Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Feb RPG Carnival - The Icy Embrace of Winter

This month's RPG Blog Carnival is kindly being hosted by Enderra Blog and covers the topic of The Icy Embrace of Winter.

Winter has several meanings and implications for my game.  I will cover them from the overt to the more subtle, breezing over each lightly for the sake of (relative) brevity. 

I like to GM my Campaigns according to the current season with the specific idea that the Players will have a better feel for what the World is like at that time for their Characters.   So in the Spring, Campaigns start during the Elthos Spring, and I do that for whatever season happens to be current when we start a new Campaign.  Of course Campaigns can last longer than seasons, so I either hustle things up to the current season, or if the Adventure warrants a delving into detail, a Winter in Elthos can last a year or more of game time.  Such as what occurred in my last big Campaign (Hobbington), which began in October of 2011 and ended in 2013.  I went with a Winter touch throughout. 

First off, Winter is harsh in Hobbington and the surrounding province because it is tucked away in the mountains to begin with.  The Township of Hobbington itself is situated on a crag more than halfway up Mount Zatok, making it cold generally, and a particularly bitter, ice-shrouded city in the winter.  The denizens there, a rough bunch of thieves, cutthroats and politicians, manage to hang on through each winter, with food supplies scarce, and
firewood even scarcer (they are high up on a mountain, and both food and firewood come from far below) somehow, but not easily.  Fortunately, the city is also heated in places by a few hot springs. And as those few who have dared to venture below into the sewer systems have discovered, the deeper and more ancient tunnels (the current occupants discovered the long unused city and colonized it under duress not long before the time of play), were quite a bit warmer than expected. No one has gone particularly far down in the tunnels (and returned to tell the tale) thus far, by the way.

So winter in Hobbington is a trial by ice for most of the people who live there.   In particular, the many sallow-faced orphans who beg in the streets, their tatters held tight around them, following after the few "Rat Stick" vendors, hoping for a hand out or a fallen piece of hot greasy meat.  Snow can come up to the waist in some places.   The wind is often bitterly freezing, and hungry, snacking on  fingers and toes with its frostbite-teeth whenever the opportunity arises (yes, the elements are often treated as something like anthropomorphic beings in Elthos).  And so, you would find that life in Hobbington in the winter is quite harsh, indeed, and winter storms and ice blasts there frequent and dire.

On the other hand, for some in Hobbington, although the winter is harsh, it is not without it's joys.  There are the winter festivals which center on Holy Days and Shrines to the Saints, and some people who have the wherewithal (the rich, as one might guess) do manage to have a bit of fun skating on the frozen canals that line the township, play winter games, and hold various intellectual contests and events that are best held indoors.  Winter, by those in the know, is considered "High Political Season" in Hobbington, as audiences tend to be captive.  The Player Characters, of course, deal with all of this by bundling up as best as possible, and hustling and bustling from place to place, like everyone else, in order to dodge back inside to cozier climes, such as the hearth of a local pub, tea shop, temple, or home.

In the latest adventure, as a matter of fact, the Party left Hobbington to go down the Long Stair to the Provinces.  Winter is harsh there, too, they soon found out.  Snow drifts can be chest height, and a lack of paved roads make the going painfully slow.  Frostbite is a perpetual possibility. There are few places to spend a warm night, and so camping equipment such as warm tents are essential.   Twice the Party got engulfed in snow storms during their travels and nearly got lost in the white haze.  Fortunately, they wisely prepared themselves with the appropriate winter gear.   At the worst they traversed an area of hills south of Hobbington which has huge ruts and deep ravines, covered by snow, with fathomless pits leading down into the dark icy depths.  Crossing one of those ravines was almost the end of several of the Characters as they in inadvertently (and quite unwisely, I thought) chose to tether themselves with ropes to the largest party member (huge), who also happened to be the clumsy oaf of the group, Bantum.  Had it not been for their good luck, they'd have been plunged down the ravine with him.  Fortunately, although he slipped, he did not go over the edge into the dark icy abyss below, nor bring them all careening downward with him.

Furthermore, Elthos is populated with various breeds of monsters that could be described as Wintery.  There are Frost Giants, of course.  And their diminutive, albeit hardly less deadly cousins, the Frost Ogres, who are hunters and pray on the unwary winter travelers like wolves.   But perhaps the most persistently dangerous enemies in the forests around Hobbington are none other than the Wolves themselves.  They are cunning hunters, cruel, and as deadly foes as you'd care to meet.  And in winter with the snow slowing everyone's movement to a crawl, attack levels thwarted by frozen limbs, and numbed fingers... well, you can imagine.  It can be quite harrowing.

And so Winter is treated in my world as a form of deadly terrain, personified, with monsters.  A hostile one, generally, for Adventurers.  Hint-to-the-wise: it might be better to start a Campaign in the Spring time after all.  ;)

At deeper level, another Winter has crept into my world in the idea of the Winter King.   In ancient Celtic Lore, as I understand it from reading lots of books by Caitlin and John Matthews there was a long standing myth of the
Winter King who in some sense, it is thought, represents the Old Order of things, a King past his prime, one who is soon to be inevitably replaced by the next generation - that of the new and rising Sun King, or the Prince of Spring.   The myth, of course, is tied to the changing of the seasons and the renewal of life after the bleak months of winter.  As such, the myth of the Winter King is infused with the Mysteries of Transformation and Magic, and speaks to the ancient belief of the cyclical nature of Life and Death, and Life and Death, and Life and Death...  Taking this idea I have woven something along these lines into the deeper layers of the Elthos back story.   Elthos, as some of my readers may know, is as much a fairytale World as it is anything else.   And so the conflict between the Winter King and the Prince of Spring who struggle for the hand of Sovereignty, (aka Flower Maiden), is complex and rich with diverse and ancient themes.   These themes show up occasionally in Elthos Campaigns as Player Characters sometimes (rarely, I admit) come in contact with the Mythological Beings that permeate the world.  Those encounters, if all goes well, may reveal something of the mythological underpinnings of the Elthos World, and what the true nature of the Elthos story really is.  Rare, but it has been known to happen.  Of course I've already given a bit more away than I intended.  I'll stop there, if you don't mind.  I wouldn't want to spoil anything for my players, you know.

So in conclusion, on the overt side, Winter is a dire opponent of Adventurers, a bane of travel, and can just as easily bring death and ruin as any giant or invading army.  On the other hand, Winter in Elthos is also a Mythic Being of great importance, a sustainer of the Universal Order of things, often wise, often bitter, and always someone, or something, to pay one's utmost respect to.