Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Retrospective: Outdoor Survival

I don't think I'd ever heard of Outdoor Survival prior to 2007. That's the year when I first started looking seriously into the history of Dungeons & Dragons, with a special focus on the original 1974 version of the game. What I soon discovered is that this rather odd 1972 Avalon Hill game played a role, albeit a minor one, in the development of D&D. Nowadays, I think this fact is pretty well known, even among those who don't play old school RPGs, but, at the time, it was news to me. This is in spite of the fact that Volume 1 of the Little Brown Books includes Outdoor Survival on page 5, as the second entry in its list of "recommended equipment," right after D&D itself.

The actual use of Outdoor Survival in D&D isn't explained until fairly late in OD&D, about halfway through the third and final volume. There, in a section entitled "The Wilderness," it's suggested that the referee use the game's board for "off-hand adventures in the wilderness," which is to say, adventures whose wilderness locales are not determined by the referee beforehand. Because of this, it was once quite fashionable in the OSR to base one's starting campaign map on the one in Outdoor Survival, a fad I myself could not resist

None of this says anything about Outdoor Survival itself, though. As I said in my opening paragraph above, it's designed by James F. Dunnigan, a legend in the wargames world. His first design, Jutland, was published by Avalon Hill in 1967, followed by many others, including PanzerBlitz in 1970 (also from AH). Dunnigan was also the founder of SPI and, believe it or not, the designer of the Dallas RPG. It's worth noting here that the game indicates that it was "produced and jointly distributed by the Avalon Hill Game Company … and Stackpole Books." Unlike Avalon Hill, Stackpole Books still exists and is a publisher of nonfiction books about arts and crafts, travel, and the outdoors. (As I understand it, Dunnigan claims, in his The Complete Wargames Handbook, to have designed Outdoor Survival as part of a bet about his ability to design a game on any subject.)

In addition to the game rules and the components needed to play, Outdoor Survival included a 24-page booklet entitled "A Primer about Wilderness Skills for Players of the Game." This is an honest-to-goodness handbook on the basics of surviving in the wild, covering everything from direction finding to killing and tracking game to first aid and more. Flipping through it reminded me of Boy Scout Handbook I had in elementary school. Its back page is an advertisement for larger treatments of all these topics in books sold by, you guessed it, Stackpole Books.  

The game proper is comparatively simple. As its title suggests, it's intended as "a simulation of the essential conditions for staying alive when unprotected man is beset by his environment." The celebrated game board represents a wild area consisting of 13,200 square miles, with a wide variety of terrain types (woods, rough, desert, swamp, etc.). This area is divided into hexagons five kilometers (three miles) across. This makes me wonder if OD&D's use of five-mile hexes is the result of a misreading of the rules to Outdoor Survival or a deliberate choice on the part of Arneson and/or Gygax. I doubt I'm the first person to have noticed this seeming discrepancy.

Play depends on which of five scenarios one chooses. They consist of "Lost," "Survival," "Search," "Rescue," and "Pursue," each with slightly different rules and victory conditions. In general, though, each scenario involves the player or players – solo play is possible – attempting to navigate the board's variable terrain in order to find food, water, and shelter, while avoiding various natural hazards. Each player keeps track of his counter's "life level," which measures food and water consumption. The less of each recently consumed, the slower the counter can move. Play is actually quite simple at its base, though there are a number of optional rules that add further "realism" and complexity, should one desire such a thing.  

Though I own a copy of Outdoor Survival for "research purposes," I've never actually played it. From what I have gathered online, opinion about its virtues is quite divided, with some viewing it as a straightforward, easy-to-learn introduction to simulation games and others seeing it as dull and tedious. Whatever the truth of the matter, it has a place in the early history of Dungeons & Dragons for the role it played in the conception of wilderness travel. That's not insignificant. If nothing else, it's a reminder that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places.

