designated as Obscured Terrain. Slippery ice might be Challenging Terrain.   Drifting snow and deep snow banks could be considered Hindering Terrain if you try to move through it, Cover Terrain if you hide behind it. If it’s a mountain of snow and ice that blocks your way, say a glacier or an avalanche, maybe it’s Blocking Terrain. Accumulated snow, say ankle-to-knee deep, might only be classified as Difficult Terrain, and slow movement by 1 square.

Version 3.5

Exposure depends on what clothes your PC is wearing. Basically, though, unprotected creatures must succeed on a Fortitude save against a DC 15 (+1 per previous check) each hour or suffer 1d6 points of nonlethal damage. Sleet and snow both cut visibility in half, applying a -4 penalty to Search and Spot checks. Ranged attacks take a -4 penalty. Snowstorms impose -8 penalties in these cases. Snow impedes movement based on depth of the snow cover. Medium creatures have to pay 2 squares of movement if snow is less than 2 feet deep and 4 squares of movement if it’s deeper than that. If the depth is greater than 5 feet, a DC 5 Strength or Balance check is required.

Be flexible

Regardless of system, don’t be a slave to the rules, especially when dealing with weather conditions. In my opinion, it’s the most difficult thing to simulate. Use your sense of story, gauge carefully the PCs capabilities, and adjust as need be, such as:

> Try not to use weather conditions as a means of punishing players. Rather, make it part of the atmosphere, heightening the adventure. If you can, try not to let the players lose their fingers and toes to frostbite, if you can help it. (NPCs are fair game, of course).

> Occasionally, weather can steer the story. Remember when the fellowship of the ring must take a detour when a blizzard blocks Redhorn Pass?

> Mostly, though, use snow and ice as challenges to be overcome. They’re like traps, in a sense, which must be defeated bypassed, as the players see fit.

> Use wintry weather for the sake of atmosphere. Maybe it’s enough to know that the blizzard rages outside, while the dwarven hearth-fires offer warmth and comfort.

I’d love to hear about your in-game experiences with snow and ice, and whether you thought it heightened or ruined the play experience.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow"

#1 Comment By NeonElf On December 3, 2008 @ 9:54 am

I was playing a Ravenloft campaign where it was snowing and we had to take refuge, we found an over turned cart, and stayed the night in it. Next morning we found out the reason it was abandoned was becuase it had been marked with Plague symbols! We all ended up getting getting a disease, and (due to ravenloft rules I think) My character ended up with an “obsession” about this particular plague.

It was a great effect adding to tension in the story when we first saw the carriage it was a looming dark shadow and we couldn’t tell if it was a large creature or not. Fumbling around blind in a blizzard with little or no visibility, is like darkness and can conceal hazards, friends and foe alike.

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On December 3, 2008 @ 10:08 am

In the game of Hero’s Banner which I just wrapped up, the characters were nobles in various nations in a vaguely-medieval, vaguely-Eastern European land, when they all got drawn into a war — on opposing sides, in the middle of winter.

HB doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules for cold and inclement weather, but because it has broad narrative rules and because the heroes are basically impossible to kill (a PC can’t die until their “Passion” trait maxes out, and then the player gets narrative rights over the death), it let my players really revel in the winter environment, describing how ice and snow and wind took their toll on the battlefield, and how the horses of cavalry troops were foundering for lack of fodder, and men were just lying down to die in the cold rather than trying to march any farther.

A few years back I was running a game of Vampire: The Dark Ages, wherein the players were travelling across Europe in the winter. They made great use of deep snowdrifts (burying themselves to avoid the sun — maybe not entirely believable, but functional for story purposes), and when one character went into Frenzy on the edge of a remote German village, we discussed how his methodical and maniacal slaughter of every living thing in the village (he was reasonable old and powerful by this point; we’d started in about 1190 and this action was taking place around 1350) would likely not even be noticed by any outsider until spring when the folk of the nearest town noticed they didn’t come to the regional market.

#3 Comment By Sarlax On December 3, 2008 @ 10:46 am

In my two-year running and nearly concluded 3.5 game, the winter has been a prominent part of the background for months of game time now. In the part of the world in which the PCs have been active, the land was largely covered in warm jungle, cleared only in some areas for towns and farmland. In the past, winter had simply been a slightly cooler season with a lot of rain.

