Snowy tundras stretch on in blanketing white. Mountains and valleys are masked by snow and ice, burying what once was. All manner of secrets might lie below the frost. But for the party to discover them, they must first survive the dangers in the cold.
The third in our series of d20 Encounter Charts, we follow the oceans and islands with a new adventure into the freezing wastes. Our goal is for each snow encounter to be unique and distinct from the last, and able to act as a starting point for any other inspirations you might find. Accompanying each of them is a detailed scene description, as well as some tips, tricks, and variants for planning them in your own game. We aim to relieve some of the stress of session planning so that you can chill out and have fun.
But this list is only Part 1! Our second part will be coming soon to detail the remaining 10 encounters, with a d20 Chart to simplify navigation and use.
1 – An orc patrol of unknown allegiance is spotted nearby. Trolls can be seen stalking them and are moments from catching them off-guard.
Some distance down the snowy slope they walk, the party spots the shapes of a traveling orc band. They bare no uniforms and are unrecognizable, making their reaction to the party impossible to predict. They may be soldiers or travelers, or they may be bandits. Multiple other forms, camouflaged in the snow, are following them. The group doesn’t seem to notice as the frost trolls get closer. Without the party’s intervention, the orcs may be slaughtered. But will they risk having to fight both trolls and orcs?
To start off our snow encounters, we actually place the party as observers to someone else’s encounter. How quickly they notice what is happening will depend on their perception scores, which will determine the time they have to react. Low rolls will only reveal the scuffle once it begins. Make sure your players understand what is or will happen and put them on the clock. The characters must decide quickly based on their immediate morals rather than mapping out a battle plan. You can start by describing the orcish shapes as the players observe them, increasing the pace of your description as the trolls enter. Be very clear about what seems to be happening. This encounter is about making a snap decision, not tricking players.
The orcs do not have to be orcs, of course. Use whatever unit is applicable to your campaign and setting, as a friendlier race might be more ideal. One key detail is trying to keep their intentions hidden from the party until combat erupts or even ends. If you have a faction that is present in the tundra, you might consider having the people match it but still be devoid of uniform or easy identification. You want your players to question whether they are friendly. This also means actually deciding if they are. Three-sided combat can be fun, but you might prefer to have an allied party be a reward for success. Survivors could travel with the players for a time, before going their own way. If they are hostile, perhaps they will accept a brief truce for the party warning and/or helping them.
Running the snow encounter’s combat is rather simple but can require juggling a large number of units. To make this easier on yourself, don’t assign the orcs any fantastic abilities or spells. You want to be able to quickly make attacks between them and the trolls from behind your screen without confusing your notes or boring your players. Focus more on the description of the combat. This goes doubly for if your players must face both orcs and trolls, though them thinning each other’s ranks does alleviate this somewhat. Generic orcs are very straightforward to track, though you might include a war chief for more advanced parties. Trolls do come at a higher CR, but keep in mind the difference in unit numbers between the sides of the fight.
2 – A cabin sits alone in the snow, nestled against the mountain’s foot. It appears long-abandoned but ghostly inhabitants still whisper from the shadows.
The cabin was built of thick logs and stone, strong enough to remain upright even when half-buried in snow. It rests against the mountain, miles from any other civilization. Discovering it was serendipitous for the party, as the sun was setting and a storm could be seen on the horizon. The cabin has space for a fire and bedrolls. It seems perfect, yet the atmosphere shifts as night falls. Whispers come first before the cabin’s spectral memories begin to show their eery faces. They are not immediately threatening, but their presence is disconcerting and their purpose unknown.
There is one natural question to consider before running this snow encounter: what do the ghosts want? It is perfectly acceptable to have them be beneficent and want to help the party. If the players have had a long day, you can make the cabin a magical haven for travelers. It could specifically appear when storms brew to provide shelter. In this case, the ghosts can be played as previous caretakers or visitors, the creators of the cabin, or even illusions created by the building itself. Their purpose would be to invite people in and tend to them by aiding in healing, keeping the fire going, etc. They may not be the actual ghosts of the people, but rather magical imprints of them and their personalities.
