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Monsters & Hazards for a D&D 5e Arctic Adventure

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Are your adventurers freezing to death on their way to a frozen temple? Did your party just escape a prison to find out there is nothing but snow and ice in every direction? Let us do the work for you.

My players just entered the lair of a white dragon after exploring the frigid Winterbole forest surrounding her lair. I needed to throw some monsters and hazards at my players to demonstrate how harsh the environment created by the white dragon is. This article provides some ideas for using monsters and handling survival in an arctic environment. I thought I’d share some ideas on how to use stuff found in the official books and some of my own homebrew creations I have thrown at my players.

Monsters

Drake

Challenge Rating: 2 to 7
I’m talking about draconic drakes here, not the high level bard from the northern wastelands of Toronto, Canada. I like how drakes fit into the world of D&D as simple, draconic guard dogs. When trained, chromatic drakes serve as effective guards for NPCs. When found in the wild, they can provide a tough encounter that matches up with the wilderness environment. I think drakes work especially well as thematic minions found in the region controlled by their dragon master. In my current campaign, an ancient white dragon has created many drakes to patrol and hide around her lair, ready for my PCs to stumble into.

  • A white guard drake (see Volo p.158), created using the variant rules gains cold resistance and a climbing/burrowing speed and provides a CR 2 challenge and is a great fit for the arctic.
  • For a tougher challenge, have your PCs encounter a single coldscale drake or a deadly group. To create the coldscale drake, I looked at the stats for this monster found in 4th edition’s Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. My current party is level 14, so this coldscale drake works out to be a little tougher than a young white dragon, but could easily be scaled down for a lower level party.

COLDSCALE DRAKE

Medium dragon, unaligned

Armor Class 17 (natural armor)
Hit Points 135 (15d10+45)
Speed 40 ft., burrow 20 ft., swim 40 ft.
STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
18 (+4) 12 (+1) 16 (+3) 4 (-3) 10 (+0) 8 (-1)
Skills Perception +2
Damage Resistances cold
Senses
blindsight 60 ft., darkvision 120 ft, Passive Perception 12
Languages understands draconic
Challenge 7 (2900 XP)
Pounce. If the drake moves at least 20 feet straight toward a creature and then hits it with a claw attack on the same turn, that target must succeed on a DC 16 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone. If the target is prone, the drake can make one bite attack against it as a bonus action.

False Appearance. While a coldscale drake is in an icy or snowy terrain and remains motionless, it is indistinguishable from the snow and ice surrounding it.

Ice Walk. The drake can move across and climb icy surfaces without needing to make an ability check. Additionally, difficult terrain composed of ice or snow doesn’t cost it extra moment.

Actions:

Multiattack. The coldscale drake makes three attacks: once with its bite and twice with its claws

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target.
Hit: 13 (2d8 + 4) piercing damage.

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack +8 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.
Hit: 11 (2d6 + 4) slashing damage.

Ice Spit. A creature within 30 feet must make a DC15 Dexterity saving throw or take 14 (4d6) cold damage, half damage on a successful save.

Ice Golem

Challenge Rating: 10
Golems are powerful automatons created by magic or elemental forces. To create a golem from the ice, simply take the Stone Golem (MM p.170) and tweak it to be ice themed. I think the changes below aren’t too major and it still works as a CR10 monster.

For my ice golem I used the stone golem stats and:

  • added cold damage immunity and fire damage vulnerability
  • removed Slow and added Icy Death and Frozen Aura
  • Frozen Aura. Intense cold radiates from the golem in an aura with a 20-foot radius. A creature that starts its turn in that area takes 3 (1d6) cold damage. Additionally, the ground in the area is covered with slick ice, making it difficult terrain. When a creature enters the area for the first time or a turn or starts its turn there, it must succeed on a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw or fall prone.
  • Icy Death. When the golem is reduced to 0 hit points, it shatters in an explosion of jagged ice. Each creature within 10 feet of it must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, taking 10 (3d6) piercing damage and 10 (3d6) cold damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one.

Druid

Challenge Rating: 2
The harsh arctic environment can kill a person in hours. Druids (NPC from Monster Manual page 346, not the Class from Player’s Handbook), that choose this freezing environment to protect and draw their power from, are not foes to be taken lightly. A druid, could just as easily be turned into an ally if your adventurers were able to help defeat a threat to the arctic (please not an evil wizard melting the ice caps).

