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Hexmaps and Random Encounters before D&D

Hex maps for boardgames apparently began with Agon, London 1842. Hexagonal chess was invented in Poland in 1936.

The board wargame was invented in 1953, published in 1954 as Tactics by Avalon Hill. Now you did not need large numbers of figurines and terrain to simulate wars on your tabletop. You just had to buy a kit made of cardboard pieces, a complete game delivering a specific experience varying somewhat with replay. More affordable, quicker setup, fixed playtested rules, no need for a referee. The point of these games was to win against one or more opponents.

The first hexmap board for a wargame was the second edition of Gettysburg, 1961. Its publisher, Avalon Hill, made many games with hexmap boards from then on. (The original Gettysburg game of 1958 had a square gridmap. In July 1, 1964, the Avalon Hill newsletter The General quipped in a headline that “Hex Version Was Hexed” and that they would renew the original.)

An advantage of hex maps was that random movement or placement could be decided with a six-sided die, corresponding to the six faces of the hex. Hexmaps went with cube-shaped dice.

(There are mathematical reasons not to adopt octagonal-space maps for the cardinal directions with an eight-sided die.)

Both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons, encountered wargaming first through the game Gettysburg. For Gygax it was the first edition, one without a hexmap. Anyway, hexmaps were popularized through Avalon Hill board wargames.

In September of 1972, Avalon Hill published Outdoor Survival, a board game about desperate individuals (not military units or bands of people) alone in a vast wilderness. It was based on a large colorful hex map on a fold-out board representing wilderness terrain of different kinds. Each player’s turn entailed movement of a lone individual in the wilderness. Each hex was five kilometers/three miles across.

Other bloggers have discussed Outdoor Survival in the background to D&D, but I want to discuss a few of the lastingly important specifics about that boardgame as a source of game design.

An optional rule entailed a roll for a random Wilderness Encounter. I think this may be the first random encounter table. It was definitely the source of such tables for D&D and hence for all RPGs.

The movement rules of Outdoor Survival followed typical war boardgame parameters, in which each player piece had a certain number of movement points to spend, and the more difficult the terrain, the more movement points it cost to enter a hex. Getting lost meant rolling a six-sided die to determine which way the lone character wandered, fitting well with the hexmap format.

After movement, for the Wilderness Encounter, the player rolls a die. On a 5 or 6 on one six-sided die, an encounter occurs. The player then chooses one of three columns of a Wilderness Encounter table to look up the results of a second die, with fixed results. Those three columns were:

  1. Natural Hazard
  2. Animal/Insect
  3. Personal

The player chooses the column, say the rules,

for the sake of adding strategy to the play of the game. But in real life, travelers would not have this control over Wilderness Encounters. If you wish to simulate this aspect, substitute another die roll for the choice: a roll of 1 = Natural Hazards; 2 & 3 = Animal-Insect encounters: 4, 5 & 6 = Personal elements.

This seems to have been the basis for the idea of the “random encounter” tables in D&D. As the reader may know, Outdoor Survival had a very large impact on the formation of D&D. The original D&D rules even encourage players to get a copy of Outdoor Survival as part of “Recommended Equipment.”

Dave Arneson had adopted the board of Outdoor Survival for his pre-D&D fantasy wargame as a wilderness map. In his retrospective account of the Blackmoor campaign he ran, which he called The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), he tells just when he adopted the Outdoor Survival map.

After the first year, the guys travelled around more and more and we began to use the Outdoor Survival Board (it was not until the third year that we actually moved into it).

The Blackmoor campaign started in April, 1971. His campaign years did not correspond neatly to real years, but it’s clear that he was using the Outdoor Survival map and travel rules in 1973. It had been published just months before.

Dungeons & Dragons was published at the end of January 1974. The D&D rules recommended the use of the Outdoor Survival board as a basis for D&D Wilderness Adventures. Random encounters were included as “Wandering Monsters,” with separate rules for wandering monsters in the dungeon and the wilderness.

Arneson shows his random encounter tables in The First Fantasy Campaign. It was not one roll to see if there was an encounter and then another roll to determine the creature encountered. You just rolled 1d20 and compared the result with a column corresponding to the terrain type. Most of the entries are blank, signifying no encounter, and the rest indicate a terrain-specific type of monster encounter.

Some aspects of the Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounter table were lost in the adaptation. Arneson’s rules focused on monster encounters—potential combat situations—whereas Outdoor Survival was all about resource depletion. The Hazard Die of recent times is closer, in some ways, to the template Outdoor Survival.

Thus hex maps and random encounters come not from miniatures wargames but from board wargaming. It seems in hindsight to be just an odd chance that the timing was right: the Blackmoor campaign was simultaneous with the publication of Outdoor Survival, just before Gygax developed Arneson’s rules into D&D.

 Two types of D&D wilderness adventures

The third book of the original D&D boxed describes two distinct methods of wilderness adventure. One is “off-hand” and the other is “exploratory.” I boldfaced the terms from the text:

Off-hand adventures in the wilderness are made on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL playing board (explained below). Exploratory journeys, such as expeditions to find land suitable for a castle or in search of some legendary treasure are handled in an entirely different manner.

“Off-hand” means “without preparation, spur-of-the-moment.” Everything was random and the map was provided by a third party.

