Snowy tundras weave between mountains and forests, blanketing the landscape in a petrifying cold. Many creatures and obstacles litter the area. Adventurers must be ready for what might find them, as well as the dangers of the snow itself. The cold creeps through clothing and camps, aching bones and draining energy. Even outside of encounters, survival is a struggle.
To continue our series of environmental encounters, we come to the frigid wastes, frozen fields, and all other snowy terrains. To accompany our snow encounters, we aim to explain and simplify the process of running a snow adventure. Making the most of the environment’s characteristic challenges is the key to running a unique and immersive campaign. This includes not only encounters but all moments surrounding and in between. This is what we’d like to help DM’s of all experience levels with .
1d20 Snow Encounters
We aim to help you run any sort of snow adventure, whether you favor crafted encounters or random tables. For these same reasons, we also have 20 hand-written Snow Encounters. As with all of our encounters, our goal is to help people over the hump of finding ideas and inspiration. We keep our encounters loose enough to be adjustable to any level range or party size, without sacrificing story. Each and every one comes with twists, turns, or just minor details to keep them interesting and engaging.
Encounters by Environment – Snow
Would you prefer all of this information in one place, more convenient for navigation and use at the table? We also have a series of ‘Encounter by Environment’ PDF’s. Each one covers a particular environment, including our ‘How to Run’ articles and all 20 encounters. We’ve also thrown in a selection of free maps, chosen for the encounters, to make your planning as easy as possible.
Part of a Larger World
Snow adventures most often occur in the distant norths or souths of a campaign world. As such, they should feel like a part of a larger whole. This brings us to the first question in planning: what is the context of your snow adventure? The most common options are simply regular terrain during a harsh winter, or the contrasting wastes of vicious cold and ice. Both options present different opportunities for challenges, for you and your players.
The first step is determining the terrain of your snowy region. This can always be changed and modified as your party travels to accommodate encounters but it is a good idea to have a loose idea before you begin. Areas of forest, lakes and rivers, and changes in elevation can be determining factors in the path they take. Think about how far north they are in the world and look at real-world examples of this environment. You might want rolling hills of white, hemmed by spiring mountain ranges and with frozen rivers running down to collect in lakes. If they progress to the extreme north, these features tend to fade into plains of open white that extend to the far horizon.
Snow can be beautiful and serene, but the extreme cold has the tendency to smother life. Using a desolate, suffocatingly cold environment is a great way to introduce survival mechanics and emphasize the region’s danger. Your landscape should reflect this choice. Try to remove the softness of snow with harsh cliffs and jagged rocks. Lakes should be entirely frozen and possibly covered in snow, while any remaining trees will be bereft of leaves. Focus on a ‘nuclear winter’ approach, in which only the strongest can survive. Show the harshness and brutality through the surrounding environment, to inform your players of the danger and tone before encounters even begin. In this case, you want the players to feel isolated from the larger world. The sheer distance of travel and time spent in the cold is a danger, even outside of encounters.
Refuges and Ruins
People will live almost anywhere. Even in bitter winter, your party will likely encounter a town either before or during their travels. When designing these towns, give some thought to how they function and survive within the environment. Few crops will survive long stretches of cold, and certain animals are not viable to keep, especially in the far north. Think about what would be useable, depending on the town’s location and climate. Does the terrain and weather cut them off from trade, or do they rely on it? It might seem like a small detail, but adjusting available resources based on the area is a great way to enhance realism and immersion. A frozen tundra should feel different from plains or tropics, and the first town they come across is a great place to start this.
One of the most fun aspects of dangerous environments is that some settlements fail. Snow’s ability to cover and hide the ground enhances this by allowing you to use the mystery of what lies below the surface. The ruins of structures and towns make for fantastic points of interest for travel and encounters. They can be used for navigation, and investigating the location can expand your world’s lore and history. Monsters may also use them for shelter. Or maybe your players will, after clearing out any dangers. Hide some clues for players to find and learn of the area’s downfall, or give local characters knowledge of the history or legends. Doing this is one of the best ways to give a location non-expositional history, making your campaign feel like an organic, breathing world that exists beyond the confines of the party.
