THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.
I was thinking about what the most harsh environment was on earth. Watched some documentaries about hard places and I think probably the most “Deadly” (subjectively speaking) might be the great Tundra/endless ice and snow sort of place. Like, no real growth… just a giant, flat, hard, endlessly long and terrifyingly cold landscape.
Then, I thought, that’s not enough… how about we make it more irregular, like competing glaciers so the terrain is more treacherous and broken and there are great cresting ridges and large (skyscraper size) chunks that could fall or roll over for a half a mile with little to no warning (watch the documentary on Netflix “Chasing Ice” and you’ll see how terrifyingly real that is–a thousand foot long, two hundred foot diameter brick just breaking off and rolling away from the glacier it was a part of like a giant tumbling football).
Add on top of that, the whole series of glacial shelves are largely just floating on the surface of an ocean. The ice is 300 ft. thick in some places–hard as stone–and 25ft thick in others rotted by precipitation and countless ages of storms and winds. And while slow as grass growing, the ground can break and separate (slowly) anywhere. Anytime.
Why’s the Party There?
Why not? Aside from the “make up a reason”, I figure there’s no better place to hide or store something than at the end of some brutal place like this. Hell, one couldn’t even get to the end of it–normally, for common people–only death exists there. But a wish? That’s a just-subtle enough wish (not OVERdone) to make it interesting. if one wanted to hide something away that could not be destroyed, putting it at the far end of a great frozen expanse that required wishing a one-way trip there…? And then dying after because you couldn’t get back (and knew that)? That’s a challenge.
This is the sort of dungeon (of sorts) that represents the DM providing the player’s a limit. There is something fabled to be there. Don’t know what. Can’t say. Probably a “greatest of prizes” situation. But rather than it being guarded by the greatest monster–an unpredictable hazard… its guarded by the greatest possible natural hazard–a perfectly predictable hazard that still promises to destroy the party. Their choice. Many will just ride on, says something about their fear… those that don’t, it’s going to be fun.
Alright, How Bad is the Environment?
Right off the bat, we’re talking about a situation where ready food and water do not exist in a form one can live off of. Ice is great for water, but at temperatures like this (imagine 40 and 50 below 0), melting it consistently and in volume is very hard (one can make an argument for Cantrips producing low heat and being “infinite use”, but I would say the cost is an enormous amount of time–you wake up in the morning and do some little flames at a block of Texas sized ice and it’ll be an hour just to lick cold water from a puddle that freezes over in five minutes). One needs to consume about 3 days of food every day to keep the body working.
Add on top of that the need for shelter from winds and snows.
Every day with less than 3 “days of rations” consumed? Con Save DC 15 or +1 exhaustion every day. Con Save DC 15 for +1 exhaustion every night without “full shelter” (tent or covering, blankets, sufficient heat, keeping the wet off, etc.) which probably means someone needs a high Survival check for not just a camp… but a superior anti-frozen weather camp (DC 20 at least). Con Save DC 15 or +1 exhaustion for every day of travel without full cold-weather protective gear. This might–for many–preclude the convenience of travelling in armor in favor of actual sub-zero clothing. It means if you stay fed, protected, and covered you’re probably fine. If you have a weak camp, poor protection, and not enough food? 2 net exhaustion (after a night’s rest subtracting one) each morning. You’ll be dead in a few days.
That glass cannon PC will absolutely not make it. Any given party member will be actively fighting off 1 or 2 exhaustion a day. Enough to worry them about their own readiness. Food scarcity. Making choices about how the Barbarian can handle (the Con Save) missing a meal, because the Sorcerer is looking tired and weak.
Add in that the conditions that can come from just being around all this:
Blinded – snowblind is a thing. I been there. The sky and the ground just all come together and it’s impossible to clear your head for a bit.
Poisoned – I think frostbite can legitly leveraged as a form of being poisoned, mechanically.
Paralyzed – falling through ice into the icy water? I think you run (after a few turns) a serious risk of paralyzation (like hypothermia) taking over.
So the world around is brutal, got it. But, add in there irregularity of environment. It’s flat. Then in other places its ridges and jagged giant chunks the size of houses, like being an ant on a pile of cookie crumbs. Difficult terrains. Dex Saves to not slip and fall off of things.
