An evocative environment is just as much a part of a compelling adventure as motivated villains and heroic action. This article sets forth several considerations for bringing wintry themes into your Pathfinder Roleyplaying Game and Dungeons and Dragons adventures. Primarily for DMs and GMs, this advice is broken up into four key areas: communicating the environment to players, advantages of winter-themed adventures, on-the-fly rules to support cold-based adventures, and guidance regarding adventure conversion.
Get Them Feeling the Cold
Your most important job as a DM/GM is to communicate the game world to your players. Environment is one of your key descriptive tools, so knowing how to display that is critical.
Where is the Cold?
Cold-themed adventures are naturally set in northern climates or polar regions, where snowfall is thick and civilization is sparse. Indeed, most adventures showcasing rules for cold environments occur in these settings. Even within these northern climates, cold adventures can occur in a variety of settings. Open tundra, snow-shrouded forests, high altitudes, frozen seas, and glaciers are all naturally occurring environments that are exciting places to set adventures. Magically occurring environments like floating icebergs, sprawling buildings made of translucent ice slabs, and frozen extraplanar realms are all possible in magical settings. Further, localized supernatural cold terrain might exist in temperate or even tropical climates. Specific caves or dungeon chambers might be magically chilled, either by design or due to long-term occupation by inhabitants that emanate intense cold.
Environmental Descriptions Abound
Use specific descriptive cues to let your players know that their characters are in a different environment than they are used to. In cold environments, colors are often white—sometimes blindingly white, in bright sun on fresh snowfall—or gray. Objects and terrain features are harder to distinguish when covered in snow. Visibility is poor during snowstorms, and even on a sunny day, a cold wind can whip fresh snow into a chilly cloud that impedes vision. Sound is muffled by snow, particularly wet falling snow.
Day and night cycles are extended in polar regions for much of the year—days are long in the summer and nights are long in the winter. At sufficiently high latitudes, sunlight or darkness can last for days or weeks, and this unusual experience is something to emphasize, to convey an alienness in the environment. In these polar climates, nighttime skies may ripple with a stunning aurora borealis, casting an eerie light over miles of terrain.
The more details about the environment you can relate to the players, the more easily they can place themselves in the setting.
Creatures Live Differently in the Cold
Describing the denizens of a cold environment helps in communicating its hazardous nature to your players. Animals in a cold environment are often shaggy or fat to preserve body heat; for example, woolly mammoths are arctic counterparts to elephants. Animals that rely on camouflage—which includes both prey and predators—are usually white or mottled gray to hide in snowy areas; for example, winter wolves are white while normal dire wolves are dark. Any creature with these characteristics should be able to survive normally in their environment, being immune to natural effects of their environment and able to hide as well in snow as their temperate counterparts hide in grass or trees.
Intelligent creatures that live in the cold also often wear their hair long to protect themselves from the cold; shaggy beards and long, thick hair are common among cold-dwelling people. Heavy furs in multiple layers is the most common clothing, and getting properly dressed for the environment can take several minutes.
Where food and warmth are scarce, obtaining sustenance and shelter drives the activities locals undertake, and these needs are never far from their minds. If non-player characters—even otherwise friendly NPCs—are frequently engaged in hunting, fishing, collecting firewood, mending furs, and so on, the players see a dangerous frontier setting. Assisting with these basic survival endeavors can earn an NPC’s friendship or aid.
Items Behave Differently
In a cold environment, items can behave differently than the characters might be used to. Liquids freeze quickly in cold conditions, although the rate varies based on the amount of liquid and the ambient temperature. Unless it specifically drives the story, you shouldn’t penalize your characters by forcing them to thaw every potion before use, so long as they are attempting to keep their potions warm (such as by keeping them wrapped or shaking them regularly). Many fluids expand when they freeze, potentially bursting containers if they are tightly sealed before freezing. Metal items are good conductors of heat; cold metal leeches away heat quickly and therefore feels particularly cold to the touch. Extended exposure to cold makes metal items brittle and impedes the function of most technological items, such as firearms. Paper, leather, and similar materials become rigid and brittle in the cold and break or shatter easily—but, as with potions, you probably shouldn’t penalize scroll-using characters who are careful with their equipment.
Decorate the Game Space, but Don’t Play Cold
There is a lot of great advice about adjusting the players’ environment to match the characters’ environment—such as turning down the lights for a horror-themed adventure or playing cacophonous background noise during a battlefield encounter—but you don’t need to make your gaming space physically uncomfortable to reflect a winter-themed game. Making the players wear parkas and mittens just to stay warm is too cumbersome to effectively communicate the wintry feel. Further, real snow is terrible on character sheets and gaming books. Instead, consider decorating the room in white to represent a snowfield, or sprinkle blue or white glitter on the play space to represent snow.
