Looking back at old RPG books sometimes you find some fascinating stuff. Even though I didn’t start playing until the early 80s with AD&D, I still went out and bought the original OD&D books. At the time my friends told me they were worthless, and if you were playing AD&D they largely were, but I had to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Largely I wasn’t, but you know every time I go back to those old rules, I always find a surprise or two still lodged in those pages.
One of my favorite surprises pops up in Book 3 or the original 3-book OD&D set. While describing wilderness adventures, OD&D actually refers you to another game—Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival.
Terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee. Off-hand adventures in the wilderness are made on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL playing board (explained below). Exploration journies, such as expedition to find land suitable for a castle or in search of some legendary treasure are handled in an entirely different manner.
OUTDOOR SURVIVAL has a playing board perfect for general adventures. Catch basins are castles, buildings are towns, and the balance of terrain is as indicated.
OD&D Volume 3: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventure, Page 15
It’s also on the list of recommended equipment on page 5 of Book 1: Men & Magic.
Can you imagine this happening today? You pick up an RPG and it actually referred you to another game produced by another company as a piece of its recommended equipment?
If you think about it, this kind of stuff is all over the place in RPGs, even today. The RPG industry has always been so small that you often get your rule book from one company, your dice from another, your miniatures from a third, and mapping solutions from a fourth. That’s changed a little over the years. Sure, Wizards sells dice, minis, and tiles, but the dice are often meh and crammed into packaging meant for the mass market (who doesn’t buy a whole lot of then and often doesn’t sell the ones they do buy); the pre-painted minis market has slowed to a crawl (both on the production and the selling sides); and tiles, while popular, struggle under some distribution and storage issues. Though I use tiles nearly exclusively these days, I’m sure they’ve driven a few DMs to cling to their Chessex Battlemat for dear life. Over the years there have been numerous cottage industries supporting RPGs in this way. Hell, Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast both started out as companies that made products to support RPGs (specifically D&D). Magic: The Gathering was initially designed as a pre-RPG session time waster so people could have some fun while they were waiting for their straggling friends to pop though the door.
But recommending an entire and seemingly unrelated game? That’s very strange. Excitingly so.
It’s obvious from reading and playing a few games of Outdoor Survival it did influence the overland movement and exploration rules of D&D (and it definitely influenced all those early hex maps, that personally I adore), though even a close reading of the above passage, and a comment about it on the OD&D Discussion forum by Dave Arneson confirms (see reply #21) that it was the map rather than the entire game that earned its recommendation. It was seen as a tool…but the game is not without little chunks of fascinating.
So what’s the deal with this game? Well, it was a game requested by Stackpole Books who contributed half of the development costs. It seemed to be a cross marketing vehicle for both Avalon Hill and Stackpole books, taking advantage of the uptick of the scouting and environmental movement that occurred in the 60s and 70s. And by all accounts it was one of Avalon Hill’s best selling games. In fact, there is a popular gaming myth that it achieved this bestselling status thanks to two reasons. The first was the plug in the OD&D booklets; the other was that it was featured in Boy’s Life. And back in the day, Boy’s Life was the bomb, yo. I’m not sure how true that is, but it sounds pretty plausible.
So, how’s the game? A mix of pretty meh and interesting. I know, high praise, right?
There are five different games within Outdoor Survival. The first is Lost, which is the basic game that teaches you its main concepts as you engage in a race with other players to get out of the wilderness as quickly as possible. Survival, the second game is similar to Lost, but you have to race against opponents to get across the entire game board, rather than starting in the middle of the board. The third is Search—a race to find a missing person in the wilderness first. The fourth is Rescue where you have to find the missing person and get them out of the wilderness alive. The last game is Pursue, where you search for a fugitive using the wilderness as refuge and route of escape.
The rules themselves are actually pretty simple, and I may be a tad harsh giving them a meh. There’s a lot of “game play’s you” mentality when it comes to figuring out how you can move, but the reason for that is sound—there is a reason why people get lost in the wilderness. It’s hard to tell where the hell you are, even if you have the right tools. I think unless you are an outdoors person that gets lost on us. With GPS, MapQuest, and even something as simple as highways traveling is rarely fraught with peril. But in RPGs you absolutely want to find a way to recreate that excitement, tension, and even sense of discovery so lost in the modern world.
That got me wondering, why wouldn’t you use this game or a variant of the game to recreate these things in D&D. And it reminded me of a particular problem with one of my groups when I tried to run a wilderness survival-ish section of my campaign.
But I’ll get to that on Friday.