This is the third and (for now) final part in a short series I’ve done on how different seasons affect your DnD settings and inform the sorts of adventures that can take place within them. I’ve so far discussed the standard 4-season cycle most of us are familiar with as well as various tropical climates and their seasons.
This piece, as promised in the last one, focuses on Polar and Arctic Climates, the societies that form within them and how their seasonal cycles affect adventures. Let’s get
snowed stuck in.
A Word On Terms
First of all I just want to cover some technicalities. What we often consider to be our harsh far-north regions (Iceland, Siberia, Alaska, etc) are actually referred to as ‘Subarctic Climates’. I’m going to use this term moving forward, but wanted to title the piece as ‘Polar’ as I feel it’s more clear than ‘Subarctic’ for the layman.
Let’s discuss agriculture first and foremost, as it is the factor that most heavily determines the shape of societies within a region. Obviously in these Subarctic Climates the summers are short, which makes for an extremely limited growing season. A few hardy crops can be grown, but in truth often the soil quality of these regions is too low that even with the long summer days it is hard to grow much of anything.
Societies will therefore utilise agriculture as much as possible, but will be far more reliant on the rearing of livestock as well as activities like hunting and fishing for the majority of their food. On the whole this actually creates very similar societies to those more reliant on traditional agriculture, wherein societies are relatively complex and organised. They may be slightly less so than their more temperate counterparts, but not as much as those societies in tropical rainforests discussed in the last part. Independent farmsteads and self-reliant households who rear a small number of animals to subsist on will also be common.
I would like to pull a quick worldbuilding titbit from a campaign of mine here. The region (a small archipelago of Iceland-esque islands) contained one very volcanic island where constant geothermal activity actually meant there was no permafrost layer, and seasonal frosts retreated earlier in the spring. This, combined with volcanic renewal of soil nutrients, actually allowed for it to be a significant agricultural producer (at least compared to the other islands in the region). I bring this up as it is worth noting that a Subarctic Climate does not entirely prohibit regular agriculture so long as one is willing to be a little bit creative with their worldbuilding.
Societies Must Weather
Shit pun, I know, but the effect of the Subarctic Climate on predominant weather systems has a huge effect on the sorts of challenges societies must face and the kinds of structures they must take on. Summers are short, but they can still be very warm (around 79F/26C). In continental regions like Siberia, during the summer the entire landmass becomes a humid, mosquito-filled impenetrable bog of mud. Then in the long winter these regions freeze over and become ensconced in deep snow. Navigation, in short, is always hard, with no real seasonal abatement compared to other climates.
This makes conquest difficult, if not impossible. Armies can’t march in the summer, and they can’t march in the winter. As such, standing armies will be small or nonexistent, and conquest will be very limited. This will have a large effect on societies within the region as they are often not well equipped to deal with external threats. The upshot is that there seldom are external threats, as Subarctic regions often hold little of value for other nations. Also, the harshness that prevents internal conquest also inhibits external conquest. We’ve all heard the adages about invading Russia in winter.
Still, internal threats may yet arise. I will again take the classic ‘Orc and Goblin tribes’ factor and apply it here. A society in a Subarctic Climate may be particularly susceptible to raids from such groups. Perhaps every few generations a Hobgoblin Chieftain rallies up a large enough warband to march across the inhospitable terrain and wreak havoc on the settlements of the region. In the absence of a standing army, an adventuring party may be all that stands in the way of such a threat. Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, the folk of the region may have become hardy out of necessity. In the absence of military protection most villages must be capable of defending themselves.
Now to combine this with the main points from the previous section. Without reliable agriculture, folk may turn to raiding other regions in order to stay fed and wealthy. This is where we can lean on our classic Viking tropes. Such people groups will raid in the summer months, ensuring they return home in time to tend to their own harvest before the frost sets in. Between these two activities a tribe or settlement can ensure they have enough food to last the long winter. If your players have ever wanted to try evil (or at least morally dubious) characters then you could use this circumstance to actually have them play as the raiders, traversing the cold northern seas and fighting their way through the settlements they sack.
If we start getting far enough north (or south) we begin encountering things like the Midnight Sun, where the sun doesn’t even set during the middlemost days of summer. Conversely, in winter the sun may fail to rise at all in the deepest parts of the season.
This will have a major impact on what is possible for adventurers, and also opens up a wealth of opportunities for great plot hooks. Perhaps during the darkest days of the winter the village your party is staying in hears unnatural howls from the nearby woods. Beings that are built to stalk in the dark will be a massive threat. Remember, Darkvision only turns darkness into dim light, so animals that have evolved to hunt in the dark winters will still have an advantage over the sight-reliant humanoids of an adventuring party. Better yet, if the incursion were to be a supernatural threat from the Shadowfell then the prime material plane has become similar enough to their own that these foreign creatures are now an apex predator.
These deep parts of the winter are also a great breeding ground for mystery and horror plots, but remember that societies here will be used to the long days of dark. They will be more resilient to the darkness and isolation. But that does not make them immune to those external threats we were talking about just a moment ago. Indeed, a society here may be desensitised to the dangerous winters and not correctly assess the severity of such a threat. As such they will be caught unawares. The party may be desperately trying to convince stubborn villagers of a serious existential threat, only for their pleas to fall on deaf ears.
