Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The World of Outdoor Survival


Volume 3 of Original Dungeons & Dragons requires use of the game board from Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival to represent the known world. Pairing this board with the random encounter tables in that same volume implies a setting that is given substance here.

This is a broad synthesis of multiple sources and my own musings. I suggest reading the entries in the bibliography for more detail, and to see where their academics end and my conjecture begins.

Geography and Demographics

On the Outdoor Survival board, cabins are cities, lakes are castles, and deer are monster lairs. Assuming 6-mile hexes, the known world occupies 46,080 square miles (41 x 34 hexes), which is about the size of Pennsylvania. The terrain is distributed as follows:

  • Desert: 78 hexes (5%)
  • Grassland: 684 hexes (47%)
  • Forest: 401 hexes (27%)
  • Marshland: 46 hexes (3%)
  • Mountains: 253 hexes (18%)

Rivers connect marshes, flowing southward through grassland. Roads cut through forest, mountains, and marshland at strategic points, offering passage through the known world’s most prohibitive features.

The realms of men contain 24 castles and 9 cities, which are centralized in grasslands. Using Old-School Essentials demographics, castles act as strongholds with the populations of villages (pop. 50–1,000), and cities are walled small towns (pop. 1,000–5,000), placing higher-end population estimates around 70,000. This gives the known world a population density like Alaska (1.52 people per square mile).

18 major monster lairs dominate the remainder of the known world. Although it’s reasonable to assume every remaining hex has some monstrous lair, these lairs are either isolated or concealed enough to forego keying on the map. 

Life in the Known World

Although the realms of men imply attempts to tame the known world, they are simply a toehold, a diminishing point of light in a vast, weird darkness. Instead of a world of grand cosmopolitan wonders, the known world is downright apocalyptic. This is a true frontier land, where civilization is hanging by a thread. Men are guests here, and their days are numbered.

There are only a few thousand people per city, which are overcrowded and utterly dominated by guilds and nobles. In the face of roaming monstrous threats, men huddle close to defensible fortifications, where runners or riders can summon help within an hour. Fortifications must be nigh-invulnerable so they can withstand monstrous incursions, and light-mounted patrols range daily to secure demesne. Even then, monsters are too fearsome, numerous, or inaccessible for men to entirely claim their territory. Stables of flying monsters must be maintained to counter frequent aerial assaults.

Travel and trade are perilous because the monsters lurk around every corner. It’s easy to get lost since lands beyond the immediate surroundings of settlements are largely unmapped. Forests are mythical and dense; swamps treacherous and inaccessible; mountains are savage and deadly; and deserts are desolate and alien. Even the vast grasslands and wide rivers claimed by men see constant raids from pirates; highwaymen; giant, aggressive animals; and things that crawl up from the depths. Maintained roads exist, but only where absolutely necessary and logistically viable.

Despite the dire circumstances of men, the known world is a gonzo mishmash of cheesy science fiction movies and monster horror films, with the realms of men serving as an Arthurian backdrop. Knights and lords challenge others to honor duels at the drop of the hat. Reclusive wizards demand favors with magical compulsion and can level entire armies unaided. Crusading templars demand tithes to their cause of scouring corruption from the known world and can raise the worthy back from the dead.


Underneath the roots of the known world are the ruins of those who foolishly tried to conquer this land before. Mannish protagonists may have Arthurian trappings, but they are far from heroes—failed homesteaders, vicious fugitives, and opportunistic glory hounds all. There are no jobs, inheritances, or opportunities to be had, meaning their only chance to rise above their station is through reclaiming the gold, artifacts, and secrets of their forebears. Perhaps a stalwart few can carve their own niches in the wilderness, which will be inevitably swallowed up.

Demihumans are native to the known world. Although the presence of men is meager, it is still a force to contend with, forcing dwarves, elves, halflings, and orcs to either form uneasy alliances with men or wage costly wars to deter them. Demihuman protagonists are either no longer welcome in their homelands or are searching for something their homelands cannot provide, throwing their lots in with men whose goals run parallel. Living among the men has an emotional toll, representative of how alien they truly are.


Dungeons are pocket dimensions of pure evil, anomalies that form at sites where unimaginable devastation and forbidden magics intersect; that, or they are layers of ruin buried so deep even the laws of the universe forgot them. They are infinite, featureless, nonsensical, and actively try to kill interlopers. Their unnaturally identical walls and rooms either spawn monsters of their own accord or entrap beings from across dimensions and multiverses, who are damned to grope around in the void for eternity. Sometimes, dungeons even mutate to reflect the psychologies of intruders.


  • Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) by Gary Gygax
  • Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival (1972) by Jim Dunnigan
  • Old-School Essentials (2019) by Gavin Norman
  • Torchbearer (2015) by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane
  • The Original D&D Setting (2013) by Wayne Rossi
  • Medieval Demographics in Brief (2017) by Daniel R. Collins
  • Outdoor Survival hexmap by James Mishler
    • I made a version of this map that includes monster lairs and slight cosmetic changes. My version is included at the end of this post.
  • The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance
    • Out of all the literature cited in Appendix N of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I find Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth paints the most accurate and compelling picture of the known world.
  • House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski
    • The depiction of dungeons is based on the explorations of the house described in House of Leaves, particularly the fourth and fifth explorations.


Based on the hexmap by James Mishler. For a high-quality version, right-click the image and select Open Link in New Tab.