Hexcrawling for Fun and Profit, Part 2TLDR How to stop worrying and embrace the hexcrawl (Part 2).
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 two. Read Part 1.
Integrating Player-Facing Mechanics
In the first installment of this series, I went over the basics of priming the hexcrawl with regards to the behind-the-screen mechanics of how it will run. Now it’s time to look at how those referee-side mechanics will integrate with the player-facing mechanics.
The tension of a hexcrawl arises out of the scarcity of resources. These resources primarily boil down to time and food. If a party has ample time and ample food, they can move about the wilderness at their leisure and minimize their risks. Should they run short of either one of those resources, they can no longer just take the easiest path forward but must weigh their choices against rising jeopardy.
With that in mind, it’s imperative to track these resources in some fashion. I use that qualifier because not everyone (yourself included) may be keen to take on this resource management. With that in mind, I’ll mention a couple ideas to reduce that overhead. Depending on the system in use, player abilities might also come into play and possibly trivialize some of this tension. I’ll address a couple of those, using Fifth Edition D&D as a reference, as well.
Everything comes down to time. It’s how every aspect of a hexcrawl is measured: how fast the party moves, how often they eat or sleep, how often encounters happen, etc. At the minimum, we need to track the days spent traveling. Minutes and hours are effectively abstracted away-- unlike in a dungeon crawl, we’re not concerned with ten minute intervals-- but the days have to be marked. It’s also perhaps the easiest resource to track since we’re only interested in its incremental passing and it increments at a steady, fixed rate.
An army marches on its stomach. Tracking food is a bit more complicated than time: there’s different sorts of rations that might represent differing amounts of consumable meals, and they tend to be spread out among the party who are, by default, expected to track their own, individual, food consumption. Any NPCs along for the trip also need to be accounted for, either from their own supply or aportioned from one or more of the PCs. It can be a bit of a burden.
One option is to pool together everyone’s food into a single, abstract resource, measured in meal units. In that sort of unit, it’s easier to tick one down every time a party member consumes a meal. We could also take it a step further and calculate provisioned days as meal units divided by party members. If we’re pretty certain the party members are a constant, we can track just the days until their food supply is completely consumed. It’s a good ticking clock to either encourage the party to make haste towards their destination or remind them to reprovision themselves before they begin to starve.
Another method that pushes things to an even higher abstraction is to use a mechanic such as the usage die. I first ran across this in The Black Hack but I’m not sure who innovated it first. In any case, here’s the crux of it:
When [a consummable item] is used …its Usage die is rolled. If the roll is 1-2 then the usage die is downgraded to the next lower die in the following chain:
d20 > d12 > d10 > d8 > d6 > d4
When you roll a 1-2 on a d4 the item is expended and the character has no more of it left.
Simple, right? As with all types of abstractions, by using a usage die style mechanic, you’re going to gain something and lose something. Tracking becomes much easier, now it’s just a die type that will only change periodically, at Fortune’s whim, so it’s very easy to keep track of. On the other side of the ledger, that same whim of Fortune makes the resource swingier, particularly when it becomes scarcer, than if it were tracked more concretely. A run of bad luck can devastate the party’s cache of supplies as surely as a swarm of locust.
Reach a Consensus
Ultimately, be transparent and work with your players to determine how resources will be tracked when the party is on the move. It’s a good idea to get everyone’s consent on any abstractions that you plan to use, if any, to ensure everyone’s got equal buy-in and expectations. You don’t want to end up in a situation that provokes dissatisfaction because some players feel cheated by a mechanic that they didn’t know existed or the implications of which weren’t fully understood.
Working with Character Capabilities
You’ve gotten your hexcrawl all set up and ready to go. You send the party out into the unknown, everyone eager to test themselves against the crucible of the wilderness, only to then immediately discover that the abilities of one or more of your player characters totally trivializes some or all of the tension from the hexcrawl. Maybe they can create food, maybe they’ve got an unerring sense of direction. Whatever it is they can do, they turn obstacles into mere speed bumps that the party barely slows down to skim over as they cruise on their merry way. What to do?
Knowing is Half the Battle
Be prepared. Know your player characters. If you’ve got druids and rangers in your group, chances are that they’ll have excellent navigational skills and the ability to either make or find ample food. clerics, bards, and paladins might also be gifted with useful skillsets for the hexcrawling party. Even outside those classes, individual characters might have geared their capabilities for this sort of adventure. If you know, in advance, what these capabilities are then you won’t be shocked or disappointed when they turn up in play.
Fight the Urge to Nerf
With this knowledge in hand, it’s an easy next step to take to find circumstances that undermine these capabilities and thus restore the original tensions to the hexcrawl. Avoid this, like the plague. First, it is as transparent as glass. When every location you go into is an exception to everything that you do well, you’ll notice what’s happening and why. First, we were in the Marshes of Madness when I couldn’t use my Natural Explorer ability. Next it was the Mountains of Mist. Now it’s the Valley of Shifting Grass… As a one off effect of a unique location, it’s fine, but if it becomes a recurring feature, it’s time to stop and consider what you’re doing.
