Arctic Adventures: DM Tips for the Frozen Wilds

An arctic aurora borealis over the snowy mountains

If you, like many people in tabletop roleplaying circle, are waiting for the newest expansion for Dungeons & Dragons to land, you already know you’ll be probably spending some months around Icewind Dale. Arctic adventures are on multiple schedules this year, and there’s nothing surprising about it. After all, Rime of the Frostmaiden promises the players an opportunity to boldly go where snowman has gone before.

Let’s go on an adventure!

If you’ve read my previous post, you know we’re big fans of player agency in this house. If you haven’t – go give it a read. I assure you, it will make it obvious why I’m suggesting some of the solutions and not the others.

All of the advice below applies to running arctic adventures, whether or not you want to have them in Forgotten Realms. We acknowledge and support everybody’s right to not play D&D.

Do you want to make your traveling through the arctic tundra fun, engaging, and memorable? Well, read on, because we’re just about to embark on a journey. From prep to random encounters, we got you covered here.

A group of hikers climbing a misty-covered mountain the the fog

Check the map first

Whether you’ve spent your childhood playing the Icewind Dale video games or not (I sure did), you’ll give yourself a favor by making sure you know where you’re going. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a DM or a player – there’s nothing you can lose by learning what’s around you.

If you do plan on going to Icewind Dale, there’s a plenty of ready-made materials already available on DM’s Guild.

Player Primer: Icewind Dale

The best, I think, is Player Primer: Icewind Dale by Steven Pankotai and Sadie Lowry. It’s exhaustive without being boring and comprehensive without revealing too much or forcing you into restrictive boundaries of a pre-made world.

Sure, you will learn all you need from Rime of the Frostmaiden, but if you give your players a copy of this guide to read, you won’t have to do two hours of a lore drop at the beginning of the campaign.

If some or all of your players decide to not read it – that’s on them. You gave them an opportunity. Let them venture into the ice and cold unprepared.

But I don’t care about Icewind Dale

What if your arctic adventures aren’t taking place in a well-described and well-known world of Forgotten Realms? What if you don’t even want to play D&D? Well, normally I’d suggest Longwinter by Luka Rejec instead, but it’s sadly sold out. Therefore, we’re all trying to make the best out of our lives until the highly anticipated Funeral Edition lands in the stores. Hopefully, before the winter is over.

If you’re about to run your arctic adventures outside of Icewind Dale, especially in your homebrew world, it becomes even more important to learn about your surroundings. Draw a map if it helps you.

Here’s what you gotta figure out

How big is the area that your players will be travelling through? Are they looking at three months of walking through the snow or will it only be a couple of days?

What are the main landmarks? In a treeless wasteland, you can see to a bigger distance (unless polar fog, darkness, etc.) and the PCs will try to orient themselves by what they see on the horizon. Decide whether you want to put any mountains, monuments or glaciers that will help them in the task.

What’s the population density? What’s the distance between the settlements (if there are any)? If PCs get lost, what’s the chance they’ll find somebody who will help them? If they lose their gear, do they have a chance to get to the next village before freezing to death?

Are there any elements of the landscape that will make traveling easier or harder? Mountain ranges with a single pass are always fun (especially if you want the players to relive the the joys of Caradhras,) so are the wide, ice-bound rivers and vast plains that one can traverse on a dog sled. There are no right and wrongs here – as long as you think about how the terrain is going to interact with the PCs, you’re doing just fine.

Embrace the cold

Yes, it’s going to be cold out there. No matter what game you’re playing, it comes with a set of survival rules in the Game Master’s section. But let’s be honest: it’s usually hard to be excited about them. There’s nothing cool about the exhaustion levels, and tracking the heat expenditure because of sweating (go home, Shadowrun, you’re drunk as usual).

Consider this: your players know it will be cold out there. What are they going to do about it? If necessary, give them a gentle nudge and suggest they discuss it between themselves. Remember, it’s up do them to be prepared. You already have the ‘penalizing’ mechanics in your book, they know the situation. Let your players and their characters to come up with solutions outside of the mechanics.

Whether they decide to bank it all on magic, on their survival-proficient teammates, or split the responsibilities – let them. As long as they’re planning and applying themselves, it’s fine. All of those approaches has enough weaknesses to spin it into dire consequences or complications.

Do the homework

There are people having ‘arctic adventures’ every day. In fact, people have been more or less enjoying for ages. Learn from their experience. Do some research (and encourage players to do it too) into the ways of keeping warm in winter, building secure shelters, drying clothes, protecting your equipment…

Even if your players don’t want to roleplay building igloos or preparing hot-water bottles, let the NPCs do it. Your world will gain tons of credibility if the locals aren’t running in plate armor with fur collars in subzero temperatures. Check out some tips on cold-weather camping or learn more properly about the life in the tundra or arctic. That way, not only you’ll get raw data but also tons of inspiration for adventures!

