Reading the Tomes, Old and New.
In doing research for the aforementioned Hex Crawl supplement we are working on, I finally filled a hole in my collection and bought the AD&D Wilderness Survival Guide on Ebay. Notice, the link is to Ebay because WotC doesn’t need any more of your money. Frankly, I find something enjoyable about the old books with the dented corners. Maybe that’s just me…
As hoped, this book was a treasure trove of information on gaming and the wilderness. As expected, it was a bit overwhelming, and I have a hard time imagining anyone implementing all of its rules. I feel like you’d spend more time looking up strange minutia and figuring out if your rations had spoiled using the Chance of Food Spoilage Table. No, I am not kidding.
Overview of the Wilderness
That said, it is a good source of inspiration and most folks putting together a wilderness campaign (especially a hex crawler) would find some inspiration in it. It starts by giving a general overview of wilderness terrain. It divides all terrain into a few categories for purposes of game statistics: desert, forest, hills, mountains, plains, seacoast, and swamp. This is a great place to start when you’re making a hex map, assigning one type of terrain to each hex. Obviously, there will be some transition areas (and the book discusses that too), but this is your starting point.
As mentioned before, I started playing D&D during 2E. It’s fascinating for me to look over the 1E stuff, as I can see how 2E came about. For instance, in the ill named and problematic Oriental Adventures book, non weapon proficiencies were introduced. They didn’t exist as a core mechanic of 1E and never graced the pages of the three core books. These were expanded upon in the Dungeoneers Survival guide, and then in the Wilderness Survival guide. To get an idea of what these look like, consider your 5E proficiencies and then make them incredibly specific. Fire building is a distinct proficiency, as is hunting and weather sense.
While this might seem a bit excessive, I mentioned before that, if you give a player a tool, they’ll use it. Characters in 5E have a lot of overlap in the proficiency department, meaning no one feels cool for making a history check. When only one person knows mountaineering, however, the character feels unique and more fleshed out in both mechanics and fiction. This book gives the tools to do just that.
Temperature and Environment
The next stop in the wilderness is the land of convoluted tables!
Every RPG exists somewhere on a spectrum of “reality simulation” to “game.” I’m of the mind that an adequate answer to the complaint, “but that’s not how it would work in real life!” can totally be, “You’re right. Now roll to ride the unicorn.” That “G” in RPG is there for a reason. While folks’ definition of fun does differ, we do play games to have fun, right? For me, there is a point where reality simulation becomes less fun than telling a story and playing the game. That point is right about when you have more than one table about a characters core body temperature. That’s exactly what this book provided.
It only took 18 pages, but this is when the book went off the rails for me. Again, if you like this style of gaming, more power to you. For me, it felt a little bit like figuring out your taxes because the wind changed velocity. (Another of my favorite tables in this book: Wind Velocity Effects. Yup, it took a whole table.)
Encumbrance and Movement
Can we talk about what a blessing difficult terrain is? Not crossing it, but the concept of it? This terrain takes double the amount of movement to cross. End of story.
While I feel like 5E could maybe use more robust rules for climbing, this book devotes 5 pages to the subject. I’m all for mini-games in RPGs (I feel like Star Trek Adventures has one of my favorites when it comes to dealing with long term problems instead of using a single dice roll), this is just a lot. You take into account surface types, surface conditions, if you are roped together, grappling hooks – there are a lot of small pieces here.
Encumbrance does nothing new. This is a great example of old school encumbrance. Basically, you can carry X amount of weight. Tally up the weight of all your equipment and make sure it doesn’t go over that amount. It’s a lot of book keeping that, in my opinion, slows down play unnecessarily.
Personally, I love Blades in the Dark’s inventory management. You have a few slots that you can use during play. You don’t need to decide what is in those slots until you need it. Once you decide, that is what you are stuck with, but it gives a lot of freedom for your inventory to fit the story. What it doesn’t do is get in the way at all. This isn’t great for a survival type game, however.
We can find the best inventory management for those types of games in the post apocalyptic Genre. Take Mutant Year Zero: you get a certain amount of lines on your character sheet for inventory. Different items take different amounts of line, between 1-3. Suddenly that massive damage dealing chainsaw comes with a price. It’s easy to keep track of while still keeping space important.
