By Devin Wilson
The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons focuses on three pillars of gameplay: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. However, the pillar of exploration tends to get brushed over in favour of the other two. Sure, a party of heroes may delve into an expansive cavern filled with wondrous sights or get lost among the countless streets of a metropolis, but what about the week-spanning countryside journey from town to town? How do they fair when trekking through the miles of claustrophobic tunnels in the Underdark? Can they survive the bushwhacking across the magically scarred war-torn forest? These scenarios are often handwaved away into the Lord of the Rings style panoramic montages or a few rolls on a Random Encounter table, but today we’re going to look at how these important aspects of a game can not only provide unique challenges but also serve as the main theme for your campaign.
The world of Dungeons & Dragons is often described as pockets of civilizations surrounded by dangerous wilderness. It’s not uncommon for travellers to be told to “stick to the road” if they value their safety. Anyone brave, or foolish, enough to venture out into the deadly wilds should be well prepared and ready for anything. But once those first few steps have been taken and the player characters are making their way over the unforgiving land, only their abilities, wits, and equipment can help them survive. This is where the first challenge of a survival game presents itself: Preparation.
If the players know they are going to be setting out on a harrowing journey they will likely want to have as much information about the locations they will be travelling through as possible. This allows for interesting situations where they can learn about the world and make decisions about how they want to proceed. There should be many different routes to reach their destination, each with their own pros and cons. Weighing these options will already have the players engaged in the world and help inform their next choices of what spells and equipment they should bring. The pros and cons usually consist of things like the length of the route, how dangerous it is (from both creatures and nature), how well it can be navigated, and how scarce resources such as food and water are. Something that always enhances this decision is a ticking clock. When time is scarce, the danger of a route quickly becomes less important when it could prove to be twice as fast as the safer option.
After preparations have been made, and the route has been picked, the actual survival begins. Smart players will have ensured they brought many rations and maybe even several waterskins with them, along with various wilderness gear. However, this is where the encumbrance rules can and should be used to their fullest extent. It’s also important to discuss where everything is being kept and keep track of who has what. While D&D is at its heart a resource management game, much of the minutia tends to get looked over. That is perfectly fine, but a survival game depends upon those small details to keep the theme strong as it is one of the staples of survival. So it is that we reach the second challenge of a survival game: Resource Management.
In a game where all class abilities, spells, and most magic items can recover their uses after a single night’s rest, it can be difficult to present actual danger to your players while they traverse for days on end. Most encounters can be nuked into oblivion without having to worry about saving resources for the next encounter as it will likely be another day by then. So instead of always targeting the player characters’ hit points, you should instead go after their finite resources. Food, water, weapons, armor, ammunition, spell components, perhaps even a map or trail markers they are using. All are never more valuable to an adventuring party than when they are gone. Are the characters fighting while wearing their backpacks? Perhaps they get hit and items are damaged. How well are they keeping watch at night? Mischievous fey or hungry beasts could sneak into their camp and raid their packs. My personal favourite for this is the killmoulis from Mordenkainen’s Fiendish Folio Volume 1, but some oozes, rust monsters, and well-placed green slime are also great. By threatening their finite resources, you add an extra level of danger that requires different thinking for the players. Another option you can use is the Gritty Realism rest variant rule from the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, but ensure your players are all okay with these rules before implementing them.
Foraging becomes hugely important once finite resources begin running out. Having to find materials to craft makeshift weapons or go hunting for game are now vital to the players’ survival. Not only that, but it can slow down the progress they are making and create additional threat by keeping them within the dangerous locations longer, especially if there is a ticking clock. It’s up to you to determine how difficult it is to forage given the party’s location, as well as how reliable the results are. Poisonous flora, diseased game, and contaminated streams continue to test the players’ wits and allow for tense situations where they may have to decide between starvation or poison. Of course, you’ll want to continue having there be combative threats to compliment the exhaustion and poison but avoid going too far with it and making the adventure frustrating instead of challenging. This constant pressure will keep the players on their toes and compound with every extra day they spend on their journey. This brings us to the final major challenge of a survival game: Navigation.
Even with a map and trail markers, getting lost in the wilderness is a real risk of travel. It only takes one wrong turn to cost many hours or even days until the route is rejoined. Such detriments are even more problematic when resources are scarce and time is of the essence. How the players find their path can be as easy or difficult as you believe it should be, though maps should provide some advantage and trail markers make it easier to rejoin the original path. In addition, their speed can also play a factor. This is also where rangers can shine, as their favored terrain prevents them from getting lost. In such cases, be careful you do not stifle the ranger but instead find ways to work around this feature.
In addition to the main challenges a survival game can bring, throwing in complications is always a great way to keep things continually interesting. Its always possible areas have changed or become newly inhabited since the players did their research on the area. Perhaps they discover an uncharted potential shortcut with no indications of what may lurk within. Maybe that passage they thought would be easygoing is now overrun with resource-devouring oozes. The once-lush forests could be experiencing a plague and the foraging they believed they could do is now nigh impossible. Such new developments ensure a rich experience of constant adaptation and decisions, and I’m always a proponent for player choice.
Running a survival game can require a little more prep work and administration, but there’s a lot that can be gained and experienced with them. As always, it’s important that everyone involved is aware of the type of game and what sorts of themes will be included. But if you’re looking for a refreshing take on D&D or just want to really challenge your players, give a survival game a try. Your ranger will thank you.
To see how I ran a 6-session survival game within a post-apocalyptic magical forest, check out the Crystalfellen series on SixSidesofGaming’s Youtube channel.
Written by Devin Wilson
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