This post is a direct follow-up to the Seasons of Adventure post here from about a week ago. I mentioned in the comments that I was going to do a piece on Tropical and Polar climates given that their seasonal cycles are profoundly different to the standard ‘4 seasons’ cycle discussed in the original post.
I’ve actually decided to split these into 2 more pieces now, as I feel there’s enough content in each to warrant a full write-up.
Anyway, with that all said here’s how to utilise Tropical climates and their seasons in your DnD adventures.
Tropical Three Ways
There’s something we first need to discuss before we really go into how Tropical seasons might shape the societies that deal with them, and that’s that there actually isn’t one discreet type of ‘Tropical Climate’. In fact, broadly speaking, there’s three different types, and each has very different implications for societies.
The first type is the Tropical Rainforest Climate. This climate is typified by regular, year-round rainfall with no dry season. That doesn’t meant to say every day is rainy, but certainly most days will have some amount of rainfall.
The second type is the Tropical Monsoon Climate. This is one many people will be somewhat familiar with as a concept. Areas that experience Monsoon Climates will have dry winters as air (and winds) move from the land out toward the relatively warmer sea, then they will experience the opposite in summer as the land heats up and winds carry moisture from the oceans over the land (the titular ‘monsoon season’).
The third is the Tropical Savannah Climate, which is not to be confused with Savannahs as a biome. Terminology is about to get sticky, so give me a second to clear up how I’m going to refer to some things. A Savannah Climate is a kind of wet/dry climate wherein there is a wet season and a dry season. A Monsoon Climate is also a sort of wet/dry climate in that is also has discreet wet and dry seasons, but they are expressed very differently to those in Savannah Climates. Because I don’t want people getting mixed up with the Savannah biome I will refer to the Savannah Climate as ‘Wet/Dry Climate’, but it is important that this term does not itself get mixed up with Monsoon Climates.
A Wet/Dry (Savannah) Climate is typified by, funnily enough, a wet season and a dry season. A wet season of any type is defined as at least one month with more than a certain amount of rainfall (60mm by Earth distinctions). Some regions will have more than one wet season, with most places either having one or two discreet wet seasons. Dry seasons are typified by a significant lack of rain, often to the point of drought (this is compared to Monsoon Climates where dry seasons aren’t quite as dramatic). Some Wet/Dry Climates have their wet season in summer, while others have it in winter. This is in contrast to Monsoon Climates which categorically have their monsoon season in summer.
Societies in Tropical Rainforest Climates will often not be significantly developed. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but typically-speaking Tropical Rainforest Climates will match with a Rainforest Biome, which are extremely hard to develop into wide-scale farmland of the sort needed for more structured and complex societies. This does not mean agriculture is impossible, but it follows very different patterns and is almost impossible to achieve on a wider scale.
The main way to perform agriculture is to use ‘slash and burn’ techniques, wherein an area is clear-cut and burned away. This fills the soil with nutrients and agriculture is made possible. Then, the people group will move to a different area and repeat this process. Over time old ‘slash and burn’ areas regrow into Rainforest. As such, this technique can be identified as a sort of subsistence farming, and the sorts of societies that live in these areas will reflect this way of living.
In the context of DnD, societies in these areas will be smaller and localised (essentially a tribe) and may be semi-nomadic as they move from site to site within a larger area. Perhaps in moving to one of their former farming sites (the next in their standard rotation) they find it has been overrun by dangerous beasts, and will gladly employ an adventuring party to help clear it out.
Rewards for adventurers from such people groups may be different to the standard ‘King’s Coin’ payment. This does not mean that currency does not exist among these people groups, but it may be non-standard, and outside of a small number of local tribes the coin may be worthless. Rewards may be other things, such as useful items or information. A tribe may have developed trinkets that allow them to navigate through the dense rainforest without getting lost, and a party may be able to earn one as a reward in exchange for helping the tribe. They may also have discovered long-abandoned ruins which they may share the location of as a reward.
