In a recent post from Chatty DM, he says:
I bought the Wilderness Survival Guide (X-mas gift I wrapped for myself when I was 15-16) when it came out. I disliked it so much that I threw it away and never used it, disgusted that I would ask my players to roll percentiles EACH DAY for food and shelter.
The 1st Edition Wilderness Survival Guide is also a book I read once and never used. I don’t remember being disgusted with it, but it never fit into any of my games, possibly because nothing important happens in the wilderness.
DMs are in the business of peddling illusions: illusions of meaningful choice to players when they are really on the rails; illusions of danger in a combat when maybe a fraction of a percent result in a TPK. Books like the 1e Wilderness Survival Guide, on the other hand, peddle an illusion to DMs. The illusion is that their campaign world is a real place, run by laws different from, but mirroring, the laws of the actual world. By rolling on the appropriate charts, the DM is running a universe. Many sourcebooks, especially those late in the run of any edition, lavish detailed rule considerations on things that rarely or never come up in play. Some of these make great reading: they allow DMs to imagine the perfect D&D game, with the DM able to raise a glorious edifice of simulated creation, using a million charts, all on hand, for players with infinite appetite for randomly-rolled minutia.
The Wilderness Guide has about 50 charts. I’ll list a few highlights: imagine having one of these situations come up in play and asking players to hold on while you find the appropriate page in the Wilderness Survival Guide.
-Effects of Clothing and Armor on Personal Temperature (for instance, in temperatures of 0 to 30, you are 10 degrees warmer if you are wearing banded mail)
-Damage from Free Fall or Severe Slope (this is a replacement for the classic 1d6 damage per 10 feet fallen rule: damage ramps up more quickly in this chart, maxing out at 20d6 for a 50-foot fall.)
-Grappling Success (I thought at first this was modifiers to the Grappling rules, modified for fighting on a slope, which would be HILARIOUS; but in fact it is chance of using a grappling hook on various slopes, modified by how slippery they are.)
-Chance of Food Spoilage (modified by type of food and temperature)
-Campfire Characteristics (degrees of heat by different types of campfires, provided at 10-foot increments from the fire up to 60 feet: what circumstance ever forces anyone to remain more than 10 feet from the fire?)
-Availability of Fuel (maybe in the desert, you can only make a Small campfire, which is trouble for the guys 40 feet away from it!)
-Reactions of Animals (where you can find out, I kid you not, the effects of odors on a yak! The effects are “6/10/12”)
None of these charts, nor most of the rules, have any relation to what happens in actual play. In a real D&D game, the DM has plot points he wants to hit, encounters he wants to run, and a ton of books open. While the PCs journey from the city to the ruined temple, the DM could remember all the relevant charts in the Wilderness Survival Guide, flip to the appropriate pages, and roll on the various percentile charts – but it’ll be easier to say “Ok, you get there without incident”, which is probably what he’ll do.
It’s too bad: the DM-as-world-simulation is a beautiful illusion.