White Squalls

Now it’s a thing that us old-timers know, in the sultry summer calm

There comes a blow from nowhere, and it goes off like a bomb

And a fifteen-thousand-tonner can be be thrown upon her beam

While the gale takes all before it with a scream.

- Stan Rogers, White Squall

It’s been a hot minute since we covered a science topic on the Molten Sulfur Blog! This week, we look at white squalls: a rare, almost mythical meteorological phenomenon where a destructive wind springs from a beautiful blue sky, leaving only devastation in its wake.

White squalls are formed when a sudden burst of air pushes down through the atmosphere and impacts on the surface of the earth. With nowhere else to go, it pushes outwards. Hundred-knot winds radiate from a central point for a few seconds or even minutes, seemingly out of nowhere. What distinguishes a white squall from the more-common microburst is that a white squall is not associated with gray storm clouds. It’s ‘white’ because, at sea, your only warning may be a line of whitecaps to windward.

This phenomenon occupies a place in human knowledge similar to ball lightning. White squalls are rare, and even when they do occur, they’re unpredictable, which makes them devilishly difficult to study. There’s slim odds someone with the proper scientific equipment will be in the right place at the right time to measure one of these events. Even Youtube doesn’t seem to have any cell phone videos that unambiguously show a white squall. A skeptic could reasonably question whether the thing actually exists!

Should you encounter a white squall, the day will likely begin with some remarkably unremarkable weather. There may be some piled-up clouds in the direction from which the squall will come, but the clouds are white, not gray and threatening. A gentle breeze catches your clothes. If you’re lucky, you may notice some odd sights off in the distance to windward. If you’re on land, you may notice that grass or fields are flattened. Trees are bent over, their branches shaking violently. In sandy places, you may see a distant ‘wall’ of dust and grit. At sea, you will see the far-off waves turn universally to whitecaps. You may even see the water in the distance seem to ‘smoke’ – droplets snatched from the surface form a white mist like blowing snow for a few feet above the sea. No matter your location, you may hear a great rushing sound. The noise of the wind moves faster than the wind itself. And in all cases, this odd phenomenon is moving towards you – and fast!

When the wind hits, it hits like a hammer blow. It goes from calm to 60 knots or more like throwing a switch. People report being bowled over. Folks hanging onto a life rail may be pulled horizontal, like a flag in a stiff breeze. Big trees are uprooted or snapped in half. Cars roll over. Boats capsize. The experience may last only a few seconds and be accompanied by some light sprinkles, or it may last several minutes, complete with torrential rain, flashing lightning, and a purple sky. Eventually, the wind cuts out suddenly, but whatever rain accompanied it may last for hours more.

Image modified from the original by Brian Wangrud. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

At the table, a white squall is a calamity out of nowhere. The event itself is over quickly: a couple of skill checks, some rapid decision-making, and a little colorful narration. The part that makes the encounter interesting is the longer-term impact. When things have been going well for your party, when they’ve just had a string of unmitigated successes, that’s the right time to bust out the white squall. It’s a great way to take away some of their resources, to set them back – provided your players trust you!

You have to lay a little groundwork for this encounter. Otherwise, it risks feeling arbitrary. Maybe the party heard from an old-timer at the last inn that his joints are aching in a way that predicts a white squall. Maybe the wizard read somewhere that white squalls are not unheard-of in this region. Maybe someone gets a warning on her smart pad that unpredictable severe weather is possible today.

Nonetheless, it is a beautiful day to be traveling. But a white squall is brewing nearby! Call for Notice checks. Anyone who passes spots the whitecaps, flattened grass, or bent-over trees to windward. The PCs have less than a minute until the wind is atop them!

During their brief window to prepare, what do the PCs do? At sea, depending on the size of the ship, they may not have time to haul down the sails. They may want to don life vests and go below, if only to ensure the wind can’t snatch anyone off the deck and hurl her out to sea to drown. If the boat capsizes, the party will need to get up (out?) on deck expeditiously, but it beats drowning alone. On land, the PCs may want to run as far from tree cover as they can, then hug the ground to keep from getting knocked down, tumbled over, or struck by flying debris.

Then the squall is upon them! Call for Athletics checks or Reflex saves as necessary to gauge whether PCs are knocked about, swept overboard, or caught under falling trees. Roll damage as needed, and then the squall is past, over as quickly as it began.

Image modified from the original by Brian Wangrud. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

That’s when the PCs learn the true impact of the blow. A couple of quick skill checks and maybe a little damage – that’s not a fun encounter. What makes it interesting is when the squall capsizes the PCs’ boat, drops a tree on their wagon, breaks the legs of their tumbled-over horses, or otherwise takes away a vital resource the party was counting on.

This requires a lot of trust on the part of the players! Many folks have been burned by ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ GMs. Only use this encounter with players who’ve been gaming with you for a while, who know your priority is making sure there’s an interesting story and everyone has a good time. They have to believe you’re making their lives difficult so their eventual victory feels meaningful. If they don’t trust you, to them you’re just some asshole who’s smashing their toys because you enjoy hurting them.

But if your players trust you, and if their PCs have been doing really well, using a catastrophe out of nowhere to set them back can make their triumph next session that much sweeter.


And I tell these kids a hundred times, don’t take the lakes for granted.

They go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted.

But tonight, some red-eyed Wiarton girl lies staring at the wall,

And her lover’s gone into a white squall.

- Stan Rogers, White Squall


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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