The summers pose a completely different set of circumstances. As much as navigation is always difficult, the summer days provide a significant amount of safety. Posting a watch while the party sleeps comes with little danger as everyone can see clearly for miles around during all but a few short hours of the night. This is perhaps the time for a party to venture further from civilisation, knowing that only the environment will pose a threat to them rather than the environment and the wildlife.
Everything Here Is Better At This Than You
In my honest opinion, the biggest factor these climates have on adventuring is the simple fact that humanoids aren’t anywhere near as suited to living in Subarctic Climates as the local fauna will be. Sure we can adapt and make do, but we will never be as adjusted to the environment as a Remorhaz. In these environments the enemies your party faces should almost always have the upper hand, at least in terms of their suitability for the climate. Creatures that are good at tracking will be better at it than the party. Creatures that are good at ambushing will be far more perceptive than the party. Creatures that are good at remaining hidden will be near impossible to detect by the party.
I often treat travelling from place to place as one of the more dangerous parts of adventuring in these sorts of climates. The landscape should carry an inherent danger. Roads exist as little more than semi-standard routes for traders, and settlements may be very far apart. Even something as simple as making sure they have somewhere safe and warm to sleep should be a serious thing for the party to consider before heading out of town.
Everything Is A Struggle
I already touched on this above, but I want to more deeply explore its implications on adventuring. The idea that the environment is plainly more challenging to traverse than in other climates brings with it several limitations but also several opportunities. Have you ever been building an ‘ancient tomb’ style dungeon and found yourself struggling to come up with a reason that the tomb hasn’t been raided yet? Well in the Subarctic Climate the answer is simple: it’s too hard to get to it. Your average schmuck has no way of travelling more than a few days overland. An old tomb at the site of an ancient battle that lies weeks from the nearest town will have gone untouched for millennia.
We can also create engaging setpieces that don’t involve combat at all thanks to the harsh environment. Dealing with heavy snowfall, avalanches, blizzards and other forms of inclement weather can make for intense situations that your players must use every skill at their disposal to survive.
We can also use it to create other interesting setpieces, such as the classic ‘snowed in due to a blizzard’ scenario. Have the party share a rest cabin with another adventuring party or some group of travellers and watch as the philosophical differences emerge and everyone begins to unravel. Character differences in things like morality, religion and outlook will begin to create friction. If you’re willing to engage in long sections of roleplay then these sorts of situations can create some of the best roleplay experiences you’ll ever have.
There’s other opportunities that emerge from these disasters. A town may be isolated due to unseasonally strong blizzards, and the party may seek to investigate their supernatural source. A farmstead may be cut off due to an avalanche and its residents now have to take a longer, more treacherous path to the nearest settlement for supplies. They will gladly reward a party for escorting them safely along this road.
The overland navigational challenges will in many places be overcome with the simplest solution: travel by sea. As much as ports cannot be accessed in the deepest parts of the winter when they are iced over, sea routes will still be the most reliable forms of connection between settlements. This can allow you to lean into classic nautical adventuring. Indeed, I mentioned in the original Seasons of Adventure post of an odyssey-like adventure I ran that was all about making it to port before it became impossible to sail. You can do the same thing, only with the time factor being making it to port before it ices over.
Gritty F*cking Realism
The final thing I want to touch on is a variant rule than can do wonders for you as far as supporting the harshness of Subarctic Climates go. If you’ve never looked at the Gritty Realism rules then I really recommend checking them out. I’ve actually written at length about Rest Variants on this blog. In brief, under Gritty Realism a short rest is an overnight sleep and a long rest is a full week’s downtime in a town or other safe place.
The net effect of this rule is resource management becomes more important, and parties cannot rely on throwing everything they have at a challenge knowing they’ll get everything back the next day. If you tell a party that the next safe settlement is 3 days away through dangerous terrain they’ll actually consider it a serious challenge rather than something to be glossed over in a travel montage.
The last campaign I ran in a Subarctic Climate also used something I called ‘Ration Dice’. Each party member started with a d10 Ration Die, and once a day when they ate rations on the road they needed to roll the die. On a roll of a 1, the die decreased by one order (i.e. the d10 became a d8). Over time their die would inevitably degrade from a d10 to a d8, then a d6, then eventually a d4. If they rolled a 1 on the d4 they were out of rations and would begin to suffer levels of exhaustion each day. This, married with the Gritty Realism rules, meant players really had to consider how their characters moved through the world.
Suddenly abilities that allowed players to subsist off hunting and foraging became really impactful, and spending money on refilling their ration die while in settlements created a constant expense the players had to account for. Also, remember that setpiece I mentioned of having a party snowed in a cabin? Imagine on top of all the roleplay tension everyone’s rations are slowly running out with no way to restore them. It’s intense, it’s gripping, and it’s one of the most incredible roleplay experiences I’ve ever had.
I really can’t recommend enough using Gritty Realism in campaigns set in Subarctic Climates if you’re interested in the ‘harshness’ aspect of such regions.
I hope from this you have an idea of what Subarctic Climates can provide to your adventures and how their seasonal cycles may affect your campaigns. Given the wealth of thematic territory that leans on Subarctic settings there’s a lot of great campaigns that can be run in such regions, and they can be as bright and varied as any other. So that wraps us up for this mini-series. I hope this has been helpful, and as always if you have your own thoughts or additions then feel free to get some discussion going in the comments.