18 comments:

  1. There are actually a few extras available for the game on boardgamegeek, so someone must have played it.
    https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1511/outdoor-survival/files

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  2. Beyond hex size, I think Outdoor Survival has some other knock on effect on D&D and through that RPGs as whole, pretty important ones.

    Whimsically I suspect that Outdoor Survival is the source of the hex as the basic unit of wilderness design - whatever the hex size and random encounter table by biome (rather then say distance from civilization). Less positively, OD&D offloads many dangers of pre-modern wilderness travel or exploration to the board game, which presumably most D&D players didn't own, and weren't familiar with. Weather, mishaps, getting lost, exposure, hunger and thirst aren't modeled often in fantasy RPGs, and sure the genre may not focus on dying in a ditch from cold, starvation and frostbitten toes. Still, because of these omissions wilderness adventure in D&D, even today, is largely a matter of random encounters with creatures and NPCs. There's very little of the wilderness in D&D's wilderness and adventures in it have always felt more like a bus ride with occasional fistfights to me then hikes in wild places.

    I suspect this can all be traced back to the decision to offload wilderness travel rules to Outdoor Survival (which after all is a one-shot board game with fairly frustrating rules - even worse when you add hostile bandit armies, dinosaurs, and dragons to it's already tough survival rules).

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    1. A bus ride with fistfights—I’m writing that down! It’s funny because it’s true.

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    2. Gus, I mentioned you in this article.

      OD&D’s “Recommended Equipment”
      https://www.donjonlands.com/2022/01/odds-recommended-equipment.html

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  3. This is long before my time, but one thing I like about the use of Outdoor Survival in OD&D is how it's an early, official, celebration of the kitbashing that we all do in our home games.

    We all take bits and pieces of other games to stick in our own. A rule from one place, a monster from another, a character class from another, and so on, but here are the creators of D&D doing it right from the start by stealing a map from a board game!

    I think that's a great example of one of my favourite creative parts of the hobby.

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  4. Because of the reference in OD&D, and I was already familiar with Avalon Hill (Avalon Hill's Tactics II was my introduction to war gaming and I had several other AH titles), I purchased Outdoor Survival back in the day. I still have my copy. I played it (maybe only solo) once or twice.

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  5. I received a copy of Outdoor Survival for Christmas 1973. After half a dozen less-than-thrilling plays or so, its components were repurposed to better ends. DMing 1E in 1978-1979 I occasionally used it as a wilderness map dotted with facedown encounter markers for the group to explore.

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  6. I first heard of Outdoor Survival while reading the First Fantasy Campaign, but its details remained a mystery to me until I finally saw a copy a few years ago. I wonder how much of an influence it had on Traveller? GDW seemed very fond of the "wander about a hex grid tracking resources and having random survival-themed encounters" back in the early 80s with Across the Bright Face, Mission on Mithril, and Marooned/Marooned Alone; these seem the closest RPG equivalents I've seen to the original boardgame...

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  7. It is frustrating and a little hard to explain why our hobby never came to grips with this issue. Whatever the game play faults of Outdoor Survival might be, at least it provided a way of resolving aspects of wilderness adventure other than fights. I really like the comment above that without such rules, outdoor adventure is like taking the bus between fist fights. Very true! Lots of games present a sort of off-handed BS aside about this subject, but I can't think of one that reduces it to a fun, interesting sub-system, which is what it deserves.

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    1. So what do we need to do to make this more interesting? For the past few years, I've been advocating that we need a really good well researched set of wilderness movement rules. And you're right, if we don't also layer that with good logistics rules that make sure you track food and water.

      One issue I constantly have is not tracking passage of days. I usually know how many rounds have passed in combat, but I can easily lose track of days passed.

      Another thought I have is that if you have solid logistics rules, the 1 dungeon room per day goes away. You can't carry all the food you need and hunting and foraging may not carry you. Now we have incentive to push on further in the dungeon and not just bail after the MU has used his one spell for the day.

