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.