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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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Surviving Mother Nature


Most RPG adventures pit the player characters against a villain, be it monster or human. There's something satisfyiing about such plots. Good versus evil is central to our human storytelling culture.
But once in a while you can give the PCs an even greater challenge by pitting them against a completely neutral foe.
The planet itself.

Weather, climate, terrain, disasters—all of these affect the world around us every day. People freeze to death, die of dehydration, are lost at sea, are killed in an earthquake, are made homeless by a hurricane. Yet how often does weather, terrain, or natural disaster figure in an RPG adventure? Sure, you wouldn't want to use it all of the time. Heroes can't wrestle down an earthquake; they can't imprison a tornado. But they can survive one, or help others survive one, and sometimes that provides as much an opportunity for heroism and roleplaying as would deafeating any nefarious villain bent on world destruction.
So next time you plan an adventure, think about throwing in an even greater threat to the PCs' survival than another cackling necromancer, raging motorcycle gang, evil Dark Lord of Sith, or army of ghouls and zombies.

Weather. Many worldbuilders are good at setting terrain, but have problems figuring out weather patterns. Sure, we all know it's colder toward the poles and warmer toward the equator, but other than that? The site What Forces Affect Our Weather? will help worldbuilders figure out when and where certain weather phenomona should occur. Those building Earthlike worlds, or running games set on earth, may want to check out online and downloadable Global Climate Maps, which provide tons of information about anything you'd want to know about weather around the world. And if you want to work some wild weather into your game, check out About's list of links to Disasters and Hazards like avalanches, fires, glaciers, hurricanes, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis and volcanos.
Less ambitious players and GMs might be interested in Frugal's page, which offers a neat list of natural signs of impending weather—how to "read" the weather from clouds, insect behavior, smoke movement, and so forth.
Sometimes, however, a global view isn't necessary. The adventure is going to occur in the arctic, in the desert, on the ocean ... so all the GM cares about are the specific dangers of those types of climate or terrain. Survival guides for each abound on the web, if you know where to look.

General Survival. First, general survival guides are fun reading not only for "Survivor" show fans and campers, but also for any GM who'd like to bring some realism into a game. The Aviation Survival Guide contains wonderful chapters on desert survival, tropical survival, cold weather survival, and sea survival, as well as many other useful wilderness and disaster survival tips.
The Survivor Center's General Survival Guide provides more basic information on shelter and food. The center's Survival Medical FAQ would make interesting reading for a GM running a modern-day game who'd like to deal with, for example, dangers of old medicines or problems with hypothermia or dehydration.
Since finding food is always a survival issue, some GMs and readers might be interested in checking out Buckshot's Camp, filled with articles on trapping and preparing animals for dinner. Frugal has some sure-to-make-PCs-squirm pages on eating insects and eating reptiles, too. (As an iguana-pet owner myself, that last one made me wince a lot!) Be sure to check out the info on finding, using, and cleaning water, too.
Finally, FEMA's Preparing for a Disaster site offers advice on preparing for natural and man-made disasters, from earthquakes to nuclear war. (Another site deals more extensively with survivalism and nuclear war.) GMs could use these tips as hints on what kinds of events, problems, and secondary damage could be caused by a natural (or man-made) disaster in a game.

Deserts. Running a desert game? I remember an AD&D game where our characters had to cast the spell "Purify Water" on our own urine so that we could drink it when our water ran out. Ick. In addition to the Aviation Survival guide mentioned above, Dusty Dan's Desert Survival page lists info on desert terrain, climate, and dangers, great reading for a GM. He also offers general desert and desert camping information. Frugal's desert page lists interesting factoids like how much water a person needs to survive, how long until a person dehydrates, and so forth.

Cold Weather. In another game, I nearly had a Deadlands character freeze to death in a snowstorm ... he never failed to pack warm clothes after that! To supplement the cold weather survival info in the Aviation Survival Guide, check out this illustrated article on how to build a snow cave. In addition, About offers a number of links to winter camping information. This article on hypothermia is also important when dealing with cold weather. Finally, Frugal offers a tip that the writers of The Empire Strikes Back must have read ... how to keep warm in a blood bath.

Sea Survival. There are more dangers in the open water than sharks and pirates. The Aviation Survival guide links to sea survival, but another article of interest concerns hypothermia and cold water survival, offering info about the "Rule of 50" and the "mammalian diving reflex." A "Titantic" reprise, anyone?

There's nothing more dangerous, arbitrary, and careless of human life than our own planet Earth. Weather can't be stared down; terrain can't be reasoned with. Laws won't control it and punishment won't affect it. Teach your players some respect for this powerful force ... run an adventure that pits them against the most perilous foe of all, Mother Nature!

originally written February 9, 2001

 

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