Often DnD exists in a kind of seasonal vacuum. The climate is always ‘generic adventuring climate’ and the weather is whatever the plot needs it to be. But there is an opportunity to get more out of the environment and the cycle of seasons in our DnD campaigns.
This piece is going to go into a little bit of detail about what each season meant for medieval societies, and will then also discuss what opportunities each season presents us for our campaigns.
We’ll start with summer since it’s the most simple time of year to set adventures in. In summer the roads are open and bustling, folk are out in the fields working, armies are on the march, and as a whole society behaves as we normally expect it to.
Adventures in summer can be about just about anything. Indeed, in a DnD setting I like to believe that summer would be peak adventuring season. If there are other adventurers in your world then this is the time when the player characters might run into them. Picking up work from job boards might be more competitive as other adventurers also scour town notice boards for opportunities. If the player party doesn’t make it to town until midday the work might already be gone. But in this situation the party need only stay in town a night and check back first thing in the morning to find new jobs have been posted.
As the roads are open and bustling there may be more need for caravan guards. An adventuring party might start rolling with a troupe of travelling performers or somesuch. They guard the troupe on the roads, then as the troupe sets up in town for a few days the party picks up some work from the local lord (‘Villagers have reported missing livestock, go check it out for us please’), then head back out of town alongside the troupe with a pocket full of pay. There may also be bounties for bandit groups as the king seeks to keep his roads clear of highwaymen.
Autumn is busy. In autumn farmers are out in the fields every day ensuring they get their harvests in before winter hits. Markets in autumn are thronging as food is bought and sold and massive wagons full of grain roll out of town to distribute the supplies to where the kingdom needs them most.
In autumn the taxman rolls through town, and if the harvest has been bad the villagers may be grousing about this fact. After a good harvest though the villagers may have high spirits, holding massive festivals which adventurers can take part in. Anything that needs to be finished up before winter will be prioritised. If the local lord couldn’t find anyone willing to investigate those cattle disappearances he may be willing to pay higher for the job now.
Armies on the march in autumn will look to finish their campaigning before finding a fort to winter in. As the season draws late, grain supplies will be sent from towns throughout the kingdom to wherever the armies are holed up.
Adventurers will themselves be looking for the last bits of work before they too settle in for the winter. For adventurers down on their luck, perhaps due to a lacklustre summer, they may be willing to take those more dangerous jobs nobody was willing to take throughout the summer at the now higher pay rate. Other jobs might involve seeing to it that grain shipments make it where they are supposed to go, or indeed tracking down missing shipments on behalf of company captains who need to keep their soldiers fed through the long winter.
Late in autumn the last few traders will find places to spend the winter, and at last as the roads become cloaked in snow the kingdom will go quiet. Communication will be sparse, and anything important that wasn’t done before the season ended will now loom large over the townsfolk. The end of autumn is intimidating no matter how good the harvest was, and that will be reflected in the sentiments of all the townsfolk of your world.
In winter the roads are closed and towns are isolated. Whatever stores they had after autumn sales and taxes are now all they have to live on. Even if it’s plenty enough there will always be the latent fear that something will go wrong and the folk will starve with no-one to help them. Winter is not an idle time for the farmers though, as now they look to tasks that they did not have time for during the autumn harvests. Buildings must be maintained, fences need to be repaired, tools need to be mended or replaced at the smithy. A farmer may only leave their farm to head to town a few times during the winter, so the townsfolk might not hear from the local farmers for weeks at a time. If something were to go wrong nobody would know.
All those folk that usually ride the roads do not simply disappear. They will have found comfortable towns to stay in. Those travelling troupes will have returned to cities or larger towns, and those with lordly patrons will have returned to their courts. Armies will be hunkered down in forts, or if they had just captured a strategic location before autumn’s end they will spend the winter fortifying the location with earthworks and palisades.
An adventuring party still willing to travel the roads will find themselves with no companions, and the roads themselves may present a significant hazard. If the party camps out in the frozen wild for too many nights they risk exhaustion, and if they are caught in inclement weather they may even risk death. However, once they make it to town they will be greatly rewarded. If mysterious howls have been heard at night out in the fields the townsfolk will be glad some capable adventurers have arrived. They will ask the party for news, if there is any, and a well-informed party can gain many an ally during the winter by sharing information.
Some towns are different though. Winter is a season of isolation, and isolation breeds mistrust. Townsfolk may be pleased, but also fearful of these folk willing to brave the roads this time of year. It is not unheard of for bands of ruffians to come to towns posing as adventurers, then slaughter and rob the townsfolk. There is no justice for these townsfolk except that which they make for themselves, and a well-armed group of strangers may set them on edge.
