Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Retrospective: Wilderness Survival Guide

I've talked before about what I call the "Silver Age obsessions" of AD&D: the desire to create a grounded, "realistic" fantasy setting – and provide rules to support it. Few books in the TSR canon better exemplify this than Kim Mohan's Wilderness Survival Guide, which appeared on store shelves in 1986. I remember well how excited I was by the prospect of this book. I'd already bought – and loved – the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, released earlier in the same year, and had high hopes that it would be similarly inspiring to me. 

Whatever its flaws, the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was at least interesting. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the Wilderness Survival Guide, which is probably the most dull, tedious D&D book I have ever owned, for any edition. Rather than inspiring me, as I expected and as the DSG had, the Wilderness Survival Guide actively discouraged me from wanting to inject a little environmental realism into my adventures and campaigns. About the only thing I liked about the book were its additions and tweaks to the non-weapon proficiency system first introduced in Oriental Adventures and then expanded upon in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. 

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh. My youthful disappointments in the book no doubt color my perceptions. Even so, the subject matter of the book is dry stuff: There are lengthy discussions devoted to weather and environmental effects, as well as movement and encumbrance. Food, water, camping, fatigue, exhaustion, and more all covered in great details, often with rules to support their use in play. I have little doubt that someone enjoyed them and used them to good effect in his games, but that someone was not me. Part of the problem, I think, is that the rules are all very specific, like the chance of tumbling down a moderate or gentle slope, the chance of food spoilage by effective temperature, and the warmth provided by a campfire by size and distance. The book is filled with such things and the cumulative effect is soporific. If you are in need of such specificity, the book has you covered and then some.

The book's failures (for me anyway) can be summed up in its much-too-short final chapter, which is supposed to provide advice and guidance on creating a realistic campaign setting. That's right up my alley and exactly the kind of thing that I would have liked – had it been the least bit inspirational. Instead, it's just a sequence of steps, with some brief commentary. Worse yet, there's no example given at all. One of the things that I most liked about the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was the subterranean region of Deepearth, with its isometric maps and descriptions of the races and factions of the place. Reading that section not only made me want to create my own version but at least partially justified all the rules that had preceded it, because they were used and referenced. The Wilderness Survival Guide did no such thing, leaving me with little reason to want to use its many pages of rules.

The situation is probably made worse by the fact that the artwork throughout, with the notable exception of Jim Holloway's pieces, is not very interesting. In a few cases, it's clearly re-purposed artwork from elsewhere (a problem in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide too). This gives the book a bland, desultory quality that obscured the great deal of research Mohan probably put into the writing of the book. I feel bad for speaking ill of his labors, but here we are. Books like this played a big role in my increasing dissatisfaction with late AD&D, a dissatisfaction that (briefly) led to my abandoning the game before being drawn back in through the publication of a handful of products in 1987 and 1988 that I considered worthy of my attention – but that's a story for another post.


  1. Truly, the dullest RPG book ever written? Even my teenage self could summon no enthusiasm. Such a letdown after the DSG.

  2. I agree completely. Even now I can recall specific things from the DSG, but nothing stirs my memory from the WSG, and both are sitting on a shelf not far from me. I can't say I ever directly used anything from the DSG, other than the non-weapon proficiencies, but it sparked ideas. WSG did not.

  3. I am glad I wasn't the only one disappointed by this book. When I got my hands on it several years ago and read it through for the first time it was a huge let down. I reviewed it on my blog at the time and the general consensus was that most people had liked it. I kind of felt like maybe I missed something.

  4. I got both this and the DSG as Christmas gifts the year WSG came out. I devoured DSG and kept going back to the WSG thinking I'd somehow missed something. Like you, about the only thing I ever used from this book were the new/expanded non-weapon proficiencies. I really wanted to like and use the chapter on making a campaign setting, but after trying to follow the less-than-inspiring steps, I gave up.

    This is sadly also the book that made me think that I was creating my campaign worlds wrong because I didn't have the level of detail for weather, how much heat a campfire could provide, etc. I figured, since it was in an official TSR boook, that meant that was how it was supposed to be done, and therefore I was a failure.