Or the cabin might be hungry, of course. You can flip the previous example to have the building be a trap. The snow encounter could play out the same, with ghosts welcoming and inspecting the party harmlessly. Except in this case the players do not immediately realize that the specters have extinguished the fire beneath a cloak of illusions. Magic might be masking the ashes, along with the ice that fills the room and the bodies of past victims. Characters would be taking cold damage but only realizing it when they see through the glamor. The DC would lower as they took more background damage, revealing the trap once it reached the highest passive perception (provided they are not rolling). From there, you can bring in a small number of ghosts, a banshee, or similar creatures for brief combat.
It is always important to consider what the result of an encounter might be. In this case, your players will likely be engaging the cabin either at night, during a storm, or both. This means that simply leaving to camp elsewhere could be costly. The cabin is a fantastic rest stop if the ghosts are friendly or defeated, but most parties won’t want to sleep there after fighting resident spirits. Revealing and overcoming the illusion could reveal a hatch towards the back of the cabin. This might lead them into a tunnel network that not only gives them a safer place to rest but also means they can bypass the storm and other dangers. It’s a simple, non-monetary reward, but an effective one for parties traveling between locations.
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3 – An extravagant aurora fills the sky. It is colorful, beautiful, and mesmerizing. It is a perfect distraction for goblin thieves.
The party makes their camp with clear lines of sight outwards and upwards. The night is calm, with only a frosty breeze whistling between trees and cliffs. Rather quickly and spectacularly, an aurora of cascading blues and greens snakes its way across the night sky. The lights streak and twist, drawing the attention of the adventurers camping beneath. It is a magnificent sight and captivates their attention. It is also entirely fake, a goblin mage casting it while hidden nearby. And as it distracts the party like heavily-armed moths, the goblin’s compatriots move in to raid their belongings.
Another snow encounter that works best as the party makes camp, this one takes a more comedic approach. The idea is to value fun over a challenge. Describe the aurora slowly and in calm detail, being sure not to tip off your players. You want to distract them as well as their characters. Of course, this will almost never work on everyone and that’s okay. At least one party member is guaranteed to either not bother with the aurora or to notice the mounds of snow shifting around towards their bags. The purpose is not to have your players lose any items, but rather to lead into an interaction with the goblins.
How goblins behave tends to differ between campaigns, but those present in this encounter should lean towards being benign and bumbling. You might notice they are very similar to those in our ‘Ghost Encounter with a Goblin Twist‘ and that is intentional. This functions much like a smaller version of that. This means you want the goblins to be surprised and awkward once they are caught. The illusion mage might cast a more obvious illusion when his friends are found, revealing himself in the process. These goblins are thieves, not fighters, and therefore won’t engage the party. They are outmatched and they know it. Instead, have them throw their hands in the air and attempt to bargain.
Certain players will always tend toward incinerating the goblins and that is often unavoidable. Try to make them endearingly blundering and have fun playing them. Ultimately the party won’t lose anything and instead might gain some basic shinies or information through the goblins’ babbling negotiation. It should be easy for players to convince (or more likely, threaten) them to either stay away or aid them in some way. There is very little actual threat, so focus on making the interaction funny and enjoyable.
4 – The party finds a camp of travelers with damaged gear and supplies. They are friendly and make every attempt to hide the bodies that they have buried beneath them.
While traveling through a snowy valley, the party spots a small, populated camp in the distance. Approaching reveals a small number of inhabitants who appear to be tending to their camp. They are courteous and friendly. The strangers offer the party to stay and eat with them, jovially mentioning the strength of numbers. It is only as the meeting continues that the party begins to notice signs of previous combat in the camp. Tents are torn and there is a spattering of blood, but no evidence of wolves. Only inches below the snow’s surface lie the strangers’ victims, who they party may soon join.
As you are effectively dealing with an enemy party, you should first consider their story. How did they get to this snow encounter? Your players will likely question them during the meeting and the more cohesive and convincing their story is, the more your party will relax. Of course, they may be lying. This would mean that they should have worked out their lie in advance as part of their trap. The obvious lie is that wolves attacked their camp. Details would match but adequate checks might reveal that the damage is from weapons, for instance. The interaction should also carry on for some time, to slowly reveal inconsistencies and add impact to the climax. For the true story, they may simply be bandits, praying on travelers isolated by the terrain.