There is also the concept that quests may not necessarily be given out by the locals and may instead be given out by more developed societies that border these climate zones and biomes. The main ‘seasonal change’ may in fact be the party moving from one climate zone to another as they penetrate dense the rainforest.
Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that in DnD lore the Yuan-Ti often occupy such areas, and this may be a factor you want to integrate into your Tropical Rainforest areas. Indeed it may even be worth considering how Yuan-Ti are able to develop more advanced societies in these climates compared to other people-groups. Perhaps agriculture is less of a factor for them as they constantly receive boons of food as divine blessings from their Snake Gods. This could in fact be what fuels their society. Were the sacrifices to their Gods ever to stop so would the supply of food and the empire would die out.
Overall, these Tropical Rainforest areas will be difficult to traverse, and people groups may be sparse and not particularly well-connected. Others may be well connected though, and some areas may have groups of tribes that have complex systems of trade and commerce between them. On the whole though the stable climate will mean little difference in the circumstances of adventuring across the year.
Tropical Monsoon Climates, as defined above, experience a relatively dry winter and a very wet summer, often accompanied with thunderstorms. Agriculture is obviously very dependent on the summer rains, and by extension so is the entire apparatus of society. While more European-style seasons would have armies campaign in summer then have levied troops return to their farms in autumn for the harvest season, societies in Tropical Monsoon regions are more likely to engage in military campaigns across the winter.
The weather often doesn’t get cold enough to snow or otherwise inhibit mass-movement. If anything it’s the monsoon season in the summer that causes greater disruption to movement, both of troops and traders. Rivers will swell, and in seasons of greater rainfall they will flood and break their banks. As such, societies that develop around large river systems may find their villages become more isolated when the rains come. In addition to this, the monsoon season is the major time for disasters. Floods are one factor, and one that affects humanoid societies more than it affects wild creatures (who are more readily able to move to high ground to avoid floods). Mud slides and avalanches are also common in more mountainous regions that experience monsoon seasons. Entire villages can be destroyed overnight if the rains fall too heavy for too long.
For adventurers this opens up a completely different host of possibilities compared to other climates and seasonal variations. The winter (or dry season) becomes ‘peak adventuring season’ as the weather is relatively stable and movement is uninhibited. We can liken this to the way summer works for adventurers in our 4-season cycle.
The monsoon season is where we get some incredible possibilities for adventures. Everything we discussed about isolated towns in winter now applies to towns beset by heavy rains. Not only are they cut off from the rest of society, they may be actively facing disaster. People displaced from their homes may have little to give, but they will gladly pay what they can for a group of able-bodied adventurers to help them in a time of crisis. Even in towns where floods have not threatened their livelihoods, all of that fear and suspicion is amplified as any day may be the one that brings disaster if the rains last too long.
Remember what I said about animals having an easier time migrating away from floods than settled peoples? Now that the rivers have broken their banks it is the mountain societies beset by the beasts that normally roam the wetlands, and since they are far from their usual source of food these creatures will gladly eat anything. Perhaps a monastery set into the hills has been ravaged by a pack of hungry displacer beasts, and in exchange for dealing with them a party of adventurers can learn some of the secret knowledge guarded by the monks of the monastery.
Finally the monsoons abate and become more manageable, and agriculture begins in earnest. This isn’t to say that everything is fine now, as there is in fact such a thing as too much rain. After a particularly heavy monsoon towns might plant their crops only to find the nutrient-rich topsoil has been washed away. What should be their most productive time of year is instead their hungriest as crop after crop fails to yield enough to sustain them. Indeed, a few too many years of heavy monsoon seasons can completely undo an entire kingdom. Adventuring in the midst of this collapse can create a dramatic backdrop of political events for your DnD campaigns.
As mentioned earlier there are actually two different versions of this climate: one where the wet season is in the summer and one where the wet season is in the winter. For our Wet/Dry climates where the wet season is in the summer many of the concepts we discussed with Monsoon climates can be applied. Worth noting though is compared to Monsoons our Wet/Dry climates have much more pronounced dryness. The winter may be stable, but a lack of water may become an issue. Indeed, people may start relying on freshwater shipments from more mountainous regions with large stores of un-melted snow and ice from the wet season to supplement their own dwindling water supplies.