This wasn’t natural, however. For thousands of years, the dominant breed of dragon on Reyha (this continent) had been red. In my game, dragons have links to the Elemental planes (based on the fundamentum from Draconomicon). With so many reds in the area, the Plane of Fire was effectively drawn “closer” to the mortal world.

When the PCs caused the stirring of the dead god on which the githyanki have built their capital city, that race called its red dragon allies to assist them, and many of the more powerful reds went to the Astral plane – in the middle of the winter. The result was a very Day After Tomorrow-style onset of deep winter, freezing much of Reyha, killing hundreds of thousands, and destroying crops everywhere.

As a consequence, a couple of adventures revolved around the weather directly (battling white dragon immigrants, negotiating with better-protected cities for their food), while the winter has been in the background of every other session since them. In the game now, they’ve only just started coming into spring, in which the landscape has been deeply damaged by the cold, and the ecology largely destroyed.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 3, 2008 @ 11:08 am

Waaaay the heck back when Reagan was in his first term, Dragon Magazine published weather tables, and I built a campaign beginning out of them. Like most of my campaigns at the time, it was never run, but I always liked the idea of a sudden blizzard that drops four feet of snow on the party, forcing them to deal with the conditions instead of fighting skeletons or goblins or other boring first-level-appropriate critters.

How would I use this in a game today? The weather is a complication, not the actual problem itself. Movement is much more difficult, especially if you’re trying to stay covert. Melee combat is nearly impossible in deep snow. You’ve got to stay warm and dry. [1] can be a challenge.

And then there’s the question of gear: Do we travel slowly and carry what we might need (expedition style mountaineering), or do we travel light, and depend on our speed and skill to survive (alpine style mountaineering)? A Bag of Holding or Portable Hole (etc) may change that formula, but only if you have access to one.

Thanks for posting this, Troy; I will definitely use weather in my next campaign!

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 3, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

Neonelf: Plague cart. How VERY medieval … how very memorable. You have a wicked DM. The idea of snow masking something important, like a sign, need not even be so drastic. YOu could borrow that idea for something simple, like a sign that says “Beware: Cave Troll” that’s buried by the snow. Then later the PCs find it. What a V-8 moment.

Deadlytogue: Vampire, eh? Predators, counting on the fact the crime wouldn’t be discovered by the weather. Very clever. We do seem to have a horror-theme running here with snow.

Sarlax: Because you were running a 3.5 game, did you find the mechanics of snow to be a hindrance to what was going on? Or because the snow was ever-present, were those modifiers accounted for and you just played through? The Day After Tomorrow-style thing sounds like a great solution to get the players out of the “endless summer” that many campaigns seem to get stuck in.

Telas: In comparing the 4E and 3E weather conditions modifiers, clearly the new rules offer a simplified way to handle terrain as an obstacle. On the other hand, as you say: “Melee combat is nearly impossible in deep snow”, which is true in real life, which means the rules simulate that fairly accurately. D&D DMs might be advised simply to invoke the +2/-2 all-purpose modifier for snow. “It’s snowing, so everything suffers a -2 penalty.” Or, “It’s a heavy snow with a lot of accumulation, everyone suffers a -5 penalty.”

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 3, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

[2] – I don’t run 4E yet, so I had to go look up those numbers… Sad, isn’t it? Those sound like good descriptions of snowy terrain, although deep enough snow would definitely be Challenging Terrain (ever post-hole up to your hip while walking across packed snow?).

For melee combat, I’d say that with either system, some snow (up to the knee) is a -2, and deep snow (above the knee) is a -5. I have direct experience with attempting a grapple in deep snow (it sucks and you can drown). I can’t imagine what real melee, with weapons, would be like… A comedy of errors?

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 3, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

A real melee. Since medieval barons generally didn’t fight “pitched” battles in their war feuds, I can see why they stayed away from winter combat as a general rule. The object was simply to intimidate, maybe give your opposing baron a “bloody nose,” to reinforce your claim/might/superiority given the situation. With those objectives, winter combat doesn’t make sense from this perspective — snow is a great equalizer. The advantage is gone. It’s much better to wage war when conditions favor you — which is what I gather they pretty much did.