You have two options for the bandits’ goal in the interaction. If the party is inexperienced or seems like an easy target, the strangers may attempt to keep them around until night. They will offer to keep watch while the party rests, intending to attack them while they sleep. Most parties will see through this and keep one person on watch, so the bandits may even try to lure them away to prevent them from waking the others. For a visibly powerful party, you can have them try and convince the players to move on. This could come in the form of mentioning the dangers in the immediate area, claiming the camp’s damage is from fighting monsters. Alternatively, they could pack up their new camp and travel with the party to put distance between them and the bodies.
You might also increase their depth of character to make the snow encounter more interesting and the characters less black-and-white. One option is to make them werewolves. They might have lost control, attacking the camp in their beast forms. They then took the supplies and replaced their clothing, with the replacements clearly not fitting properly. This might mean they are repentant when the party discovers the truth. Your players will be left with a tougher decision that could then unravel into a longer story if they choose to help.
5 – Intermittent snowstorms barrage the party, obscuring their vision and slowing their pace. Faeries dance invisibly within the storms, subtly moving the party as each one passes.
The storms could be seen coming, blasting the area ahead in a white haze before hitting the traveling group. Linking arms allows the characters to stay together but the battering of snow obscures all sight around them. When the storm passes, their surroundings seem different. Fresh snow blankets the area but trees and landmarks appear to have moved. Before long, another storm hits. And again, everything moves. As more and more storms pass, the party slowly recognize fey within the white, who are teleporting the adventurers back under the snow’s cover.
This snow encounter can quite easily be broken down into three stages, the first of which is the storms. In reality, the snowstorms are just a mask for the faeries, but you want to be tricking your characters by tricking the players. Give them some warning and let them choose how they react, hopefully focusing on staying together and not being buried. You can make it more interesting by having them in an open plain without caves or natural cover outside of trees and small rocks. Let them be creative with how they deal with the obstacle and ask for checks determined by their actions. Athletics checks might let them take the force of the storm and hold onto each other, with perception checks to see within it and possibly identify the fey.
The next step is choosing the effects of the faeries. They are naturally tricksters and pranksters so their magic does not need to be hostile or damaging. The most basic idea is essentially having each storm reset the party’s progress back to where they were when the encounter began. They could discover this through a perception check once it has passed. You can start turning the effects up as more storms engulf them. The second might swap their order around without them noticing, with the third splitting them up over a few dozen feet. You ideally want it to become more obvious that there is a second layer to the snow encounter which should motivate them towards interaction and resolution with the faeries.
You need to prepare for this interaction, of course, and it should be reiterated that the fey do not need to be hostile or malicious. That said, you are welcome to lead into combat. Doing so will give you the opportunity to make a very interesting encounter by using the storms as a lair action. Reaching initiative 20 each round might mean that the players are momentarily blinded as they are moved 20-30 feet in a random direction. If you do not use combat, the faeries may simply be satisfied once they are discovered. You can placate your players by having the fey then assist them, possibly by expediting their progress through reversing the storms’ effects. The final snowstorm might save them a day of travel, with a friendly thanks from the fey.
6 – A small band of soldiers has been trapped on an island in a frozen lake. Their supplies are running out and a beast circles below the ice.
A small haven of snow and stone rises out of the lake’s center. It is larger enough to hold the group of soldiers and their makeshift camp but a plain of ice cuts them off from escape. The lake, frozen only several inches deep, is home to a large and hungry creature. It circles the island as a blurred shadow beneath the ice. The trapped soldiers will call to any party that passes, begging for assistance in escaping. But can the adventurers help them without also becoming trapped or falling prey to the monster?