The second issue with this approach is that players do not like their powers being nerfed at all, let alone by arbitrary fiat. If we’re going to alter how abilties or skills or spells will work, this should be discussed and agreed with as a group, not pulled out of our referee hat because the alternative is less convenient.
Let It Be
That alternative is to let the players have their day. If they built a ranger who is a monster at wilderness survival and navigation, let them be that monster. If it means the hexcrawl is a cakewalk, so be it. There are always other challenges. Give them that victory and move on.
But Don’t Be Over Expansive
All this said, it can be easy to allow an over-expansive interpretation of a character ability. It may be that something isn’t quite so powerful as you might imagine or how that character’s player might try to sell it to you. Let me illustrate this point with an example: the fifth edition ranger’s Natural Explorer ability. Here’s how this ability is described (for reference, this is the vanilla version, not the Unearthed Arcana variant):
You are particularly familiar with one type of natural environment and are adept at traveling and surviving in such regions. Choose one type of favored terrain: arctic, coast, desert, forest, grassland, mountain, or swamp. When you make an Intelligence or Wisdom check related to your favored terrain, your proficiency bonus is doubled if you are using a skill that you’re proficient in.
While traveling for an hour or more in your favored terrain, you gain the following benefits:
- Difficult terrain doesn’t slow your group’s travel.
- Your group can’t become lost except by magical means.
- Even when you are engaged in another activity while traveling (such as foraging, navigating, or tracking), you remain alert to danger.
- If you are traveling alone, you can move stealthily at a normal pace.
- When you forage, you find twice as much food as you normally would.
- While tracking other creatures, you also learn their exact number, their sizes, and how long ago they passed through the area.
You choose additional favored terrain types at 6th and 10th level.
This is a very strong ability for hexcrawling but let’s look at what it says and how we can make sure we both give it its due but also avoid over-indulging it.
The first thing to notice is that it is limited to a single terrain type, chosen by the player, at character creation. It doesn’t apply globally (something the UA version changes but with certain drawbacks) and they have to choose it in advance. Now, I don’t mention this so that we determine never to let the forest ranger explore the forest or to make sure the hills ranger is always in the forest to rob them of this ability. Instead, this is something that we would deal with transparently and openly. During a hexcrawl, you almost never stay in one sort of terrain so, inevitably, the ranger will find themselves in an environment that they do not favor. What’s more, this ability becomes a gear in player choice and so in their agency. Do they take the longer way to keep to the forests that the ranger knows or do they take the faster path through unfamiliar lands? These are exactly the sorts of choices we want and should encourage.
The next thing is to think about what this ability says and also what it doesn’t say. Just to pick one thread, let’s look at the immunity to getting lost. What does that mean? To my mind, it means knowing more or less where you are and how to get back from there. It doesn’t mean that you’re a living GPS or that you know the locations of everything around you or how to get to somewhere. Being lost means not knowing where you are in reference to anywhere you know. Just because you have good track of where you are in reference to a known location doesn’t mean you’ve got a copy of Google Maps in your head. So it isn’t auto-navigation. Just because you’re familiar with the forest doesn’t mean you know where the Hidden Castle of the Mad Mage Morque is, in that forest, nor does it solve how to cross a wide ravine or ford a fast-moving, turbulent river. You may know that home is on the other side of those mountains. It doesn’t mean you know which pass to take to get over those mountains.
Keep in mind the limits of such character capabilities and you’ll know what sorts of challenges are still threats and which others have been reduced to exercises in hand-waving.
Want Gritty? Discuss It First
Sometimes you want a gritty feel and, given everything a character can do, particularly in a modern game, you just can’t get it to that place you want it to be without hacking into the rules. I get it. Just make sure your players get it too and co-sign it. Be transparent. You don’t want your druid to trivialize food supply by casting Goodberry every morning? Talk to them. Maybe you’ll reconsider. Maybe you can find a middle road between some sort of massive nerf or removal of the spell. Find something you both can live with and agree to and remember that old saw about negotiations: a good negotiation ends with neither party being totally happy or getting exactly what they want.
To stick with Goodberry, here’s one idea. Instead of abstracting the material component away with the component pouch, we’ll make a general spell component house-rule and drop that usage die on it. Say that whenever you’re in a village or other civilized place, you’re able to refresh your component pouch to a d8 or d10. In the wilds, however, you roll the usage die every time you cast a spell with a material compenent that you’d normally get from your pouch. If the usage die ever becomes totally expended, you can’t cast that spell anymore until you either find the specific component or refresh your pouch. In the case of Goodberry, that component is a sprig of mistletoe, something that they may very well be able to forage from the wilds as they travel, if they choose to. Is this a nerf? Yeah, it is. I’m sure some players will bristle at it. But maybe it’s a nerf that, given the purpose, a player can accept to get to the sort of game that you both want. With it all out in the open and straight-forward, they won’t be caught by surprise by it and it won’t happen unless they give the nod.
Next Up: Tools for the In-Game, Moment to Moment Play
So I think I’ve covered the main aspects and issues with the player-side mechanics of a hexcrawl but let me know if I’ve missed anything! In the next part, I’ll talk about some tools for running the hexcrawl in game, moment to moment.
Find me on Twitter or Reddit. If you have any suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear them. If you like this, please consider supporting Hexed Press on Patreon.