Sometimes the Thames freezes over. It was more common in the Eighteenth Century, when temperatures were a little colder than now, and the bridge over the river had pylons more closely placed. People held markets on the frozen river. During the final frost fair in 1814, a book was printed on the ice. I’ve gone through it for plot hooks.
Ars Magica is a game that’s peculiarly good for environmental puzzles. In combat heavy games, the question of how you stop a village from starving due to frost has only one obvious answer: you kill the thing causing the frost. In Ars Magica, you can instead let the player characters work through a series of challenges using the many tools they have available. The interest is not if a creature will eat them. Their success is assumed. The interest is how they will solve the problems, what the effects of their choices will be, and how this develops the characters. This is sometimes called “competence porn”.
If you want an ultimate villain for this, then there are obvious ones available in Ars Magica supplements. Your final battle could be with the Snow Queen, some frost giants, the Muspelli or an army of the dog-headed faeries who bring the winter with them. This article leaves that to you: it’s about the non-combat stories of that can be told about a Great Frost.
Some events, which characters need to react to
A great fog rolls across the land on the 27th of December and lasts until the 3rd of January. This prevents travel, except at the slowest of rates, perhaps three miles per day. Messages cannot get through so it’s a perfecttime for people to settle scores and commit crimes. Messengers go missing and need to be retrieved People accidentally walk into rivers, or ride off roads and need rescue. Horsemen collide, which could cover a murder or theft.
People travelling the streets need to carry torches, and those who were out before the fog rolled in have great trouble getting home. The streets are full of people yelling “Who is coming”, “Mind me!”, “Take care!” and some of these voices say worse things, but it’s hard to pin them down. You could have a sonic will-o-the-wisp begging for aid and leading people into trouble.
Rain that falls then freezes and makes leaves and branches heavy. The slightest wind can break off a branch that weighs dozens of pounds. Even a leaf can cut you when it is coated in a thick layer of frost.
People freeze to death in the snow, or are orphaned. This creates a lot of ghosts.
Big chunks of ice start to appear in the river. These crash against each other dangerously, and cluster about the bridge. As the tide turns, it begins to push ice back up the river, so that the ice coming down, and the ice being forced up, block the river to traffic. Magi may need to ensure a shipment gets through, without being detected. During a high tide, a ship cannot find anchorage, so it ties off to the column of a public house. This is pulled down when there is a sudden shift in the ice. A character seeing what is happening could save dozens of people just by splitting the rope, but magical aid might save the vessel as well.
Two days of constant snow are followed by a short thaw, which turns everything to mud. The river floods, and the ice chunks in it smash the wooden houses and commercial buildings by the river. Icicles a yard and a half long form, and one at least kills a man by impaling him when it falls from an eave. Markets empty out, so supplies for the covenant are harder to find. Water is scarce: wells are frozen and fuel to melt snow is becoming expensive. If you have no water, your Laboratory score goes down, and your covenant has a negative Environmental modifier on Aging rolls.
Many people die, but the ground is too hard to bury them, and that generates a lot of ghosts, with very simple final requests. Since each of these has a little Mentem vis. this is good business for the unscrupulous.
The Thames freezes hard. Skating occurs (because this is later than 1220) A woman pops her kneecap and some people fall through the ice. Rich people come for a stickybeak as the ice gets more solid.
In some great frosts, the rivers freeze, but beneath the ice they they keep pouring fresh water out into the sea, which also freezes, blocking harbours either with sheets, or with jagged chunks of ice. Some captains report that there is a sheet of unstable ice for miles from the British coastline. Ships in the harbours are wrecked. Their cargoes are lost. Fishing fleets cannot do their work.
The weight of the snow on the roofs of houses makes them unsafe, so it is shoveled into the roads. This fills the streets, making them impassible in many areas. Snowdrifts around London reach 16 feet, too high even for oxen. Fuel gets expensive as there’s no way to bring it in. The city disburses funds to buy fuel for the poor, and offers a bounty on every fish bought to market. There’s a heap of money to be made here, or a lot of people to rescue.
Sledges first appear on the river, hauling goods which would usually travel by boat or road. The first people to break the famine and fuel shortage make good money, or get political favours. During a later frost fair,m some men wagon in a ton of Welsh coal as a gift for the Prince of Wales, and that gives them royal favour. Magi might mount a similar show for the courtier-pawns.
Street sweepers have started making mounds of snow and rubbish on the ice. All of the stuff that usually goes into the sewers needs to just be pilled up in the only clear space: which is on the river. Demons of filth rejoice, and some make elemental bodies from these towers of waste.
Processions start: “The watermen and fishermen, with a peter-boat in mourning, and the carpenters, bricklayers etc with their tools and utensils in mourning, walked through the streets in large bodies, imploring relief for their own and families necessities.” Magi could recruit a lot of workmen cheap, for a covenant, at a time like this.
The first shops appear on the ice, selling liquor. A fair springs up. The next day, people are selling utensils and toys marked hastily with commemorative inscriptions. Bear bating. pig and sheep roasting occur, swings, bookstalls, dancing in a barge, suttling (vitaling) booths, skittles, The watermen charge and entrance fee. There is a run on the banks for small coins. This, again, requires coins to be a regular part of the economy: arguably possible in C13th London, but not in many other places.
A light snow occurs the next day. (Do you stop it to keep the fair going?)
Some people deliberately stay out late on the ice. “The effect of moonlight was singularly picturesque and beautiful.” This makes the site even more interesting to faeries.
Faeries are drawn to the pain of those who can see, but not participate in the festivities. “The miserable inhabitants that dwelt in houses on both sides the river during these thoughtless exhibitions, were mainly of them exerincing the extreme misery; desitute of employment…their children whining for the want of bread.”
The ice breaks up. Before it cleaves off, warning sounds of cracking deep within the ice, occur. A large chunk detached itself, with people upon it, who need saving.
Other notes from Frotstiana
St Petersurg Fair:
St Petersburg regularly has frost fairs. It’s the cheapest period for food, as the frozen river provides cheap transport for goods from far provinces. There are great pyramids of cows, sheep, hogs, fowls, butter, fish and eggs, all “stiffed into granite”. Fish have their living colours, but beasts are skinned and stacked so it looks like they are climbing over each other. Frozen meat is chopped off like wood.
A woman survived buried in a snow cave for eight days. The snow was thin enough that the light of the sun permeated her cave, such that she could read the alamanc in her pocket. She melted snow in her mouth to avoid death by thirst, and when she heard the church bells, she tore off the frozen branch of a tree and used it to smash a way out to the open air and call for help. She then fainted, and lost a few toes to frostbite. This sounds like an initiation, similar to that of the Drowned Men in Realms of Power: Magic.