Creating Adventures in Cold, Mountainous Terrain

This month, I’ve been putting together a region guide called “The Range of the Screaming Kings” for my patrons. I had some fun doing some research while making the guide, and I put together some “cliff” notes on setting up an adventure or a region for your adventurers to play in.

LIFE IN THE MOUNTAINS
There are various cultures in the world that live at high altitude, and in cold weather. The key point here- life is harsh and tough.

Populations
Nomadic groups are common in this region- shepherding cold adapted animals like yak and goats. They live in small, quick to take down huts or tents, or perhaps even wagons. They are adept at traveling quickly across the rugged terrain and know the surrounding area well- including the most protected areas to camp.

Stationary settlements are built via heavy timbers or built into the mountainside, to blunt the cold weather. Protection from the elements and enemies is more important, so walls and barricades are not uncommon. Community members focus on survival- forging, knitting, trapping, and forestry are all valuable skills.

The harsh climate severely hampers population sizes- don’t expect really large settlements or groups.

Food

Varied food options are tough to come by, which is why livestock supplying milk and meat are main food sources for nomadic groups.

Stationary settlements also rely heavily on meat, although herding may be supplemented or traded with a focus on hunting and trapping. Hunters feeding large communities would focus on large game like bear, elk, and deer, although they may need to travel into the valleys to find prey during the coldest months.

In some areas, growing cold resistant crops such as berries, potatoes, small onions, beets, carrots and garlic could supplement the community’s diet.

Clothing

The lack of farming puts restrictions on clothing- expect a lot more animal made gear like leather, fur, and knitted wool. Imported clothing would be expensive and probably not very good against the cold.

Trading

Because food is in demand, expect trading with other regions to be high in the summer months. Grains are important tradestuffs, and most fruits and vegetables would be considered luxuries.

Traders will tough it out through the mountain passes to trade for the region’s main resources- minerals and animal pelts.

Other Cultural Thoughts

It takes a certain type of person to live high in the mountains. For those reasons, it also might make it a great place to escape to! Perhaps a group of people are looking to escape religious persecution, or a criminal to hide from the law. People might leave their past lives behind them when they settle here- all of these options leave interesting encounters for those with a keen eye and ear.

What the heck do people do for fun in the mountains? They probably come up with activities to do indoors. Off the top of my head, card games, drinking, dancing, storytelling, knitting, carving and furniture making all seem like possibilities.

LIFE “IN” THE MOUNTAINS

Another thing to consider with fantasy cultures in the mountains is the ability to live in caves or carve out areas of the mountainside, providing shelter and protection from the cold. In the case of dwarves who traditionally mine and smelt ore, living in chambers carved out of a mountainside seems like an appropriate solution for a mountain community.

Additional food considerations

Warmth from smelting and forging could provide communities with additional sources of food, including crops that grow in low light situations. Think of root vegetables such as beets, carrots and potatoes, and fungi like various types of mushrooms. The enterprising community could even set up a cave fish farm!

Depending on the level of magic in your society, magical means of light could increase the amount of crops grown inside a mountain or large cabin, including leafy greens (which are cold resistant).

SURVIVAL AND TRAVEL

Your adventurers aren’t staying in settlements all the time! Most of the difficulty (and fun) of exploring a mountainous region is the increased need for survival and quick thinking.

Terrain

There are a lot of options to play with as a Dungeon Master (DM). In lower regions, there are fast, ice cold rivers. Expect areas of ice and slippery wet surfaces. Higher in the mountains, expect narrow, thin paths (if there are any paths at all!) with steep drop offs and cliffs.

Weather

I’m pretty sure you can guess what the weather’s like. Freezing cold temperatures, extremely high speed, cutting winds up in the mountains, snow, sleet, horrible vision. Fast moving storm clouds that crash against the mountain side. Falling icicles, avalanches, and everything else you can imagine! As a DM, you really have full control over how harrowing it can get for your adventurers.

Using these weather conditions are a great way to impose challenges on your adventurers. Players might fight with a loss of direction, nipping cold damage, climbing challenges, or limited sight, sound or hearing issues.

Foraging and Survival

Adventurers will have a hard time finding food, so it helps to be well prepared beforehand. However, a savvy forester, ranger, or tracker can trap small game and identify small amounts of edible food in lower elevations. Rivers may provide fish or other resources.

Heat is important, and knowing how to set up a fire in cold and wet conditions could lead the savvy DM into creating a fun mini-game.

Adventurers traveling high enough into the mountains may experience elevation sickness or difficulty dealing with the thin air. They may feel dizzy or unable to think properly. Might be a great time to impose disadvantage on perception checks, etc. if players fail constitution saves!

ANIMALS AND OTHER CREATURES

Bear, elk, deer, wolves, foxes, rabbits, birds, small rodents, and fish are common animals in lower areas of mountain regions. Higher up the mountains there will be fewer creatures able to make a living. A herd of mountain goats or a solitary predatory cat might be the last thing adventurers see at higher elevations.

There are plenty of fantasy creatures in the mountains, depending on your setting. There are traditional monsters such as yeti, dragons, mountain giants, and earth elementals. Mountainous cave systems provide shelter for those unable to survive long periods in the cold, such as a goblinoid or deep cave species. You could even add elemental features to regular animals- an ice wolf, for example.

THE REGION AS THE MONSTER

Because cold, mountainous regions give DMs so much to work with, it’s worth noting that traveling through this region in and of itself is a major challenge. You don’t need a combat encounter to have a nail biting and suspenseful session.