I’ve got winter on the brain. Mainly, I just find myself wishing for a nice fluffy snowfall to have fun in with my wife and kids but I also ran a game this past weekend that included freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall as key danger elements in the game. I feel like I represented some of the pitfalls inherent of such conditions but I really wanted to look into what someone could potentially face when they are up against dangerous arctic conditions and, how a DM/GM might go about challenging the table. Figured I’d take you all along for the ride.
TRAVELING IN THE DRIFTS
When your players are traveling in winter-like conditions it might be tempting to boil any complications you have in mind down to a series of checks to see if they “survive” the trip intact. Instead, I urge you to think about all the opportunities to turn the environment itself into an enemy to harass the group! Simply having them “check” their way through the trip robs you of the pleasure of having them inwardly beg to survive it at all, and may make them think twice about accepting further adventures up in the frozen portions of whatever realm you play in.
The biting winds of an open plain or the raw fear of daylight bleeding away too quickly can be a very real complication for anyone traversing frozen tundra. The cold is something to be feared, like any extreme. Characters on the move may not face this as readily as those camped (more on that in a bit) but if the area they need to cross provides little in the way of shelter from the wind they could experience conditions like Frostbite or even hypothermia.
Now, I’m not suggesting you nitpick what the characters choose to wear, unless you all are into that level of micro storytelling, but it is certainly something to keep in mind for those checks against the cold weather. Increase difficulty if they are on the open plain or maybe drop the temperature dramatically if they decide to travel at night. Be familiar with the conditions above and determine in game how they might affect your players. Certainly you could look into lost hit points, fatigue, or even death. Those suffering from such ailments may even need help from that long forgotten heal check. It doesn’t need to just sit around waiting to stabilize someone.
Try being descriptive though, while the cold tends to lean towards the “checks” framework more than anything else, that doesn’t mean you have to express a simplistic Pass or Fail approach. When they pass a check perhaps they were able to use survival instincts to hunker behind a dune of snow for a time or a failure might come from a player forgetting to stay hydrated in the cold, a lapse that could hasten hypothermia. Pull on your own memories for times when that burst of cold wind made you suck in your breath, describe labored pulls of frozen air into beleaguered lungs. Set that tone.
Or cast endure elements, that might help…but even endure elements can’t help with…
KEEPING THE TRAIL
One thing a heavy snowfall can certainly impact is a group’s ability to stay on track. As mentioned, a few survival checks could be used to represent the lead scout picking their way across the snowy wilderness but even the best scout will struggle at keeping the regular trail when it’s been blocked by an avalanche, covered in deep snow, or invisible in a whiteout.
An avalanche doesn’t always need to be something your players cause and have to survive, coming across the devastation of one blocking their path could be just as eerie. You can use it as an excuse to push them through the Mines of Morierrr… I mean the nearby cave system. Another option is they may need to get creative with spells to clear the way. Lastly, it may just impede them all together, causing them to turn back and use that nice air ship fellow they met back in town.
A whiteout certainly calls for repeated checks to keep the trail if the players decide to push forward but simply failing to find the trail might be a bit boring. Maybe some repeated failed checks lead to the front of the marching order to find themselves in an open slide down side of a small mountain towards a tremendous drop. Limited visibility can certainly impair the group’s ability to notice certain monsters that have no difficulty picking up the trail of new feet in their realm.
THE NIGHT’S WATCH
It gets dark quick where it’s cold. Keep that in mind when determining how often your players may wish to set camp, and the cold can be much less forgiving at night. Don’t let the players simply say “we’re making camp” ask them where, make them figure out some safe choices. Put that survival skill to good use.
I went backpacking over the summer in Colorado and discovered firsthand just how much wood it requires to get through even one night, and we were cold that night too. We packed very well for every aspect of the trip except keeping ourselves warm enough. It slipped into the 30’s (Fahrenheit) when we had expected it to stay in the 50’s. We were awake, and by the fire, all night. Every scrap of dead wood near us went to the flame and we were lucky as Hell that there were some greener pieces available to burn long. So if your characters are somewhere without wood, they may wish they’d thought ahead. At least they have magic to get creative with and once again endure elements or a bag of holding full of firewood can be a godsend.
The same creatures who can pick up the trail of fresh PCs can also easily harass those looking to camp. If the players think a cave or a den of trees looks like a fine place to bunker down, why wouldn’t a small war-band of Orcs or our hungry wolf buddies? In the wild shelter is a commodity and even more so in severe weather. Don’t just assume the players have found safe sleeping arrangements because they decided it is time for their long rest, make them earn that sleep.
Now, I’ve had a lot of fun talking about winter conditions and what sort of challenges you can throw at the players but I’m sure many of you have some great ideas as well. Feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll likely use them at some point. If you really like the idea of a campaign set in conditions like this I would suggest you look at the Savage Worlds Campaign Setting Hellfrost, by Triple Ace Games. I’ve written a few games using this world and it is by far one of the most well written fantasy settings for the system, and it is all about snow and ice. If nothing else it would make a great supplement for any game with these extremes at the heart of them. Goodbye for now and wish for some snow my way will ya?