Surviving in a D&D wilderness is one of the most fun experiences that you can have in D&D. It has to be done correctly, or it will either not work, or just be boring.
Surviving in a D&D wilderness requires certain rules to make it fun, using the environment, and a purpose to the traversal in order to make it not boring.
There are a lot of problems with surviving in the wilderness in D&D, so let’s cover all the issues that I and other DMs have had in order to save you from our collective pain.
The whole point of surviving in a D&D wilderness is to make the players go through harsh experiences that bring the group together, help them overcome, and provide a wonderful new landscape for the players to explore.
You can screw up a lot with survival in D&D, but there are many reasons why you want to explore the world.
- New enviornments are amazing and offer unique challenges!
- It makes the game less boring.
- Different players are able to use different items.
- It leads to new parts of the world where anything can happen!
These are some major pros. You can enhance your game greatly, but there are 2 major things that you need to keep in mind when using the wilderness for survival in D&D.
First, you must never use the wilderness as some traveling tool. If the terrain is different and you have nothing special planned for that terrain, then skip it. The terrain should be used for important events in the story that have an impact. If you want to learn more about traveling, then check out our article on traveling here.
The second problem with survival is that it can be boring in D&D. Why is that? Well take a look at this video to see just 1 problem.
Goodberry is a blight upon the survival mechanics. There are also spells like create water that can cause issues, so be wary of what your players are able to use. If anyone is able to use goodberry or create water, you NEED to take that into account when creating your setting.
Reducing the frequency of these spells is necessary for a pure survival game, but you can also add different types of hazards than just starvation. Before we look at hazards that differ based on the terrain, we need to consider what these types of environments will do for your players.
Universal aspects for players.
We have talked about how every type of environment has makes surviving in a D&D wilderness challenging, but what can it do for your players in every type of landscape?
We talked about making the game more fun, and these scenarios make the game far more interesting. If your players just go from point A to point B, it can be a bit boring. Adding extra hazards, challenges, and things to look out for making the game more interesting as a whole.
When was the last time that you used survival, knowledge history, nature, or athletics? These are skills that are not often used. If you incorporate the wilderness into your games, players who have these skills can make more use of them. You will not have to just rely on insight, perception, sleight of hand, and stealth.
1 great way of making players use skill checks is to make puzzles. We have an article on puzzles dedicated to it here, but you might find more help with our affiliate who has a guide on survival puzzles here.
Difficult terrain can be used to add a strategic element to your game. You cannot just have your group run into the enemy or anticipate free movement. Your players have to pay attention to and use the environment. This can lead to enchanced combat.
Changing up combat.
Are you bored of the standard combat system? Rolling, hp, those are all boring. What about adding in some extra factors that fight the environment like taking care of your cloths or freezing to death. This makes combat more interesting and deadly. Terrain, natural traps, and more can also be used!
In most wilderness, visibility is restricted. This allows for players and enemies to use stealth in a forested area, or just hide from the natural landscape. it allows different elevations and levels for your players to incorporate into your game and can cause encounters to restrict ranged eyesight.
All of these have been about how the game is enhanced for your players, but how does each terrain affect your game?
Types of wilderness
You can try surviving in a D&D wilderness in a ton of settings. Here are just a few that most DMs use.
Each type of wilderness will have it’s own challenges and shape the game in a different way. Some aspects of survival are universal for all wilderness, but we will cover those after we cover each individual type of wilderness.
The forest is one of the simplest wildernesses for surviving in a D&D wilderness. It is very familiar and well known. Players will have to deal with some difficult terrain from dense trees, roots, rives, and more. Hostile animals are about the only dangerous aspects of the forest terrain, so you won’t have to worry too much about the wilderness killing the players.
For how you can incorporate skills, the forest is a great place to track creatures. The trees and dense foliage make it easy to hide, gather fruit which might require a nature check, and athletics to climb trees. These are just a few skill checks you can use, but forests are very nice places to be. That is why many beginners in video games are in forests.
Forests are an inviting wilderness, so make different factions populate it. Centaurs, bandits, and more will live the forest. Fill it with sentient humanoids and creatures for extra hazards! This is a unique aspect to forests. They are not too uninviting, but just enough of a difference from civilization that ostracized. groups can be in forests.
Depending on the age of the forest, it can also hold wonders. If many different ostracized groups come here, then some have died over the years. These dead groups will leave behind something, and thus players can most likely find something of interest in the forest.
Aside from these unique hazards and opportunities that a forest presents, it can present all the standard hazards that will be described later on. This will be after the other subsections, so look forward to that!
The desert is one of the more difficult wildernesses for surviving in a D&D wilderness. Deserts are hot. We all know this. But what does that mean for the players who are traversing your wilderness?
Dehydration and mirages are something that can play a part in any game. Getting the party lost with a sandstorm can make them lose their bearings. In fact, the party might lose their way without a sandstorm. The sea of sand can make most of the desert look the same, so how would players know?
Having an occasional cave is a point of interest, but a mountain that juts into the sky or an oasis that provides refuge are also great landmarks. Getting water in a desert is difficult if you have restricted the create water spell. If you have not restricted this spell, then you might not have normal people care much about an oasis.
