Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Frostbite

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

F is for Frostbite, an environmental hazard of the wilderness.

I won’t lie…I love cold and snow hazards in role-playing games. In real life? No. But in a game, the idea of the windswept frozen tundra conjures an image both romantic and majestic to my mind’s eye. Plus, blood on the snow? How picturesque is that?

Snow and its dangers is something somewhat over-looked in the Dungeons & Dragons game. As far as environmental hazards go we find torches (for darkness), ropes (for mountains), boats (for the ocean), water skins (for deserts)…but where are the fur parkas and dog sleds?

Frankly, I find it crazy. After all, WINTER is one of the most dangerous things in pre-modern society. Food can be grown, animals raised, barbarians fought…but there’s nothing you can do against a blizzard besides pray to the gods, find adequate shelter, and lay up the best store of food and firewood you can muster.

And even THAT might not be enough…if you're unfortunate enough to live through a year when the harvest wasn’t particularly good and the winter ends up being particularly long and arduous. And if the ground is too frozen when planting time comes again, you’ll be looking at a starving populace during the NEXT year’s winter. It can get into a pretty nasty repeating cycle.

But, of course, adventurers are young and hardy and rich enough not to have to worry about the state of affairs “back at the farm,” right? Well, unless they happen to be rulers of a barony (but that’s a whole different discussion…). In general, player characters are going to have enough gold to purchase rations when they get hungry, and put themselves up in a tavern during the cold winter months.

But out on the road? Now THAT’s another story.

DMs should drive home the oppression of winter…especially the winter roads, the hungry wolves, the difficult passage to the next adventure site or town. For most campaigns (especially pseudo-medieval-Europe-types), we should not be expecting a year of “endless summer” every year. Folks from the Midwest (heartland of D&D) should be well versed in just how tough winter can be…even with modern conveniences. And even high-level characters should face the danger of exposure when not adequately prepared.

And what is the danger of exposure? Losing extremities, of course!

I mean, hypothermia, too, of course…but then we already talked about that under drowning and characters are unlikely to succumb to that if they can keep moving and not fall into any frozen ponds. But long-term, excessive cold can freeze tissue in the extremities, leading to permanent loss and amputation.

NOT overnight, mind you…I said “long term;” usually more than a couple-three days of exposure can lead to permanent nerve and tissue damage depending on the degree of exposure and the actual temperature to which the characters are subjected. However, prolonged exposure to cold (with inadequate protection) WILL eventually result in the crystallization of fingers and toes…and possibly hand, feet, arms, and legs (though these latter only in the most extreme cases).

Now, a word about “de-protagonization:” it ain’t conducive to long-term game play. There ARE actual “fates worse than death” in an RPG. For example, very VERY few people will stand to play a character whose ears have been cut off, or been permanently blinded, or had their tongues burned out of their mouths. It’s one thing to watch a character get killed…it is quite another to be forced to play a character that’s been “suck-ified” by a malicious DM. Players who see their characters subjected to unheroic maiming and dismemberment will probably just “commit character suicide” rather than play such a monstrosity.

However, shouldn’t PCs pay the consequences for silly actions…like refusing to stock up on extra furs, blankets, and firewood before starting a long journey into the cold northlands? Of course they should! Even in a fantasy world, characters should understand the need to protect against the elements takes precedence over that extra two-handed weapon or a score of silver arrows.

BUT while we want the PCs to suffer the consequences of their folly, we don’t want to sadistically deprotagonize them (i.e. “make their characters suck”) such that they no longer want to play. How to balance this?

By taking them a piece at a time.

I’d recommend DMs limit themselves to D4 or D6 fingers and toes. In all probability, the characters aren’t going to miss them. It shouldn’t affect their adventuring or combat abilities (leave them enough fingers on each hand to hold their weapons), and it shouldn’t be noticeable enough to cause a Charisma loss. Plus, those vain few with money to burn can always seek out some high-priced regenerative style healing (assuming such is available in your campaign world).

If you want, make it into a random table-type affair…something like:

0-2 days of exposure…no permanent damage
3-5 days of exposure…0-3 fingers/toes lost (D4-1)
6-8 days of exposure…0-7 fingers/toes lost (D8-1)
9-11 days of exposure…2-8 fingers/toes lost (2D4)

Spread all losses between both hands and both feet. After a dozen or more days of winter exposure, characters are going to need serious clerical help or suffer much more dire consequences.

Also useful for characters buried in snowdrifts and avalanches for a few days.

: )


  1. "we don’t want to sadistically deprotagonize them (i.e. “make their characters suck”)"

    Well said JB, this point can quickly be forgotten in death and dismemberment tables (sometimes death is preferable to sucking).

  2. Like the player we had who hated dwarves and then his character was reincarnated a sa dwarf. The character started stabbed at his wrists with a dagger screamimg, "I don't wanna be a dwarf!" heeheehee!

  3. The ears and nose would have problems too...

  4. I'm absolutely thrilled that you're onto your third printing of BXC! I'm thinking of posting a follow-up review, to heap more praise on your work.

    The one thing I will houserule is freezing and underwater damage. I'll probably use 1d4 damage per turn (10 minutes) in freezing weather and 1d4 damage per round (1 minute) in freezing water.

    Was reading the BXC on the train today, and had two comments from other passengers, asking me if it was D&D. Only in Canada do people strike up conversations like that, eh?

  5. To suckify or not to suckify. On the one hand, the grizzled veteran with one hand who straps a shield on tightly, or the one-eyed thief, or the wizard whose nose has been cut off as punishment for his dalliances with the vizier's daughter are all very interesting characters. On the other hand, players get fed up with irrational game-mechanical penalties. I suppose that it's one of those things that you just have to make sure they have warning about (only the foolish dally with the vizier's daughter!) or are purely game-mechanical (crit results on a random chart).

  6. @ Pal: Thank you! And rule away!

    @ Faol: This is such an inspiring thought for me (truly) that it needs its own post...perhaps Sunday. Thanks!