The environment is your friend

It is, however, not a friend of the PCs.

Just think about it: they’re traveling through waist-deep snow. Probably; it might be much deeper, there’s just no way of knowing. What if there are pockets of air under them? How about a thin sheet of ice and a partially frozen river? If they suddenly hear the rumble of an avalanche, will they run for cover? What if the polar fog rises and they can’t see anything around them? Will they be happy when a warm wind comes and they find themselves in the middle of a flash flood?

Read about ways the harsh arctic environment can make PCs’ lives miserable, then allow them to deal with the problem. Don’t tell them ‘the avalanche is carrying you down the mountain’. Instead, introduce the situation and allow them to act and solve it. Again, player agency is key. It’s perfectly fair to put PCs in trouble – it’s a much worse idea to tell the players that they straight-up succeeded or failed because you need the story to happen in a certain way.

The gear is their friend

Almost nobody wants to track how much food they got left. (We’re making an exception for the OSR folx, you’re valid too.) That is, we usually have quite enough of that in real life (I’m a freelancer, yes). Of course, you’re free to track the 17 days of travel rations in your equipment if you like it. However, you might not – and still want to make gear and resources an important part of the game.

After all, during arctic adventures, a level of scarcity is to be expected. Hunting for game might be hard, there won’t be many plants to eat, and the settlements are probably few and far between. All of that spells trouble for a party that finds itself without their standard equipment.

Again, feel free to put the party resources in peril – maybe they wake up to a deer raiding their camp for food, maybe a goblin just stole their shoes… The possibilities are endless. It’s okay to assume the PCs have this or that in their equipment in the normal circumstances. But if they hear the cracking of ice under the wheels of their wagon, what will they rescue first?

Cold is not dead

Just because we tend to think about the frozen wastes as, well, the frozen wastes, doesn’t mean we should. The arctic tundra is not just ice and snow. If one looks closely enough, they’ll find enough plant and animal life to make the landscape interesting.

From caribou to polar bears, to arctic hares, to foxes, to penguins, to walruses, to seals, to a plethora of birds – if there’s food to be found, something is going to live there.

If you feel like doing research, do the research. If not, we got you covered with the tundra-themed Globetrotter’s Guide to Greenery. It contains descriptions for all five senses, so your players and their characters don’t have to go through a sterile, barren wasteland. Moreover, there’s ten illustrated plant cards, each with a handy read-aloud description fit for a Perception test and a useful snippet of extra lore for all of them druids, rangers, herbalists, and survivalists.

Get your copy on!

Frozen is not empty

I can’t believe I’m saying this: toss a random encounter at them.

Only, you know, don’t make it another goblin attack or 1d3+1 bears. With the assumption of 3-4 encounters per a day of traveling, constant battles quickly become either routine and boring or a deadly attrition. Instead, give your players something to interact with: a puzzle, a mystery, a curio. Sometimes a nice sight is enough to break the boredom of 8 hours of forced march.

How about…

A magnificent display of color adorns the night skies. Glowing streaks of blue, pink, violet, and green light flow between the stars like a rainbow road leading to mysterious lands. You cannot help but stop to appreciate the beauty of nature.

You notice with surprise that some of the colors touch the ground not far from you, forming a spiral staircase made of colorful, dancing lights.

What happens next? Hell if I know, that’s up to the players, and up to you.

In any case, let them wonder, not just kill. Put the unexpected in from of them, not just the surprise round. And if you can’t find anything you like in the random encounters table, pick up Wayfarer’s Deck: The Frozen Wilds. This deck of fifty encounters covers puzzles, mysteries, sights, and meeitngs. From dancing aurorae to ghost sightings to lost children, barefoot and empty-eyed in the snow, it will get the players eerily chilled. Which is how we like them.

Get yours on or DriveThruRPG!

Still looking for inspiration?

Well, that’s all I’ve got – at least without going into minutiae of each of those points. If you’re still wondering how to make your arctic adventures better… You can always turn to the source and research northern folklore. There’s enough stories there to fuel hundreds of campaigns.

How about you?

Are you going on some arctic adventures this year? How do you plan to do that? Is there any useful resource that you can recommend to others? Did you write something that can help other players or GMs? Let us know in the comments!

One Comment on “Arctic Adventures: DM Tips for the Frozen Wilds

  1. This is an excellent article to prepare DMs to run arctic adventures, campaigns or encounters in ANY system!

    Congrats on the write and I’m going to check the links you provided, like the camping trips as I’m about to release 2 arctic products myself on DMsGuild 🙂

    Also congrats to Steve and Sadie for the Primer on Icewind Dale!!

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