Those Strong Enough to Survive
With towns, come townspeople. Part of using settlements as an entrance or rest stops within your snow adventure is providing non-player characters for your party to interact with. Consider how the environment affects these people. Many will be hardened by the rough survival requirements, believing themselves to be stronger and more adept than visitors. Others might capitalize on outsiders by offering to act as guides or selling necessary gear at raised prices. Locals also act as sources of information for players. Speaking with them should reward the party with knowledge of the aforementioned points of interest, environmental dangers, and history. Having them mention potential threats and sights is a great way to flesh out your map and connect the area with your world before players even step foot in it.
The population should conversely affect the landscape of your snow adventure. Aside from farmers, groups of hunters and lumberers will also have had a visible influence over the immediate area. Consistent trade with fellow settlements will require them to maintain roads or markers, which the party could then use. When out in the tundra, your party might also stumble across signs of previous groups. Tracks will quickly vanish in the snowfall but abandoned camps or unfortunate victims are a great way to warn players of danger. Perhaps a high perception roll reveals a body, buried in the snow?
There are three basic levels of influence that you can use, surrounding towns. The immediate area should have been made safe by hunters, soldiers, or a militia. Just beyond that is where others might travel or adventure. This makes it the perfect place to have other travelers, both dead and alive, appear. Many of our Snow Encounters make use of non-player parties, and many others can be expanded by players finding signs of violence before the encounter itself. Encountering and finding evidence of other travelers in this middle-ground also enhances the most distant areas. Their growing absence as the party ventures further out will become a sign that players are straying further than anyone else would dare. The landscape becoming devoid of life is a tonally chilling way of emphasizing the party’s isolation.
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Travel through your snow adventure will mostly be similar to any other terrestrial landscape. Because of this, it becomes key to make the best use of its unique qualities. Take full advantage of the different natural sights that the party will pass by and through. Forests can put them on edge, disguising nearby movement, while rivers and lakes can require checks to ford or time to navigate around. If their path brings them along a cliffside or through mountain passes, consider involving unsteady terrain or a small rockslide. These minor dangers work to keep your players engaged and rolling maintaining a moving pace in a way that encounters do not.
Ultimately, that is your goal while they travel. Keep a moving pace to reassure them that they are progressing while you describe the scene around them. Use a tone befitting of the region, either in awe of its beauty or with the same danger that snowy wastes hold. Your voice in your descriptions should always be used to inform players of how their characters feel when looking at it. Otherwise, give your players control of how they act. Encourage them to converse as they travel and let them set out their own camps at night. You can let them roll to find ideal campsites with the cover or resources they are looking for. A fun way to make each day feel different is to roll in secret for the general quality of weather. Some could create difficult terrain, while storms might require a survival check to not lose their way.
Planning to Survive
Something we have mentioned a few times is the ability to use survival mechanics. These might not fit every party or player. It also tends to have more impact in the lower levels, before teleports and Bags of Holding become commonplace. For campaigns in which it is appropriate, requiring survival strategies from your players is maybe the most effective way to use a frozen environment. The first step is to make sure that your players understand that these mechanics will be present, whether in the form of a primer, ‘session 0’, or simply as they approach the tundra. Characters with experience in the area, or with adequate survival/knowledge checks, will be able to identify items they might need. Otherwise, encourage your party to solve the problems creatively and reward them for doing so.
There is an abundance of resources for survival challenges, with different levels of detail and involvement. Page 110 of the DMG has some that we find particularly lacking in detail and adaptability. We will cover a few basic topics and ideas, intended to be used as starting points. You can use the suggestions we give or expand them with more depth and complexity; whatever fits your group!
The first steps will come down to planning. This is where your party should pool their knowledge and ask around for advice if they need to. If they are hiring a guide or escort or speaking to a friendly shopkeep, have the character warn them of the basics. Official resources are sparse on cold-weather-specific gear, so adjust what is there to make sense for the climate. Party’s coming from warmer areas can purchase a more expensive form of traveler’s clothes, made of thick covers and cloak, to stave off the cold. Regular rations might also be unsuitable for the cold, requiring them to purchase some local food we mentioned earlier. Moving through rocky terrain could necessitate climbers kits, while storms could mean needing tents, spikes, and blankets in addition to their bedrolls.
