Tuesday 2 November 2021

[BLOG] Hex-crawls: A Simple Guide

A slice of the Wilderlands
Irony: no longer just a diet rich in ferrous metals. Old-school gaming is now officially old, having lasted way longer than the period of gaming it looks back on. The line loops back on itself again; we are not just old, we are double-old, and with age, accumulated wisdom is lost, formerly self-explanatory ideas become objects of mystery. This constant erosion is unsurprising. You can fight back, but never win. Still, at least we can go down swinging, and that’s better than nothing. Today, we shall endeavour to do so by restating the idea of a great, simple game structure that surprisingly many people fail to understand, or pretend to fail to understand: the hex-crawl.

If Bryce Lynch doesn’t get it, others might be utterly lost. Perhaps what many of us considered obvious, isn’t. Perhaps so much detail-oriented guidance has been published that the basic, simple idea is getting lost in the discussion. But the main issue I am seeing – something even people like Justin Alexander have fallen into – is that people present an idea of hex-crawls that’s much more convoluted and hard to follow than what most of us actually need for our table. There is scattered wisdom in those pieces, but the maximalist approach they are advocating is not practical for most, especially beginners. The basic hex-crawl, in comparison, is dirt simple to understand, design, and run. Hence, this post. A simple, concise guide can explain the essentials – and if you would like, you can later expand your own procedures in a modular fashion.

* * *

Why run a hex-crawl?

Hex-crawls are a great way to run games based on wilderness exploration. Their main strength lies in turning a wilderness map into something you can describe and play with ease. Hex-crawls offer a good value for the effort that goes into creating them. Even a relatively small wilderness area described as a hex-crawl can be used and re-used several times. You can easily expand them both outwards (describing more of the map using this method) and inwards (adding more features and deeper detail). Hex-crawls can be developed piecemeal, and they are easy to scale to the interests of your adventuring party.

* * *

The basic principle

You might remember a common way to describe RPGs to outsiders: “This game is all in your imagination, played without a game board.” Hex-crawling is a lot like that game, but with a game board added to it. This board shall consist of two map sheets with numbered hexes. One of the maps is for the Gamemaster, and like your usual dungeon map, it is marked with terrain features, and an encounter key. Unlike dungeons, the key is not numbered sequentially, but by hex coordinates: a certain number of hexes may have varied features in them, while some are “empty”, consisting only of terrain. The second map is the one the players actually see: while it conforms to the first in most respects, this one is much more sparse, usually showing coastal outlines, a few major geographic features, and maybe a section of the “known” lands. The rest is left blank for later discovery.

Over the course of play, moving around and exploring the wilderness map, filling in its blanks, and coming across the keyed encounters shall be the focus of the game. The exploration process may be complicated by random encounters, navigation hazards, the depletion of food and equipment, and other complications like bad weather, or events keyed to the passage of time. Like dungeon adventures, hex-crawls are a combination of keyed encounters, random events arising from game procedures, and emergent gameplay created by GM–player interaction. A good hex-crawl is a lot like a good dungeon – reasonably open-ended, challenging, accommodating of player decisions, yet not overwhelming at any single decision point, since every given hex allows only six directions of travel from it.

* * *

Constructing the GM map

The Central Marches
Many game world focus on the big picture, the world at large. In a hex-crawl setting, we will be doing the exact opposite, by describing the micro-world. Our main concern is not the extent and ancient history of empires or the cosmology of the gods, but the local lord acting as an agent of the distant imperial seat, or the secretive monastery hidden in the woodlands. It may be useful to have a very general framework for the sake of style and internal consistency, but what really MATTERS is local detail and variety. The scale of the maps itself should reflect this. We are not making continents, we are making provinces or baronies. Many hex-crawl games use the six-mile hex (which became the default for Judges Guild’s Wilderlands setting), which is really fine-grain, and lets characters move through a lot of hexes in a single game session. I usually go with twelve miles (or around 20 kilometres). Greyhawk’s 30 miles per hex, as seen on the classic Darlene Pekul maps, is generally too large for the details we want – Greyhawk is definitely a big-picture place.