Other adventurers may choose to also stay off the roads in the winter. They will stick to one town or city. For us as DMs this encourages a kind of radial quest design wherein a party only ever travels at most a day out of town at a time to investigate the nearby phenomenon. A town may be besieged by a plague of wights from deep in the woods, and the party may spend many a winter night out on watch in the fields slaughtering the ever increasing numbers of undead. Finally as the thaw comes they can venture far enough in the woods to root out the threat altogether.
In spring the world reawakens. The local lord will send emissaries out to assess the state of the villages in his domain. Travelling judges will set out on the roads to see to all the legal matters that have built up over the winter. Woodsmen will begin venturing deeper into the forests to monitor their recovery after the winter and may inform the local town mayor of the anomalous things he finds. Armies will gear up to march again, and ongoing campaigns of conquest will resume.
For adventurers spring is again a time when good coin can be made by protecting travellers on the road, but also as many villages discover problems that arose during the winter a party of adventurers can make plenty by staying in one town. It may even be worth it for the party to stay in the town they wintered in for just a few extra weeks. The woodsman may find peculiar tracks deep in the forest, and after the party slays the lycanthrope they belong to they will collect one more handsome payday before heading out of town.
The world reconnects in spring, and with that comes the discovery of all the things that may have changed in the winter. A baroness may have heard no word from one of her important mining outposts and employ an adventuring party to investigate. An army may be readying to march when the mayor of the town they wintered in tells them they’ve found a hag coven nearby, and so the captain spends some coin to send an adventuring party off to do the work instead of having to send a squad of his own men.
Spring is also when inaccessible places become accessible again. Perhaps during the winter the party learned of a strange ruin out in the cliffs by the sea, and now that it’s safe to travel there they’d like to check it out. Indeed, after a good winter of collecting rumours and learning information the party will be chomping at the bit to get back out in the world.
A Summary of Seasons
In summer we have our standard pace of adventure. The tone is often light. Work is plentiful and roads are bustling. Your world in summer should be full of colour and a wide array of NPCs from all sorts of places that the party might come across.
Autumn follows a similar mould, but as people turn their attention toward preparing for winter the sorts of adventures the party goes on will reflect this. While in summer villagers might mention an ancient tomb a few days away, in autumn they will be asking adventurers to deal with more immediate threats. Dangerous work may emerge as matters become more urgent later in the season.
Winter is great for radial quests as a party hunkers down in a village, and gives us many opportunities for players to get engrossed in that village and its inhabitants. We can also use the state of the roads as an opportunity to have the party navigate dangerous situations. Finally, it is a great time for mystery arcs as folk may be distrustful and wary.
Spring is a re-opening of opportunities, and quests can revolve around the re-establishing of contact with places that were cut off during winter. It’s another good time for mystery plots too as the party may have to piece together what happened to an abandoned town, but it is also a good time for more conventional adventures like what we might run in summer.
Examples From My Own Campaigns
I had a campaign start in spring. The party had all arrived by chance in a new town on the edge of the fractured state of Clybrae. The mayor was thankful such capable individuals had come to town, as they’d spent the winter being ravaged by a group of bandits who had taken up residence in the woodcutter’s house just outside of town. The party cleared out the bandits, and spent the better part of the season helping the fledgling town with other tasks such as clearing out a hag coven, dealing with a goblin camp and eventually learning what had brought about the demise of the town’s former mayor.
I also had a campaign start in summer. As the nations of the world sent emissaries across the sea to the Dwarven lands they found them wholesale abandoned and crumbling into ruin. Adventurers came from far and wide to delve deep into the Dwarven ruins, plundering them for treasure and finding clues as to what may have happened to the Dwarves.
In autumn I had a party of adventurers stuck at sea, desperately trying to make port before the weather turned too foul to sail. In an odyssey-like adventure they found themselves at various points run aground, blown off-course and otherwise stranded, all the while fighting off merrow, hydras, krakens and more.
In winter I had a party take up work for a monster hunter’s guild. They were just capable enough that they could brave the roads. Many townsfolk were thankful someone had answered their calls to the guild, while others were deep into distrust and paranoia as their towns were ravaged by supernatural threats. We spent a lot of time in the horror and mystery genres, and the harsh environment created a constant underlying threat.
Whether you choose to set a campaign in a single season or have an expansive narrative that spans many seasons across many years, it pays to be mindful of the impact the seasons can each have on your world. Even if there is no direct impact on the party the changing of the seasons can still affect the politics and state of your world. Even if the changes are only the backdrop to your adventure they are still significant. By more closely considering what happens in your world during each season you can make your world feel so much more alive.