I like the idea of encumbrance that the Wilderness Survival Guide offers, but I think some really cool innovations have happened since then.
Food and Water
This is where we talk about everyone’s favorite topic: starvation. Going without food and water can basically be boiled down to the distant ancestor of 5E’s exhaustion rules. There are many more paragraphs to explain this, however, with much more minutia. Raise your hand if you are surprised.
Then we get into minimum requirements for food and water. This honestly brings up something I hadn’t thought about before: humans need more nutrients then halflings! I won’t be adopting any of those rules, as it seems like a nightmare to navigate and some needless complexity, but it was an interesting thought.
Then we get rules for hunting, gathering, and fishing. It’s interesting to see how these diverge from, not only each other, but from any other system in the game as well. I feel like one of the big things that changed over the years was the desire for a core mechanic that covers most situations. In 5E, you will generally roll a twenty sided dice and add modifiers to see if you get what you need. In earlier editions, there were all kinds of different mechanics to figure things out. Take the “thief” for example (the predecessor of 5E’s “Rogue.”)
If you want to pick pockets as a 5E rogue, you roll a d20 and add your sleight of hand. Want to hide? Do the same and add stealth. Feel like climbing a wall? Add your athletics. If we look at the 2E Thief, this was all handled by percentile dice. You had different scores for each of the above mentioned skills which ranged from 00-100. To attempt any of them, you’d roll a d100 and try and roll under the number. It worked just fine and made thieves feel different, but there was no reason a D20 couldn’t have been used for these checks instead (other than d100 rolls feel cool, which is important.)
Hunting, foraging, finding water, and fishing are handled in similar ways, with each having its own system. The upside of this is that each feels like it’s own mini game with its own rules. The downside is that you have something to look up wherever you try to do any of them. It may be fun in it’s own right, but it’s not smooth.
Camping and Campfires
I wanted to find something here about random encounters. I did find something about cold weather, though it played into the multiple body temperature charts from earlier. I didn’t really get any system for the difference a fire makes for visibility.
For a choice to matter, each side should feel similarly weighted. I often have parties not wanting to start a fire because of worry of discovery. I generally gloss over the downsides of that because I don’t want to feel like I’m browbeating them with small things. This feels different if it’s baked into the core mechanic of the game, however. I’ll be thinking of ways to make fires matter in my head. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
Natural Hazards in the WIlderness
Okay, this was cool. This chapter was largely on natural disasters and quicksand. I’ve never used a natural disaster in one of my games, so this really got some gears turning. It contains information on three different types of volcanic eruptions, because of course. This is a great short chapter for inspiration.
The Rest of it
The rest of the book generally expands upon combat and magic in the wilderness and how it changs. There was also a chapter on fatigue and exhaustion. Newer editions have covered these things just as well, at least the things I feel that needed covering. It felt a bit like a miscellany of things that didn’t fit elsewhere.
There was a chapter on mounts and beasts of burden, however. When I think about my hex crawl experiment, I do tend to think of how much more a horse could carry than a human. When the name of the game is supplies, having something with a large carrying capacity suddenly becomes worth the GP. This chapter talks about donkeys, camels, bears, and dog sleds. I look forward to figuring out my own rules for a pack yak in the future. Better yet, I can figure out rules for a herd of sheep acting as pack animals. Yup, that’s in this book too.
I wouldn’t mind playing in an AD&D game sometime with an experienced DM to get a feel of what all this really feels like in practice. In my mind, there is a lot I’d change to update it to modern sensibilities. Then again, that was my goal going into this book anyway, and it gave me a plethora of material to sort through for that. It certainly feels like it sides way more toward reality simulation than game, as was the trend of the times. This is exactly what I’d expect a RPG book from the mid 1980s to feel like.
Bottom line: if you’re running things with modern rulesets (or looking to make your own), this is a great place to steal inspiration, but very little of it will work as is. Still, it was a fun read. I’ll never forget you, chance of capsizing table. I hope you don’t forget me.