Accordingly, map a small corner of the larger world. A starting campaign can easily exist on a stretch of land measuring 12×12 six-mile hexes. Instead of large expanses of homogenous terrain, I would suggest making things varied in terms of both topography and land cover. Starting out with a random-generated map and adjusting it a bit to make the geography slightly more realistic works surprisingly well – there is a random terrain filling method in the AD&D DMG (Appendix B), and Hexographer comes with a default random generator, which I used for the example map here. You will notice a few features which tend to be desirable:

  • a single terrain type tends to cover 8-10 hexes, and rarely more: this makes the land mass varied and distinct;
  • there is a balance of easily navigable, challenging, and generally impassable terrain: choosing where and how to travel becomes an important player choice;
  • water is used prominently, forming seas, a lake, and river basins;
  • prominent features – castles, dungeons, settlements and temples – are distributed logically, but sparsely: travel is a necessity in the setting;
  • roads might link the most important centres of civilisation, but adventure lies off-road: we have a proverbial “points of light setting”, with relatively safe areas along the roads, and dangerous wilderness beyond them.

Not every map has to follow a similar structure, but this combination should make for a good mini-sandbox. If you would like to construct a larger region, Volume 4 of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen (on which more in a later post) describes a semi-random Hexographer-based method that shall create an entire campaign’s worth of terrain.

 * * *

Stocking the GM map

This is the meat of the hex-crawl. Interesting locations, lairs, and the more complex sort of encounters can be seeded across the hex map, waiting for the players to come across them during their explorations. After placing a few important locations by hand, it is most useful to turn to a random generation method. Establish hex locations via this method:

  • roll 2d6 for each 12-mile hex (or 2d12 for each 6-mile hex) with two different-coloured dice for each hex (this can take some time);
  • a “1” on the dice indicates either a ruin (usually marked with an “x”) or a lair (usually marked with an “L” or “·”) – mark these on the map;
  • for hexes with mixed terrain (e.g. forests meeting mountains), check both terrain types;
  • you may want to re-check hexes which have a feature to see if they may have a double one.

The Central Marches, with
locales of interest
The exact content of the hexes is written into the hex key, where entries are identified by the four-number coordinates. This is similar to a dungeon key in scope and detail, focusing on the essential and leaving the rest to improvisation. Like with dungeons, random idea generation tables can be useful for stocking a wilderness, at least beyond a range of initial entries which establish the mood and challenges of the place. Once you have a general idea for the region, the details shall fall into their place. For example, using our previous map, we may begin our hex key like this (stats and most treasure values not included):

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

(and so on, see the end of the post for the starting area)

The hex-crawl, of course, is not the complete campaign, but a component of it. Add a starter dungeon (and start thinking about one or two more – they don’t have to be large affairs), a few rival power centres and organisations, and you have a full landscape of adventure (see this post for a general idea). A hex-crawl is a great place to stick adventures written by other people, too, and it is one of the frameworks where mini-dungeons, even the better one-page dungeons can find a good home.

 * * *

Managing the crawl

Once we have the hex map, the key, and a few places with more detail, the campaign is ready to play. To start the crawl, set the players down on their version of the map, which can be as sparse or as detailed as you wish (the less detailed it is, the stronger the sense of discovery, but the more time will be spent with mapping). At this point, it is important to establish some basic context – where they are, what they have known or heard of the surrounding territory (a rumour each player may be a good way to accomplish this), and approximately where have they heard of capital A Adventure. We can begin!

Much of the hex-crawls occurs through simple procedures. Here are the essentials:

Descriptions: describe what the party sees in the surrounding hexes in a brief way. This should include terrain, visible landmarks, and maybe a little detail. For example, using our sample map, and starting from the castle home base at 0608, the GM could begin thus: “Day one breaks as you ride out through the gates of Krakhal. It is still misty, but you can see the roads meeting here: the Winding Way crossing the river to the NW and going through farmlands towards the mountains where stands the tower of Breezehall  to a day’s journey; the other direction heading SE and disappearing in wooded hills. A more narrow cart road crosses the river to the W, then heads SW through grassland. In this direction lies Fell, a village where you have heard of troubles with raiding humanoids and brigands. To the N and NE stretch thick forests, and to the S, you see tall peaks.” From here on, the descriptions can be even shorter: “You cross the grasslands into 0509, along the river running SW. NW lie woods, SW and S are flat grasslands, and SE are the mountains. The road continues SW.”

