Outdoor Survival Revival

Hexcrawls are a part of D&D that I haven’t been able to grok. There’s just been too many things that didn’t make sense, and I chalked them up to version differences. I did join D&D during 4e, after all, so I’m sure there’s things in older versions I missed entirely.

Except things weren’t really making sense in my D&D archeology. I would see that people HAD run hexcrawls, or at least, similar styles of play, but they rarely mentioned the mechanical bit of how they were running it. There was a lot of how to skip that part of the game, to simplify it down as you handwave away

Last week, I learned about a old piece of D&D history, the board game Outdoor Survival. How is a game that is not D&D a part of D&D history? Well, this game was used as a map for the overland travel aspects of early versions of the grand old game. A token representing the party is placed on a large hex map of the area, in full view of the party, and is moved as the party chooses, and encounters happen as they do, yadda yadda.

Anyway, in thinking about this piece of history, my mind has been blown.

A History of Other Games

D&D was originally a kitbash of a handful of other games. So learning about this one doesn’t surprise me, I’m just shocked I hadn’t heard about it before. The idea of using a different game to cover the shortcomings of another is also one I’ve thought of. My big Advice for running a mass combat encounter is to ditch D&D and play a game designed for that style of combat, like a Warhammer or some other tabletop wargame. So, why shouldn’t overland travel be different?

And I have thought about it before, trying to make a card game to replace the travel in Tomb of Anhilation and a few other failed projects. I wasn’t sure how much I was willing to throw away the rules. Chaotica, though, has demonstrated to me that you can do whatever you want to the rules and the game more or less still works. So that concern of mine is gone.

It’s Easy to Do It Wrong

Speaking of Tomb of Annihilation, That was a game I was excited about, but it quickly turned into disappointment, as hexcrawl as they had it set up was not fun. I’ve identified a few points of that which are:

  • No rewards or cool things
  • A lot of wandering to try and find a thing without having a lead
  • It was a BIG map
  • The monsters were underwhelming
  • There were very little rewards. (Worth saying twice)

I want to go back and fix ToA, but that’s not the burden of this post. Maybe later. I also have a few other games I want to fix as well, including the Water Campaign, which is an idea that is STILL kicking around in my head after what, 4 years?

So in terms of how a hexcrawl should go, Random Encounters should be common, if they are monsters, they should be dangerous, if they aren’t monsters, they should be really cool. Either way, there should be some treasure. The map needs to be, well, easier to traverse in terms of a meta-level. Splitting the huge map in ToA into smaller maps would suffice. Each board that the party is presented on needs to be small enough to work effectively, and large enough to contain all the cool. And the party needs to have some clues as to where to go to have adventures, outside of the whole exploration adventure.

Whyfore the Fog of War?

One of the most interesting things about the idea of using Outdoor Survival is that there is no fog of war. The party can’t see the encounter tables, sure, and they don’t know exactly where the dungeon is, but, on the player level, they have a view of the whole world and can direct their avatars where to go.

Now, this is probably a divisive thing. Choices that give players a lot of information vs hording it as GM tend to be. But I think it’s probably a worthwhile thing. For one thing, it is a lot easier to setup. Place the map down, place the pawn where they start, and you’re good to go. Second, having that visual image increases the player engagement. They can instantly recognize that “okay, that’s the forest where all the goblins were, that’s probably the mountain where the dragon lives, so we want to head that way towards the river which we can follow to that trading town.” Without a visible map, that’s not a thing players are able to say.

In games where there wasn’t a map, what tends to happen is the player who cares to draw there own has some idea of what’s going on, and the rest just check out until something happens. I’ve seen that in so many games I DM (and, on the player level, I’m the guy making the map. Basically always.)

Also, having a map lets people make choices. Choices are what the TTRPG genre is built on. When the player can SEE that they could go around the forest, for longer time, and know how dangerous it is, they can compare their food supplies, how close people are to chasing them, how long until the Duke claims the throne, their dwindling spell slots and hit points, whatever pressure they are under, and make an informed choice about whether to risk the Cursed Woods of Certain Death or not.

Now, admittedly, it means that “getting lost” is a character affliction, instead of a player affliction, which could be problematic. There are a lot of effects in the game that do have this separation, but, if we look at overland navigation as a bit of a puzzle, then penalizing the character when the player doesn’t have a similar handicap is, at least, a strain on suspension of disbelief.

(Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of small problems with the game that I’ll be working on adapting. Spells, class features, heck, even game rules! I need to simplify and abstract a lot of things to make this method work (then make a document, train the players in it, get maps made, it’s a whole ordeal.))

But, even with it’s problems, some of which I’m sure I haven’t thought of yet, I think the benefits might outweigh the issues. We’ll have to see, I guess.

Mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map!

One of the big things that is required for this new style of play is a map. Not even just a sketch in My GM notes, I need a frickin real map and I need it soon. Actually, since we’ll be going into the Underdark probably next session, I need that one too.

Actually, I just realized that I can use the multiplaner nature of my game to implement a sort of fast travel , travelling through the planes. This means It’d want maps for all of the planes, which is a lot of maps, although by the time I need them, I’ll have made a few of the other ones and know all the techniques. I suspect having boards for the planes may be fairly reusable.

My main Chaotica maps will be less reusable, because of dragons.

Actually, that’s not true. My map key will be less reusable. As long as it looks something like the standard Outdoor Survival map, the exact specifics are up to the GM.

Speaking of specifics, there is one established way to fill a map of the size I’m rocking, and that’s load it with every dungeon under the sun, including Sunless Citadel. I want each Region to have 15 keyed locations, that may or may not be a dungeon of some kind. I have 25 regions. This means I have a lot of work cut out for me.

Now, not ALL of that work will end up on the map. As I indicated, the actual keying of places to hexes happens, for the most part, on a more ephemeral layer than a map for the players to look at.

But I need to know where to put mountains and rivers and trees and things. And for the Underdark, I need to know what is a solid wall, and what is, I dunno, a fungal forest. And figuring out the Underdark is reliant on figuring out where my transitional spaces between the Underdark and the Surface

Work to do

I wish I had time and practice Programming. I know there are Hex map designers out there, but they’ve never been what I was looking for in one. I might have to build my own version of display. And if we’re talking pipe dreams, I’d love to build my own random terrain generators.

But one of the things I do have to do is get the map. Getting it printed on to the right style of board thingy might be tricky. I need to go see what my local print store can do for me. So a lot of my attention this next week will be focused on the cartography that I need. So we’ll see how that goes.


This is the end of Part 1, where I talk about the idea.. In part 2, we’ll talk about changes that 5e has to make to accommodate such a system.


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