The wilderness is a dangerous place for inexperienced adventurers. From ravenous monsters and cunning evildoers to natural hazards and the elements themselves, there’s plenty of stuff out there that could very easily ruin even an experienced hero’s day.
I’m a firm believer that, especially at lower levels, stepping off the beaten path and into the deep, dark woods should be a scary thing. There are goblins, orcs, and trolls in the mountains and more beyond dragons. Just stepping out your front door in the Forgotten Realms is honestly asking for trouble.
I run the kinds of campaigns that have seen many a budding hero happily set forth into the vast, untamed unknown never to return. While this may largely be the result of the aforementioned goblin ambushes, owlbear attacks, landslides, raging rivers, exhaustion, the bitter cold, and trying (despite pointed words to the wise) to climb mountains without the proper gear, as a Dungeon Master, one of my favorite ways to make the wilderness feel like an inhospitable and deadly place is asking my players what they plan to do when the food and the water run out.
Welcome to Black Citadel’s guide to foraging in D&D 5e. Today, we’ll be looking at the rules as written for foraging and talking a little bit about what you can do as a dungeon master to not just make the mechanics of searching for food more interesting but also how to make the process of foraging (and the implied threat of starvation) a bigger part of your campaign.
How Does Foraging Work in DnD 5e?
Foraging allows characters traveling through the wilderness to make a Wisdom (Survival) check in order to gather food and water from their surroundings. The DC of the check changes based on the abundance of food and water in the surrounding environment, and the Wisdom Modifier of the foraging character (plus a d6 roll) determines how many pounds of food and water they find.
While foraging technically only refers to the act of searching for plants, like roots, berries, and nuts, the 5e rules contain no explicit rules for hunting and fishing. You can buy a steel-jawed hunting trap for 5 gp, but there aren’t any official hunting procedures out there in the main rules, so we can assume that the act of foraging in D&D 5e also covers the process of hunting and trapping game and fishing for food.
In fact, the new rules (if you can call them that) for fishing on the Astral Sea found in Spelljammer: Adventures in Space are virtually identical to those for foraging (roll a Survival check at the end of each hour against a fixed DC; succeed, and you catch something), so I think it’s fairly safe to assume that “roll a Wisdom (Survival) check” is a pretty safe catch-all for the process of gathering food and water in the wilderness, regardless of its type.
How To Forage in the Wilderness
When a player’s character is traveling at either slow or normal pace through the wilderness, they can declare that they want to forage for food. The dungeon master can then call for that character to make a Wisdom (Survival) check to determine whether they find food and water.
The Foraging DC of the Wisdom (Survival) check is based on the abundance of food in the surrounding area, which is broken up into three tiers.
On a successful check, the character who is foraging finds a number of pounds (lbs.) of food and gallons of water equal to 1d6 + their wisdom modifier. Rolls for food and water are made separately.
What Do I Find When I Forage?
Obviously, when you successfully forage for food, what you find depends a lot on the climate and time of year, much like in the real world. If you’re not on the Prime Material Plane, what you find could get really weird, really fast — from the multitudinous fungi of the Underdark to whatever the heck folks eat on the Plane of Fire.
However, assuming you’re romping around the classic quasi-European medieval fantasy setting typified by the Sword Coast in Faerun, here’s a list of some of the stuff you might be able to find.
Roll a d4 for the category of food and a d20 for the specific type.
If multiple characters forage for food, they each make Wisdom (Survival) checks individually.
Other creatures require food and water each day depending on their size.
Characters, NPCs, and creatures (like horses or pets) traveling with the party all require an amount of food and water each day to avoid accumulating levels of Exhaustion. Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion. A character experiencing exhaustion from a lack of food or water can’t remove that exhaustion until they eat and drink the full required amount.
A character (or medium-sized creature) requires 1 pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food.
A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + their Constitution modifier (minimum of one day). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically accumulates a level of exhaustion. A normal day of eating resets the count to zero.