Here be giants
Movement: let the players declare the directions they are moving, and calculate how much terrain they can cross at their movement rate. As a rule of thumb, 4 6-mile hexes of terrain (plains, wastelands, coast), 2 hex of medium terrain (forest, hills), and 1 hex of hard terrain (mountains, swamp) can be covered on foot, or 6/4/1 while mounted. For 12-mile hexes, just halve this rate. For mixed terrain (likely), it is sensible to divide the day into a morning and afternoon stretch and see how much distance the characters cover. There are movement systems which use “movement point costs” to enter a hex of a specific terrain type, which are more abstract, but a bit easier to calculate with.

(Getting lost): This is a probability used in various A/D&D editions to see if the party veers off course or becomes lost while moving in the wilderness. It is not a rule we are actively using, but it adds a layer of uncertainty to exploration, and unless the party is moving along the roads, it may lead them to unexpected places of interest!

Encounters: the characters shall come across the fixed encounters on the hex key. There is also a good reason to use random encounter charts to vary things a bit. Generally, roll random encounters once per two six-mile hexes travelled with a 1:6 probability, or twice per day and thrice per night if camping (this can be reduced if the characters have discovered or created a safe shelter). Not all encounters will be fights to the death: hunting animals may avoid the party, while intelligent denizens may want to trade, negotiate, ask for directions, or provide the same… if the reaction checks are good enough.

Supplies: assume one ration per day of travel, and separate water rations where needed. Hunting and foraging may be a way to find food on the way. For a simple system, roll 1d6, with a +1 for skilled outdoorsmen and +2 for rangers and druids, and -1 for frood-sparse regions like high mountains. Food will be found on rolls of 4+, with an extra ration per point over the threshold.

Weather: this is simple and fun for situational variety. Just roll 1d6 per day to establish the dominant weather, from 1 (sunny, clear) to 6 (heavy rains, strong winds, heavy fog), add a situational modifier or two if needed (e.g. by terrain or season). If daily rolls make the weather too “swingy”, assume that stretches of weather will last 1d3 days or even more, or that changes will be in increments of one point at a time.

This is (more or less) the simple system we are using at our table. It is not completely realistic, but it is in keeping with the complexity of dungeon procedures, and makes for a rewarding procedural package which does not slow down play, works out fine, and can be messed with from time to time to shake things up a bit.

* * *

Details which are a matter of taste (but here is my opinion anyway)

Should a terrain type fill a whole hex, or not?

My hex maps are usually more organic, and the hex grid is simply overlaid on a map. This is also the way Judges Guild did things. Hexographer (which I used to illustrate this post) fills every hex with a discrete terrain type. This is okay, too, and slightly easier to adjudicate.

Some people suggest the hex map should be the GM’s tool only, and this “layer” should be hidden from the players. Which one should I pick?

This is the approach advocated by Justin Alexander for reasons of deeper immersion. For ease of use reasons, I would personally recommend the exact opposite, the use of identical player/GM maps with a different level of detail, like in the original Wilderlands products. This translates wilderness navigation into a game board you navigate and gradually fill in with terrain and points of interest. It is a game, and there is no harm in revealing most of its rules, including the hex numbers. In our campaigns, I rationalise the latter with the assumption that hex numbers represent astronomical navigation schemes, or (in science-fantasy campaigns) data from orbital GPS systems.

Do I have to create an entire map’s worth of content before beginning a campaign?

This actually matters! There is absolutely no need to create a whole setting in one go. Create a kay for a relatively small area, then expand outwards as it becomes necessary. Everything you need to know beyond the initial area can be handled as a simple rumour. “North of the Mountains of Fum lies a ruined city inhabited by ghouls. The Crown of Power lies underneath!” or “Monkeys are a delicacy in Katang, but sacred in Pand; and the two towns are almost at war over this matter.” – this much would be sufficient.

How detailed should hex entries be?

For personal consumption, as detailed as your average dungeon room. Some, like major towns and power centres may deserve a little bit more, maybe a bullet-point list. But keeping things brief and versatile is usually the for the best.

What if I have a map, but they don’t start exploring?

A handful of rumours with promises of adventure and treasure can be enough to get the characters going. It is also advisable to place adventure sites in out-of-the way corners of the world, so discovering their exact location requires travel through strange lands. Various quests and missions can also take characters to these fa-flung corners of the milieu.

What if they never go off the road system?

Many such cases! That’s why there should only be few roads, and many places the company has to visit should lie beyond them. This is best caught in the planning phase.

