Monday, October 3, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 3

Continuing our look at the intimate connection between the rules of Outdoor Survival and Original D&D:


Here is the page-sized movement chart for Outdoor Survival:

Outdoor Survival Movement Chart

As you can see, the fundamental mechanic is, in entering a particular hex, to charge a particular cost against the person's daily move rate (cost being between 1 and 4 hexes). The terrain penalties in OD&D are assessed in almost an identical fashion: Gygax actually asserts that they are the same, but then inserts just a few edits along the way (Vol-3, p. 17):
Terrain Penalties: All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, mountains and swamps cost three movement per hex, crossing rivers at non-ford hexes also costs three, and woods or deserts cost two. Tracks through mountainous terrain cost two factors per hex moved, and tracks through woods or swamps incur no movement penalty.

The only changes here are that swamp hexes cost 3 movement units (instead of 4), and that tracks through mountains cost 2 move units (instead of 1 in Outdoor Survival). When I run D&D wilderness games, I ignore these minor changes, and actually just display this same movement chart from Outdoor Survival for my players' benefit.

I consider this hex-based mechanic to be far more elegant for gameplay purposes than the more abstract system that was presented in say, AD&D, where only daily miles traveled were presented -- ignoring the fact that different types of terrain could be encountered within a single day, or that odd remainders of movement between hexes might need consideration. Having moves purely in terms of whole-number hexes neatly solves a whole number of problems during play.


Outdoor Survival has a "Sequence of Play" that looks like this: (1) Select scenario and set players at full food, water, and health; (2) Determine order by random dice; (3) Roll for Direction ability and move counter; (4) Consult Necessities chart to see if food/water ration has been met for the day; (5) Mark any losses and reduced movement for the next turn. Repeat most of these steps until the game concludes.

However, there is an interesting "Optional" step included in the list, namely Step 6:

Outdoor Survival optional step 6: encounters

As you can see, this step triggers Wilderness Encounters, specified in a chart on the flip side of each Scenario card, wherein the player would, by default, pick one of 3 columns on which to roll for the exact type of encounter. The encounter charts vary by Scenario in the usual way (wickedly brutal at low levels; more easily manageable at higher levels); here are the encounters for Scenario 4 as one example:

Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounters: Scenario 4

Note that among the options are remaining stationary (effectively: lose a turn), gaining or losing food or water, and possibly outright losing a life level (only one outcome for that, however). Lower-level charts include losing multiple turns and food/water units at once. Here is a bit more description of that optional rule:

Outdoor Survival encounters rules

From a top-level design perspective, this idea of how to run wilderness adventures was ported directly into OD&D; the two daily rolls there are, indeed, one for being lost (direction ability) and one for possible monsters (wilderness encounters). Concepts that were stripped out were: rolls or assessment of possible loss of food/water, loss of mobility for reduced life levels, and encounters of types other than creatures. Outdoor Survival included the presence of inclement weather ("Natural Hazards"), alongside creature encounters, but that was left our for D&D.

The other thing I want to point out is that Outdoor Survival, as simple as it is, includes an example of a non-uniform core mechanic; if you look at the Direction Ability charts (see last week), then on that d6 roll the player is penalized for rolling low, whereas for encounters here the player is penalized for rolling high (encounters only occur on 5-6 as above). I have found this prone to confuse players, so I penciled in a note to flip this latter roll around in play (see margin note above).

However, that was not an adjustment that was made in D&D Vol-3. Gygax ported in this exact same mechanic, with the exact same sense of the two 6-sided dice; low roll for loss of direction ability, and high roll for monsters encounters. Ranges vary for different terrain types, but otherwise the idea is completely the same (Vol-3, p. 18):

OD&D Vol-3 Wilderness Chart

When I first saw this chart, the contrasting sense of the dice-results made me wonder that possibly only a single 6-sided die was being rolled (with either a lost or monster result, never both together). But I think that reading the prior page carefully clarifies that two separate dice are rolled (technically: one is at the start of the day, the other at the end of the day). The fact that the mechanic is so transparently borrowed from Outdoor Survival makes that even more clear, I'm sure.

