When building an arctic campaign and filling your story with monsters, consider the following:
- Arctic survival—how does snow, cold and isolation affect the story?
- Experiment with different snowy landscapes—glaciers, tundra, pine forest
- Build arctic dungeon crawls—ice caves and ancient structures
- Try a prehistoric Ice Age setting
- Unfreezing an ancient evil
Arctic campaigns offer survival-style adventures full of icy wonders. Dancing lights in the night sky, reflective white snow, ice caves and mossy tundra can all be found in arctic environments. However, for the sake of capturing a northern theme, I’ll add pine forests into the mix and cover several snowy environments.
However, before jumping into this campaign buildout, I recommend ICEWIND DALE: Rime of the Frostmaiden for D&D 5e players to try out. The overall adventure is full of arctic and northern elements I used as inspiration for this article. They’ve even included a huge selection of new icy monsters.
I particularly love Auril the Frostmaiden as the title character. This creepy owl-like demigoddess is strange in her manor—icy and uncaring. She has the interesting characteristic of being obsessed with preservation, which also happens to bring destruction to life. Don’t get caught in one of her blizzards.
Arctic survival—how does snow, cold and isolation affect the story?
As you can imagine, arctic environments can be challenging to live in. Even with sprawling, magical ice castles filled with Santa and his elves, the possibilities of blizzards and cutting arctic wind is going to come into play. We don’t have to go full-blown Jack London to get the point across that extreme cold is hard to survive.
Therefore, let’s break down each of these survival elements to make our journeys through the ice more interesting.
Cold, Snow and Isolation
The cold makes nightly shelter a crucial aspect to wilderness survival, especially with unpredictable weather. We could get creative and role play a lean-to build—cutting down trees with Athletics checks and finding campfire kindling with Survival or Nature checks. Monsters will also use the cold to their advantage, such as the cold touch of an icy specter or elemental.
Snow complicates an adventure in several ways—negating sound, burying characters and blinding a pathway during a blizzard. This environment also causes trekking through wilderness to be difficult. The party may need to invest in a pair of snowshoes or find a dog-sledding situation. Maybe a crafty ranger or druid could convince wild wolves to pull a makeshift sled Balto style.
The snow itself can also generate monsters such as Icewind Dale’s snow golem or a reskinned water weird. In fact, the snow allows us to recreate many traditionally water-based monsters. Elementals who may take an ice form could go with a fluffier snow version instead, keeping the whatever stat block you want.
Isolation is an important factor to consider when searching for supplies or in need of rescue. Both scenarios are likely in an arctic location, with little-to-no civilization. Unless the RPG being played is called “Shopping in Santa’s Village”, we’re probably going to run into these problems. Consider planting isolation in as a hook to the story—an isolated village needs medicine during a blizzard, the party becomes isolated in a blizzard or an isolated field team needs rescue.
Experiment with different snowy landscapes—glaciers, tundra, pine forest
The arctic defines a region of land covering the northern cap of the planet. Technically, arctic environments are treeless—filled with glacial ice sheets and small-shrub tundra. However, just for fun, let’s expand this definition with pine forests to cover a whole winter wonderland.
The party travels as far north as possible, and all that surrounds them is ice and snow. Glacial ice sheets make for fascinating settings. Our party could travel through blinding snowy expanses on a bright, arctic day. On the other hand, we could journey across sheets of ice that reflect a colorful night sky.
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Adventures across glaciers and ice sheets could be varied and imaginative. The party could be traveling to a forgotten ice cave in search of a lost relic. Or a small unit of warriors must raid a distant ice castle run by an evil ice sorcerer. We could even do something like a monster hunt along the floating chunks of ice—whaling like Captain Ahab.
Roaming beasts like bears or yeti could lock in on the party from far away, obscured by blowing snow across a vast, white expanse. Giant races are also found far into the north, pulling from Nordic jotun influence. Of course, elementals and water weirds may lurk in the ice—a place that would be more home to them than any breathing creature.