Since hexes cover a lot of territory, shouldn’t adventurers have a chance to miss keyed features?

This has always struck me as bad advice, since the point of hex-crawling is to find cool, interesting stuff, not walk by it. It is in both the player’s and GM’s interest to bring these encounters into play while travelling through the wilderness. You could rationalise it with the understanding that a given hex probably has multiple interesting features, and your party will find the one being described in the key. But generally, unless a feature is deliberately hidden, it is best to let the characters find it. You can always add secondary and tertiary sites later, if needed, although it is also vital to expand horizontally, and encourage players to seek out new lands and sights.

What about three-hex/seven-hex/hex-flower wildernesses?


* * *

The Central Marches: A sample starting area

This is the slice of the region you might describe before the first session. You will note that there are 19 locations being described, including a few hubs of civilisation (the "points of light", with simple adventure hooks), seven ruins, and 6 monster lairs. You can place a larger starting dungeon somewhere close to the centre (this could be beneath the strange garden at 0407, two hexes from KRAKHALL), and a smattering of smaller ones all around: perhaps beneath the well in FELL (0310),  the buried passage in the ancient shrine (0506), the secret treasure cave (0610), the eccentrics' tower basement (0707), the Pavilion of Engadrok (0710), and the emperor's undersea villa (0808). If this sounds too much, that's because it is: you do not need to do it all at once, and many of the possibilities may never enter play (they are well hidden, the entrance is buried or enchanted, etc.).

It is also likely that the campaign will move beyond the initial area in some direction. Perhaps the players will want to visit the city at 1108, follow up on the humanoid raids originating from the advance hobgoblin camp to the west (0109), or travel north beyond the mountains and see what lies in that direction. Do not waste too much work: it does not hurt to be a little lazy in a hex-crawl campaign. If something is particularly important for you, link it to the players with multiple rumours and adventure hooks, and they will likely find their way there.

Once you have the ideas for the hex-crawls, connect, leverage and reuse them: let the brigands at 0406 start harassing merchants along the road, or the hobgoblins send a shipment of captives to the orcs in Castle Gardak (0203). Perhaps the greedy merchants ruling the city want to depose the incompetent Lord Fumme in WOOLBERG (0810) by kidnapping his daughter. A trail of investigation leads to the lawless village of WYRHOLM (0611), and at that place, the characters hear of a treasure-hunting expedition across the mountains (0610). These links and leads make the setting alive and interconnected, and will soon serve as an organic substitute to the rumour table. The campaign will be, to an extent, self-sustaining within its geographic and thematic boundaries.

The Central Marches:
Initial Scope
0305 A few walls and a collapsed tower remain from a wizard’s mountain stronghold, now inhabited by 4 griffons. In their nest, they have collected 3000 sp, an efreet bottle, and Helmbrand, a Neutral sword +1.

0306 ANTZUN, village of 100 goblins eking out a miserable existence, and paying tribute to the orcs of Castle Gardak (0203). Some of them know a way through the mountains, and may be hired as guides, but 1:6 to be treacherous.

0310 FELL, village of 100 men, regularly suffering hobgoblin raids from the west (0109). Foreman Valumbe the Provider (Fighter 4) throws miscreants and evildoers into a dry well to starve, but some of the dead come back from the walls to claim the living.

0311 Fallen palisades surround a crumbling villa, inhabited by 35 bandits. Their companions and leader, Felso the Humble, have been captured by Valumbe the Provider (0310), and are in need of rescuing. 1200 sp, 100 gp.

0406 Lair of 60 brigands raiding the road from their temporary camp. They are led by Eilakolin the Merry (Fighter 8, treasure map) and his lieutenants, Priago the Fighter (Ftr 4) and Ethy the Quick (Ftr 4). They have buried their coins at a secret location, and currently have 1000sp, and a box of gems from a captured merchant (10 gp, 2*50 gp, 10*100 gp, 4*500 gp, 2*1000 gp).

