[Games Anatomy] Underground, Overground

One more time!

One more day!

One more OD&D post!

Much like the previous section on dungeons, the Wilderness is introduced by a practical statement of what the Referee should prepare – a ground level map of the dungeons (whatever above-ground structures afford access thereto), a map of the terrain immediately surrounding them, and a map of the town or village closest to same. The rest of the terrain in a wilderness adventure is obscured, veiled, unknown and unavailable – concealed beyond a fog of war. Journeys through the mysterious wilderlands are conducted in one of two ways.

If you’re just pootling around looking for stuff to kill for a few more XP, Gary ‘n’ Dave recommend using the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL playing board – whatever that is.

Oh, right, that’s what it is. Like Chainmail before it, Outdoor Survival seems to be one of those Avalon Hill games that Dave ‘n’ Gary liked enough to give a promotional fillip to. Basically, their system for navigating around this thing involves a great deal of rolling on tables and consulting matrices to determine whether someone comes out of a castle if your players venture within two hexes of one, what manner of truly ridiculous someone they are (I particularly like the results which generate monsters that have mid-level Fighting Men riding them, just for real insult-to-injury potential), and what the someone ends up inflicting on your poor players.

Fighting-Men occupants will demand a toll or a jousting match – and given that winning the match earns you a month’s stay in the castle, two weeks’ worth of trail rations, and a heavy warhorse for each party member, it’s probably worth a go. Magic-Users will put a spell on you and send you on a quest for treasure, with the Magic User having a 50% share and dibs on any items that can cast spells… or they’ll demand a toll of several thousand gold, because frankly, wizards are dicks. At least the Cleric occupants have the decency to enforce a percentage scale on their tithing and only send you on a quest if you can’t pay up. There’s also a set of rules for determining who guards the castle, should you fancy settling down for a siege.

The other option is the Referee’s Map option, in which the Referee knows exactly what’s out there and the players have a blank hex map to fill in as they go, building up a sense of the lay of the land, and selecting a site on which to begin the D&D endgame of building castles and collecting tithes. “Exploratory adventures are likely to be the most exciting,” claim Gary ‘n’ Dave, “and their incorporation into the campaign is the most desirable.”

This Fighting-Man is not convinced that Wilderness Adventures are all that.

There’s a set of movement rates in hexes per day, which scale quite nicely depending on how big the party is, what they’re mounted on, and what they’re moving over – here, the wargaming roots of the game are very much in evidence, as it zooms out to the level of grand strategy. There’s a chance to sight, or be surprised by, any monsters already inhabiting the hexes; there’s a chance of navigational blunder sending the party wandering into a random adjacent hex instead of where they wanted to go; and every turn, there’s a chance of a random encounter, which varies broadly in likelihood depending on whether you’re lost or not, and what terrain you’re moving through. There then follows, of course, a series of look-up tables – what the encounter is; what kind of encountered thing it is (and it should be noted that the Desert table pulls double duty for adventuring on Mars, bigods), whether or not it has a retinue of PC-levelled minions, and whether or not they’re carrying magic weapons. There’s also another, quite extensive, table for determining your percentage chance of evading monsters.

I’m not exactly seeing the fun-o-meter leap into the red zone here. The basic principle – explore the hexes, try not to get lost, bump into monsters – is fine, but man, you’d better have rolled through a random encounter or two for each terrain type before play or there’s going to be a lot of the players sitting around watching you roll dice – that or you’ll just be making it up as you go along and hoping, which is what I tend to resort to in these rules-stop-play situations.

Eris’ Belgian waffle bruiser, will you guys stop rolling sixes?

And then we come to it at last – the endgame. “At any time a player/character wishes, he may select a portion of land upon which to build his castle, tower or whatever.” Since this costs about a squillion gold, and has only been framed as an option for characters of eighth level and up, Dave ‘n’ Gary might as well have not bothered with the ‘at any time’ and just gone for ‘whenever you’ve bought all the +3 magic hammers and mercenary dwarf arrow-catchers you’ll ever need’.

