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Hexcrawling for Fun and Profit, Part 1

Hexcrawling for Fun and Profit, Part 1

TLDR How to stop worrying and embrace the hexcrawl (Part 1).

Hexcrawling is one of the artifacts from olden times that’s had a bumpy transition to the modern day. Though it’s featured rather prominently in the Tomb of Annihilation adventure book and in products like Hot Spring Island, it can be difficult to grok just how to approach and run these sorts of explorations. I don’t pretend to have all (any?) of the answers and much depends on how you want to run your games but hopefully I can shed some light on a few techniques to make it a bit less painful and, hey, maybe even fun?

I originally conceived of this as a single post but, as I began to dig into things, I realized that I wanted to write more about various elements than I felt fit comfortably in a single post, so I’ll be splitting it up into several parts. This is part one.

Priming the Hexcrawl

So you want to run a hexcrawl?

The first thing to consider when planning to run a hexcrawl is picking the hex itself. As an abstraction laid out over the actual terrain, it’s not super important what size you pick (the most popular by far are five or six mile hexes) so much as you pick one and stick with it as it becomes the guide and ruler you will use to measure the party’s progress (or lack thereof) along their travels.

With that established, you can draw your hexmap with the proper scale around the party’s position and their destination or whichever environs that they’ll be exploring. Hexmap styles can vary. The simplest and easiest is to fill each hex on the map with a symbol representing the dominant feature or terrain within that area. Thus, a hex with a hill symbol in it indicates an area dominated by hills.

Section of Hexmap from the Isle of Dread

If there are special features-- important monster lairs, enigmatic monuments, ruins, or the like-- be sure to mark them on your hexmap. This will prompt you to feed clues or information about these locations to your party should they travel near them. Keep in mind that the symbol on your map is just a general abstraction of the actual terrain. A hill hex may not be only hills, it’s just more hills than anything else. It’ll be up to you, the referee, to produce the details about this terrain from the abstract representation on the hexmap if and when the party moves through it.

Similarly, it’s easiest to treat distances in an abstract manner. Rather than worry about an exact location, use the hex size that you chose earlier to calculate and measure estimated positions or distances. If using a six mile hex, rounding to six, three, and one and a half mile increments will keep tracking the party simpler than tracking precise miles. More often than not, which hex the party is in is more important than where in that hex the party is so a good guestimate of position is more than adequate most of the time.

With that done, it’s time to figure out how things will work once your party begins venturing out on the move:

  • How fast can the party travel?
  • Can they get lost?
  • Under what circumstances and how often will you roll for encounters and what will the odds be that an encounter happens?
  • What will those encounters look like?

Depending on the system that you use, some or all of these questions might already be answered but it’s worth taking some time to review them even so and deciding what changes, if any you want to make for your game, or what additions are necessary. These mechanics will set the pace and tone of the hexcrawl. A low encounter frequency, for example, will foster a more open, sparser, or more empty seeming landscape. A high frequency will foster a denser, crowded environment.

As a reference, classically, a roll for a random encounter was made once per day of travel with an x in six chance (no more than fifty percent chance at best) of occuring, depending on the terrain. The nature of the encounter was hugely variable with equal chance of running into something fairly mundane or exotic (1 in 8 chance of a dragon!). If there isn’t a default set of encounter tables available, you’ll want to make one yourself. Even if there is, don’t be afraid to edit it to suit your game and your geography. You can find many, many, many tables of encounters on the web so, if you have trouble building one yourself, there’s plenty ready-made to choose from.

Getting lost had a similar mechanic, with a x in 6 chance rolled once per day, the value of x changing based on the terrain (again, no more than fifty percent chance at worst). Once a party was lost, their true direction of travel would deviate from their perceived direction of travel until and unless they can right their course through landmarks or skill. As with encounters, the frequency and chance that the party can get lost will have a large effect on how your hexcrawl plays. So choose your numbers with care (or at least be open to changing them if the results veer wildly from your expectations).

Lastly, consider the pace of travel itself. You can use real world data, extrapolate from turn-based movement speeds, or use speeds given in your particular rules system. Generally, start from the best conditions, such as a smooth, straight road, and then reduce speeds as the terrain degrades and grows rougher. Weather can also play a part in travel speeds, usually reducing them when conditions are less than ideal. Remember that, since we’re abstracting out distances into hex units, these rates don’t have to be perfect, just generally in the right ballpark.

With these elements established, your hexcrawl is ready for your party. In the next part, I’ll talk about some of the player-facing elements of the hexcrawl and some ways to manage them. Continue reading in Part 2.

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