0407 35 gnolls are picking through the ruins of an extravagant garden. Brass idols of various animals on top of standing columns have magical effects: bull – save vs. spell or berserk rage, serpent – offers healing fruit bearing strange curse, wolf – save vs. polymorph or contract lycanthropy, swan – gives feather to most beautiful character, touch heals 1d6 Hp, bear – save vs. spell or sleep 1d6 days, pelican – gives key in exchange for a fish. Buried under a large pile of rubble is the villa of a magic-user, now a repository of mirages. [Ideal for a mini-dungeon]

0409 Crude rock monuments of a preshistoric people stand painted by the grassland road. 18 prize horses (2d6*100 gp each) are grazing nearby, belonging to Bobend the Bastard (Fighter 7), who lives nearby in a filthy tent with 5 wives and 9 mean, unruly children.

0505 BREEZEHALL, tower of the Lord Yverr the Silent (Ftr 9), served by 90 men-at-arms patrolling the mountain road, and Dalco the Orphaned (M-U 5), the descendant of a forgotten king. Lord Yverr is obsessed with five stone thrones on a nearby mountaintop, each struck through with a sword that shall not budge. He is welcoming to guests demonstrating nobility, but has been known to capture and fleece the soft and squeamish.

0506 6 brown bears live in a cave near the mountain road, and have 1:3 to venture out to prey on travellers who do not outnumber them 2:1. The cave is decorated with ancient cave paintings, and ends at a buried passage between two crude statues of snarling bears.

0507 There are giant trees near the road with 8 hippogriffs lairing in the branches. They are only 1:12 to venture out for men (1d4+4 coming), but horseflesh has 1:6 to draw all eight. The giant nests are strewn with bones, and a dagger +1, 3 vs. orcs and goblins is entangled in the branches.

0511 2 fire-breathing giant lizards, particularly colourful in their resplendent hide (worth 800 and 3000 gp intact), enjoy the sun on flat rocks. Their lair, a crack between the enormous boulders, is the source of a spring, overgrown with healing herbs (2d6 doses, +1 to nighttime Hp recovery if prepared as a tea).

0608 KRAKHALL, castle of the Lord Sinds the Righteous (Ftr 9), 90 men-at-arms, and 3 champions (Ftr 7) who serve him enthusiastically. Lord Sinds is the mortal enemy of Lord Fumme the Unlucky (0810), and even his foe’s name can send him into an uncontrollable rage. The moat has been populated with killer frogs as a form of defence, but this plan has not been thought through, and the beasts have become pests in the countryside.

0609 18 zombies wearing the garments of pilgrims shamble in an endless circular procession on a road that terminates shortly afterwards.

0610 Tajah the She-Wolf (Thf 8), noted robber, has come here with a retinue of 30 fighting men and 10 labourers to seek a cavern outlined on a treasure map, found somewhere near the lake coast. Their camp is overrun by small monkeys which prey on the supplies and gradually strip away their equipment.

0611 WYRHOLM, village of 300 men who resent taxation and outside interference, and have become a nest of outlaws and bandits, including armsmen from Woolberg (0810), and good but unscrupulous forest guides. Stolliviss the Eternal (Clr 2) is trying to convert the people to the worship of demonism. The Hack Rack Tavern caters to loggers and fighting men, featuring a bear pit; proprietor Klaint the Incomprehensible is a Thieves Guild man who buys and sells valuables “no questions asked”.

0707 A tower, once the retreat of rich eccentrics for their debauchery, now lies in a decrepit state, inhabited by Klaro the Tall (Fighter 6) and 70 bandits. The weird things the former occupants were into are safely locked down in the basement, while Klaro has converted the top room into a personal weapon and armour collection.

0710 The Pavilion of Engadrok lies in the middle of Lake Oopag, where a magic door leads to a fantastic maze created by a djinn, and the prison of an enchanted princess.

0808 The terraces of a fancy, submerged villa complex can be see beneath the waves here, the former coastal estate of Emperor Nobendses. 200 mermen inhabit the structure, and guard an undersea dungeon with the emperor’s treasures.

0810 WOOLBERG, castle of the Lord Fumme the Unlucky (Ftr 9), 150 men-at-arms, and Father Hsitisolodie (Clr 5). Lord Fumme’s incompetence and bad luck have brought him low in the eyes of the court and his neighbours, and placed him near ruin. The garrison is ill kept, and the men are often away on private ventures involving brigandage in Wyrholm (0611). Father Hsitisolodie is eager to have Lord Fumme’s daughter, Abigh the Mad married off to a worthy suitor to preserve an important prophecy.