A character needs 1 gallon of water per day or 2 gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. If the character already has one or more levels of exhaustion, the character takes two levels in either case.
It’s easy to see — especially with regard to water – just how short an amount of time it takes for a party of adventurers to go from the peak of health to actively dying once they run out of food and water.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide doesn’t say exactly how many times per day you can roll to forage, but I would say that unless the type of terrain changes dramatically (leaving the desert and entering lush savanna, for example), players should be limited to a single roll.
Then again, some DMs might allow you to roll every hour (like the Spelljammer fishing rules), which creates a very different style of play. As with just about everything in D&D, there’s no right or wrong answer, only what works for you at the table.
Speaking of which…
How (and When) To Make Foraging a Bigger Part of Your DnD Campaign
I think there’s a reason for all the rules for foraging in D&D 5e, whether you’re fishing off the side of a spelljamming ship on the Astral Sea, grubbing around for mushrooms in the underdark, or stealing pumpkins from Farmer Maggot’s fields. Basically, D&D 5e is not a game about starving to death in the wilderness.
The current edition of D&D does a lot of work to make you feel like a fantasy superhero. It’s hard to lose a “balanced” fight, it’s harder to die, and there are a ton of spells and special abilities out there that circumvent just about every mundane problem (like where to sleep, what to eat, etc.), so it’s honestly a bit strange when a party of three or four adventurers doesn’t just have a way to auto-win the wilderness.
This is why these rules feel a bit like an afterthought and why they’re so clumsily written. I think they were meant to be bypassed or irrelevant 90% of the time. I think this is the game working as intended.
I also think that this is why homebrew rules for hunting, gathering, fishing, foraging, and crafting (god, not another bloody crafting minigame — please) are one of the most common things to put out there. People love resource management in their video games, and because in D&D 5e there are very few resource management problems that can’t be solved by a hunk of beef jerky and a good night’s sleep, people set out to create that experience with more rules. They make random tables and minigames and more and more and more stuff.
Now, if making incredibly detailed, overengineered rules for foraging is your thing, I’m not here to yuck those yums. We are a non-yum-yucking website. Do what makes you happy, you beautiful bunch of perverts.
What I am here to do is suggest another way to make foraging a more important part of the game without writing a whole new set of rules or banning spells or whatever.
It’s basically a collection of small pieces of advice (with minimal house-rule suggestions) that, in combination, hopefully deliver a much more survival-focused experience for your players without piling a bunch of extra work on your shoulders.
- Pay attention to the material components of spells like Goodberry and other survival spells. These are the spells that let druids and rangers more or less negate the challenges of wilderness survival. By tracking these components and making them scarce, you reintroduce a new form of scarcity.
- You can forage for food or water. It’s a very simple way to make the party devote more time and effort to the process of gathering supplies.
- Abundance also determines dice rolled for how many pounds of food you find. In an abundant area, roll a d10, in a moderate area, a d6, and in a scarce area, a d4 (or even nothing at all).
- Think about how the local landscape might have different levels of abundance between food and water, and track them differently (the arctic is covered in snow, which you can melt and drink, but finding plants and animals to eat is next to impossible.
- Only characters who are Proficient in Survival can forage. This is from Dael Kingsmill’s excellent foraging video. I would say that other characters can still help out, however, allowing them to give advantage.
- Roll Survival checks in secret. This is actually the biggest piece of advice I have. Roll for the players so that they don’t know how well it’s going. Also…
- If they fail their check by 5 or more, something bad happens. This is totally up to you and could range from a random encounter or getting lost to picking a bunch of poisonous berries that they then give to the whole party.
- Implement the optional rules for Gritty Realism, where a long rest takes a week and a short rest takes a day.
Hopefully, these ideas all sound like fun and not the cruel machinations of a sadistic boy scout instructional video. Still, I wouldn’t recommend going too hard on your players unless everyone’s on board with playing The Revenant simulator.
That’s all for today on foraging, folks. Until next time, happy adventuring.