Your first port of call is to build an atmosphere. This snow encounter doesn’t rely on a trick, per se, but it is important to build the problem for players to solve. I find it best to have the trapped group be several hundred feet away. This limits communication to prevent them from easily explaining the entire situation but does require you to be fair in the ways they talk to the party. They will start by calling out to the players. Once someone tries to cross, they will scream about the thin ice below the layer of snow. This means that your players understand the issue they face but also saves the monster reveal for them to actually see once they get closer.
Crossing the ice, similar to the previous snow encounter, is a matter of player planning and skill checks. Their options are only limited by the resources available. It’s almost impossible to predict everything so try to give them whatever options you can think of. There should be trees of varied sizes nearby, as well as rocks and whatever other natural formation fits your landscape. From there, your job is to determine and adjust the DC’s of their skill checks based on how creative and realistic they are, rewarding them for better ideas. Stealth can let them cross the ice, with acrobatics to avoid falling in if it breaks. Make them aware that the soldiers will be making similar checks, so they should do what they can to assist.
In the event that the ice does break, it is best to use the monster as an environmental hazard. Its attack might act as a grapple to pull its prey under and subject them to the cold and suffocation. The creature is unlikely to fight to the death, so dealing enough damage could force it away for a time. Best of all, doing this means you can homebrew the monster without needing to create a statblock for it.
As always, the soldiers can be changed to be almost anyone. They may be another adventuring party or even local hunters or townsfolk. It is best for them to at least initially be friendly to the party as you want to motivate your players to help them. Do give some thought to who they are, of course. Why were they out there? Hunters from a nearby village might have been chasing an animal that was then eaten by the lake monster. This is especially useful if the party is approaching a town, as their new friends could lead them to shelter and put in a good word for them. If you instead use soldiers or an adventuring party, keep in mind how long they will stick around. Having them travel with the players significantly strengthens the party while parting ways might mean them asking for supplies.
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7 – As the party travels, a subtle thrum is felt beneath their feet. The snow begins to shift and move. Moments later, the predators strike.
The snow is thick and coats the entire landscape, several feet deep. Travel is difficult but the party trudges on. They see many beasts in the distance, hunting and making their own way, but soon enough the wildlife begins to thin. Nearby wolves even run away, seemingly from the party. But not long after, the most perceptive of the adventurers feel something. The white beneath them shifts and moves. As they scramble to prepare, the snow explodes and the monsters spring their ambush
What if the previous encounter happened to the party, on land? Inspired by a recent Critical Role live show (season 2, episode 73), this snow encounter aims to be simpler to prepare and run. It is straightforward combat, which helps keep the pace fresh and interesting. Not everything needs to be a puzzle, after all. The ambush begins by making the party feel relatively safe, with other creatures being seen nearby. But they are not the true threat. Matt Mercer did this to magnificent effect by having large wolves stalking and about to pounce on the Mighty Nein. This meant that the players were alerted and prepared for combat, but maintained the surprise by having a remorhaz lurch up like a graboid and consume the wolf mid-attack.
However you choose to begin the combat, the next step is keeping it balanced. Snowy tundras make for great battle map canvases but also limit the resources available to players. This makes creature choice more important. A remorhaz can be an unforgiving fight, especially for melee combatants. On top of that, encounters that use burrowing effects to conceal creatures tend to benefit from having multiple opponents rather than one larger monster. This is because individual units can burrow to move while others engage the party, rather than the players simply waiting for it to reappear. Young remorhazes are the most obvious conversion, though using ice-themed giant constrictor snakes or giant poisonous snakes (venomous, really) adds extra mechanics without bloating the CR.
As this snow encounter is very simple in design, it lends itself well to connecting with other encounters. Having it occur while the party has reinforcements from encounters 1, 4, or 6 allows you to increase the monster numbers and make the fight a little more interesting. Just keep in mind that you will be juggling the units. Don’t overcomplicate your job. Doing this is a great way to emphasize how helpful it was to find a peaceful resolution to the previous encounter. Players will feel more rewarded, and may even gain new information. The ‘travelers’ from encounter 4 are strangely adept with their weapons, for instance.
8 – A wizard’s tower rises from the snow, far from any civilization. It teleported there accidentally and its owner would very much like to leave.
