Surviving the best way I know how

The Player’s Handbook has this to say about the Survival skill:

The DM might ask you to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards. (PHB, p. 178)

It’s also the primary skill to accomplish three of the five travel activities (p. 182 and 183): Navigate, Track, and Forage.  Noticing Threats is the only activity that requires something besides Survival, although that feels like an odd thing to say: “Oh, no dahhrling, survival isn’t about thrrrreats.”  The fifth activity, drawing a map, specifically does NOT require an ability check (which, along with the idea that Performance proficiency automatically earns a Wealthy lifestyle, is how we know we’re living in a fantasy world…)

There’s no general rule provided, just examples of what it does.  We get tracking, hunting, navigating, and reading an area for animals, weather, and hazards.  This is a tough skill to generalize, in part because it seems to overlap with Intelligence (Nature) and Intelligence (Investigate).   In a demonstration of exactly what I wanted to gain from this blog: I didn’t realize until rereading the PHB for this article that Nature is meant to be a facts-driven; here’s-what-you-know kind of skill.

Nature: That thing was a behir; they hate dragons more than anything else in the world.

Survival: Follow the behir back to its lair. Make convincing dragon-calls (okay, that would be a really high DC) to lure it into ambush so you can get your companion out of its belly.

We also know it’s specifically available to Barbarians, Nature Clerics, Druids, and Fighters or to anyone with the Folk Hero or the Outlander background.  Bards, Humans, and Half-elves can do anything, so they can get it, too, but that doesn’t help us define the survival skill.

The name “survival” isn’t super helpful, either.  As a word, it covers everything from Armor Class to zombies.  Without a general rule (“Your Wisdom (Perception)…measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses”) or a clear identity (Stealth), I find myself treating it as a cover for things other skills don’t, and, as a result, only really calling for it when one of my PCs wants to track something.

But now I’ve written all these words about Survival!  Maybe that will help.  

The examples in the PHB read like it should be “wilderness” skill in most campaigns but they don’t actually mention wilderness.  You could build a concept of survival in a concrete jungle and the fiction often supports the idea that the lessons are transferable; see Crocodile Dundee, Tarzan, and, oh what the heck, George of the Jungle (wow, I need new cultural references).  I know there are fantasy examples, too (Drizz’t and Conan both sometimes do this) but I’m currently drawing a blank about more direct examples (feel free to enlighten me in the comments if you have some).  

I think, for my own, purposes, I’ll re-frame it as the untamed ecology of an area.  Survival is about reading into the emergent system rather than the designed one.  Survival lets you understand and benefit from that.  Insight is for understanding a person, Survival is for understanding an environment.  I say emergent because it feels like it should work better in urban decay or a shanty-town than areas of law and order.

So here’s my attempt to write the general concept behind survival:

Survival is about understanding your surroundings on an implicit level and your ability to take advantage of resources and avoid hazards that emerge from the local environment.

Some traditional examples:

  • Find a safe place to camp at night
  • Assess the tide and determine how much time you have to cross the sandbar
  • Navigate a dry(ish) path through the swamp

Some non-traditional examples arising from my interpretation:

  • Recognize that you’ve moved out of one gang’s territory and into another
  • Find a street doc who will sew up your friend’s injuries, off the books
  • Stake a claim for the night in an abandoned building that won’t be challenged by vagrants
  • Find a route to your target using only rooftops

Some of those could be done other ways, depending on how the character approaches it, but I think this works for me.  I’ll put it to use and let you know how it goes.


What is The Dragonsmith?

This blog is an exercise in exploration.  I’m writing to explore ideas, to convert the nebulous thoughts in my head into a more direct form of communication and, in so doing, evaluate and refine those ideas.  I want to be a better Dungeon Master and this blog is going to be a tool for that.  I’m writing essays in the original sense of the word, attempts to understand by writing.

The Dragonsmith blog is also an exploration in the sense that I’m going to learn what it is by writing it.  I tried planning what it would be, but I’ve been doing THAT for years and, well… I wrote the first article a week ago because I sat down and DID it without stopping to plan.  So here is what I hope to accomplish with this blog but we’ll both have to wait to see how well these intentions match the outcome.

One caveat: I’m going to work hard not to polish these entries.  I have a tendency to let thinking get in the way of doing.  I’m committing here (and warning you) to getting words out rather than getting them perfect.  Maybe I’ll recant later, once I’ve established the habit of writing regularly.

Second caveat: I tend towards wordiness; suppressing my internal editor is not going to help with that.  The adage “I would have written you a shorter letter if I only had the time” applies strongly here.


One of my professors introduced me to the concept of Distributed Cognition.  I appreciated the usefulness so much I made it a fundamental part of my thesis (that thesis won’t be showing up in anyone’s citations, but it was meaningful to me) and I’ve used it as a lens for understanding tools and processes ever since.

It has been many years since I studied this topic, and things change often in science so please don’t take my word for any of this.  Seek out other sources if you want to learn more (and come back and let me know where I’m wrong).  For now, though, here’s how I understand the term.

Distributed Cognition is a metaphor for viewing our ability to think.  Thought, in this model, is not contained purely within our brains but is also spread (distributed, if you will) across time, tools, and people.  When I write a list, I’m distributing my cognition across time – thinking about what I need when I’m within reach of my pantry, where it is easiest to form those thoughts, and then carrying those thoughts in my pocket to the grocery store where I implement them.  When I discuss these ideas with you, and you respond with your own, we are distributing our cognition between ourselves and, together, are able to come up with better ideas than we could on our own.  When I make a circular template to represent an area of effect, I’m doing the slow part of the thinking out of view of my players and then embodying it in a physical tool so I never have to do it again.  Every time I use that template to map the wizard’s fireball, I don’t have to pause the game to count squares.  We can get right to the important business of working out the enemy-to-ally ratio within that circle.

DCog is one lens I use to focus my DM efforts.  And now this blog will become a part of that distribution.  If I do it right, we’ll get all three: time, tools, and people.

Annotated Adventures: Post Mortems

I want to talk about what I’m doing, where it’s working, and where it’s not but the venn diagram of “the set of friends interested in talking about D&D” and “the set of friends playing in my campaign” is just one big circle, all overlap.  Since that conversation is essentially about spoilers, my players are the absolute wrong group for it.  I’ll do that talking here, instead.  Even just formatting my inner thoughts for communication will help me, but I’m also hoping some of what I have to say will help you, and from there we can turn this into a conversation (distribute that cognition!) and all will benefit.

The Forge & The Encyclopedia Fantastica: Rules Hacks, Tools, and New Things

If you can take a device apart and put it back together, you understand the device.  If you can build a new one on your own, you understand the principles behind the device.  Also, sometimes I need tools or items in my game that I just don’t have, and sometimes I just have a cool idea I want to try. So we’ll do that here, too.  That moves us into the Synthesis stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  (And the rest of you are absolutely welcome to engage in that final stage – Evaluation – and tell me what works or doesn’t, how you’d apply it, or what changes you’d make.)

Forge entries are going to focus on the game aspect: structures, rules, and tools of play.

Encyclopedia Fantastica entries are going to focus on narrative and world-building.

Next Up

I’m hoping to present two to four entries a month.  I want one a week, and will strive for that, but I’m lots of things besides a blogger and I haven’t yet demonstrated a solid skill in juggling all of that effectively.  Wish me luck.

June’s theme for CreativeMornings is Survival.  Sounds like an excellent topic for D&D discussions.  I’m also still struggling with the system for Greater Rituals (I maybe bit off a bit more than I could chew there, but hey, it got me actually writing).  I’ll have articles about one or the other soon.