This is RPG-ology #22: Snow Day, for September 2019.
As I write this, it’s snowing; snow is sticking to the ground, and we’re probably going to be snowed in. At least, the boys are hoping there will be no school tomorrow.
That makes no sense to most of you as you read this. By the time it reaches print (or the electronic equivalent) it will be summer. I am writing this well in advance of the anticipated publication date. Here we recently saw the tips of crocuses before the snow buried them, and were worried about some of the other early flowers blooming too soon. Spring will have passed here when this is published, and all thoughts of snow and ice will be forgotten.
No, I talked about the past slipping away last month. This month, something different.
I want you to remember the last time it snowed wherever you are. For some of you this might be an impossible task. For that I apologize. Most of my readers are experiencing summer, and winter is just a memory; some are experiencing winter, and need imagine little. If you’re one of those unfortunate enough to have always lived without snow, this experiment won’t be so much help for you. Maybe you can use it for something else—focus on what it feels like to be an excluded minority, and write an article about injustice and discrimination. (See, you can take anything and use it for ideas—you just have to keep turning it over until you find a side you hadn’t seen before.)
Look out your window—no, don’t get up, don’t turn your head, don’t actually look out your window. But go there in your mind’s eye. Don’t even close your eyes (because it would then be very difficult to continue reading the article). Just imagine that you are looking out the window. You see snowflakes falling from the sky; they’ve already covered the ground. What do they look like? Are they large, fluffy flakes like feathers from an exploding pillow? Are they tiny, driving bits of white ice cutting downward to the earth? Describe them to yourself in a way that evokes the picture you have—not, “it’s snowing”, but how the snow looks and how it falls through the air. Describe it in a way that your friend in Massachusetts could see it as well as you can right now.
Now put on your mental coat and gloves, and walk your mind outside. Stand in the falling snow. You’ve stood in the snow many times before, but it’s probably been a long time since you just went outside particularly to be there in the snow. It’s amazing stuff, isn’t it? See how it sticks to your sleeve, your hair, your gloves. How does it feel under your feet? It’s falling, so it’s still loose—it hasn’t had the chance to thaw and freeze over the top, so it doesn’t crunch that way yet. Look at it on the branches, the wires, whatever is outside your door. See the way it piles up, and how it weighs down everything.
Clear a path. What do you need? Is it light, fluffy snow falling in soft, dry flakes that can be pushed aside with a broom? Or is it heavy wet snow that weighs down each shovel full that you try to move? Notice how even as you clear a spot, new flakes begin to cover it immediately. As you toss the snow aside how does it hit the ground? If it’s light, the wind picks it up and smooths the surface; some blows back down toward your feet. Heavy snow sinks, making an ugly dented track alongside the clear path.
Set the tool aside; we’re done with the path (don’t you wish it were so easy?) Let’s take a walk through the neighborhood. Look at the other homes. Here, they’re all single-family houses; the snow is thick on the lawns, the roofs, the shrubs. We’re at the bottom of a hill, and the road is a bit slippery underfoot; but as my shoes dig into the snow, the waffled soles find traction.
The wind that blows the snow around also cuts through my pants; it’s bitterly cold out here, and I won’t be able to stay out long. The sky is dark despite the slight suggestion of daylight behind it. Even the heavy gray clouds are obscured by the thick drape of faintly illumined white. I realize that I cannot see the first house at the top of the hill from the bend; visibility is too restricted.
Sliding back down the hill toward home is easier, although still treacherous. The snow covers the roof and the lawn, but also the railings on the front deck, the cars in the drive, the roses in the garden. It’s an amazing sight, to see everything slowly vanishing under the cold cover. I remember the blizzard at school (the Blizzard of ’78, for those New Englanders old enough to know what that means), when one of the students was able to ski entirely over the top of one of the dorms. We won’t be buried like that; yet there will be no school. But the wind is piling the snow up on one side of the house, creating hollows in it over the yard as it swirls the white into drifts. I have no way of knowing how many inches have fallen; in some places it’s several feet, while others show the tips of blades of grass.
Up the steps and back inside, and I knock as much snow off me as I can as I step into the front hall. Already my pants are damp as the heat of my legs melts the clinging flakes. My socks are caked with white, and as I bang my feet the sound echoes through the house. I shake, almost involuntarily, trying to dispel the cold. The wet gloves and coat get hung to dry. I try to decide whether to change my pants or just sit by the heater for a while.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the excursion we took. I wanted you to go there, to be in another world, another time and place, for a few minutes. In some ways, that’s a necessary part of the creative process—by mentally being there, you can make the setting come alive to you; and once you are there, it comes alive to everyone else. I once ran a game in which there was a massive combat in close quarters—every hobgoblin in a huge complex had been alerted to the presence of the character party, and had ambushed them at a crossing path. It had been a long and bloody fight, and somewhere in the neighborhood of forty of the monsters were killed. One—only one—of my players had the presence of mind to realize that they were walking over the bodies as they moved out of the area. He passed me a note to let me know he stumbled. Neither I nor anyone else there realized why it was he bumped into the guy next to him until several weeks later when he explained it. He was there; we were just playing the game. He saw what should have been obvious to all the characters. We just continued as if nothing had happened.
So get the world in your mind, know where you are and what it’s like to be there. If you can see it, you can describe it to your players.
Oh, and by the way: I lied. It was not snowing here when I wrote this. It was snowing when I decided I wanted to write this, when I realized that it would be long gone by the time you read it. But I didn’t go out in the snow, didn’t look at it more than a glance out my window. Still, I was still able to take you with me into that snowfall, because I could take myself there.
This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited: Snow Day, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.