We have a page of charming hand-drawn illustrations (and when I say ‘charming’ I mean they’re the sort of thing I might produce if you asked me to draw a castle, and please bear in mind that I was politely asked not to pursue Art at school after the age of fourteen) indicating possible components for your castle and costs in gold. We have a page of specialist inhabitants, from Alchemist to Spy, and the cost of maintaining those specialists per month or mission (again, frequently ranging into the low thousands). We have a page of Men-At-Arms who can be hired to defend the castle (Orcs are available at a bargain price to characters of Chaotic alignment, so there’s some hope for those less-than-Lawful clerics out there after all). And then there are pages covering upkeep without a stronghold (characters lose 1% of their XP in gold every… unspecified time period… until they’ve built a stronghold on some unclaimed wilderness territory), how to exact taxation from those dwelling in the shadow of your new stronghold, and how to re-invest those in improvements.

This is not what Flaminia had in mind as the natural end to a life of adventure.

I am unimpressed, despite the provision of the Angry Villager Rule (basically, if a player starts coming over all tyrannical, the Referee should freely invoke a rebellion, possibly featuring a Conan-like hero, to ‘harass the offender into line’, which I take as TSR code for ‘realign the players as tyrannical villains attempting to resist overthrow by people who remind them of themselves when they were first-le… I mean young’) and the Other Worlds clause (basically, there’s nothing saying that any of the world’s inherent features should function the way they do in reality-land, and the Referee should feel free to burden themselves with however much additional labour in working out how gates into other dimensions, breathable space and bendy gravity should work). Why am I unimpressed? Because while OD&D did a great job of easing us in quickly – roll three dice six times, pick a class, buy some gear, done – it basically offers us a tax simulator as an endgame, broken by occasional calls to adventure which are triggered by players deciding to be douchenozzles or referees being gluttons for punishment.

Anyway, there’s a brief section on land combat (which says, in about as many words, “use the tables from Men and Magic or just go play Chainmail”), then a longer section on hex-based aerial combat. This involves hexes, written orders, and – mercifully! – an altitude-tracking mechanic, and it might actually make a really cockin’ awesome flying-monster-dogfight game if someone went back through the preceding volumes, pulled out all the appropriate stats, and knocked up quick-reference cards for each creature… well, I know what I’m doing if I can’t sleep tonight. Or I could just play Fight In The Skies with dragons – Gary ‘n’ Dave go so far as to not apologise at all to Mike Carr, creator of Fight In The Skies, when describing their ‘Battle in the Skies’ aerial combat system, and so I expect it might award a suspiciously similar experience. Whatever. I’m easy for an aerial combat game that remembers aerial combat happens in three dimensions.

Cheap shot, I know.

A similar and detailed set of rules for naval combat and morale follow, and if you’re sensing that I’m becoming less and less committed to anatomising these rules systems in detail, that’s probably because Underworld and Wilderness Adventures is feeling less and less focused the more I deal with it. Don’t get me wrong, this stuff is in theory awesome – there’s two free wargames buried in the third volume of what’s ostensibly an RPG, and I’m not saying that’s bad – but I’m not really interested in the ins-and-outs of detailed, simulationist naval combat games, and Dave ‘n’ Gary have spent many, many pages of this volume describing one.

What I am interested in is the collection of odds and sods that start emerging toward the end. Guidance is issued on the rate of hit point recovery – one point per day of rest after the first, and there’s a bald statement that “this can take a long time” (and an implicit ‘so be patient you ninnies’) – and on the tracking of time, given that “it is probable that there will be various groups going every which way” (let it be noted that Gary ‘n’ Dave don’t seem to mind splitting the party, despite the despairing chants of two generations of roleplayers who’d follow in their wake).

Such is the wisdom of Dave ‘n’ Gary that, rather than summing up this run of Original Dungeons and Dragons posts, I’m going to simply quote their afterword (or ‘afterward’ as they put it) in full, and hopefully demonstrate a thing or two by so doing. Firstly, why I feel roleplaying games took off to the extent that they did and while they’re still worth playing now, in what’s undoubtedly a period of decline for the form. Secondly, why I detest the doorstop rulebook that gives you a thousand pages of finitely detailed rules for pretending to be an elf, and the play-style that clings to every one of those pages as if they were holy writ, when frankly I think this might be the only one that warrants such an attitude.

There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the  necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that
way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.

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