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.


  1. I am in favor of 6 mile Hex for the ease of math involved. ( I spent the summer playing with the numbers in prep for a fall hex crawl) Plus I have no mental concept of a League. :)

    1. Of course, the origin of the league is that it's how far a man can walk in one hour. I do wish that I could say in-character "it's 4 leagues away" and have that also be the number of hexes. I find that with just a bit of play in D&D, I come learn these archaic measures pretty quickly.

      But I do always come back to 1 hex = 6 miles as a better scale for game mechanic purposes (unfortunately).

    2. I totally think of common weights in stone, for example. I actually think that's a better unit for estimating weights of people, stuff I need to carry, etc.

    3. Yeah it is purely my mental hang-up, I can know the definition, but my mind doesn't picture it. Same way that all these years and I still think of a Kg as "eh, about half a pound"
      Maybe start using a 6 league hex :)

    4. I would round the 6 miles hex to 2 leagues hex (or 3 league hex, depending on which league standard you use) and keep saying that 1 league is 1 hour of walking... This should keep things close to the 6 miles hex.

    5. Sure; I can also consider in-game maybe calling it a "great mile" or something -- again so in-game narrative unit matches hexes on the map. But that's even far more esoteric. See: Westphalian "gro├če Meile/great mile" (link).

  2. Just redefine one hour; 12 hours in a day.
    Didn't the Chinese have such a division?

    1. Not sure, but I do know that for a short period following the French Revolution, the French tried to decimalize time - 10 hours in a day, with 100 minutes each.

    2. Reminds me of the SNL skit where they convert the alphabet to the metric system.

    3. yupz, 12 'hours' in a day:


  3. 5E has an exhaustion system; I believe subdivided into 6 levels.

    1. As a follow-up, I looked up the rules in 5E.

      There are indeed 6 levels of exhaustion (on top of the non-exhausted condition).
      You (may) gain (an) exhaustion level(s) when:
      - ending a barbarian frenzy
      - forced march
      - no access to food
      - no/limited access to water (more stringent than food)
      - some effects (I guess monsters and spells)

      effects are:
      1) disadvantage on ability checks (ie. roll twice, take worst result)
      2) speed halved
      3) disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
      4) max HP halved
      5) speed reduced to 0
      6) death
      The effects are cumulative.

      After a night's rest you loose one level of exhaustion, provided that you also took a day's ration of food and water

  4. @ Delta:

    This is a fascinating discussion regarding a line of inquiry I've never considered.

    I wonder if one could short-hand a formula for dealing with party strength in relation to mobility, in the same manner that Outdoor Survival does with individuals.

    Regarding: Death Spirals

    Is this truly reasonable? It would seem that within a league-span (for the smaller scale hex) one would still be able to find the means for survival (food, water, shelter) even with decreased mobility...assuming the terrain wasn't something especially hostile to human life (desert, tundra, Mordor, etc.). I'm sure it works well in play, but does it model well for an RPG like D&D?

    1. Well, I think it's reasonable enough for a game that needs to come to a conclusion and not just stalemate-by-camping. :-) But what you'll see in the next post is an important factor: is the person in question an unprepared burgher (zero knowledge of how to survive, get food, make shelter), or an experienced outdoorsman? If the latter, they may never fall into the death spiralin the first place...

    2. @ Delta:

      Ah, yes...looking forward to more!
      : )

  5. I am getting ready to use a setup where every "bad thing" slows the party movement down a notch. Rough terrain; bad weather; foraging; =3/4 move. Bad weather and foraging = 1/2, down to 3/4 and 1/10, then no appreciable progress. I guess I should add fatigue and serious injury to the list.
    I had planned to track it once for the party, letting the players help to justify the overall approach/status. "Ok, the elf is hurt but the fighter's can easily take turns carrying her, so it should not slow us down too much"