GM Tips: Survival Play in 5E
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Grab your tent, tinder box, and trail mix because we’re going into the wilderness! The “untamed wilds” are a major trope in fantasy TTRPGs, and for good reason: GMed well, survival play can be thrilling and highly engaging. However, it can be difficult to do well, especially for newer GMs. Here are some of my best tips for running an intense and engaging survival adventure.
What’s the Safe Word?
Before getting started, it’s important to know if there are any topics or scenarios that your players don’t want included - for whatever reason. While some people find battling dehydration, hunger, and disease (in the context of a TTRPG) fun, for other people, it can be upsetting or triggering. If you’re not 100% sure where your party’s limits are, I recommend using this questionnaire to make sure everyone is on the same page.
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Low Level Play
One of the complaints about survival play for D&D 5E is that it’s really only effective for the first few character levels - and then characters gain powers that negate the tension of survival play. All I can really say is yes, that’s mostly true. At face value, spells like Create Food and Water take away the necessity for managing food and water. However, as GM, you should see this as a shift from managing inventories to managing spells and abilities.
Additionally, I would make the case that it can be good that wilderness survival adventures are aimed at lower level parties. When players are eking by one hex at a time, surviving on their wits and shelf-stable rations, it makes them feel a greater sense of accomplishment later on when they hit level five and the dangerous wilderness where they were almost TPKed at level one no longer looks so scary. Moments like these show how far the characters have come and can be really fun milestones.
Pack Your Bag
Before hitting the wilderness, give the players time to shop around town. If they are puny level one characters, either give them a side quest to complete for some gold, or give them an extra 2d6 gold to start, that way they can peruse the local general store and let them pack the things they believe they’ll need. Make note of the supplies they get. I believe it’s important to play equally to their strengths and weaknesses. Did the party pack tents but forget to pack extra rations? Make the party get a downpour a couple of nights that way they feel smart as they huddle under the rain in their tents, and also make game and foraged food scarce so they regret that oversight. Did the party pack pitons and climbing gear? Maybe alter the adventure slightly to include some rock climbing. In the world of hiking, there is an expression that goes “people pack their fears.” Seeing what your party packs can give you a sense of their anxieties and help spur your own imagination for challenges in the wild.
This is something that is often overlooked or downright ignored in games. In many games, keeping track of how many arrows are left in your quiver is neither engaging, a springboard for interesting roleplaying, or the source of much tension. In a survival adventure, however, keeping track of food, water, and expendable resources can be all of those things. When the party runs short of food and water and begins to feel the effects of exhaustion, it will amplify the tension of your adventure. Tracking inventory is a good tactic to use for lower level parties but the accrued abilities and power of level 4 and higher parties often makes this a fruitless task. However, the next three suggestions can all be applied effectively to higher level parties.
An aspect of wilderness survival that is easy to overlook is the danger of the environment itself - everything from disease carrying insects, pouring rain, and dangerously extreme temperatures. Fifth Edition provides many ways for your world to take its toll on the players. Perhaps some environmental affect causes exhaustion or disease, maybe it decreases their HP or their ability scores, perhaps it saps their spell slots or their ability to regain HP. In Hunted on the Snow Barrens, I wrote a simple mechanic for how the party is affected by a relentless blizzard which I will share below. No matter the environment for your adventure, consider how you can ratchet up aspects to make the world itself dangerous for the players.
Wandering monsters and random encounters are a cornerstone of wilderness survival adventures but they are easy to get wrong. Tossing 1d4 Owlbears at the party is easy but you can do a lot more to utilize random encounters. First off, ditch the notion that random encounters need to be “random.” I think it can be a good idea to go through the charade of rolling a d20 so the party believes the encounter is in fact random, but I don’t like to leave good storytelling up to chance. First off, consider what the goal of the party is in this adventure and what the theme is. Think of how to connect your encounters to that theme. Is the party venturing through a wilderness area that was once part of a mighty empire? The theme in this game might then be chaos vs order. Random encounters might include the party coming upon ruins or relics from the old kingdom. The ruins may be surface level with not much dungeon delving needed to explore them, but they can create tension and mystery. Random encounters can also be used to sap the party’s strength and force them to make hard decisions. This last part is important - when rolling out random encounters, it’s important to include space for the party to make a decision about how to handle it. This is why attacking the party with an Owlbear is boring. A better way to do this would be to have the party stumble upon an Owlbear that is eating a dead body. The body has a backpack. Who knows what could be in there. Does the party risk weakening themselves to kill or scare away the Owlbear to see what’s in the backpack? Or do they play it safe and leave the Owlbear alone?
Rest When You're Dead
Now that the party has limited resources, they’ve survived random encounters and dangerous environments, keep them on their heels. If they are really on the brink of a TPK, ease back on the throttle. But if they are being overly cautious and are resting when they don’t need to, disrupt their rest with a goblin that fires off a poisoned arrow or two before fleeing. Or maybe, if the party is taking a rest after a single encounter, I might unleash that angry Owlbear on them after all.
What's your best tip for running a Dungeons and Dragons 5e survival game? Let me know in the comments below!