Sir Barnabas and Rosalin the Slayer got themselves turned around fleeing Orc pursuers, and have found themselves stranded in a stretch of forest known as Wooleywode, miles away from any civilisation and any hope of aid. With only their wits and the items they brought with them, they’re going to have to survive until they can find a friendly settlement or until aid arrives.
At some point, most of us will try to run some kind of wilderness survival adventure for our players. Some systems suit this particular style of adventure more than others, for instance, I’m inclined to think that Dread would work particularly well for this one, but let’s assume that this adventure is part of an ongoing campaign, rather a one-shot for which you can cherry pick the ideal system. What do you need to run a successful wilderness survival game?
In order to survive in the wilderness, most humanoid characters will need:
- A safe shelter from local wildlife, weather or natural disasters
- Warmth or shade, depending on the climate
As well as the basic needs all humanoids must meet, depending on the scenario you intend to run, the PCs might also need:
- A means to keep the party healthy and treat any wounds that might occur
- A route leading to friendly territory
- A means to defend themselves
- Time to wait for additional reinforcements or aid.
- Light sources in heavily shaded or subterranean areas.
In order to keep drama and tension on a constant rise over the adventure, we’re going to have to make sure that the PCs are constantly reminded that they are in unfamiliar, unfriendly territory, and that their resources are constantly dwindling. Every last scrap of food might be the last they can eke from their surroundings, every wound might be one that has to go untreated, possibly going bad and killing the wounded character.
Conversely, we have to acknowledge that some characters may already have the answers to one or several of these needs and problems, and to ensure that they feel that their talents aren’t being nullified, but aren’t an automatic win either. To take D&D 5e as an example, the Outlander background provides a feature that allows for them to provide food and water for themselves and the rest of the party. Similarly, the Create Food and Water spell would sustain a party of adventurers, or their mounts. Smart use of player character resources shouldn’t be punished, or nullified, but nevertheless you need to create some tension.
In a wilderness survival scenario, the players aren’t struggling against a group of NPCs or the local wildlife, though both might crop up, they’re struggling against the inevitable doom of time and a constant dwindling of resources. So that is the key concept the mechanics must reflect. This system should ideally plug into as many systems as possible, so we want to avoid specific game terms. So what can we do with all these ideas?
Step 1: Preparation
Make a box, then draw a box around that, and then a third around those two, it should look something like this:
The colours are optional, I was just feeling fancy. Now you want to label them up, placing “Basic Needs” in the centre box, “Intermediate Needs” in the next box, and “Advanced Needs” in the outer box.
Now I guess I’m going to have to explain what each of these terms means, and what they mean for your game.
Basic Needs: Basic needs are those needs that cannot be ignored without the PCs suffering from starvation, dehydration or exposure, any one of which will eventually kill them. Whilst the PCs might be able to ignore such needs for a day or two, they must meet them eventually or fall unconscious, dying a day or two later.
Intermediate Needs: Intermediate needs will not kill the PCs if they are not met, at least not at first, but as time goes on, they might become a basic need, or leave the PCs exhausted or otherwise inconvenienced by their lack. Intermediate needs depend on the kind of scenario you intend to run.
Advanced Needs: Advanced needs are those needs that don’t have to be met, but the party want to address once more basic needs and conveniences are addressed. Their lack doesn’t inflict a penalty, but it might stand between the party and being able to leave the wilderness, or to thrive instead of simply thriving.
Step 2: Needs
Get some index cards, or scraps of paper, and come up with some needs that the PCs are going to have to meet in their own scenario, at least one per PC (or two if you’re feeling particularly mean), plus a couple extra.
For my example scenario we have two PCs, Sir Barnabas (a Dwarven Noble Fighter) and Rosalin the Slayer (an Elven Outlander Ranger), and since the GM is feeling like being particularly cruel, he sets two needs per PC, plus two extra.
- A Shelter
- Route to Safety
- Call for Aid
Now you can organise these needs in terms of their importance to the PCs and place them in the relevant Needs boxes. Food and Water are generally Basic Needs, but a fire might simply be an inconvenience (and thus an Intermediate Need) unless the region is particularly cold (in which case it would be a Basic Need). Try not to make too many Basic Needs for the party; otherwise they’ll have to prioritise too many things all at once, no more than half the total needs should go into Basic Needs.
Issues which are an inconvenience, such as biting insects, a lack of defensible shelter or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements which leave the party exhausted go into Intermediate Needs. Greater goals not essential to the party’s survival or comfort, such as finding a way out of the wilderness, or building a more permanent shelter, go into Advanced Needs.
In our example scenario, the GM places Food and Water into Basic Needs, but decides that the forest isn’t particularly cold at this time of year, and so Barnabas and Rosalin don’t have to prioritise Warmth or Shelter just yet, putting them into Intermediate Needs. Finding a Route to Safety or being able to Call for Aid won’t impact on Barnabas and Rosalin’s ability to survive in the Wooleywode, so they can go in Advanced Needs.