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  8. I love Outdoor Survival! I got my dad's copy when I came home after college, and I introduced my friends to it, and we died hilariously over and over again, crawling from thirst, unable to just get to the damn watering hole because of bad dice rolls or whatever. The life-tracker where your counter moves from an image of a healthily walking person to one literally crawling on their knees from thirst or exhaustion lets you viscerally imagine what's happening to your character ... and then you die.

    I actually figured out how to win a couple of the scenarios somewhat regularly after a while, though my friends all lost interest after the novelty of dying repeatedly died off. ... Reminds me, I should inflict it on some other unsuspecting friends who like boardgames sometime soon ...

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  9. My reply to—and in agreement with—Gus L.’S comment above grew longish:

    OD&D’s “Recommended Equipment”
    https://www.donjonlands.com/2022/01/odds-recommended-equipment.html

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  10. I bought this game in 1979 b/c one of the supplements (I think) advises it. I never got any RPG use out of it, but it inspired to me a lifelong love of the wilderness. That game had me doing the Colorado Trail, the Long Trail, 100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and whole bunch more back country expeditions. I still have it!

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    1. That's a great set of achievements. I wondered whether the game would be inspirational or educational when reading the article. If Avalon Hill were still around, you'd be doing a testimonial for them. :-)

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  11. I bought this game in the 90s, because I was curious since it was mentioned in OD&D.
    The game itself is pretty bad - there's not much to say there - but I guess it some credence because Avalon Hill published it.
    It's only use for OD&D was the map. I guess since this was the game that Gygax or Arneson were familiar with, it was mentioned in OD&D, but it could as well have been any other game with a wilderness map - although I must say I don;t know whether anything similar was available at the time.

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    1. It's also referenced in OD&D for wilderness movement rules... And there is some implication of using the logistics rules also.

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  12. Map board, yes, and you have “not survived” until you’ve played Outdoor Survival’s SCENARIO 6. There are a few other bits we miss in a straight-up OD&D game.

    In this article I suggest that “our OD&D games—or at least our esteem of the rules—might improve if we reconsider the ignored parts of Chainmail and Outdoor Survival.”

    —from OD&D’s “Recommended Equipment”
    https://www.donjonlands.com/2022/01/odds-recommended-equipment.html

    …We also explore the wilderness on a hex map, but without any dangers apart from monsters with lots of hit dice rolled on the Wilderness Wandering Monsters tables. For this reason, commenter Gus L., in response to James’s article, likens adventures in the OD&D wilderness to “a bus ride with fistfights.”

    It doesn’t have to be that way. On the page before the wilderness monster table, Vol. III refers us to Outdoor Survival’s rules as well as its board to handle lost parties (17). Further, when a party becomes lost, food may well run short. In a desert, water is scarce. Maybe it makes for a less than heroic adventure, but rules to handle starvation, thirst, weather, and fatigue are found in Outdoor Survival. By breaking up the succession of fistfights, incorporation of those rules can turn the bus ride into a challenging journey accompanied by the threat of many-hit-dice monsters.

    Grognardia doesn’t mention Outdoor Survival’s most interesting innovation for an early 1970s game. After we’ve learned the rules playing a Lost scenario and maybe a Search or a Rescue, lackluster as they may be, we must press on to Scenario 6.

    “Scenario 6: One of the most interesting aspects of OUTDOOR SURVIVAL is the opportunity it provides for devising your own scenarios. Once you have mastered the mechanics of play, many additional ideas, providing more testing of outdoor knowledge and skills, will come to you. Integrating these situations with the standard games will add pleasure and skill-sharpening to the playing.”—Jim Dunnigan, Outdoor Survival

    There is a certain irony in that Scenario 6 appears under the heading “Optional Rules.” For best results, I recommend using “Dungeons and Dragons”—those slim booklets containing lists of spells and monsters—as additional equipment.

    —from OD&D’s “Recommended Equipment”
    https://www.donjonlands.com/2022/01/odds-recommended-equipment.html

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