Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On OD&D's Setting

(Credit here.)

The map from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival was the stated setting of original Dungeons & Dragons, and it's gotten a lot of love as a simple world for hexcrawling. If the hexes are 5 miles across, then it's about 175 miles by 180 miles - or 31,500 square miles, a heavily forested inland area that's around the size of South Carolina or the Czech Republic. Here is the description of this world:
The so-called Wilderness really consists of unexplored land, cities and castles, not to mention the area immediately surrounding the castle (ruined or otherwise) which housed the dungeons.
If you actually read the wilderness description in OD&D volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, it turns out that the implied details of the setting are weird. Fighters in castles demand to be jousted, magic-users cast Geas and send them out after treasure, clerics demand a tithe or send the characters on a Quest.

But the real weirdness, and this was apparently confirmed in Gary Gygax's campaigns, is what is there when you start wandering about the wilderness. Mountains are haunted by cavemen and necromancers; deserts are home of nomads and dervishes. The "Optional" animal listings turns swampland into the Mesozoic Era - rather than alligators and snakes it is full of tyrannosaurs and triceratops. Arid plains are Barsoomian, with banths, thoats, calots and the lot, while mountains are outright paleolithic, peopled by mammoths, titanotheres, mastodons, and sabre-tooth cats. Gygax confirms this:
When I was using the pre-World of Greyhawk map for my world setting, the West Coast of North America was the Pleistocene region inhabited by savage cavemen and their contemporary fauna.
This makes the Outdoor Survival map a truly wild place. That huge desert towards the center? That's running with weird creatures of Mars - and maybe Tharks, Red Martians and so on. The mountains surrounding them are the home of cavemen who hunt sabre-toothed cats. The marsh castle is overflown by pterodactyls - does its lord ride around on a triceratops?

Each type of region has its peculiarities. Only cities lack flying encounters, humanoids (labelled "giants" and including ents, elves, dwarves, and all humanoid and giant types in OD&D), animals and dragons. Lycanthropes haunt all but the deserts and the cities, while the undead are found mainly in cities and swamps. This is a truly wild land, and land for 20 miles distant from a character's stronghold can be kept clear of monsters just by holding the stronghold.

Clearing 20 miles in each direction from the swamp stronghold on the lower left would clear the entire swamp and a number of points in the surrounding forest. This area (assuming it's in hexagons) is 1,299 square miles, a bit bigger than Luxembourg, but it is almost depopulated; the average area will have 5 villages with an average of 250 inhabitants, meaning that there is slightly less than 1 person per square mile. That is slightly less than the population density of Alaska. Even with the maximum 3200 people it's still sparser than Wyoming by a factor of more than two. Presumably the whole village is in a single hex (area 21.65 square miles), and the remaining hexes are simply unpopulated.

Cities in such a place are probably small affairs. This is not the world of grand cosmopolitan wonders; it's downright post-apocalyptic and probably has a few thousand people per city. Trade is downright perilous, given that you're likely to run into dragons, or giant crabs if you follow the river, or many other horrid things.

But more and more I'm finding that I like the idea of this setting. It's radically different from, say, the more comfortable World of Greyhawk, or most other fantastic realms; it's a true outland, where civilization hangs on by a thread. It leaves open terrific possibilities; the nomads, dervishes, cavemen, and berserkers all live in the world around towns; so do centaurs and pixies and minotaurs. I want to start to go into what the oddities of this setting are, and how they fit; it's a good match for the concept of "Demon-Haunted Lands," which I'm seeing more and more as a way to make something unique out of this setting.


  1. This is a great analysis! I'd play in this setting in a second.

    Cavemen and Necromancers indeed...

  2. This is the original 'kitchen sink setting'.

  3. Yep, The exile of the Blackmoor heroes to Lake Gloomy and the southern region (outdoor survival board) appears to have had a big influence on those tables. Angry Mobs too.

  4. This is a fascinating post. Thanks!

  5. I wish the hexes on this were numbered. I tried tracing over it in hexographer, but I couldn't get it lined up because the edges are chopped of this one.
    It sounds like we have some interesting inferences awaiting us.


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.