Step 3: Play
This is where players can “bet” their time against their needs – will they be able to forage enough food over a day to feed themselves and their companions, for example – or pay off some of those needs with their limited resources. Rather than a regular skill challenge, where another party member might be able to pick up the slack if one PC fails to accomplish their task, this will work a little differently.
At the start of each adventuring day, each party member has to declare how they are spending their time meeting one of the party’s needs, or not, if they have other pressing concerns (which I’m sure will make for an interesting conflict with the rest of their party). The group won’t roll for the results of these tasks until the end of the adventuring day, so if a party member doesn’t declare a task they are attempting, then they do nothing useful that day.
If party members have resources that can pay off one or more of these needs, they can play them now, or hold them in reserve in case the party is unsuccessful at meeting these needs. The party have enough food and water in their packs to tide them over for a day? Awesome, they can pay off those needs, for a day at least, leaving them able to concentrate on less basic needs. The Wizard has a spell that conjures food or creates a fire large enough to keep everyone warm? Great, they can do that, and maybe the Wizard can put his feet up, or focus on more important tasks.
I’ve taken the liberty of including a cheat sheet, but the section below goes into more detail should you require it.
(And as usual, here is a Google Sheets link to it)
If one or more party members has decided to spend their day trying to meet a Basic Need, they make an average check (most systems will have some measure of what counts as an average check) using the appropriate skill (for instance, in FFG Star Wars that might be two Difficulty dice versus their Survival, or in D&D Fifth Edtion, a DC 15 Survival (Wisdom) check).
If they simply fail, they find half the resources they’d require to meet their needs. Either half the party will have to make do without or everyone can take a half-share. Many roleplaying systems have rules for starving and dehydration, so be consistent with the existing rules wherever possible. For systems without such rules, represent half-shares with an inconveniencing penalty or cost (ongoing 2 Strain in FFG Star Wars per half-met need, a -2 per half-met need in d20 games, etc) that increases with every day that their Basic Needs aren’t completely met.
On day one, Barnabas attempts to find a source of clean water for himself and Rosalin whilst she handles the food situation, but fails the DC 15 Survival check, rolling only an 8 (7, plus his paltry +1 Wisdom). He manages to find a tiny puddle of potable water, but there’s barely enough for one person. He has a waterskin with enough water for one person back at camp, so he offsets his paltry findings with the water he already has. Neither Barnabas nor Rosalin goes thirsty tonight, but they’ve no water left.
If they fail critically (for instance, a Despair symbol in FFG Star Wars, a fumble in D&D Fifth Edition, 95-100 in Call of Cthulhu) their day has been fruitless and they return with nothing. Again, follow the rules for starvation and dehydration within your chosen system, but if no such rules exist, give them an increasingly debilitating penalty to future skill checks that represent their basic human needs not being met as they starve, thirst, etc.
Day two, Barnabas goes out again to try to find more water. This time he really fluffs it, rolling a critical fail. Barnabas finds no water at all, and there’s none left back at camp. That night the two adventurers go thirsty, and will take a penalty on the following day’s tasks (being that I’m using 5e as an example, that would be two levels of exhaustion).
If the party member succeeds at their check, they meet the Basic Need for the day, bringing enough resources back for everyone. If they manage a critical success (A Triumph in FFG Star Wars, a natural twenty in D&D Fifth Edtion, a 01 in Call of Cthulhu), they bring enough resources back to meet two days’ worth of needs, shifting the relevant Basic Need into the Intermediate Needs box until two days have passed, after which it is moved back into the Basic Needs box.
Day three, Rosalin takes over from Barnabas on water finding duties. She rolls a 17 (10 +7) despite the exhaustion providing Disadvantage to her Survival rolls. That night she brings enough water back to provide for both of them. Day four goes even better, and she rolls a critical success. She’s found a small pool with enough water to keep them going for a few days. The Water card is moved into the Intermediate Needs box till the end of the following day. The GM puts down a token on the card to represent this.
An Intermediate Needs check works in the same way as a Basic Needs check, this time a hard check (Three difficulty dice in FFG Star Wars, a DC 20 with D&D fifth edition) using the appropriate skill. However, successes and failures work slightly differently.
On a critical failure, fate takes a turn for the worse and the Intermediate Need becomes more urgent, move it into the Basic Needs box for two days. During that time its lack might cause debilitating penalties, just as a normal Basic Need would, although the party can continue attempting to meet it as usual (it stays as a Hard check) until those two days elapse and it moves back into the Intermediate Needs box.
Day five, and Barnabas has taken on the task of making a shelter. Once again, the fool manages to fluff the roll, rolling a critical fumble. Not only has he not made a shelter, but it looks like there’s a storm coming. For the next two nights, he and Rosalin will have to sleep outside in the soaking rain, unable to get dry, and taking on two levels of Exhaustion for each night spent in the driving rain before it lets up in two days’ time, unless someone can sort out a shelter the next day. Unfortunately the party have more pressing needs, and they decide to tough it out and worry about the shelter later, since finding food and water is problematic enough.