Thankfully in D&D, orcs and goblins and hobgoblins pay no mind to such niceties of warfare. That’s why there has to be some DM leniency on the numbers. You don’t want to make it “impossible” for your players to have “fun” with snow warfare.

I post hole every fall to help my wife install this wood cutout of Santa climbing on the backs of taxed elves to reach the rooftop of our house. Thankfully, most years it’s done before we have any serious accumulation. That job is hard enough. I can’t imagine doing that with snow up to your hips. Yuck.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On December 3, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

Weather has played a good role in our D&D game; they’re trudging across high plateaus and mountains in winter. While cold has come up quite a bit, snow has been more described than impactful. Freezing rain made an impression…

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 3, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

Cold weather in my last 3.5 was used to impress on my players how dark and cold it was in one country they visited. I think the winter wolves were much more impressive to them (mid-level party, still got chewed up), but they stayed conscious of the need for warm clothes and food.

#10 Comment By BryanB On December 4, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

Weather can be a good challenge for PCs to deal with. I once used a typhoon in an Oriental Adventures session. It was a very trying experience for the PCs, not only to survive the catastrophe, but to have to deal with the effects of the typhoon’s aftermath. Their entire home village was almost erased from the map and it was a very sombering roleplaying moment for all.

#11 Comment By mattereaterlad On December 5, 2008 @ 11:12 am

Right now, my players are slowly moving up the side of a mountain to do some trading at an Eladrin city for griffon eggs, on the behalf of a dwarf outfitter from the stronghold at the base of the mountain range.

I’m using weather hindrances to help put Skill Challenges in the forefront, since this is a 4E game, and to help the players feel the pressure. Not only is the citadel on the mountaintop native to the Feywild and only appears in the Material Plane once every 30 years for 30 days, but a day after they started their long journey, they spotted an all-dwarf climbing team behind them making a path to scale the nigh-impossible side of the mountain (to avoid the hobgoblin camp the less-skilled PCs were planning to face head-on, natch).

When it comes to combat, I use snow primarily as set dressing, but do always include some weather-based terrain challenges. It’s really allowed the wizard in our party to shine, whether it’s using thunderwave to blast deep snow out of the way for his comrades, or using flaming sphere to strategically weaken the ice over a frozen river during a pitched battle with a wolf-mounted hobgoblin patrol.

If they decide to hang out in the mountains long enough, eventually theyll run into the cousins of the typical tunnel-dwelling dwarves they’ve met so far: a nation of nomadic dwarves who trek the snow fields deep within the mountain range, inspired somewhat by Dune’s Fremen. That’s one of my favorite things about different climates in D&D: coming up with different versions of familiar creatures that have adapted to their unique environment (even if only the mechanics are familiar, and the “skinning” is totally new). And of course, it’s only natural that these adaptations give them a leg up on the all-star team that is the PCs. 😉

#12 Comment By Sarlax On December 5, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

Because you were running a 3.5 game, did you find the mechanics of snow to be a hindrance to what was going on? Or because the snow was ever-present, were those modifiers accounted for and you just played through?

By the time the snow hit, the PCs were already of sufficient power that movement in the snow wasn’t an issue – the druid could use Master Earth to get anywhere, while the psion/cleric and even the necromancer were capable of using Teleport to jump around.

The weather affected the campaign most in that the PCs had taken stewardship of the world’s largest surviving humanoid city and the town in which they started adventuring before the snow hit. Rather than snow being a problem because it made it harder to walk around, the snow destroyed food supplies, killed people from exposure, and filled the cities with refugees. It was up to the PCs to deal with the humanitarian crisis, as well as determine whether and how to change the weather back to how it had been.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 5, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

Mattereaterlad: I’m so glad you’re incorporating Skill Challenges with weather. I think the future success/acceptance of 4E may well depend on how widely this particular mechanic is utilized. Good luck with this approach.

Sarlax: It’s great that your players made some really keen adventuring/roleplaying actions. Those are some “big picture” players — rather than be concerned with leveling up, they are taking responsibility for “their” world. It must be a treat.

#14 Comment By Vagnaard On December 10, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

I used wheater in one of my games to show that it was going very bad. It was raining. Always. Since the start of the campain to the very last minute, it was raining. Then the players won and it started snowing.

They were worried 😉