  1. Awesome post. I was reading about your procedures for hexcrawling in Helvéczia and was thinking about if it would be any different in a more general medieval fantasy setting, and then this post happened. This kind of stuff is what makes me excited to see how your referee book will be like. This post will definitely be on my favorites list. Thanks!

    1. I think these are fairly universal guidelines, similar to Basic's room content determination rolls (1-2 Monster, 3 Trap, 4 Special, 5-6 empty) - you could perhaps even use them for Traveller-style subsectors.

    2. This is really well written. Good ideas!

  2. Thanks for sharing your knowledge !
    It's gonna be put into good use !

  3. This is so, so helpful. Thank you. And the example just makes this essential reading. Thank you for this gift of wisdom!

  4. This looks badass and if I weren't at work, I'd start making a map right now. BUUUuuuuUUUUuuuut: I have a question.

    I'm rolling 2d6 (or 2d12) for each hex, dice of different colors, and I'm checking for 1s. Why the different colors? Why 2 dice? Am I missing something in the odds or process or somethin'? Help a nerd out, man, I'm feeling like a chump over here. I AM NOT A CHUMP, AM I?!

    1. Long time no see, Dr. Rotwang (DEFINITELY NOT A CHUMP)! The separate dice are for ruins and lairs, respectively, rolled separately with 1:6 of each. The different colours are just so you don't mix up the dice (which I often do if they look alike).

    2. I was confused as well. So it's basically:
      - ruin, deserted
      - lair
      - ruin, with something living in it...
      Is that right? Is there an example above of each please?

    3. I only distinguish between ruins and lairs. The former are hex entries focused on sites (like the crude monuments at 0409), while the latter are focused on an established monster group (like the giant lizards at 0511). The boundaries can be a bit muddy, like the small difference between 0311 (a ruined villa inhabited by bandits) and 0406 (a brigand camp).


  5. Excellent post! I would add that I normally keep a half-dozen or so generic unkeyed "lair maps" - very small, very simple, shall we say...5-room affairs? A couple in caves, a couple underground, a couple buildings, etc. Stuff that doesn't take more than a few minutes to map up. Repurposing the small-ish maps from such resources as the 3E Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics line (before it was a game system, and instead the brand name of a module line for D&D) is another cheap and easy way to have several dozen of these types of maps on hand.

    Then, when rolling a random encounter, if it comes up "in lair", I grab whichever of those makes the most sense for the monster type and the character's location on the map, and describe the situation as stumbling upon this "lair". (Are the inhabitants surprised or not, etc.)

    Now you have someplace small to wing a description. It primarily exists as a lair-treasure depository. Even random encounters can have treasure, if they are "in lair".

    (Also note: parties having both smart players and ranger character types can attempt to track back to the lair of an out-of-lair monster encounter, to see if that monster does/did in fact have some treasure not carried with them when encountered.

    1. Slot-in maps are very useful. Judges Guild's Castle Book I-II, Village Book I-II, Temple Book and particularly Island Book were a godesend when I got my hands on them. These days, various online sites have a plethora of maps to work with. Dave's Mapper is particularly useful for a basic layout (I use it, and other random generators, to create designs which are different from mine, and throw the players off a bit).

      Most of the the time, however, I improvise smaller lair-size dungeons and ruins. The initial mental image implies a lot of the subsequent detail. You can do better with pre-planned stuff, but decent, basic improvisation skills go a long way.

  6. Wisdom may be lost, but not more than is gained... for the initiated.

    BTW, how's that Cha'alt review coming?

  7. People like to overcomplicate hex-crawling and sandbox gaming in general - often because of an urge of trying to simulate everything or turning it into a mini-game of its own. It was just a few weeks ago when I explained to a friend that adding journey roles and other complexities just adds more rolls to traveling without making it more immersive and exciting. It's the freedom and what the characters encounter during their journey what makes hex-crawling memorable - which is one why one should a focus on content and keep the rules simple and stupid.

  8. Excellent post, thanks Melan. So many extra odds and sods get added, which, hey, if that's fun for you go for it, but otherwise something this simple is all that's needed. The Angry GM has been on a series that covers overland adventure similarly, although it's a bit more conceptual as usual. Jason Alexander's procedures are all coherent but depth is something you pay for with complexity and I'm not sure the price is right.

    How much detail are you looking for in a hexcrawling product? Wilderlands is an obvious classic but my sense is that it's a little sparse for a modern audience.