Treant

Challenge Rating: 9
These awakened trees are most likely found in ancient and magical forests, but you could place them in a subarctic boreal forest, a thin evergreen forest found far to the north, or high on the side of a mountain. Adventurers should be careful not to cross these guardians who can call on the forest itself to ensnare and attack enemies. With some careful diplomacy from your party’s druid or ranger, the treants could become a powerful ally to battle against an enemy who is a threat to their forest.

In the Nentir Vale, the treants are in the midst of a civil war with each other, with the conifers in the north and the deciduous in the south. Your group could get involved in this conflict or just end up stuck in the middle of battle.

Frost Giant

Challenge Rating: 8
These fierce and hardy warriors survive by raiding and pillaging the hard work of others. Instead of creating stuff, frost giants become really good at fighting and just take it from others who create. Visit a frost giant ice fortress or have the sound of a frost giant war horn announce their visit to a small northern village.

In my current campaign set in the Nentir Vale, the Frost Giants have been forced to serve an ancient white dragon named Bitterstrike. Facing a group of frost giants provides a decent battle to pull some resources out of your players on their way to fight a white dragon.

Ice Mephit

Challenge Rating: 1/2
These imp-like monsters are comprised of ice and air, they even look like an evil Jack Frost. An ice mephit can provide an interesting challenge for lower level groups with their frost breath and ability to blend into the icy background. Ice Mephits don’t usually speak Common, but you could tweak this monster to create a memorable Jack Frost like NPC bothering a village.

Killer Whale

Challenge Rating: 3
While walking on sea ice have a hungry killer whale attack from below. In real life, orcas are majestic mammals that are abused by humans at theme parks to perform tricks. Let an orca get its revenge on animal trainers everywhere and bring the “killer” back to this whale’s name.

Mammoth

Challenge Rating: 6
A mammoth is an elephant like huge beast with thick fur, long tusks and the ability to trample, gore and stomp. These magnificent beasts are now extinct due to climate change, overhunting by early humans or another mystery. Give the mammoth another chance at life by encountering your group.

Polar Bear

Challenge Rating: 2
This expert hunter can smell you miles and mile away. Polar bears would make a great random encounter in a snowy field and they are a tough enemy with a bite and claw multiattack. Have a momma bear face off against the party to defend her cubs for an aggressive bear and moral challenge.

Remorhaz & Young Remorhaz

Challenge Rating: 5 to 11
These huge arctic predators are best used as a surprise attack from under snow and ice in a cloud of steam. The ramorhaz will surprise even some experienced players with its ability to cause fire damage when touched and swallow them whole. Young Remoraz are smaller, but still a good fight with a challenge rating of 5. Try adding some icy hazards to create a tougher, more memorable encounter.

Winter Wolf

Challenge Rating: 3
Any wolf hunts in packs and has keen hearing and smell, but a winter wolf is both bigger and faster. Stealthy winter wolves have advantage when hiding in snowy terrain with snow camouflage and have immunity to cold. It should not be hard to surround your adventurers with winter wolves for a surprise encounter.

Dragon, White

Challenge Rating: 2 to 20
The most animal like of the chromatic dragons are driven by hunger and greed. They are less tactical than the other more intelligent chromatic dragons, but they make up for it with their excellent hunting skills. Visit a freezing white dragon lair filled with frozen bodies, diamonds buried in the ice, shipwrecks, ivory and other trophies. A younger white dragon can be a nice entry dragon to fight for a lower level group, but the adult and ancient versions are tough enough to challenge most groups.

Yeti or Abominable Yeti

Challenge Rating: 3 to 9
High in the icy mountains, your adventurers are terrified by a horrible howl traveling on the wind. A huge abominable yeti is already hunting them and will not stop until its hunt is over and blood has spilled on the snow. Have hungry yeti escape to its lair after an attack against a mountain village, turning your heroes into the hunters.

 

Wilderness Survival in the Arctic

There are lots of great hazards to throw at players when they are exploring and traveling through an environment as harsh as the arctic. If used sparingly, you can create some memorable ways to remind your players just how deadly this environment can be.

Foraging

The ability to gather food and water should be much harder in the arctic, than in a less harsh environment (DMG p. 111). Water is frozen solid and could even freeze in their water skins, requiring a fire or magic to even get a drink. Food of any type could be scarce or you could have large animals foraging for what little plant life exists under the snow and ice, and deadly predators who hunt them.

Weather

If you players are traveling in arctic conditions try rolling on a weather table (DMG p.109) to determine the temperature, wind and amount of snowfall they’ll have to face. If your heroes are traveling through arctic conditions created by magic (by a white dragon or wizard for example), just scale up the harshness of the conditions as the heroes get closer to the lair. If the heroes are going to be exposed to extreme cold for long periods of time, make sure to have everyone make Constitution saving throws (DMG p. 110). Combine strong winds and heavy snowfall to creare a blizzard, making it very tough to see and hear.

