Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Weather tables?! I don’t need no steenking weather tables!

I love weather tables.

Wait, what?! What about the title of this post?

Let me explain. I love weather tables. I love the way in which they can succinctly, and without the confusion of poorly written prose, tell a Referee about the types and frequencies of weather that a region (a region that might be quite alien to our 'real world' knowledge) might experience in any given season. But I don't roll on them. At least not when I am playing a D&Dish game, or a game that aspires to the abstraction of Basic/Expert D&D - as my current rules melange tends towards, combining a D100 game (Magic World with bits and bobs from the rest of the 'family'), but bolting on the Mentzer D&D wilderness exploration rules (and the reaction table, and morale rules, etc).

I don't roll on weather tables because, in this type of game, weather only really matters when it is going to have a game effect. I might describe the weather, based on the region and the season. And sure, if we were playing a very crunchy game we might have mechanics where spring shower might hinder the PCs' ability to use their bows, risk ruining a spell book, and so on, but D&D is a game of abstractions. And in Basic/Expert D&D I have a roll that abstracts the game effects of the weather – the roll for ‘getting lost’.

I used to puzzle over the roll for getting lost. How on Mystara should a party of adventurers get lost so often? I didn't understand how to apply the getting lost rule because I was living with all the privileges of a 20th/21st century citizen of the 'West' and I have never been particularly 'outdoorsy'. But getting *dangerously* lost in even the limited 'wilds' of the UK is perfectly possible, and pretty common, even in an age of advanced meteorology, mobile phones, superb cartography, GPS devices, fantastically weather-resistant clothing, etc.

In Mentzer D&D, a party will become lost once every six days of travel in 'Clear or Grassland' terrain, every other day when travelling in 'Swamp, Jungle, or Desert', and once every three days in 'All Other'. In the books, there isn't much guidance to lead a Referee to use the rule in a way that is any more interesting than the party setting off in the wrong direction after breaking camp. 

But the vast majority of D&D rules are like that, from reaction rolls, to combat, to morale, to wandering monsters. You are provided with a short cut to a game effect, and it is the job of the Referee to rationalise and describe that effect in ways that are interesting both descriptively, and that lead to further opportunities for the players to make decisions for their PCs. So, sure, the PCs might simply veer off course, but in the abstraction of D&D, I have come to use the ‘getting lost’ roll as and an ‘environmental encounter’, or, more interestingly ‘travel obstacle’ roll. 

So, when crossing a Grassland, if the Referee rolls a '1', it might simply be a particularly overcast day, causing the party to lose their bearings when trying to navigate by the Sun. It might have be a spring shower, that leads to their cart (you do use encumbrance rules, yes?) getting stuck in the mud. It might have be a minor river swollen by spring rain and meltwater from the highlands, that appears too dangerous to ford (though the party can try their luck... if they don't want to deviate from their path). The party might be using a functionally poor map, with landmarks misplaced, making navigation confusing. There might be a bushfire ahead. In mountains the travel obstacle might be even quite mild weather. It might be a ravine, a rockfall, cliff face. And so on. Or the party might come across an 'encounter' that seriously tempts them to delay or deviate in their travel. I suggest that a 'getting lost' roll used to throw an encounter the PCs way should be peaceful (at least initially) encounters - things designed to delay and divert the PCs, distinct from the direct dangers that I reserve for the wandering 'monster' tables. So, a village reduced to smoking ruins for the PCs to pick through. A caravan of traders. A column of refugees. Or pilgrims. Lost children. A leper colony. An opportunity to hunt a magnificent stag.

In other words, I use the getting lost roll, with a 'lost' result indicating that something has disrupted, or has the potential to disrupt their planned journey. And because of this I ignore the guidance that getting lost rolls should not be made on roads, or rivers, or when following a coastline. Sure, the PCs are less likely to actually get lost. But when following a road (say), the PCs are far more likely to encounter 'peaceful' delays and diversions - so it all balances out in the abstraction of D&D. While a 1 rolled when crossing a Grassland might be a day's delay as the party veers off course, on a road it is the potential for a day to be lost dealing with an interesting NPC (or taking the consequences of refusing to engage with the NPC). Or it is simply a broken wheel on the cart, leading to a decision the players need to make balancing the urgency of their travel and the need for all that gear they are lugging around.

I am ambivalent about whether I need to build random tables for 'travel obstacles'. I haven't as yet, and think that the variety required - terrain, season, level of civilization, etc. - might make it a fool's errand. And then we have the problem that a 'travel obstacle' is not the same for one party as it is another. These are the problems, not that that some of the encounters briefly described above are 'unique' is not a problem. I use wandering monster tables - I think the 'mechanisation' of the presence of active dangers by region/terrain is a useful thing - and while my encounter tables sometimes have 'unique' encounters baked into them, there is plenty of generic encounters too (and must be if you are accommodating player freedom without burning yourself out on preparation). But when I roll up some Orcs, the encounter is not just 2d4 Orcs appear 4d6x10 yards away. Fight! These random rolls provide the bones for making an encounter unique. 2 Orcs appearing 40 yards away presents different opportunities for Referee rationalisation than does 8 Orcs appearing 240 yards away. And then the reaction table provides another bone for the skeleton. Could we (I) build a series of analogous rolls that would add a few bones to the 'travel obstacle', allowing Referee interpretation and improvisation, without needing a huge list of unique encounters, or something as big as one of the Books of the Tome of Adventure Design?  

Anyway, I've got diverted, slowly slipping into a broader discussion of my admiration of D&D as a 'procedural' game...


  1. Far too much Crowded House in this post. How about some Slayer, Raining Blood? :P

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Well, the Finn brothers were born not far from where I live (and I've met them both through my music career), so I'm happy with your music selection.

      I usually use the weather tables from Dragon Warriors...