    1. The original Wilderlands still has tremendous oracular power. Not everything in there is gold (the Castle/Citadel lists are too thin), but there is an inviting depth to the one-paragraph entries. The Sea of Vipers, a hex-crawl setting originally written in the form of tweets has managed to capture that same elusive, mysterious quality (see review at https://beyondfomalhaut.blogspot.com/2019/03/review-sea-of-vipers.html ).

      For the rest of us, one paragraph for most, two or three for important sites may be right. Definitely avoid over-explaining things. "Creativity aid, not creativity replacement" is a good motto!

  9. I like your method of an organic looking map with a hex grid over it better, but I have to agree with Alexander about a gridless player map.

  10. As for gridless maps for the players, this is how we went about in our shared Wild Coast campaign, that was fully developped using the DMG procedure:



    While it looks nifty immersive or whathevu: it is very true that so far the experiences in exploration have been different and much more road-bound than I am used to from the Wilderlands or the Isle of Dread (By Z.Hack Cook). Letting players actually map makes a big difference. IF you want to go all the way, I propose a totally different, one of continous exploration, actually using proper terrain instead of any hexes...check this out, although it is in German, you might get the gist of it from the many images:

  11. I like hexcrawls as much as the next guy, it's just them hexes that feel heavy-handed and unnatural to me. May sound paradoxical but breaking down a living terrain to chopped blocks makes it way too artificial and "gameish". Fortunately, you don't really need actual hexes for a hexcrawl, you can sprinkle all the nifty places and features over an ordinary map as long as you have a grasp on travel times between them. Walking distance / 1-2 hours / half day / full day / several days worked fine for me.

  12. This is a great article. Rock-solid, battle tested game advice and procedures. Exactly what any growing DM needs!

    This is generally where I have ended up with hexcrawls, but I came from the other direction. I read all of the Alexandrian's stuff and then gradually dropped the procedures that were overly complicated over time (things like movement points got scrapped in favour of a simple chart of terrains, etc).

    I am intrigued by your suggestion to give the players a hexmap, and I am considering trying it.

    One quibble I do have: rolling random encounters by number of hexes travelled, instead of time elapsed. Shouldn't there be a game effect for taking faster or slower routes? In my game, if the PCs are slogging through swamps or mountains they get pummeled with encounters. Jumping on horses and jet-setting across the plains allows them to cover great distances with less hassle. Actually, I wonder if you take care of this with the relative danger levels of different terrain types?

    1. Some terrain types and infrastructures (roads) allow for faster or slower movement. If you also make the slower types more dangerous, your players will stay on the roads. You sometimes have to sacrifices realism for fun.

    2. Right; travelling through the more "harder" terrain types is not only slower (passage of time and nighttime encounters), but this is also where the encounter tables can get downright nasty. Mountains are giant/dragon territory, while swamps have beholders, hydrae and catoblepas.

  13. Dear Melan, sorry for disturbing
    I'm translating this post and i'm a bit stuck. Almost finished everything but a first sentence =))
    I don't get it. Please be so kind to explain.

    1. Irony has a double meaning, 'contains iron' being the one used here.

    2. That's correct! (Probably should not be translated)

  14. Brilliant, as always

  15. Really useful stuff. Hex crawls are the best crawls.

  16. I think hexcrawls are best self built...other products might provide inspiration but the GM laying out the hexes seems to corollate directly to an enjoyable hexcrawl (more so than adventures).

  17. Thanks for this - one comment:

    "It may be useful to have a very general framework for the sake of style and internal consistency, but what really MATTERS is local detail and variety. The scale of the maps itself should reflect this. We are not making continents, we are making provinces or baronies."

    The matter of scale cannot be underemphasized. The difference between X1 "The Isle of Dread" (6 miles/hex) and the fittingly-named X6 "Quagmire!" (24 miles/hex) is that PCs can travel through many hexes in a day's adventuring in the former, and a fraction of that in the latter.

    This is relevant in matters of pacing. Folks love "The Isle of Dread" because you can fill in a good number of hexes in a day, with a concordant number of encounters. Folks dislike "Quagmire!" because it becomes a slog, much more about resource management and less about encounters per day.

