The Architect DM: Winter is Coming

Recently I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire books and really enjoying them, starting with A Game of Thrones and now I’ve just finished the second book A Clash of Kings. One of the major concepts of the series is that summers and winters can last for years at a time, and the books start during a long period of summer and focus on the Stark family whose motto is the very foreboding words, “winter is coming.” Though there are different seasons, the northern portion of the series’ fantasy world is always in a wintery climate and the narrative of the books returns to this area every now and then as a subtle reminder that winter is in definitely coming.

I found it incredibly appropriate that fellow blogger T.W. Wombat (@twwombat) decided to host a “Winter is Coming” blog theme week only a few days into Autumn. Though I’m not one to be melancholy during winter and in fact often love the season and look forward to it, I am a big fan of thematic blogging across as many people as possible and decided that I should participate in this one! It also synced up quite well with some inspiration I received while reading A Clash of Kings just a week or two ago, and I was not about to let the coincidence go by unacknowledged.

The Secrets of Castle Black

If you’re not familiar with the world of a Song of Ice and Fire, then not only should you go read it but I also have to give you a little bit of preface. In the series the northern part of the continent is always snowy and cold, and a giant wall of ice has been built along the edge of the civilized kingdoms to keep the lands safe from whatever threats may linger further to the north. Just beneath this wall is Castle Black, and it wasn’t until midway through A Clash of Kings when it was finally described how the castle was built to survive the decade long winters that are all the more harsh in the north where it was built.

Castle Black functions much like your typical medieval castle, but what really caught my attention was the little detail that the castle also has a series of underground tunnels constructed so that when the snows fall for months on end the inhabitants can still get from building to building within the walls. This detail added a whole new depth of character to the location as well as further defining the idea of long and harsh winters in the north. This is the kind of thing that can really sell a location in your tabletop RPG and D&D games!

Seasonal Design

I’m sure I’ve stressed it before in my posts here, but it bears repeating: the best way to add lasting character to a location is to think about its surroundings and how they impact the design of the place. The cool fact about Castle Black is nothing special or extraordinary, it exists for the simple fact of functionality during impeding snow storms. There is no special formula or recipe for designing a location with these factors in mind, simply pick some feature or aspect of the environment and brainstorm any ideas that might work to make the place more livable or more functional.

To stick with the Winter is Coming theme, the next thing to snow you think of could be how ridiculously cold the winters get, and so an abundance of hearths might be present or even a surprisingly advanced system of heating that was discovered more out of necessity than out of any intentional innovation. As a matter of fact, you see this exact idea even early in the book A Game of Thrones where the castle of Winterfell is built with stones in a way to radiate heat throughout the castle from the warm springs it was built upon. These ideas are little details on their own, but when you put them together they solidify the theme of “it’s really freaking cold and winter is definitely coming” that you may be trying to infuse into your campaign.

Certainly hot springs and underground tunnels are not the only two elements that can convey a wintery theme, but they are two very iconic ideas that I believe imply quite a bit about a setting in a subtle way. Other elements might include the abundance of hearths I mentioned earlier or an excess of storage space left empty during warmer times because it exists solely to contain the large surplus that must be collected in order to survive the long winters. Thinking of elements like this is easier than you might think because it gives part of your efforts in world building over to the implied elements of how the world works. Fantasy worlds can be living and growing worlds just like real life, so why not let them help us out?

The Character of Place

Something that impresses me the most about the Song of Ice and Fire series is the characterization of some of its locations. Castle Black was fairly bland at first and completely overshadowed (literally and metaphorically) by the more impressive 700 foot wall of ice behind it until I read the part about the underground tunnels and the castle began to be more intriguing. Many of the more focal locations such as Winterfell and Kings Landing are fairly boring, while places like the Eyrie up in the mountains and Pyke on the crumbling edge of the Iron Islands are insanely creative and interesting. This may be an intentional effort by the author to have the more interesting locations not overshadow the main action of the series, but it puts forward some great fantasy locations that I think anyone would be happy to have in their game.

Something that we have above and beyond authors and the stories they write is the fact that while we are running an RPG we are building a story with everyone around the table. More precisely, what I mean is that when you begin to add interesting characteristics into your locations like those mentioned above you never know how your players are going to latch on to these elements and add on to them or use them as the game progresses. I can just imagine introducing a castle in a winter setting into one of my D&D games that has hot springs heating like the castle of Winterfell only to have my players decide they can find a way to disrupt the heating process or even booby trap it in order to assault or destroy the castle. It wouldn’t even matter if the castle was friendly or not, they’d probably try it no matter what!

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  1. Nice post Danny! So far I still only have the view point of a player but the more little details the GM puts into an area I definitely feed off of that and tend to immerse myself more into the world. I am one of only two players from our group that regularly does a write up after each session and little details both help me remember what happened as well ass encourage me to continue writing these types of summaries.

    I also liked the mention of the Song of Ice and Fire series as I have just begun reading them myself this week!

  2. I agree with cfalls, its the little things that can really make a location or even a world feel alive. Simple things like hearths are often easy for us to forget when designing a location because we think of it as simple “dressing” but the thing is, if you remember to put hearths in Castle Black, then you will likely remember to light the fires in them, which then creates another little interesting piece of terrain for that encounter in the main hall. As a DM I really like this reminder of just being practical and thinking is simple and logical terms as its a great way to add some interesting features (and potentially terrain) without making it seem forced. The river of lava is cool and all, but when it shows up for the 10th time in a campaign its impact is a bit reduced. The hearth may not be as cool as the lava, but it doesn’t cause any groans when it does appear (assuming you are not in a desert).

    I am definitely going to be thinking about these sorts of things as I design my future encounters as I think terrain is one of those features that I often struggle with. I know that 4ed is great for terrain but its also pretty easy to forget and/or ignore terrain when designing encounters.


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