Feel free to be creative with the resources available. Depending on your campaign world, the residents of these areas might have unique solutions to the icy issues. My party once had to venture through a desert of glass shards, which meant purchasing metal boots, goggles, and enchanted scarves that held back glass dust. Perhaps your tundra residents have developed special oils that, while costly to purchase, can produce torches with flames that resist cold winds? Also consider characters and gear with resistance to cold damage, such as goliaths and Boots of the Winterlands, and the advantages these might give players. Their cold resistance might negate the need for winter clothing, saving them some gold and aiding against future hazards.
Surviving during Travel
Hopefully, your party’s planning will mean that general travel will pose no issue. But what happens when inclement weather or natural obstacles appear? This is one of the ways that you can make very simple challenges into more impactful decisions. Your weather rolls can also mean additional challenges. A snowstorm blowing through might require players to take cover or stay linked to each other as they make it through. Mistakes made when climbing or traveling across mountain slopes could quickly snowball into larger problems when banks of snow and rocks break loose. Fording a river would save time, but the inability to prestidigitate their clothing dry will mean freezing in soaked furs.
The same decisions can be made when the party camps. Mundane fires won’t last through cold winds and bedrolls are insufficient. Effects during the day, such as waterlogged clothing, could bring about troubles when players try to rest. You can deal with each problem as it arises, or keep track of it with a DC-based point system for each day. Every basic, positive step in camp could be a -1, with setbacks ranging from +1 to +3. Resting in the bitter cold could require a constitution save, with each player’s points affecting their personal DC from a starting value. A failure could range from morning cold damage, cold damage with a loss of max HP, or even exhaustion. Try to tailor your effects to the conditions and distance of your snow adventure, to make it important but not unfairly punishing.
When choosing these kinds of systems, give some thought to your players’ capabilities. A Tiny Hut is a fantastic way for them to survive at very little cost, thanks to ritual casting. While this will overcome many dangers, it might not be a catch-all solution. Predators could find and investigate the hut, malicious parties might recognize it, or a violent snowstorm could even bury it. A similar, much more frustrating spell is Goodberry. If you hate it, as I do, Zee Bashew has a great explanation and minor tweak for Goodberry that can help with this, in a way that I believe is fair and effective. Give his video, ‘D&D 5E a spell that can ruin an entire playstyle‘, a watch and see what you think.
It cannot be overstated that you do not need to make changes. If/how you deal with the spell and the systems it circumvents is up to you and what you want for your party. If you’re okay with them having it and want to focus on other obstacles, that is perfectly fine. Do whatever works for you!
As Danger Arises
The introductions to your encounters can come in many different forms, depending on the situation. One of the most important aspects to keep in mind is variation. You can see through our own Snow Encounters that we make every effort to use a variety of landscapes. If your players are traveling, don’t have multiple encounters in a row that all occur in a forest or along the same road. You want each one to feel distinct and provide different challenges from the last. Consider this when planning your map and the players’ path, by having them cross different environments within the biome. If you don’t want to be caught off-guard, you can employ strategies that account for random encounters and timing. Write a list of possible map quirks (cliffs, rivers, ruins, etc.) and either choose some for each new encounter or even roll for a certain number as they occur.
The exception to this is when a continued environment is important for the narrative or location. In this case, you should still do what you can to differentiate encounters. A thick, frozen forest might grow denser over subsequent hours or days, constricting the party’s ability to move. Snowy wastes might have worsening weather. Or maybe you can throw in some nondescript ruins for a change of pace? You only need small details that have an effect on the encounter, such as areas of obscurement, cover, or difficult terrain.
An effective way to smoothen transitions between your snow adventure’s quiet moments and encounters is to use the previous weather mechanics. Having the morning’s snowfall continue into and affect a later fight seems simple but creates a flow and link between what can otherwise feel like disconnected moments. Heavy snowfall might hide the tracks of beasts stalking nearby. A storm might limit vision outside of the immediate area. Clear sun is great for visibility but could melt otherwise frozen streams into threatening hazards. The best part is that, by describing the weather each morning, your party has some idea of what to expect. They are motivated to think and respond to their environment and are rewarded for doing so. Blizzards could require taking cover, or sunny skies might prevent them from crossing the lake. Understanding that will save them time later.
