|A slice of the Wilderlands|
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.
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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.
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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.
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Constructing the GM map
|The Central Marches|
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.
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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
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.
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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|
(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.
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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?
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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:|
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.