Agriculture in the dry season is functionally impossible without advanced irrigation, and even then there are limits. A season that is too dry will cause even the most sophisticated and robust irrigation systems to fail. As such, where other societies might need their crops to last them the winter and early spring, societies in Wet/Dry climates will need their crops to last them the dry season, which may itself be the summer.
Let’s touch on something quickly here. There are actually 4 different types of Wet/Dry climates, each experiencing different rations of dry season to wet season. They are as follows:
- Dry and Wet seasons of pretty much equal length
- A long Dry season and a short Wet season
- A short Dry season and a long Wet season
- A Dry season with a bit of rainfall, and much rainier Wet season, but not enough to be a Monsoon cycle
We are most interested in the first 3, as the 4th is again more or less covered by our section on Monsoon Climates.
With a longer Dry season the reliance on a prosperous Wet season is amplified. Societies here will often be highly advanced with those aforementioned robust irrigation systems so as to stretch their agricultural months out into the Dry season as much as possible. Alternatively, societies may be distinctly less advanced with only minimal agricultural activity, seeking to subsist through the Dry season through hunting and fishing. Indeed these subsistence societies may constitute the more dangerous denizens of a region, such as Orcs and Goblins, and a particularly harsh Dry season may lead them to raid other humanoid settlements for food and water.
With a longer Wet season agriculture is less volatile, but still we can at times experience similar issues to those of Monsoon climates wherein too much rain causes flooding and nutrient loss in soil. Military mobility may be limited significantly in such regions, since marching large numbers of people through near-constant rain is a logistical nightmare (anyone who’s ever tried to hike through mud can tell you this). Indeed, such areas may instead have complex webs of trade and cooperation between societies rather than histories of conquest and war. With that being said, the reliability of agriculture does mean that provisioning an army is much easier, and conquest can itself subsist off the land with troops sustaining themselves off the crop yields of the settlements they pass through while on the march. Military campaigns may be able to last much longer, only halting in the dry season. Expect longer but smaller-scale and less organised military campaigns.
We might also take this format of wet season conquest and again apply it to our Orc and Goblin societies. Maybe such tribes subsist by tearing through communities during the wet season and stripping them of food, before retreating to the outlands in time for the dry season. Such hostile groups in your setting can provide a lot of opportunities for adventures. Many a Lord, Elder or Chieftain will pay good coin for extra protection during the wet season raids.
As for other adventures, we can more or less follow ‘standard patterns’ like what we might see in regular summer months. The main difference is we need to be cognisant of the environmental challenges each season can provide here. Extreme Dry seasons mean parties travelling long distances overland need to be careful with water rations and will also risk heat exhaustion if the Dry season also lines up with the summer in that region. Extreme Wet seasons cause different navigational issues due to full and fast-flowing rivers. Keeping dry also becomes a significant challenge. Walking in sodden boots is a great way to develop conditions like Trench Foot (also an issue in particularly muddy spring times), and sleeping in the wet and damp while resting may result in inadequate long rests (introducing issues of Exhaustion).
On the whole, adventuring in Tropical Climates can be a great way to break up the more standard seasonal pace of European-style climates (which as a term is totally glossing over the actual climatic complexity of those regions, but I digress). Each different major kind of Tropical Climate creates totally different societies and, by extension, totally different political landscapes. Adventuring operates in very different ways depending on each of these factors.
You may notice the exclusion of the prototypical ‘Tropical Island’, as I feel discussing that links more broadly to seafaring adventures which often occupy completely different territory in terms of the challenges that a party may face. I might discuss that all one day, but that’s for a different time.
I hope this has all given you some inspiration for how you can set adventures and campaigns in areas that experience Tropical Climates of various distinctions. I think there are a lot of interesting opportunities presented by such climates and we’d be remiss to ignore them wholesale in our DnD campaigns. There’s still one more of these to come on Polar and Arctic Climates, so keep your eyes out for that. For now I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece, and feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.