Getting Cold to Work for You
Cold-based adventures and environments have a lot of advantages to you as a storyteller. The following points provide some examples about how your stories can be stronger when set in cold environments.
Palpable Danger as Motivation
Although many groups are happy to delve into the nearest dungeon merely on the suspicion of treasure—a trope that works just about anywhere—other adventures motivate characters with an imminent danger to themselves or to innocents. In cold environments, these dangers are often immediate and obvious: a chieftain’s son was buried under an avalanche and needs to be rescued before he runs out of air; an unusually harsh winter threatens a village with starvation unless the characters find food or fuel; the mountain pass to a critical person or resource is blocked by unexpected snowfall and blizzards; or a magic gem keeping a remote valley warm has been stolen, threatening its peaceful residents with frigid death unless it is swiftly recovered. The players can see these dangers as very real, providing a strong motivation. Even simple goals, such as the party’s need to find its own food or shelter, can drive action in cold climates.
Dungeons are popular in RPGs because they are useful storytelling environments: the heroes are on their own, braving unexpected dangers and exploring little-traveled areas. Adventures in remote, snowy areas are useful for many of the same reasons: the characters must handle any dangers they discover on their own, which means they have to be prepared and cannot rely on outside help, such as a city guard or local militia. Maps about remote terrain are rare and likely to be wrong, as heavy snowfall and avalanches can dramatically change the terrain overnight. All these elements provide the players with a sense of ownership of their own fates and pride in their ability to succeed on their own.
Perseverance of Information
You enable player decision-making through in-game clues. The characters might suspect a medusa when they come upon life-like statues, and they might avoid a branching path stained with a trail of blood. Cold environments tend to hide clues, but preserve them far longer than other environments. You can use both of these factors to enhance your storytelling. First, a fresh snowfall might obscure tracks or cave entrances, forcing the players to engage with the world as they hunt around. However, the clues they do find last for a long time; the characters can examine a months-old or even years-old corpse to determine the cause of death, permafrost can hold tracks for years, and any treasure or clue (or even a creature) might survive entombment in a block of ice for an even longer period.
Specific rules for cold environments already exist in most games, and you should familiarize yourself with these. For Dungeons and Dragons, cold rules are straightforward: at the end of every hour spent in temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, a creature must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution check or gain a level of exhaustion. Cold weather gear, cold resistance or immunity, and cold-adapted creatures automatically succeed at this saving throw. Additional rules regarding immersion in frigid water, navigating slippery ice or thin ice, and wilderness navigation are all relevant to adventuring in cold weather; they are simple enough to use in other RPGs, if you’d like.
Cold environment rules in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are more complex. The Environment chapter of the Core Rulebook details the effects of varying levels of cold: unprotected characters in temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit must succeed at a Fortitude save each hour (DC 15 + 1 per previous saving throw) or take nonlethal damage. Unprotected characters in temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit must attempt this Fortitude saving throw every 10 minutes (or every hour, if they are wearing appropriate clothing for the weather). Below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, characters take cold damage every minute, and must attempt Fortitude saving throws every minute or take additional nonlethal damage. Any creature with nonlethal damage from cold is also fatigued, representing hypothermia or frostbite. The Environment chapter also details how visibility in falling snow is reduced, how snow on the ground slows movement, and the specific challenge posed by avalanches.
You can create additional rules for a cold environment on the fly, but you should do so carefully. Your new rules can reflect that the cold is a punishing environment that can easily kill the unprepared, but keep in mind that your game should, primarily, be about fun. Adding frequent Fortitude saves to avoid losing fingers or toes to frostbite, while perhaps technically realistic, probably isn’t a lot of fun.
When you introduce a new rule at the table to reflect a cold environment, consider building in an advantage as well as a disadvantage. Communicate both to the players, so they understand the additional challenge they face while planning to use the environment to their advantage when possible. The specific points below keep this give-and-take in mind.
For the most part, you don’t need to modify spell effects to reflect the cold environment; a flame strike is just as devastating on a snowy plain as anywhere else. You might decide that spell effects that create ongoing fiery effects, such as flame blade, have only half their usual duration, but you should balance this by having spell effects that create ongoing cold effects last twice as long.
You can also apply existing rules to arctic conditions; for example, in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the surface of a body of water blocks line of effect for any fire spell; you might decide that any ice (even a very thin sheet of ice) similarly blocks line of effect for fire spells. As another example, invisible creature underwater leave a visible, body-shaped “bubble” of displaced water, reducing their total concealment (50% miss chance) to normal concealment (20% miss chance); you might apply this rule in deep snow or an icy fog, to reflect how much easier it is to identify an invisible creature’s location.
Modifying Creature Powers
You can make a creature seem at home in a winter environment by altering its existing powers slightly. This should also incorporate some measure of give-and-take, to avoid making the modified creature merely a straight upgrade to the original creature. For example, an arctic bulette might kick up snow and ice when it lands after its powerful leap attack, forcing characters within 10 feet to make a Reflex save to avoid being momentarily blinded. To offset this, the arctic bulette might be able to burrow only through snow or ice, but not through stone.
