Thursday, April 14, 2011

On Weather and Terrain: Pitting Characters Against Their Environment

The Female Characters series of articles is still in progress, but now for a break: let's talk about the weather! (No, really...)

Conflict, when handled properly, is interesting. I've said it before, I'll probably say it a million more times. A story doesn't run without a primary conflict, which usually presents itself in RPs as a main enemy. There's also usually a healthy (or even poisonous) dose of inter-party conflict. Other character-driven conflict often puts in an appearance as well, with NPCs interacting with the player characters. There's no shortage, in other words, of character-driven conflict. What doesn't always get enough of an impact, I think, is the conflict that the environment itself causes by way of weather and terrain.

It isn't always 65 and sunny out. There are acceptable breaks from reality, as I'll write about in another article, but constant lack of obnoxious weather is not one of them. Depending on your setting, it will get hot, or cold, and it will rain, or fog, or snow, or hail, or windstorm, or... well, there's plenty of things the weather can do, with varying degrees of unpleasantness, and therefore varying kinds of effects on your characters. Even a character who lives outside all the time won't be unaffected by the weather.

It would be a lot more convenient to ignore the weather, it's true. But why go with convenient when you could instead have interesting? GMs, think about the climates and weather of your settings! Players, think about how your characters are going to react!

Weather creates all kinds of challenges. For example, rain. A little light rain won't do more than annoy you... unless you're stuck in it for hours, and the misery it generates increases exponentially. What about heavy rain, though? For starters, where are you? If you're in the desert and on high ground, heavy rain may be a blessing... but elsewhere, it's a curse. Not much grass, but lots of dirt? Keeping your footing will probably be difficult. Hilly country with loose soil? Watch out for mudslides. At sea? Mind the waves, and the wind that tends to come with storms. Near a river? Flood watch is in effect! Are you unlucky enough to be in a network of ravines? You're in serious trouble-- good luck getting out of the way of the flash flood probably headed for you. If there are high winds, or hail, or lightning, things just get more fun! Kiss visibility goodbye, too. Blizzard conditions provide similar loss of visibility and footing, with the extra fun of hypothermia risk. High winds on their own can ruin your day; on flat grassland, with no windbreak, strong wind will steal anything not bolted down, including possibly you, and lord help you if you're flying for whatever reason. Wind across a sandy or dusty area can kill visibility with a lung-clogging sandstorm-- get inside! Even just the sun beating down on a hot day can be pretty harmful if your characters are low on water. Really, you don't even need to get into disaster-level events like hurricanes to ruin your characters' day-- regular weather will do fine.

On the other hand, weather can be helpful. Rain in the desert, or after a drought, is refreshing; a breeze on a hot day is a mercy; a moderate tailwind behind a flier or a ship gives a speed boost. Rainless clouds can cut down on glare. You can use weather other than 65 and sunny to help your characters out! Why not go for some variety?

Can weather be bad for your characters? Yes! Is it strictly bad for the story? No! Weather adds an extra level of realism to a setting, and can help to shape and direct the story. It definitely gives your characters something more to do on their way than just bicker at each other.

Weather is generally a function of climate. Climate isn't the main focus in this post, and will probably feature in later ones about world-building, but I'll just make the aside that varying the climates your characters travel to could probably make things really interesting. I want to see more than just temperate everywhere (of course, I'd also like to see these other climates be done right-- do your research).

The other environmental factor that can cause direct and immediate problems or advantages for your characters is terrain. What are they standing on, running on, fighting on? Flat plains and gently rolling hills get boring after a while. Use something interesting!

Is it sand? They'll probably be slowed down some. In a fight, if your character doesn't mind fighting dirty, it's something to throw, but it's also something to slip in. It gets hot in the sun. And, as the mockable line goes, "It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere." Rocks? How big are the rocks? Flat stone is even footing, but can be slippery when wet. Boulders are difficult to traverse, especially with mounts. Pebbles can be slippery, or uneven, and may get stuck in horseshoes, boots, gear, and (if your character goes barefoot) feet. (Aside: Gravel is really, really mean to your feet.) Thin grass or bare dirt can get muddy, and mud is messy, hindering, and slippery. Tall grass hampers movement, and in the tallest cases, visibility. Woods are full of underbrush and tree roots to trip over, as well as little holes and drops that a horse or person can break an ankle in, but full of places to hide if you know what you're doing. Deep snow hinders movement and hides holes, obstacles, and ice, and can make evident or hide tracks depending on wind conditions.

High ground grants an advantage in battle or against floods. Low ground can mean shelter from wind. Uneven terrain can be bad for footing, but a surefooted, agile character can use it to lose a more unwieldy pursuer. Familiar territory can make things a lot easier for a character; unfamiliar territory can harm them quickly. Have characters react to terrain that puts them at a disadvantage, and use terrain that puts them at an advantage! Just think of how much more interesting a fight scene can be when you factor in terrain. A disadvantaged character can move to different terrain to turn things around; a bad spot of footing can ruin a fight for a would-be winner. Terrain adds both opportunity and interest to a setting. Use it!

In summary: In addition to character-driven conflict, you can introduce plenty of conflict to a story or RP just from the environment itself.Terrain and weather and the way they force characters to react can make a setting a lot more interesting and interactive, and I'd like to see them factor in more.

Recommended: Limyaael also has a rant on weather, that covers some different aspects that I didn't go over. Also, when you write weather, make sure you're accurate; Wikipedia has good notes on a lot of different kinds of weather and effects of weather that you might want to check out if you're looking to include weather you're not used to.

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