Consider roaming monsters and creatures of the icy deep when venturing this far north. A few roaming examples are:
- Polar bears
- Ice troll/ogre variant
- Yeti or polar bugbear
- White dragons
A few ocean and ice monsters to consider:
- Water and ice elementals
- Kraken, darkmantle or squid/octopus monsters
- Arctic mefolk
- Arctic koa-tua or fish people
- Whales and large swimming beasts
Slightly further south than the northernmost north, simple plant life will make a crack at living in the harsh coldness of the arctic. Small shrubs and plants on exotic flowering cycles make up the flora that covers cold, rocky earth. Tundra adventures need a little creativity to make interesting, but that’s what I’m here for.
A tundra-inspired adventure could look more like a mammoth step. Think 20,000 BC with herds of furry elephants on a pilgrimage across mossy stone. This is the kind of vibe that could open up an adventure through this sort of terrain. Farming would be difficult here, so no normal settlements would pop up. However, if we’re traveling to an exotic far north, this space could make for a unique pathway filled with encounters.
Once again, this is a landscape of roamers. However, in my opinion, it isn’t quite “elemental” enough to spark much inspiration for elementals. It’s more-so cold and kinda grassy, so maybe a flowering moss dryad? I’ll use large beasts and roaming giants here:
- Sabretooth cats or lions—or any large cave cat
- Yeti, bugbears
- Ogres and trolls
- Dire wolves, wolves
- Owlbears and regular bears
- White dragons—the mammoth-eating kind.
Technically, pine forests don’t exist in the arctic—it’s just too harsh for trees to flourish. However, what winter wonderland would be complete without a forest of evergreen pines. Adventures with a northern touch will likely start out in a place like this, as in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden.
Mountains are often coupled with these pine forests, with colder elevations causing snowfall as our party climbs further toward the goal. Consider treacherous terrain and climbing situations as characters trek through rows of evergreens. Plus, we could easily implement caves, waterfalls and flying monsters in this environment.
In fact, this ecosystem could blend in ideas from my Forest Encounters and Campaigns article with an arctic adventure. Consider forest monsters that could be repainted for cold climates:
- Pine needle dryads, treants and shambling mounds
- Polar beasts like bears, wolves, owlbears, wargs and sabretooth cats
- Hags, specters and necromancers who feed on the bleak cold
- Ice trolls, ogres and goblinoids
- White or Green dragons
- Yeti, bugbear, polar werewolves, werebears and other beastly humanoids
- Most anything from Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden
Build arctic dungeon crawls—ice caves and ancient structures
To create an arctic dungeon crawl, consider the following layouts:
- Ice caves
- Abandoned structures—dwarf, gnome or giant
- Mythical ice castles
These dungeon crawls will need an added flavor of ice and cold, meaning the traps, natural pitfalls and monsters could all be frost themed. Falling ice blocks could take the place of crushing boulders. Sea and forest hags could be granted an ice or pine forest flavor and hold their lairs in caves or abandoned ruins. We could even build out an entire lost civilization of mystery via George R. R. Martin’s white walker kingdom in the Song of Ice and Fire series.
Ice caves can bring a polar twist to a classic cave dungeon crawl—filling the cave surroundings with icy formations or making the cave completely out of ice.
Caves make for natural dungeons in most places—as ancient forces of erosion and water flow carve out hallways, rooms and wonders. In a world full of magical monsters lurking in the dark corners of the wild, you can bet something will build a lair in any sizable cave. Not to mention, they give the option of leading to an entire underground adventure. This path could lead to a lost-world, hollow-earth sort of situation if your up on your alien conspiracy theories.
Consider these threats and obstacles in an ice cave dungeon crawl:
- An ice hag and her ogre thrall have created a lair
- A room has a floor of thin ice, causing players to fall into frigid water when they step on the wrong square
- Falling ice sickles cause triggering players to make a Dexterity saving throw
- A yeti stalks the rooms and hallways or captures a player—Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
- A volcanic eruption is causing the ice cave to collapse in on itself, sending players rushing to escape before they’re buried alive.