Deep in the frosty tundra, far from any towns or resources, is a tower. The stone building rises out from the snow with much of its base buried. Strangely, very little has formed on its roof. The party finds themselves traveling nearby and can make out the sounds of angered shuffling and cursing from within. They hear only one inhabitant. Edging closer, the wizard inside becomes aware of them through magical alarms at the tower’s entrances. He excitedly rushes to them, begging for assistance in recasting his tower’s teleportation and escaping the bitter weather.
Your party’s interaction with the tower will consist of its appearance and inhabitant. The first is simple, though you can have some variation. The building might be slanted, to emphasize that it was not constructed where they now find it. The wizard’s unique and perhaps volatile belongings are now falling off shelves, increasing his frustration and wish to leave. It could even appear before the party’s eyes, causing the area to shake and snow to explode outwards as the tower displaces it. The key is to clearly inform your players that the tower is unusual to pique their curiosity. Lights and movement from within, as well its interior warmth, should help prompt an investigation.
There are many archetypes for hermit wizards and this snow encounter lends itself best to the agoraphobic shut-in. He will be wary of the party but quickly change to requesting their help as the conversation progresses. His story should be given some thought but does not need incredible depth. He may experiment in strange (but not evil) magic or collect oddities, making him an outsider to general society. The tower itself could be an inheritance or maybe his masterpiece, infuriating him further by it missing its target in the test teleportation. His situation and attitude will make him direct and prickly to the party, going as far as treating them as lesser than his own obvious genius. He will offer payment for their assistance, of course, as that always seems to motivate the ‘mercenary-folk’.
The task itself can be as simple or as involved as you wish. The easiest method is to think of it as a videogame sidequest and have the party retrieve something, either from a creature or location. The missing component will allow him to recast the tower’s spell and teleport it again, hopefully to somewhere more favorable. This can lead almost anywhere. For the sake of simplicity, you might have it link to another of our snow encounters. The necessary reagent could be the venom of a giant poisonous snake or a young remorhaz’s blood, both from encounter 7. Another option is having it be either carried by the frost giant (encounter 9) or beyond a portal (encounter 10). In these cases, the wizard will have scried the location and informed the party.
Helping the wizard will mean a reward. The most basic payment is always gold but he may also offer to use his tower to teleport them to their destination. This can use a teleportation circle to avoid the risk of the tower missing its target again with the players inside. There is also the possibility of giving the party a magical item (or them asking for one) but it is important to have the reward match the risk. Be mindful of what they will be facing and prepare their payment in advance, with some room for inevitable negotiation.
9 – A frost giant blocks the party’s path but seems sorrowful and frustrated. It has been rejected by its people and seeks to prove itself in combat.
The party’s heading through the tundra brings them face-to-face with a frost giant. They notice it from a distance, thanks to its size. Strangely, it seems to lack the characteristic rage and battle-lust of its brethren, or at least does not show it. It seems… sad. Choosing to approach, albeit hesitantly, the adventurers catch its eye. The giant reacts first with caution and then with joy. With difficulty, it manages to describe its situation to the strangers. It is young and its people outcast it for its failure in a hunt. They deemed it ill-suited for combat. It now seeks to rejoin them but must prove its worth in battle. Trophies will do the trick, whether from the party or nearby monsters.
Your first step is initiating the encounter by convincing your party to not just run away. But you cannot simply tell them to approach the frost giant, of course. They will notice it from a distance, though if they are within a valley it could be just around a corner. It will have its own perception roll to notice them, but succeeding will only mean it investigating in curiosity rather than attacking. Emphasize that it is clearly not hunting and seems to be moping about. Finally, you can choose to have them avoiding the giant mean a detour on the party’s path. It does not need to be a significant disadvantage but they will lose time on their journey and perhaps have to roll an extra encounter.
If your party engages with the giant, play it as being friendly and equally apprehensive of them as they are of it. It will first respond by expressing that it does not want to fight before realizing the opportunity they represent. These well-equipped strangers can help it defeat a mighty beast and secure a trophy to take back to its people. If they are not willing to help, it will instead try to face them. The giant should be clearly unready and unskilled if it fights the party, to prevent them from just killing it and leaving. It might try to escape or surrender as its health drops. An alternative path is for the party to provide a fake trophy that makes it seem as if the giant killed them. Leave this for your players to think of, with the giant suggesting it only if the situation gets especially dire.