Signs of Approach
When your snow adventure does come to an encounter, it’s important to describe it in a way that feels smooth and natural. Tonal shifts can be difficult to maneuver in-game. The key is to integrate the description into your commentary of the scenery. You want to avoid tropes of “the skies are clear and trees are swaying and then a bandit jumps out with a sword”. Think about the map of your encounter and transition the environment towards it. If it is a distinct location, describe it in pieces as the party rounds a corner or approaches. You might start with a roof peeking from behind some rocks, for Encounter 2. Do the same for encounters that grow over time. The party might begin hearing distant rumbles of Encounter 7 or see Encounter 5‘s storm approaching. Perceptive characters, of course, can recognize them faster.
We mentioned it before, but laying physical clues can help immensely in your encounter introductions. Players stumbling across bones or blood while traveling will be put on edge before the danger even arrives. This works best for encounters such as 14 and 15, in which the party finds itself on the back foot, in a creature’s territory. Like any good horror or suspense movie, you tease the danger without telling them what it is; you generate fear. Once the clues are found, give your players control in how they respond and proceed. Ironically, suddenly having the onus of choice placed on them tends to put players more on edge. Just be careful with situations in which this might lead to players avoiding an encounter and consider having a backup plan. Your focus is then on maintaining the atmosphere and handling the effects of their actions, leading to the encounter.
Once the Storm has Passed
Dealing with encounters’ results and consequences is, for the most part, dependent on the encounter itself. Different encounters will result in different circumstances, but there are some general aspects to keep in mind. Many of these relate to the possible survival aspects. If you are choosing not to use them, you might still consider some of these as direct consequences without the need for deeper mechanics.
Consequences primarily come down to the question of recovery. Surviving in unforgiving, frigid terrain should be a battle of attrition in which players must be careful and thoughtful. As we mentioned before, encounters that make use of water or similar hazards can have lasting impacts on a party’s ability to rest and recuperate. Other situations could also lead to carts becoming damaged, horses dying or fleeing, or even characters becoming poisoned. You should not always aim for these effects, as that can feel unfair on players, but it pays to prepare. Of course, certain threats might be intelligent enough to target a party’s ability to escape. These effects might be simple to solve but could cost time and resources. If the party waits until they make camp, the handicaps might weaken them during another encounter within the same day.
Short Rests might also come at a cost, as part of your survival mechanics. Stopping to rest could mean that players are forced to make constitution saves against the cold, similar to Long Rests. The effect should not be as severe as when sleeping, so either lower the DC or use lighter failure conditions. As always, make sure your players are aware of the risk.
Relationships and Reputations
A minority of our Snow Encounters make use of non-player characters, but those that do should be given consideration. Have the relevant characters respond to the party in accordance with how the encounter played out. Success in Encounter 19, like 20, might have the other travelers join the party for a time and assist in a future combat. Mishandling Encounters 17 and 18 could mean making new enemies or being driven away. This might not be an immediate impedance but could result in the party losing out on a place to rest. If they will be making a return trip, they will have to detour around the angry locals.
It may not come up often in stretches of travel, but ridding areas of danger could also earn respect and reputation. A party that overcomes Encounter 16 or exterminates Encounter 15 could receive a welcome from a nearby town. Think of it as a side quest in which the party skipped the initial stage of being hired. The town might have lost people to the monsters and be pleased with their destruction. Offering the players a free meal and nights rest is a simple but effective reward for a job well done. They could likewise be impressed by the strength of the party, which may even lead to them asking for help in another matter.
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With that, you should have everything you need to run your next snow adventure. Be sure to check out our articles on other environments or, better yet, give our PDF’s a download. Any and all support is appreciated. We will continue covering other environments, themes, and tutorials, to help as many players and DM’s as we can. We’re particularly excited for a special set of encounters as we move into October.
Have any feedback? Advice that we didn’t cover? Stories from your own snow adventure? Leave a comment down below. We love hearing what you have to say!
As always, have a look through the rest of the content in both our gallery and blog: