GMs, It’s Cold Outside!

In honour of the polar vortex spreading record low temperatures across North America, let’s talk about cold weather and adventuring. With the exception of a relatively recent Pathfinder Adventure Path ([shameless plug] Reign of Winter [/shameless plug]) and the odd adventure here and there, I haven’t seen a cold weather environment used to much effect in role-playing games. Usually the GM mentions, “It’s very cold, make a [system equivilent to a Fortitude save] check. If you fail, take damage from the cold.” Even most settings deal with cold environments as if they were just an ongoing damage-dealing trap, which the players just have to take appropriate steps to avoid. Once they’ve taken those steps, the cold is no longer a problem.

But as anyone who has lived in a cold climate (myself included) can tell you, dealing with a winter environment is more than swaddling yourself in warm clothing. There are challenges present even after you’ve dealt with the deadly cold. Challenges the cunning GM can put to good use. Here are two of them.

Blinded by the light – While daylight hours are short in most cold climates, bright sunny days bring their own special challenge in a snowy environment. Photokeratitis, or “snow blindness”, is caused by sunlight reflecting off of the unbroken white landscape and bouncing into the eyes, overexposing them to ultraviolet (UV) light. It causes the eyes to water excessively, become bloodshot, and results in inflammation and pain unless protection is worn. It doesn’t take long to occur and even brief exposures can damage. Of course, we deal with it by wearing sunglasses when out in the snow on a bright day. But not too many fantasy games feature sunglasses on the equipment list, so your party will have to find other solutions.

“Did anyone else hear that cracking sound?” – One of the most nervous moments in travelling in a cold climate involves crossing strange ice. While frozen lakes, rivers, and streams provide some ease of travel they also offer a unique danger. As everyone knows, ice forms when water cools below its freezing point. What most people don’t know is that it doesn’t always form evenly or uniformly. There can be air pockets, weak points, and cracks, either as a natural process of water freezing or from a series of freezes and thaws. So even ice that feels solid can have flaws which will plunge the unwary and unprepared into freezing cold water. Add in the almost inevitable armor and loads of equipment, and the odds of a character taking an unexpected “polar bear dip” go up.

Now, the players might think it’s just a matter of making the appropriate check to avoid drowning and they’re good. But it’s worse than that. Not only do they have the usual issue of trying to stay afloat with armor and equipment, but now there are two new factors: cold and ice. Swimming in (literally) ice cold water is a danger unto itself; people can die within minutes of immersion. The process of succumbing to the cold will also make swimming more difficult, as muscles cool and seize. Add that second element, ice, and things become even more dire. Don’t forget, whatever body of water they fell into has a solid sheet of ice over its surface. Yes, they’ve made a hole, but that hole will be very hard to find with eyes freezing from the cold. And if they fell through into a river, the current may drag them away from potential salvation. There’s a very good reason any seasoned cold-climate traveller takes precautions against falling through the ice.

A few other cold-climate tips to keep in mind:

– While cold weather clothing protects the adventurers from the environment, it also makes simple tasks more difficult. Dealing with straps and buckles on bags and backpacks when you’re wearing mittens, for instance, takes getting used to. Trying to grab things out of a pack during combat with mittens would be awkward at best. Also, while snowshoes might make overland travel easier, they would impede movement at the tactical level; not a lot of fancy footwork you can pull off with snowshoes on.

– In extreme cold, items which are normally resilient or pliable can become brittle and easily broken. Aluminium zippers, for instance, often fail in extreme cold because the teeth become brittle and sheer off. This may not affect items made for extreme conditions, but keep it in mind for any regular items the players carry.

– Unless the characters have all their potions strapped next to their skin, they might have to get used to using “Slushies of Cure Light Wounds” or “Popsicles of Bull’s Strength”. Potions are mostly water, after all. And even if they can wait until the potions thaw, is the cold having an effect on the potion’s potency?

– Moving around in a cold environment puts more strain on the body than normal. A person must often eat more just to maintain the same energy level, as their body deals with exertion in extreme cold. Keep an eye on the party’s ration levels…

So that’s a little taste of things to keep in mind the next time your group finds itself in colder climes. While the cold is definitely a danger, there are many other considerations when travelling in a frozen environment. Sprinkle a few of these in just to give your players a taste of winter.

How do present the environment to your players? Has a GM ever done a good job of immersing you in your environment? Let us know in the comments.