Monday, September 26, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 2

If you visit a site like, you'll find that the usual knock on the Outdoor Survival game is that it's impossibly difficult to win at. This seems to be an interesting common theme with my other favorite stuff: Early-edition D&D, my work at Papyrus Racing, and my profession of teaching mathematics. As JFK said, we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard". So we should explore that further.

Outdoor Survival reviews at

Scenario Cards

Outdoor Survival isn't just a single game; it's actually a whole bunch of games, even an open-ended platform for making your own games (sound familiar?). The boxed set comes with 5 "Scenario Cards" which respectively outline completely different objectives, win conditions, and rules for being lost and finding sustenance.In the interest of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's the front side of each of the cards:

Outdoor Survival Scenario 1

Outdoor Survival Scenario 2

Outdoor Survival Scenario 3

Outdoor Survival Scenario 4

Outdoor Survival Scenario 5

Aside from the context and objectives changing, the key observation is this: The scenarios represent a simulation of characters with progressively greater experience in surviving and navigating the wilderness.

Scenario 1, "Lost", is a situation with totally unprepared and disoriented characters stranded in the wilds; there is always some restriction on their movement. Looking on the left under "Direction Ability", they must always travel their full movement allowance. Half the time their movement starts in a random direction; only 1/3 of the time are they allowed even a single turn; the best they can hope for is being able to pick a direction of their choice and go in a straight line, full distance. On the right under "Necessities", their daily food and water requirements are almost never met. The only way that happens is to end a move directly on one of the few food hexes or a stream/water basin; and recall that players cannot choose how far to move in any event! I interpret this as a completely unaware lost soul, with no map, compass, food, or even a canteen with which to take water out of a stream when they pass one by. Indeed, the normal end to this game is everyone dying, no matter how well you try to play.

But on the other hand, as one progresses through the scenarios, these heavy restrictions are lessened. Direction ability options become more often a matter of player choice, and food/water become easier to collect and maintain. For example: Scenario 4, "Rescue", clearly features expert outdoorsmen looking to find and extract stranded victims. There is never any random direction taken; the choice is always up to the player, and they choose exactly how far to travel, and only half the time have any restrictions on the number of turns they make. Water supply is automatically full in all cases; the water index loss rule is completely a non-issue for these characters (full canteens?). Food may be found in any hex whatsoever, and certainly by passing through any indicated food hex. Simple survival and navigation about the map is all but guaranteed here; these characters are dealing with entirely different mental challenges than those in Scenario 1, say.

In short: The Outdoor Survival scenarios provide the germ of the idea of advancing character levels in D&D. Which is arguably the single most powerful game-design invention of all time. The scenarios provide a spectrum of characters of increasing knowledge and proficiency in surviving the challenges of the wilderness. At the lowest level, death is the most likely outcome, even with the best of strategies on the part of the player. But the strategy and game itself is entirely different as we advance experience. At the highest levels, mere survival is assured, those concerns are swept from the mental space of the game, and instead we wrestle with different, higher-order challenges.

Likewise as in D&D, it may be considered somewhat counter-intuitive that the hardest game (to simply survive) is at the introductory, lowest levels. If someone plays only Scenario 1 of Outdoor Survival, and dies several times in sequence, then perhaps they are not incited to play the other,  higher-level scenarios which are actually much easier to win at (due to increasing character proficiency). The traditional boardgame gesture is that more "advanced" scenarios are adding more and more rules, and hence increasingly hard to manage the play/strategy. Here this is reversed; higher levels actually remove certain rules from consideration (like the need to track water resources). If someone were committed to winning the first "level" before proceeding to others (which is not guaranteed in any case), then it is no wonder that they walk away from Outdoor Survival with the impression that it is simply an assured massacre on every play of the game.

Finally, consider the expression of the same kind rule for being lost in Original D&D (Vol-3, p. 17). While it doesn't perfectly match any of the "Direction Ability" tables above, it is more like the higher-level ones than the lower. Again on a low roll, the PCs may have to start in a random direction and be restricted to a single "turn" in their move. But this chance is lessened (either on only a 1, 1-2, or 1-3, depending on terrain), and at no time are they required to move their full speed for the day. Meanwhile, traditional D&D never included any rules for adjudicating a lack of food or water. D&D seems to expect that only the "highest level" of Outdoor Survival characters will be active in its wilderness play.

D&D Vol-3 Lost Parties rule

Still more to come.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 1

Recall again that having a copy of Outdoor Survival was originally listed as one of the top pieces of "Recommended Equipment", above dice, paper, pencil, players... everything, in fact, except for the D&D rules themselves (Vol-1, p. 5). Almost all of us have seen the Outdoor Survival map, I think, many times, because it keeps get re-used for many purposes. Instead, I'm looking at the rules of the game today; in some ways their direct relation to early D&D rules is a lot more interesting. Outdoor Survival says very little about its in-game context (or exactly what strategy to use while playing it), but it implies much.