Combat with the giant is very simple but having the party join it in a hunt is far more interesting. Adding a frost giant to their roster vastly increases their strength and lets you have them fight much larger creatures. You might wish to use one of our other snow encounters, such as encounter 7. This would let you include a fully-grown remorhaz for the giant to fight while the party engages smaller creatures. It will need help of course, which will require your party to aid in the fight without being in the firing line of the remorhaz’s attacks. Doing this can be a fantastic setpiece, with two huge creatures brawling as the backdrop of the party’s combat. Their assistance being pivotal means the glory is still theirs.
Success in this encounter not only means passing the giant but also gaining its friendship. Think about what this might mean for your campaign, particularly if the party will be returning to the area. A giant owing them a favor could be a powerful boon, even more so if its people agree. Alternatively, the tribe discovering its lie could have disastrous consequences for the party and their friend.
10 – A snowy cliff face holds an old portal that opens to a distant shore, with strange dangers waiting on the other side.
Many old ruins populate the tundra, damaged and buried beneath the snow. But none like this. Following the stone cliffs led the party to an old ritual site with paved steps and two crystal formations, dormant but charged. Interacting with the enormous gems causes them to hum to life. The energy sparks and spits and blinding streaks of plasma whip out, connecting with the cliff. They form an opening against the rock and the shockwave topples nearby trees. On the other side, the party catches shimmering glimpses of a sandy ocean shore. But there is more that they cannot see, waiting for them to approach.
This snow encounter focuses on a singular setpiece and comes with almost limitless possibilities for expansion. Think about how impactful you want the encounter to be and how long you want players interacting with it. It could be as simple as activating the portal and finding a mysterious, enchanted item on the other side. A magical trident would be fitting. Taking it could cause the portal to destabilize and animate a set of guardians, such as a water elemental or skeletal pirates (which we have tokens for!). The new climate forces them to adjust their tactics away from recent fights. The party would need to escape back through the portal and close it, all while the monsters follow and fight them.
Another example is to have the portal and island act as a prison for a dragon, such as in encounter 17 of our Island Encounters. Reigniting the portal and letting the cold through could reanimate and regenerate a (young) white dragon. For maximum danger, it could rise as a dracolich. This version of the snow encounter could function the same as the last, with the players fighting the beast and perhaps taking an item from it. Alternatively, it may immediately rush through the portal and escape. This would allow you to use a creature far beyond the party’s level and have it set up a future conflict. The ancient beast has returned both from death and imprisonment and now seeks to reclaim its tundra.
An important aspect of using this encounter is to consider the lore behind it. Portals like this don’t tend to just happen. Having it and the connected island act as a prison, alone and forgotten in a vast ocean, gives a good starting point for the portal’s existence. Knowledge of it may have been forgotten over time or faded into legend. Either way, players should have a way of learning about it. An escaping dragon means they can later visit nearby libraries and temples which could contain books or old murals of the beast’s first reign. Otherwise, think about including etchings around the portal, or even old journals and bodies to tell the story. Carvings could require an intelligence check to decipher. The idea is to integrate the site into your world and give it purpose, rather than feeling random.
If you would rather have the portal be a quick point of interest, or you can’t decide on a reward for completing the encounter, think about having it stay open or be accessible later. Connecting two distant points in the world (perhaps they are antipodes?) gives the players an incredibly powerful, albeit niche, boon. It is a fantastically unique reward and can really change how they approach the world, so consider when they might want to, or be encouraged to, use it. They would likely keep it as their secret, but what happens if someone else finds out?
That covers the first half of our snow encounters. Keep an eye out for the release of Part 2 and the d20 Chart, both coming shortly. Until then, we’d love to hear any feedback, opinions, or snowy stories you might have from your own games, down in the comments!
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Great article and wonderful maps, assets and art. I enjoyed the writing and the ideas. It goes without saying that the maps and other art is superlative work!