Survival Skill in 5e: How To Make The Most of This Ability

You know, that weird skill the ranger gets to roll every now and then to track a halfling through the battlefield.

What Is Survival Skill in DnD 5e?

Survival allows you to navigate, hunt, track, predict the weather, read the landscape, identify animal/monster markings, etc. It is your ability to manage living or traveling in the wild and being aware of the dangers therein.

Survival is one of those skills that is only as useful as you make it. It isn’t like Perception or Persuasion which show up in potentially every session.

Instead, Survival is a niche skill that has the potential to be either incredibly useful or incredibly harmful depending on proficiency. However, it can also be ignored by the DM with a handwave.

This is all dependent on what genre your game is. Think of it like a film or novel. Is this high adventure? Mystery? Urban Fantasy? Travelog? Survival plays a very different role for each type of game.

Survival vs. Nature

Nature is an Intelligence skill that has a bit of overlap with Survival. The main difference is that Nature is learned through study whereas Survival is learned through experience.

That being said, they can both solve many of the same problems.

So while the result is the same, the method is different, which is common in DnD. This relationship happens all the time between other skills.

Minimal Usage of Survival in Your Game

If you don’t care about how your players travel from one place to another, then simply wave your DM hand and say, “You got there.” Then you only need survival for a few things:

Tracking

Sometimes the bad guy gets away. Use Survival to track them and find their panic room, forcing them into a final confrontation while the momentum is on your side.

The DC of the survival check could be a base DC of 8 with these modifications:      

  • +3 if you are tracking them over manufactured flooring. Sometimes a rug out of place or a scuffed polish veneer can betray a direction.
  • +10 if they are covering their tracks, either by a mundane tool such as a rake or with a clever use of the prestidigitation spell.
  • +5 if you are in the bad guy’s favored environment.

Detecting Traps

Most often, a DM will call for Perception of Investigation for this, but a valid argument can be made for Survival. If Survival allows you to “avoid quicksand” (Basic Rules), then you should be able to notice other hidden dangers.

Survival should also help since trap-making is a very important method of hunting, and Survival is the primary skill for hunting.

Navigating

Getting lost is a hassle, whether in the wild, a dungeon, or a gigantic compound of bureaucratic cultists. A simple survival check can help you and your party stay oriented.

Moderate Usage of Survival in Your Game

Now, if you are a DM who doesn’t really care about how your players get on in the wilderness yet you have that one player who truly does, here are a few ways to let them have their moment to shine in your game. 

Camping

When the players camp down for the night, have someone roll a Survival check, and have the other players perform the Aid, another action for camp chores.

If they roll above a 15, let everyone fully heal and give them 1d10 temporary HP.

Navigating

If you don’t want the players to get lost but you do tend to roll random encounters, let a player roll a Survival check.

If they get a 15 or higher, roll your random encounter table twice, and choose the more beneficial result. If they get 7 or lower, roll twice, and choose the worst option.

Tracking

As your players near their destination, allow a Survival check. If they roll a 15 or higher, allow their tracking skills to give them tactical information, such as where the bad guys get their water, how many there are, how many entrances they use, and where they dump their waste, etc.

This kind of extra information can give them a tactical advantage in their planning.

Your Survival-oriented players will be very happy with themselves, and so will everyone else. This will help you as a DM achieve goal number 1: everyone ought to have fun.

Intensive Use of Survival in Your Game

If you are running a game that is highly travel oriented or takes place in a very wild setting, then Survival will be the most important skill.

In a game such as this, you will want to use environmental conditions to hinder the players’ abilities to have quality Short and Long Rests but allow Survival checks to mitigate those threats and even amplify the benefits of such a rest.

When running such a game, include all of the uses from the above two sections, plus one element we have not discussed yet.

Gear!

(Check out the article on the Explorer’s Pack here)

When it comes to Survival, or what real-world hobbyists call Bushcraft or Wildcraft, there are four things to remember. In order of importance, they are Water, Shelter, Fire, and Food.

As a DM, when your players manage this bit, it will take some discretion.

The difference between surviving and thriving comes from not only knowing those four relationships but also having the right gear to take advantage of them.

Water

You will need more than a wineskin, which only holds ½ a gallon. Consider buying a donkey and/or a cart to carry water, unless you plan on finding fresh water everyday for your party to drink and wash.

If there is any kind of pollution in your world, then you will not be able to trust clear, flowing water. You will need the alchemical equivalent to iodine tablets to cleanse chemicals, or you will have to boil it to cleanse parasites and bacteria.

So consider Quantity and Quality of water when you make your preparations. In general, consider a base DC of 20 to find potable water, and lower the DC to represent the amount of preparation.

Shelter

Shelter is more than just a tent. Shelter is infrastructure, which means the tools and methods you use to facilitate your long-term survival. 

Shelter protects you from wind, rain, dust, random pixies, and whatever else could be floating around out there.

If you don’t have shelter, you are more likely to suffer from exhaustion after being out for more than a day or two in the elements.

An easy piece of shelter is a tarp thrown over a rope. Alternatively, you could sleep in or under the cart you so wisely purchased before you left town.I don’t recommend sleeping under the donkey.

Consider a CON save of 10-20 depending on how poorly the players meet their shelter needs. Failure should bestow one level of exhaustion.

Allow one or two characters to make Survival Checks with a DC 12 to lower the Save DC vs. exhaustion by 1d4 or 1d6.

Alternatively, if the Survival Check for shelter-making is great, then let the players wake up with temporary HP or even an Inspiration die.

Fire

Fire keeps you warm and dry when mold, mildew, and fungal infections can ruin your life. Furthermore, fire prepares your food, and the smoke can keep away gnats, mosquitos, and larger predators that like to avoid fire. 

Also, a good fire creates a natural place for the party to sit and enjoy their nice, warm meal while swapping stories to keep out the dark.

All in all, the ability to make a fire will keep you just as clean, happy, and healthy as good water.

A tinderbox will allow you to get a spark, provided you keep it full of nice, dry fluff and you have enough shelter to start the fire if it’s raining.

The presence of a good fire should give you advantage on all of your survival rolls mentioned in this section. It really does make a difference.

Food

If you don’t pack food, a Survival check will help you find it. However, you can’t find food and make good time on a murder-hike (I mean… adventure).

If you run out of rations, you’ll need to spend a day in camp searching for food to increase your supplies while you travel for the next few days.

Also, rations suck! Have you ever had MRE’s? Order a couple on Amazon. They are like elementary school cafeteria food gone bad, and they are unhealthy.

If all you eat while on the road are military-style rations, then it is safe to say that your Saves against exhaustion will have penalties.

Have your players make a Survival check of a DC 10-15 depending on the environment to find supplemental food for their rations. If they are actively moving, add 5 to the DC.

However, if the food situation goes well, allow your players to wake up with temporary HP or have an Inspiration die after a good meal, and if someone in the party is proficient with Cook’s Utensils, even better!

Best Ranger Trick Ever

One of the grizzled old rangers who lives in the woods outside of the Black Citadel once shared a trick with me:

Here’s whatchy do, boyo. Go to brothel, or a tavern, or a fancy restaurant – ye know the like – and buy or steal ye the best looking meals for the money. Pack ‘em all up for travel-like, and then stick the lot in a bag of holding! Then when chow time comes, ye jes take ‘em out hot and et ‘em up!”

Safe Travels, Citadellians!