A Specific Example: Snow Crust
Deep snow ordinarily hinders all movement, but you might decide that an area has had so much thaw and freeze recently that the deep snow is covered with a thin crust of packed, icy snow. Medium and larger characters are heavy enough to simply push through the crust as they walk, so they are subject to the normal rules for trudging through deep snow. Small and smaller characters, however, are light enough that their movement is unimpeded. (You might also decide that the key factor is weight rather than size, which can require a bit more bookkeeping, or you might decide that certain characteristically light-footed races can walk atop the crust regardless of size, just like Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies). This rule is fair, but if your adventure consists of your players’ Medium characters trying to fight off nimble snow goblins who can move atop the snow crust unimpeded, it might seem very unfair to them. You can mitigate this disparity in a couple of ways.
First, you could ensure that the battlefield includes logs or rock ridges peeking up through the snow, allowing creatures of any size to move unimpeded so long as they move in particular squares.
Second, you can introduce a few additional enemies that are also impeded in the same manner as the characters (for example, if the snow goblins have a few lumbering ogres with them, the players will feel like they’re not the only side penalized by the terrain).
Third, you can introduce a rules element that can impair the advantageous side a bit. Perhaps the icy crust means the snow goblins have Acrobatics checks penalized, making them less able to tumble around the lumbering characters.
Finally, you might decide to just roll with the players’ frustrations. If a quick encounter or two makes the players really hate those irritatingly nimble snow goblins, it sets up a satisfying confrontation in the snow goblin caves later on. In this later confrontation, the characters aren’t impeded, and they get to finally give their foes some payback.
Whatever you decide, it’s critical that you let the players know the different rules, both advantageous and disadvantageous. Although the party wizard might never considering casting reduce person on the party barbarian under normal circumstances, this might be a valid tactic to improve the barbarian’s mobility in this type of terrain.
Bringing Adventures into the Cold
If you’re looking to create a winter-themed adventure, it’s sometimes easiest to find one that already has a cold setting; Adventureaweek.com has several of these. However, you can also modify most other adventures to have a winter theme with very little work.
Fire is Ice
Any adventure that takes place in a particularly hot location—such as inside a volcano—works surprisingly well if you just flip the description and damage types. An frost-rimed cavern with a flowing river of icy water and drifting chunks of ice might deal 1d6 points of cold damage to characters within it each round; this sets the environment well, even if the adventure you’re referencing is set in a volcanic cavern with a river of magma that deals 1d6 points of fire damage each round. You’ll have to swap out creatures to those that make sense—frost giants for fire giants, for example—but fiery adventures make surprisingly easy winter adventures. Your players might never know that your “Icy Caverns of the Frost Giant” adventure was once “The Fire Giant’s Volcanic Lair.”
Traps can easily reflect a chilly environment. Rather than a deadfall of rocks that deal bludgeoning damage, a trap might by a rain of jagged icicles that deal piercing damage. Metal components might be made of ice instead, perpetually preserved in the cold environment; for example, a dart trap might instead hurl icicles. Supernatural traps can have an icy theme, radiating a killing cold or summoning a winter-themed guardian to attack.
When modifying an existing adventure, most monsters can remain unchanged. Bugbears or ettins might wear more furs to keep warm, but they’re still just as dangerous. You might decide to alter creature powers a bit, as described above, but you don’t need to do a lot of this to communicate a wintry theme. Problems arise from monsters that otherwise couldn’t exist in an arctic environment, like most insects, reptiles, and fire-based creatures such as salamanders or fire elementals. You can either replace these opponents with other monsters that can live well in the cold, such as wolves or ice elementals, or you might instead describe them as furred, aberrant offshoots of their temperate kin (while keeping their abilities the same), evolved to live in colder climates, which is not unreasonable in a world of fantasy and magic.
Work Around the Obvious Protection
Although the advice in this section has been about converting adventures to winter-themed dangers, there’s an easy trap you should avoid: don’t make everything in the adventure deal cold damage. If the players expect that every danger in the adventure is one form of cold or another, they’ll stock up on resistance to cold and render many of your revised dangers innocuous. Avoid this by keeping energy damage varied; an acid jet trap is still just as dangerous in sub-zero temperatures, and an ice mage might put a fireball trap in his lair precisely because fire is such a devastating element in his region.
When you put all these factors together, you can present an adventure experience that really immerses your players in a cold environment.
Ron contributed this article to Adventure Chronicle, but sadly that product was discontinued before the fourth issue was produced. You can catch up with Ron over at Run Amok Games. Get in the comments and join our Discord and let us know if we should pick up where we left off! Is there room for another print periodical focused on roleplaying games?