Create water at 1st level creates 10 gallons of water, so why not have most jugs be in 10 gallon containers? They are heavy, but why not if the spell calls for it. Those who can create water could also be held to a higher social status than others, so create water alone is a spell that can shape how desert campaigns function.
Even with water, the blistering heat can make one go mad. Players will not be able to traverse in metal armor. That would be insane, and they would be cooked! This is a huge problem for many players and something to keep in mind. New armor could be made from desert creatures, but the lack of armor will make things interesting.
Lastly, no one really wants to live in a desert. The lack of natural water might not be a problem if you have the create water spell, but crops will not grow. There will not be many desert civilizations, and caravans are the most likely source of interaction that your players will face. Mounts will be important, and almost impossible to successfully cross a long stretch of desert without one.
The exact opposite of the desert is the tundra! Now, for surviving in a D&D wilderness that is extremely cold, it presents some interesting difficulties.
Like the desert, there is almost no food. The ground is too cold and for anything to survive the permafrost it will not sprout to abundance like a plant would in the forest. The tundra is a harsh place, but it will still have more food than a desert.
In a desert, only scorpions and other minor animals survive in that habitat. In a tundra, you need heat. This means that the mass of creatures is generally much more and that creatures hunt others in order to survive. This is where you can make your truly beastly monsters come out.
Armor is also freezing, so wearing it is ill advised unless a player has clothing above and below the armor. If a fight breaks out, you can make ripped clothing be an issue as the players need to find a way to mend it. If not, the cold is able to get to them and deal much more damage than just a little bit of heat.
In deserts, you are able to cool down with water. In a tundra, you need fire and even then it isn’t guaranteed to warm you up. So if a player has ripped clothing from anything, it will cause problems.
Swamps are a natural extension of forests, and can be their own terrain. Swamps are one of the more tricky types of wilderness for surviving in a D&D wilderness. Swamps aren’t too hot, cold, or just right for other inhabitants to live in. Swamps are nasty places that are filled with natural traps and disease.
Swamps are where water is retained and not let out. Where rivers come to pour out water, but for it to never escape. That sounds kind of creepy, and that is what swamps are! A place of death and decay.
Natural hazards for swamps are poison and traps. Poison because there are so many dead and decaying things, while traps are everywhere. You could have tar, land that caves into swamp water, or just any part of the terrain could be different than what it seems.
Swamps are terrible, creepy places so use that to your advantage when thinking of natives, traps, and the type of food that natives would eat.
This is technically two different areas of surviving in a D&D wilderness, but they are close enough.
On the coast or the sea, you will have to deal with the sea. The sea is a place where people can get fish and find food, but the sea is as horrific as it is wondrous. The sea in D&D contains a ton of wild animals. Not wild animals like in a forest, no. These wild animals are much more threatening.
There is a reason why most players will go by the mantra “don’t get on the boat!” There are many water creatures, but most DMs never get to use them. If your players are on the sea or next to the sea, you get to see (pun intended) the different creatures come out of the sea and attack your players.
These creatures can be simple low level things like a lizardman all the way to a kraken who threatens an entire city or fleet. If your players are crazy enough to go out on the water, they need to make sure the boat is safe or they will most likely all die.
Fighting in the water is also a huge problem. Fighting underwater is completely different than fighting on land. Most weapons won’t work, and spells will have some change in nature.
On top of all this, there are storms and abandoned human wreckage like a ghost ship or debris.
The coast/sea are able to influence many parts of your game, but let’s take a look at some universal aspects of surviving in a D&D wilderness.
Universal aspects of surviving in a D&D wilderness
All types of terrain offer their own unique challenges, but what can you do in every set of terrain?
The amount of wild life that you can use in every terrain differs, but there is always wild life! These creatures allow your players to find out and fight different creatures for survival than they normally would. It gives your players a new sense of wonder for the world, so have fun throwing these beasts at your party!
Using the terrain to advance the plot.
We talked about how traveling is lame and you can just skip it, the environment, and everything if there is no point. Instead of doing this, you can use the environment. Have bandits come out of a forest and try to rob the players. Use the environment to create a story. The sands of time have eroded a past civilization to leave only a small opening after a sandstorm hit. Use the environment to advance the plot!
Some types of terrain were easier to get lost in than others. In any unfamiliar environment, you can still get lost. Add that constant threat of the party losing their way to add suspense. It is possible even that natives use this as a tool against the party in order to strike a bargain.
Using a hex grid
Hex grids can be easier to manage than a standard grid paper for mapping. Hexes are general areas that should have at least 1 interesting piece of information per hex. This allows you to map out the wilderness and have key points of interest in every area. Even if it is just an old waterfall that was once a place of worship.
Use the DMG
The DMG in chapter 5 has some good information on mapping out the wilderness. It also gives you tables for weather, locals, foraging, and some extra hazards that we haven’t even touched up on yet.
This pretty much wraps up our guide on surviving in a D&D wilderness. With this guide, players can understand what they need to survive in the wilderness and account for how the game can change.
For Dungeon Masters, you have all the information you need to add different survival aspects into any environment that your players will set foot in.
I hope that this guide has helped you understand how to survive in a D&D wilderness.
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