On a failed roll, the Intermediate Needs is not met, causing the party to be inconvenienced. Perhaps no suitable location is found to make a decent shelter, or enough strong branches cannot be found to construct it, perhaps the firewood brought back is too green to burn adequately, meaning the party will sleep somewhat cold that night. A mild penalty (a -1 in d20, a setback die in FFG Star Wars) is applied for each inconvenience.
Day eight, and Rosalin steps up to deal with the shelter issue, since Barnabas has established his uselessness. Unfortunately (despite her +7 Survival skill) she isn’t able to make any progress, being cold and soaked (and stuck with disadvantage), and rolls only a 14. Luckily two days have passed, and so shelter becomes an Intermediate Need now the storm has ended. Rosalin and Barnabas will still be uncomfortable and cold the following day (taking a -2 to any checks), but they won’t be risking hypothermia.
On a success, the Intermediate Need is met for the time being, without GM intervention the party is considered stocked up for an appropriate length of time, say, for three days. After this time, additional materials might need to be gathered for a fire or to repairs of a shelter, or a new location found for the shelter.
Day nine, Rosalin manages to summon up the will to get the materials together for a decent shelter and build it, rolling a 22 against DC 20. The materials won’t last forever, but for the next three days the two adventurers won’t take any penalties from the foul weather.
On a critical success, the Intermediate Need is met so comprehensively that it becomes an Advanced Need for seven days, and if met in that time is no longer an issue for the duration. Two successes in a row dealing with an Intermediate Need yield the same result.
Day twelve, and with the shelter needing to be replaced, Rosalin goes out to find more materials to fix it up. This time she rolls a critical success, and has made a shelter that should see them through a week. The GM moves shelter to the Advanced Needs box, and places seven tokens on it, representing the amount of time before it becomes an issue again.
An Advanced Need works in a more complex way than Basic or Intermediate Needs, because whilst Basic and Intermediate Needs determine the overall tension levels of the adventure, Advanced Needs set the length and difficulty. An Advanced Need that can be met within a day or two of the adventure means the PCs might not ever be in any real danger, even if they fail to meet their Basic and Intermediate Needs. One that might take several days or weeks means that the PCs will have to be more careful in balancing their Basic and Intermediate Needs.
An Advanced Need requires that a number of days are spent working towards accomplishing it, the Advanced Need being met once the total number of successes against its difficulty equal or exceed the number set by you. This could be equal to the number of party members, if you want an Advanced Need that can be met within a few days, depending on how many party members attempt to meet it, or twice the number of party members if you want it to take longer, and so on and so forth.
In order to attempt an Advanced Need, a party member makes a Hard difficulty check for that day.
On a success, they add a success to the total successes made against this Advanced Need. On a critical success, the party member adds two successes to the total successes made against this Advanced Need, be sure to point out that this is an act that makes significant progress, even if it isn’t an automatic success.
Day thirteen, Rosalin attempts to start making a more permanent shelter. The GM has set the number of successes required to Four, and she has seven days until the original shelter will need shoring up again. She rolls a 21 against a DC 20 Craft check, adding 1 success to the total number of successes. On day fourteen, she rolls a critical success, adding 2 to her total successes, meaning she has 3 successes in the bank and needs only 1 more.
On a failure, no progress is made, though no progress already made towards the total successes is lost. This represents a lack of leads or clues, stalling the party’s work towards meeting this goal.
Day fifteen, and Rosalin rolls only a 15 against the DC 20 Craft check, making no progress this day as her work fails to do much to make the shelter more sturdy or waterproof, but she already has 3 successes in her total.
On a critical failure, one success is removed from the total successes, representing how that the party member’s failure has cost the party some progress, maybe losing a valuable trail through the woods or breaking some part of a device made to collect rainwater.
Day sixteen, Rosalin has a made a dangerous error in her building work and part of the shelter collapses, breaking the lumber she gathered and rendering two days’s work utterly useless. The GM subtracts 2 successes from her total, leaving her with 1 and three days left to fix the new shelter before she’ll have to turn her attention to the original shelter.
An Optional Rule: Limited Foraging
This is an extra twist you can add to your survival game in order to pose a little more danger and tension to your players. When a party member succeeds or fails (but not critically fails) a check to accomplish a Basic or Intermediate Need, subtly increase the difficulty of the next check. Depending on the system, you could add a setback dice (in FFG Star Wars), increase the difficulty by +1 for d20-based games, and so on. This represents that as the party use more resources from the land, they have to travel further afield in order to find the necessary things they require.
Next week I’ll finish off the Survival rules, adding elements of randomness and drama to make your adventures more deadly, and also maybe some stuff to help you come up with ideas for what your players will need to survive. If you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for new Toolkits, you can reach me through the comments or on Twitter @jay_jaydraper.