    I agree with you that 6 miles/hex is the ideal scale for the hex-crawl (I think that Judges Guild "Wilderlands" was 5 miles/hex, but I digress)

    1. This is a very good point about scale. The other thing I think is that 6mi hexes represents a good human scale too. You're only 3mi from the boundary and most of us can easily visualise what can be seen by the naked eye from 3mi away.

  18. My understamding is that The Wilderlands was 5 miles per hex and this was due to a cockup with the printers as it was supposed to be 15 miles per hex

    1. If I recall correctly, JG's original plan was for 5 *leagues* per hex, and the 5-mile hexes are a production mistake they accepted and ran with.

      My campaigns typically use 20 km per hex, or 6 leagues, based on this understanding.

  19. This is one of my favorite blog posts of all time.

    I made my own Campaign Map using this guide and added another die to the stocking roll with "Wonders & Vignettes". Here's the post if you want to see how my map turned out.


    1. Thanks - much appreciated! Will check the blog in a tad.

  20. So I was wondering...

    My adventurers are travelling through woods and hills = 20 km a day = 1 hex. They trigger one random encounter roll a day.

    Then they camp for the night. Unless they find a good resting spot, they trigger three random encounter rolls.

    That's 1 roll per day, 3 per night, a ratio of 1:3. Seems a bit too night-heavy to me. Why is it this way? To stress the danger of camping outdoors? Or because evil things roam the night?

    I'm not sure I like it. First of all, I would assume that travelling from place to place would actually trigger more rolls than staying put. But mainly I don't like the fact hat 3/4 of random encounters will be variations of "your campsite gets invaded at night". Not much variability here, and why I can think of many various daylight travelling encounters, the night ones seem more boring.

    What am I missing here?

    1. Ooopps. Forgot to answer this question - sorry!

      Three encounters per night is the amount rolled if the players take no precautions at all and camp out in the open. You may want to subtract one check for each of these factors:
      - characters look for a safe campsite
      - there is a Ranger (or other outdoorsman type) in the group
      - there is an existing place or structure that could serve as a shelter, e.g. a ruin or a recently cleared monster lair.

      I would still ask the players to set up three watches, but only roll once or twice (or perhaps not at all), and allocate the encounter randomly.

      This typically gives you 1-2 encounter possibilities per night.

  21. Just curious: is the map you used as an example filled with 6 or 12 mile hexes? By the number of random ruins and lairs I'd assume 12 mile?

  22. This is so very useful Melan. I am curious, what would you hold up as particularly good examples of the classic style wilderness hex crawl from your own product catalogue or D&D history in general? Wilderlands and Isle of Dread are obvious examples, any others that you'd point to as good models to study and emulate?

    1. The Wilderlands is the best classic example (the Necromancer Games boxed set is a good update, but I think it costs absurd amounts of money these days), and Isle of Dread is a good example of using the structure for a single adventure.

      The Sea of Vipers is quite cool, a sort of dreamlike update to the Wilderlands idea: https://beyondfomalhaut.blogspot.com/2019/03/review-sea-of-vipers.html

      I released two hex-crawls that represent how I tend to like these things: the Isle of Erillion, in Echoes From Fomalhaut #03 and #04 (classic adventure fantasy) and Thasan, in Echoes #08 (sword & sorcery wastelands with ruined cities and general weirdness).

    2. Fantastic, thanks for responding, Melan!

      I have acquired the items from your catalogue you mention and am reading Thasan currently. Really cool, and interesting and has some overlap with my current sword and planet campaign.

      A casual analysis of Thasan so far also reveals a clear overlap between the advice you share in this post and the published end-result.

      I was wondering, in part by my analysis of Thasan, if you use any method to determine the presence of monsters and/or treasure at ruins and lairs?

    3. A lot of Thasan was done about a decade ago, so it may not align perfectly with how I do it now, but close enough. For the 12-mile hexes I usually use (unlike Judges Guild's 5-mile standard), I check for both ruins and lairs on a 1:6 probability for each hex. Hexes with mixed terrain or clearly divided sections are rechecked, and duplicate results are also checked for. The ruin/lair distinction is a JG carryover, and more of a general yardstick than a precise distinction.

    4. Got it, thanks. I was wondering specifically about assigning monsters and treasure to ruins. I ended up reverse-engineering a 1d6 roll from the Thasan distribution. https://vaguecountries.nl/2023/02/08/methods-workbench-determining-the-presence-of-monsters-and-treasure-in-wilderness-hex-crawl-ruins/