Scale of the Map

Outdoor Survival map scale text
Notice my hand-annotations. While not explicitly stated, we can back-calculate from the given square mileage of the map to determine that each hex is about 3 miles across (i.e., 1 league). I tend to think that having a move system that handles up to about 7 spaces moved per turn is ideal (See: Magic Number 7 from back in '07). Indeed, as you can see below, the maximum (full health) movement for a man in Outdoor Survival is 6 hexes.

But the wilderness rules of D&D Vol-3, which use the Outdoor Survival map, also need to handle travel modes such as horses, ships, and even flying dragons (much faster than walking). There, Gygax made the hexes about twice as big (5 miles; compare to 6 miles in later material like Moldvay/Cook, i.e., 2 leagues), thereby cutting the hexes walked by about half, prolonging the adventure and handling horses without leaving the entire map behind them in a single day. I constantly engage in a never-ending debate with myself over the descriptive elegance of having 1 hex = 1 league, versus the need to have a larger hex size so movement in hexes is a manageably low number.

Life Level Chart

Oyutdoor Survival Life Level Chart

Each player gets one of these yellow cards to track their current life level. Each day without food or water decreases the respective track by one box; after several are missed, life level is decreased. This happens more quickly for water than food; and in the later stages the loss becomes exponentially greater. Life levels A-O (15 stages) are noted, starting with A (full health). The intimate connection between health and mobility is the key mechanic of this game; as soon as a single life level "point" is lost, movement is reduced from 6 to 5 hexes/turn. The longer you go without food or water, the worse your mobility is, and it becomes increasingly hard to get to the next food/water supply point. If prolonged, it quickly falls into a "death spiral" where reaching food/water becomes impossible. Indeed, even by life level L, movement becomes zero, and you are effectively dead at that point.

It's an elegant rule, and it does a reasonably good job of communicating the critical concerns of real outdoor survival (I like this game a lot). Tracking the connection for one person per player is fairly easy by using these cards. But in D&D, we are likely to be running many people, characters, mounts, henchmen, etc. (to say nothing of the DM with dozens or hundreds of monsters!), and trying to use this exact same mechanic would become quickly, totally unworkable. In D&D, of course, decreasing mobility from injuries was never part of the core rules -- but is referenced in the earliest edition as something a DM could consider ("Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.", Vol-1, p. 18).

More to come.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book of War Updated Prices

I'd very much like to update the OED Book of War (see sidebar) for a 2nd Edition, but at this point it's unclear when I'll have the time. I will take the opportunity to release this much:

For more than a year now we've been playing our games with a somewhat revised pricing list. This was triggered by a few things. One, I revised the simulation/pricing program to take into account the effect of a large unit "wrapping" around a smaller unit, which gave a boost to the efficacy of really cheap unit types. Two, I allowed myself a little more leeway to slightly massage the prices at the higher end to round numbers to make it easy for players to quickly budget their forces without needing a calculator. (For example: The cavalry costs are now simply 10/15/20 -- the exact same as seen in Original D&D Vol-3, as opposed to having heavy cavalry priced at 18 or 19 as the simulator actually estimates).

Another important item that we've made a core rule (whereas it used to be optional) is the requirement that any units on the board need to have a total budget cost of at least 50. This corrects a few possible trouble spots: Players taking cheap forces and making them into lots of tiny 3-figure units; buying all different types so as to create 1-figure units; short-circuiting the critical importance of the morale rules; greatly slowing down the game due to the proliferation of units on the board; and so forth.

Some other changes that we now regularly play with can be found at the bottom of this post.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Me and the Ass Olympics

In 1998, I was looking for my second job in the gaming industry. I interviewed at GameFX, a small studio started by former Looking Glass members. I actually got a formal job offer from them, and utterly indecisive, I simply ghosted them on it. It was probably the single dumbest, embarrassing, most unprofessional thing I've ever done (possibly followed by publicly admitting it here?).

Anyway, among the things that came up at that interview was that I sat down with one of the designers (can't remember the name) and found that they were mostly done with development on the game Sinistar Unleashed (a 3D reboot of an earlier, popular arcade game in 2D with digital voice features). One thing he said to me: "That's great that you're interested in the design aspect, because we're having problems with Sinistar Unleashed. We just can't figure out how to make it fun. If you have any ideas we'd love to hear them." Which was, you know, kind of a bad signal in an interview regarding a game I haven't played and was already nearing the end of its development.

So here I am this summer almost two decades later, clearing out some of my hoarded clutter, and I come across an issue of PC Accelerator magazine from May 2000. That was kind of a "Maxim-y" magazine for gaming, written throughout with a snarky "bro" tone. As I flip through it I find a piece called "The Ass Olympics" about recent games that had sucked to an unusual degree. Among them: Sinistar Unleashed, which was ranked fourth in the event of "Boredom", with a score of 8.0 out of 10 by their standards.

So here's a late salute to that now-forgotten designer for his perpicacity.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The First D&D Movie Script

If you haven't seen it already, here's Jon Peterson's review of the early-1980's script for a D&D movie for which Gygax was pushing so hard. Personally, I'm pretty convinced that it would have stunk the place up.