Abandoned structures—dwarf, gnome or giant
Abandoned structures are inherently full of mystery, making for easy go-to dungeon locations. The big question is: where did everyone go?
Everything from temples to dwellings to entire kingdoms could be left around the frozen north. These structures could be carved out of a mountain—or inside of it as in the Mines of Moria (LoTR)—or as traditional stone or log buildings. Traditional fantasy tropes often include giant or dwarven races as dwellers of the frigid north—relating to Nordic mythology. Therefore, include elements and symbols that might relate to earth and stone in the design of the structure.
So, what should these dungeon crawls look like?
- An empty dwarven castle leaves behind hallways full of frozen specters and animated objects—mimics, animated armor, etc.
- A alter built by giants has been overrun by frozen zombies—clear the horde and retrieve a magic ring of considerable size.
- Forest gnomes have abandoned a village in the frozen forest. Find clues through tiny log cabins and farms to find a massive warg wolfpack waiting on the outskirts of town.
Mythical ice castles
An ice castle could be full of magic and mystery. They could be built in a far-off land where normal civilization could never thrive. Inhabitants here may be elemental, undead or magical in nature, giving them an edge in the unforgiving climate. Plus, these castles can offer new twists to the story, changing the pace of survival gameplay. Now, intrigue and role play can be introduced as the party encounters the castle’s inhabitants.
Maybe the castle seems uninhabited in the beginning, as the party finds the crystalline structure during the daytime. However, nightfall brings out a phantasmal kingdom. Sure, it sounds a little Disney meets Christmas, but we’re going for whimsical.
On the other hand, the castle may be the fortress of a powerful wizard whose subjects are made up of elementals or animated objects. Once again, animated armor could be a fun option as a henchman, though maybe it has icy attributes to fit the theme. This wizard could be complicated and fun to fool around with—a bit sinister with a dash of crazy.
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Try a prehistoric Ice Age setting
A major plot setting that comes to mind with “ice” is a prehistoric kingdom—lost civilization style. Thematically, we could pull from sources like Conan the Barbarian or Fire and Ice to paint our world. Stone age castles and pyramids, wizards who look like shamans, kings in sabretooth cat furs and mythic monsters could inhabit this frozen world.
This theme and world build would be able to make use of any of the common ecosystems I discussed. Plus, it sets the party in a mythic past with deep and dark forests. This world is primitive, so the people of this savage land hold the wild in deep regard.
A few campaign and adventure encounters in a primitive setting could include:
- Bounties for troublesome monsters roaming the edges of the kingdom
- An artifact retrieval from a barbarian snake cult—Conan the Barbarian
- The evil ice necromancer wants the Ice Age to last forever, snuffing out the blossoming life of the warmer continents—Fire and Ice
- An ice cave dungeon crawl that leads to a volcanic “lost world” full of dinosaurs and exotic jungle plants—Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Unfreezing an ancient evil
Unfreezing an ancient evil is a concept hook that holds the promise of a grave threat. At some point, an ancient order of wizards or gods locked this evil entity or monster away. Now, it has returned from its icy prison to wreak havoc on the world once again. Either the party can adventure to find a magical solution to this monster, or the gang levels up and handles business themselves.
These storylines are exciting, grabbing our players by the face and letting them know they’re in trouble. When we crank up the stakes to the game, we can trigger higher engagement with the story from our players. Also, experienced role players could appreciate the epic nature of this setup as well.
When unfreezing an ancient evil, storylines could pull from:
- At the Mountains of Madness—to awaken a horrific Lovecraftian elder god and magically find a solution.
- The Thing—to find a mutating creature who is hunting down an isolated and cornered party.
- A Song of Ice and Fire—to stand against icy necromancers and a frozen, undead army.
- Godzilla—to awaken a dragon or other mega monster from the cold depths.