After describing procedures for the use of the Outdoor Survival map for off-hand adventures, “exploratory adventures” are described:

REFEREE’S MAP is a wilderness map unknown to the players. It should be for the territory around the dungeon location. When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area and thus be able to select a site upon which to build their castles. (Castle building and its attendant requirements will be covered hereafter.) Exploratory adventures are likely to be the most exciting, and their incorporation into the campaign is most desirable.

The explicit distinction between these two types of adventures, usually overlooked, indicates that Arneson and Gygax envisioned two types of wilderness games from the start. One involved wandering on an open map board (the Outdoor Survival map) and meeting stuff at random, having what gamers now call “emergent” adventures dictated by dice results read on tables. The other kind of adventure involved seeking a specific goal placed on a hidden map: finding a place to build a domain or discovering a specific treasure. It “should be for the territory around the dungeon location,” so the dungeon was therefore one of the main destinations imagined.

This concept of an exploratory adventure was exemplified in the classic adventure modules. There is a hidden map seen only by the Referee, but there are specific destinations that the player characters seek. The module B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” represents an ideal type of this kind of adventure, where the area around the Caves of Chaos is to be explored, but the main action is at the Caves themselves. These are not wide-open “sandboxes” entirely at random, but pre-planned zones of exploration with determined places of interest that the players will enjoy.

Here, D&D diverges from the premise of Outdoor Survival very distinctly, but Outdoor Survival has left a strong imprint.

A major innovation of D&D was this exploratory adventure, combining the hidden map of secret places, with antecedents in games like Battleship (which has a long history) or Mastermind (1970), with board wargame rules, in the context of an ongoing campaign of the type enjoyed in miniatures-based tabletop wargames.

Further Observations

Unless there are precedents for random encounter tables before 1972 that I don’t know (leave comments if you do), it seems that random encounters with dice and tables were invented just two years before D&D was published, a mere nineteen years after the first board wargame appeared. In any case, they entered D&D from Outdoor Survival published by Avalon Hill.

Talking about the “wargaming” background to D&D, we need to emphasize the two distinct kinds of wargames from that period. Usually, the history of role-playing games considers the species of wargames that relied on miniature figurines amidst terrain placed on a table and the role of a referee or judge, but Avalon Hill board wargames were different. Avalon Hill churned out many board wargames, each one with novelties to entice the devoted player. Each one had specific rules with no room for Referee arbitration. The Referee was the rulebook and players were adversaries.

This was part of a culture of rules innovation. Avalon Hill’s production pace required their company to design new and exciting rules frequently, each similar to the previous one but new in special ways. They even sold 22”x28” hexmaps on white paper for “amateur battle game inventors” to make their own game maps. Designing new games to be sold as commodities necessitated a lot of rules tinkering because each game needed new rules to make new experiences to sell a lot of games. New rules came out of that, and the Random Encounters Table was one of those that caught on.

Hexmaps became a standard feature of RPG game design through their adoption by D&D, but it could have been otherwise. The board maps themselves are important. Avalon Hill board wargames established the precedent for game scenarios in which the map of terrain and its features was fixed beforehand and purchased like that. Like RPG adventure modules within a few years, those maps could be turned into commodities. Different player groups could, in effect, explore the same settings without meeting.

Outdoor Survival was not very successful as a game (look for reviews of it today) but it was the diffusion point of ideas for rules that RPG players discuss intensely and incessantly still today. The philosophy of the Random Table is a major aspect of tabletop RPG design today. Many developers of tabletop RPG products simply produce books crammed with random tables. All these ultimately sprout from the simple Outdoor Survival matrix. Worldbuilding is implicit in the outcomes of the random tables.

The Kriegsspiel tradition was indisputably important, but it’s also important not to overlook the role of Avalon Hill board wargames. I’m sure there’s more interesting stuff relevant to tabletop RPGs waiting to be dug up in these boardgames, many of them now rare items missing pieces and parts.

If you know better, or have corrections, or earlier antecedents, please do leave a comment.

UPDATE 26 Feb 2024: See this link for an earlier, and rudimentary, hexmap wargame from 1951. It refers to an earlier hexmap game by A. Mood. See this for more about it.


  1. Hi Tom, I'm happy to see someone else appreciates the impact of Outdoor Survival on D&D!

  2. > Avalon Hill’s production pace required their company to design new and exciting rules frequently, each similar to the previous one but new in special ways.

    Not exactly. AH felt that the total market for board wargames was limited, and only produced two games per year from 1960-1970 to avoid flooding the market. They relied on outside game developers, who typically reused a previous game design. You may be thinking of Simulations Publications Inc (SPI), founded by James F. Dunnigan. Their magazine "Strategy & Tactics" was published six times a year and published a complete wargame in each issue. It featured advertising for their other, larger boardgames as well.

    My college gaming group in the late 70's had a room where we would set up monster games like "Invasion: America" or "War in the East" and players would drop by during the week to take turns. Then we'd all get together on Friday and Saturday nights for various homebrew FRP campaigns: D&D with a magic point system, RuneQuest, The Fantasy Trip.

  3. Thanks, Carl. I suppose it is a matter of perspective. Depending on the market, two board games per year seems like a lot of new rules, but, then again, that's nothing compared to the gusher of new role-playing games we see every year from countless little companies today. I appreciate the testimony.


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