And this same basic idea was also used in the dungeon setting, of course, for one of the most important but often controversial D&D mechanics: "A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared." (Vol-3, p. 10). Again: High roll indicates encounter (disjoint from, say, the fact that low roll indicates surprise).

But the idea of a "core mechanic" where all high rolls are uniformly desirable was something that was not on the radar of either Outdoor Survival or Dungeons & Dragons at that point in time. And that makes the shared DNA even more obvious in this rather telling case.


  1. Do you think the differences (roll high, roll low) was an attempt to help keep the pair of d6 results straight/differentiate in the player's head?

    1. No, I expect that it was just a total oversight. In Outdoor Survival they're on separate pages and I think that simply no one thought to consider them jointly. From that point on it was just legacy.

  2. I think it is an elegant rule against jinxed dice or players who are hot on their rolls :)

    Are there modifiers in the game for the rolls that work in the same direction: so making one roll more dangerous and the other one less so?

    I do not own a copy of Outdoor Survival and find it very interesting to see how D&D is related to this game.

    Great series!

    1. No modifiers to those rolls; what you see above is the entirety of the mechanics.

  3. Delta,

    How do you apply D&D levels to OS skill? Do you do map D&D class levels directly to Outdoor Survival skill levels (i.e. level 4 in D&D means "use Scenario 4's movement and encounter rules")? Or do you you have a more arcane system for handling this interface?

    1. Well... OD&D totally takes over with its own rules for getting lost and monster encounters. Hypothetically we might assume that low-level PCs should receive further penalties, but then they would be basically DOA. (They already have odds stacked against them given OD&D wilderness encounter tables... here, have 1d6 Balrogs today.)

  4. The rules sound interesting; the map always looked pretty poor to me. Do you think the game could be played on the Judges Guild Wilderlands maps?

    1. Possibly. I'll say that in play the map is excellent; it winds up providing a lot of interesting strategic choice and dilemmas on different routes of travel. I've actually recently come around to thinking D&D maps should be more like this for game purposes -- mostly clear with scattered obstacles, not realistic at all, but providing interesting and varied strategic obstacles.

  5. Agh! Haven't read your blog in several weeks, so I'm only just now reading this series

    Bought this game a couple years ago, but I've only played it a couple times. We had a lot of fun making up house rules between games and testing them out. We thought you should be able to follow rivers to avoid getting lost. First solution was overpowered, but we figured something out. Can't remember what we went with

    The rules and the survival book that comes with it have been great inspiration for my own game, though I'd definitely make some modifications. The rules for movement make sense for a board game, since you have information your guy wouldn't possess (you can see the whole board). I want hex crawls to be a hidden information game, though. Not knowing what's beyond until you map it should be sufficient; no need for extra die rolls. I'm thinking hexes should be six miles, which is about how far you could see without obstructions. You could make out distant mountains and such (or see further if you're on a mountain), which is how you'd make informed decisions about where to go. Lose your landmarks? Guess you're lost

    Regarding that table from U&WA: I also thought it was one roll, since the two results occupy different ends of the die and often leave room for a null result (except for swamps). You didn't convince me otherwise, until I re-read the rules and realized I'd misunderstood you. I thought you were referring to the two rolls you get for traveling via air or sea, but I see what you mean now. It's possible it is one roll made at the end of the day, but lost movement doesn't occur until the start of the next. Wonder what the old manuscripts say. Maybe we're seeing artifacts of early changes. Dave might've run it one way and Gary another

    1. Good observations! I must admit that Vol-3 table also confused me until I did the exact same close-reading exercise. And I totally agree that the 6-mile hex is really ideal for gameplay.

      The one thing is that playing wilderness D&D games has flipped me on hidden hex-crawls; the play is so much more interesting that it's flipped me to wanting to provide the map all the time. In fact, I'm also close to the same in dungeon crawls. When my party got a partial map of Jacquays' Caverns of Thracia by accident, the play became really focused, well-planned, and extra exciting. I had some people then tell me "we knew this all along, give out lots of maps", but it was new to me. (Link)