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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wilderness Survival Guide Review

TSR's AD&D 1st edition Wilderness Survival Guide.

In a word- boring.

Adding to that- pointless.

Everything about this late 1st edition entry into AD&D seems either rushed and incomplete or lifted from elsewhere. Kim Mohan states in the preface to the book that it is essentially his Journal. It seems more like the notes he took while he was preparing to write the book. I was really hoping that this book would be awesome, it is a 1st edition AD&D book that I had never read, an opportunity to rediscover the greatness of AD&D. What I got was just sad. I had to quit reading it through cover-to-cover because after about half a page my eyes would start to glaze over with descriptions of climate or terrain features or non-weapon proficiencies.

Part of the book is about the non-weapon proficiency system that was introduced in the Oriental Adventures book and, apparently, expanded into “standard” AD&D by the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. While it is presented as an optional system much of the rest of the book rather depends on it's use. This NWP system is pretty much the same as the 2nd edition AD&D NWP system, except less stream-lined. I have always had kind of a love-hate relationship with proficiency/skill systems. On the one hand it's nice to have a coherent set of things that a character can do and a measurement of how well he can do them. On the other hand I always feel that PCs get cheated by their small number of skills. I also dislike the relative power levels of various skills and their relationships to each other. I mean sure it's nice to quantify them, but is, for example, blind-fighting worth three times as much as weaving? Who decides this? Why is weaving even on the list? Aren't we adventurers?

I always liked the secondary skills, with a couple of caveats*, better than NWPs anyway. A secondary skill roll gave you a bit of character background. It also gave you an array of skills without the rules crunch. If your secondary skill is sailor you can just assume a number of related skills, boating, sailing, weather forecasting, knot tying, etc. Like a real sailor would have. Otherwise I just assume, within reason, that if you can do it so can your character. I grew up in a rural area at the east end of lake Ontario, myself and nearly all of my peers have at least basic skills in swimming, fishing (with hook and line), hunting and any snow or ice related activity. Most of us had familiarity with boats, vegetable gardening and dairy farming. That's before you add the schooling.

Most of the rules about wilderness stuff in there are stuff that I would either look up roughly as needed during game prep or just rule on the fly. Too much fiddly nonsense about attack penalties in high winds or AC bonuses for cold weather gear or fighting while climbing. Honestly I hate that kind of stuff. That's why I swore off of 3.x. I like ruling rather than rules, stuff that makes sense at the time we do it.

A lot of the other stuff is stuff we were already doing, like ability checks. Where we got it from I couldn't tell you, but dex and strength checks were pretty common in my AD&D games before this book came out.

Even the art in this book felt rushed to me. Artists that I usually like, like Jim Holloway and Larry Elmore turned out bland and uninspired pieces. It's like the art director handed out assignments and told them to come back tomorrow with finished pieces. Good art needs time for inspiration even when it's assigned a direction to go. The cover isn't bad though. Not great, just not bad.

I think the only part of this book I really liked was the world creation stuff at the end, but even that looked like something I'd seen before. I thin what happened here was that all the good stuff (and some of the iffy stuff) got recycled into 2nd edition, so anything that was new to me in the entire book was the chaff that got separated from the wheat of 2nd edition; useless, boring crap. Everything else I had already seen from earlier or later products which is too bad because I like Kim Mohan. All told the WSG is a really weak book.

*The Secondary Skills list in the DMG pretty much assumes Human characters, a late medieval to early modern technology and society and roughly middle social class. Obviously this can either be tailored to race or campaign or you could just reroll results you find inappropriate to your setting or race, but most people don't bother in my experience and just ignore their secondary skill if it turns out to be something they don't care about. You know, until the DM makes a ruling about, say, the value of a fur dropping if it's not properly removed and cured; then the party's Halfling Thief remembers that his secondary skill is furrier.