It has occurred to me that we often overlook an important detail in setting the stage of any given encounter for our players. I’m not sure if it’s overlooked because it’s just easier to make assumptions, or if it’s one more thing that we’d rather not describe or think about. Of course, I’m talking about the use of seasons in our adventures.
Thinking back on the adventures I’ve played in, I can think of one (that’s right, one) that used weather or seasons to set the stage. That’s not to say that there weren’t others; indeed, I can sometimes mentally check out when the read aloud text comes along, and miss some of the carefully crafted prose that helps me imagine the setting. But by and large, I think that we often just kind of assume it’s eternally “late spring” – there are leaves on the trees, the grass is green, the weather is warm (but not too warm), and the sun is shining. I also think we can do better than that. There are a lot of things we can do with seasonal settings (and their resultant weather) that can really give the PCs a sense of “hey, this is different!”
Seasons Mark the passage of time
Seasonal changes have always been one of the markers people use to measure the passage of time. It’s a concrete thing we can point to that shows time is progressing. Unless you have an actual “in-game” calendar on the wall that you mark off for the players, seasons are the best tool you have to mark time in the campaign world. Think about that for a minute. If you feel it’s important that players perceive the passage of time over the course of the campaign, the most concrete thing you can do is change the seasons on them. How can you use this directly in your setting? For starters, if the PCs have to make a rather long, uneventful journey across the continent that you just kind of skim over, perhaps you can change the seasons between the start and the finish. How else can we use seasons? Read on…
Weave it into your narrative text
The easiest way to mark the season for your players is to include a passing mention of it in your narrative text. Note that you can mention the season without beating players over the head with it, and on top of that add a really cool detail to a scene. Observe:
“The warhorse’s snout trails white mist in the frigid winter air as the knight reigns him in beside you. “
“Passers by draw their cloaks tightly around them against the frigid pelting autumn rain.”
“The stifiling summer air presses you with humidity, making your pack that much more of a burden as the midday sun beats down.”
“The morning air is thick with mist from yesterday’s springtime downpour. The earth smells damp with new life, and the trees lie heavy with buds that will soon be leaves.”
This one feeds off the whole “passage of time” idea, but takes a different angle. Every culture has some sort of seasonal festivals. Even if the holiday is not directly tied to the season it’s in, we associate certain seasons with certain holidays. All you American readers, try this: 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day. In your mind, without having to think about it, you imagined a backdrop of summer, fall, winter, and spring/summer, respectively. Your campaign world should be no different. There should be holidays that correspond to certain seasons for the characters, including (very important) a New Year’s festival. If you don’t want to describe the season ad nauseum, this can be a good alternate way to mark the time of year for the players. Just be sure that the first time you introduce a holiday to the players, it’s significant enough that they clearly remember the season associated with the holiday.
Create different terrain
4th edition has introduced the concept of “fantastic terrain.” The thing is, fantastic terrain doesn’t need to be, well, fantastic. It can be mundane terrain that poses a challenge to the characters moving through it. A forest floor padded thickly will fall leaves is actually difficult to move through with any grace. Hip deep snow, even more so. Trying to get a bead on a target when there’s a downpour of rain stinging your eyes can also be challenging. Of course, fantastic terrain can also be a boon to characters. Perhaps you want to minimally boost the damage or size of some of your wizard’s ice or snow spells during a winter storm. Maybe in the fall, necrotic resistances are different in certain areas. And, this last one isn’t a combat effect, but maybe during the spring equinox, restoration rituals are easier to perform.
Mix it Up
Of course the ideal is to combine fantstic terrain effects with narrative and story elements to really hammer home the idea that it’s not “generic comfortable season” all the time. Ideally, when you hear players recounting stories of their adventures, you want them to reference the fact that “it was winter” at some point. Then you know you’ve done your job.
Have you ever highlighted a season in your game? Can you remember an encounter you played in where the season was important?