Ice Caverns cut into glacial beds. Falling through and sliding into one that goes deep into the glacier hundreds of feet. How to get out? Dark, frozen tomb.
And on TOP of that? Give the Druids a run for their money by making this place a truly cursed place. The ice itself is wrong. The glaciers are not just ice, but the great decaying (over eons) bodies of enormous (like the size of a country) ice elementals. Undead ice. Decaying itself into the sea for the last hundred thousand years after a great war nobody knows or remembers.
This would be the perfect place (one of the few I think) for truly horrific monsters. Like… not a lot of little encounters. This is a place too unforgiving for an ecosystem to truly thrive. Here lies the things that either (a) can’t survive in normal places (perhaps due to temperature or environmental restrictions) or (b) choose not to (anything met out here in this wilderness, that’s here on purpose, did not do so to make new friends or socialize).
Frost Giants, for damn sure. Killer Whales (down in the water… stay OUT of the water). Skeletons–the dead of those who have come before. The ice raises them. The last hints of power in the rotting “flesh” of the ice escaping into creatures.
Young and juvenile white dragons… like salmon swimming upstream or penguins marching, this is where White Dragons go to conceive and birth their young. Not raise them, though. The landscape is occasionally interrupted by one or two white dragon youths either at play or at war with each other. As they grow, they leave this barren and terrifically dangerous place–for now, they’re all over.
Elementals? Of course. The rotted holes in the great desert are how many come into this world.
This is a relatively high level adventure. A random encounter in the night is likely to be a creature powerful enough to legitimately kill an awake and ready party. It should be a hard choice every night… we can burrow in and cover up and hide and get a poor night’s rest but get it safely (no “remove 1 exhaustion” for them) or camp properly and set up watches an attract the possible attention of a swooping great damn thing that could kill us (but get that exhaustion reduced, if nothing shows).
Pressing on–and this is just me–the chance of falling from climbing cliffsides… fighting off infant white dragons while scaling at a backslope a great giant glacier… dodging opening cracks into a freezing ocean a hundred feet down from the stomping of a frost giant… even sleeping in a place where every groan of the ice has to worry you for fear of some half-mountain crushing down on you.
And slowly freezing to death.
Meeting parties of fully equipped undead in the bitter, unrelenting cold. Constantly reminded of the chill and the wind.
Fighting and trekking across the great landscape for weeks (yes, weeks) and arriving at the end…
What’s at the End?
The great, wheezing (where all that wind came from, many nights out on the tundra) body… the size of Manhattan Island… of an ice elemental. A great Primordial-speaking Lord of the Great Blue. He has spent the last hundred millenia dying from his wounds amid a field of his soldiers (all those glaciers and whatnot). His voice is the groan of a continent shifting, hearing and making sense of him takes intentional effort and time for days. He has no treasure. No weapons of destiny to offer. He offers the only thing he can–unlife.
If the party will hunt down his enemies… the great earth elementals that fought him to this corner of nowhere, the great water elementals that betrayed him and left his army to die despite their promises… if they swear on the bitter and the unyielding cold, a bond that is adamant in oath, he gives them a second life. If they do not want it (or some don’t), he is not angry nor concerned… he is dying. He wants to, then, die in peace. Those who are willing to oath it up, they lose a finger or toe… frostbite, straight frozen painfully off though no other major issue there.
Bite of the Giant – Upon failing their next third death saving throw, creature re-rolls all hit dice and adds appropriate level-by-level modifiers for a new HP total and is conscious and resumes play instantly at the HP total–which stays with their character. May not gain XP (but still counts toward party split of XP). Immune to cold, poison, disease. Etc. Bascially, the PC is as they were, frozen and unliving (though not strictly undead in the sense of necromancy). Just stopped. Held. All bodily processes (plus/minus) stop. Frozen (not just physically, although their body is abnormally chilly and hard, but metaphorically and metaphyscally). They get to not die one time. But what comes after is hardly living.
It would be an entire adventure arc elsewhere and elsewise to undo this “blessing/curse”. Could be exciting.