Hazards

The D&D 5e DMG (p. 110-11) supports arctic hazards well with three examples. Check the book for ideas on how to handle Frigid Water, Slippery Ice and Thin Ice or use it to get ideas on how to handle your own hazards such as an avalanche or falling into a crevasse that appears while crossing a glacier. Try adding some hazards into your frozen battlefield to increase the difficulty of an encounter.

Getting Lost

The arctic is a tough place to navigate and players can get lost even without being blinded by a blizzard. An endless patch of ice and snow with no landmarks combined with exhaustion can provide some some higher difficulty survival checks for your party.

High Altitude

Arctic conditions can be encountered as your players climb high into the mountains where they will have to deal with not just cold, but the difficulty of breathing at high altitude.

 

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  • For some more winter themed monster ideas that go beyond the typical ones found in this article, check out 6 Wintery Mythological Creatures That Aren’t Yetis and Giants.

    http://www.tribality.com/2016/12/21/6-wintery-mythological-creatures-that-arent-yetis-and-giants/

  • crimfan

    I ran something that involved the PCs climbing a really tall mountain, sort of a faux-Everest, going to the top to find an abandoned temple that had been built by giants and genasai. Inside was an imprisoned jotunn (greater frost giant) and a bunch of nasty critters that didn’t care about the altitude… undead,

    One thing I did that definitely brought the feel home was escalating Con saves or gaining an Exhaustion level, which I used to simulate the cold and air. People who had cold resistance had advantage on these saves. I also had some avalanches feature. In one case enemies set off the avalanche. In another they PCs set one off to mess up the plans of adversaries.

    If you do start piling on Exhaustion be sure to have some methods to get rid of it or alleviate it for a short period of time available or you’ll find out just how short the five minute workday is.

    • In my recent sessions, I made periodic exhaustion checks. This only put a burden on the players who didn’t plan for the cold expedition with winter clothing, cold resistance potions and cold weather magic items. The players who put in effort to prepare were left toasty and allowed to ignore the checks.

    • crimfan

      The exhaustion rules are OK but it’s pretty evident that WotC didn’t put much thought into them. For instance, it’s very HARD to get rid of Exhaustion levels (one level for a fifth level spell!), which to me is a problem. I think they could use some work. I started writing something on it but haven’t finished it.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      Players recover one exhaustion level per long rest they complete. I wouldn’t say it is hard, but it certainly poses a challenge to recover from exhaustion while still wishing to continue adventuring. However, once you reach exhaustion level 5 your speed becomes 0, so that also puts a damper on it 🙂

    • crimfan

      When I mean hard, it’s just that: Basically no other mechanisms besides rest. One level 5 spell that eliminates only one level of exhaustion and hard to get magic item? No way to alleviate an exhaustion level, even for a short period of time? You become progressively more useless and a death spiral sets in fast, so the consequences are pretty dire if you get up past 3.

      It’s not a bad mechanic but it, like Inspiration, is pretty clearly grafted onto D&D, which really never had a mechanism like it before, and the authors didn’t really think it through.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      I have been running a 5e game set in Al-Qadim for a while now, and one of the themes of the setting is the struggle between enlightenment and savagery. One of the elements of savagery is giving into your base desires. Thus, the players are often offered “help” from otherworldly forces to allow them to perform supernatural or legendary deeds. Doing so, however, causes them to gain a level of exhaustion each time they give into these desires. For me, the exhaustion track is absolutely fantastic to convey the risks and dangers associated with these lapses, giving some further weight to their decision making. The track is long enough and generally advances slow enough that it’s not really a death spiral, in my experience.

      Many characters have had various levels of exhaustion for months worth of sessions now, and it seems to be working very well in this regard.

      While it’s certainly not a “one-size fits everything” solution, I like exhaustion as an addition to the edition quite a lot.

    • Can you share your avalanche stats?

    • crimfan

      The Tsunami spell is a good start if you need damage I think.

      I handled creating it as a skill challenge, which involved several skill checks on Survival, Arcana, and Perception. (I know… I know… skill challenge is a 4E term, but it’s not like I didn’t use multiple skill checks before.) Ultimately I think they used a targeted Lightning Bolt to set the slide off, but I’d have allowed some other spells that created loud sounds or disintegrated something holding up the slide.

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