Hat tip: Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Gygax Regretted Clerical Turning

From the old ENWorld Q&A thread with Gygax:
Q: If you could travel back in time to the early 1970s, would you still make it that clerics can turn undead? I ask because of these words you wrote on page 101 of the original version of Necropolis:

'Priests and Priestesses have no extraordinary ability to affect the Netherrealms creatures and beings, spirits, Unliving, Undead, and Unalive in this game system. There will be no mumbled prayer followed by a "Vaporize!" or "Shoo!" removing dangers such as these foes in this tomb! Naturally, clerical personas wield many instruments which are amongst the Susceptibilities of these sorts of creatures and beings, but there are no givens ("gimmes") here. Be sure to keep this in mind--and to gently remind players of this too, if they are veterans of game systems which make this sort of fell minions of Evil lightweights to be brushed aside with the wave of a sacred object.'

A: So many of the very most interesting "monsters" were subjected to that rude capacity of turning/destroying that I initially bestowed upon the cleric class that I did indeed come to rue the initial benison given to that class. My plan for a revised edition of AD&D was such as to limit that power somewhat while adjusting things for the capacity of undead to withstand "turning" so as to make things more challenging for PCs without emasculating the power of the cleric. Alas, that was not to be in AD&D terms, so I did things differently in the DJ system, as you note, and have continued that fine tradition now in the LA RPG :-D

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Saga of Gary & Glen

Following up from Monday's post about the Hall of the Fire Giant King game from Independence Day weekend: I would be remiss if I didn't add the following freaky activity.

From all the accounts that I've read, every party that ever explored the Hall always fell for the ruse played out by the evil dwarf Obmi  and his retinue of gnollish servants (including the champion party at the Origins '78 tournament). Now, my players have learned make really good use of the various charm spells as an information-gathering device (and under OD&D rules it even works on elves, which is important in the D1-3 series). In this case, knowing they were going up against giants and it wouldn't be generally useful, none of the wizards prepared charm person. But one PC, Ezniak of the Myriad Rings, just happens to have a ring of human control, and also speaks gnollish. (These are pregenerated PC's that I made up about 7 years ago. Did I pre-plan that or was it a random result? At this point, I have no recollection.)

Anyway, Ezniak, cunning as always, immediately hit the gnolls in area 12. with the charm effect from the ring. This affects d12 figures; the die came up only 4, and against the odds, 2 of those made saves, so only a pair were affected; Ezniak immediately named them "Gary" and "Glen" and interrogated them about Obmi. They more than happily gave up his ruse. Obmi loudly objected through his barred door; for good measure, the PCs used a read minds spell (ESP) on him for confirmation. The jig was clearly up. The group promised to free him while ambushers stood to either side.

The door opening up, Obmi in desperation jumped out, won initiative, and savagely attacked a random figure in range, trying to backstab with his dagger. Random determination of target comes up: Gary the gnoll. Obmi hits and Gary dies instantly. The other PCs fall upon him, and try as he might, the dwarf cannot quite get away, and he dies.

So this leaves Glen. For completion sake, I now roll hit points in the open so as to let Ezniak's player track here from now on; and this comes up snake eyes, that is, double 1's, so Glen has the minimum hit points possible: 2 pips worth. Glen is hence the weakest type of his entire race. We also learn that Gary was his own brother. But he joins his new friends, who in fact treat him far better than his prior employers did: They hand him a number of treasures, a magic shield +2, a small suit of plate mail (which he can't wear, but carries around on his back), and also a magic war hammer of unknown strength (never known to the PCs, it is actually the most powerful weapon amongst the whole party!). He happily tells them of the nearby guard post to beware, and gives them directions to the king's throne room, joining them under illusory disguise for the attack.

So basically Glen with his 2 hit points and magical accoutrement manages to survive this and multiple other forays into the Hall. He fights mightily against king himself. He actually jumps up on Snurre's own magical throne at one point in order to carry a potion of healing to a downed comrade there. He hits a previously-injured fire giant in the foot with his magic hammer and kills him. As DM I'm constantly rolling for random targets, or else continuing engagements round-to-round, and weirdly Glen never comes up as a target. His new friends encourage him warmly, and he starts to believe that he might very well become King of the Gnolls and free his entire race from subservience elsewhere.

Alas, on the third foray the invisible party (including Glen) is sniffed out by a hell hound, and a fire giant casts a tree-sized spear blindly in their direction, at a random target, and this does in fact strike a glancing blow off Glen. Of course, he goes down immediately. Wregan the elven fighter/wizard with his magical strength scoops him up as they run, and without further comment, carries his body throughout the rest of their adventure. Such was the impression that Glen the gnoll made on everyone.




Epilogue: If you read my OED House Rules, you'll know that there are no such things as negative hit points, but upon reaching 0 hits any character is allowed a saving throw vs. death to see if they are truly expired or not (see v.102, bottom of page 4). When the PCs return to their secret cave hideout, I make this roll for Glen... and the die comes up a natural 20. Glen stirs, coughs up a little blood, and awakens to general cheering. Our story ends here, but Glen's does not.

Which is to say that D&D is full of occurrences that we would all laugh off as being outrageously impossible if we didn't see the oracular dice come up that way before our very eyes. Is our world an amazing place? Yes, it is.