Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hexcrawls: Worldbuilding vs. Microlite vs. HexKit

So the question I asked a couple days ago sparked off a few ripples in the pond about how exactly hexcrawling works.

(Barking Alien wants to know what a hexcrawl is. It's when you let the players roam around the map in any direction they want. Like a dungeoncrawl but outside and on a bigger scale. And the paper is gridded with hexagons rather than squares.)

Anyway, my question was:

"I've never run a large-scale hexcrawl. Those of you who do: do you just sort of write a few bits about each place and wing the details when the players get there, or what?"

The short answer people gave is: Yes.

Personally, although I don't mind improvising, I really like having the complexity you get with detailed ready-to-go-scenarios to drop the PCs into.


It seems to me that building a hexcrawl is actually a fairly philosophically complex operation.

The DM wants to know "How much of this do I have to write in advance?" and "How detailed does it have to be?" But answering those questions requires answering a few underlying questions first.

The most important is: how much information do the PCs have about the place they're exploring?

On one end of the scale, the PCs know every inch of it down to the location of the canning jars in the root cellar in Mrs. Fuzzleworth's basement. On the other end of the scale, the PCs have no idea where they are or where (if anywhere) they're going.

Most people avoid these extremes--in the first one, there's no reason to explore anything, and in the second one, the PCs have zero motivation other than metagame-boredom:

"You walk through the forest for weeks and then come to a strange-looking tree."

(Player thinks: This must be where the adventure is.)

"Fine, I investigate the goddamn tree."

So: a hexcrawl is going to have some middle-level of information, but the choice of how much, exactly, seems extremely important.

Micro-lite Hexcrawl

If the PCs know only that their home town was burned down by orcs and now they (the PCs) are hungry and tired and equipmentless, then you can do a survival-hexcrawl where you only have to map the six hexes right around where the PCs are and the PCs essentially just stumble into one of those six hexes, each of which has a terrain-appropriate adventure. This is how greywulf recommends building a micro-lite campaign.*

To prep, the DM has to just write 7 hexes (the start position, plus 6 surrounding hexes), all filled with at least a day's worth of adventure. That is--you only have to write a few hexes, but all of them have to contain things which will, by necessity, detain the PCs for a whole session.

After the session, the DM just has to write 3 more hexes to finish surrounding the PC's location in order that the PCs are now once again surrounded by completely written, statted-up hexes.

...and so on, maybe forever, so long as the PCs never get any form of transportation that will allow them to "skip" a hex.

Worldbuilding Hexcrawl

On the other hand, if the PCs have a map, or some basic knowledge of the surrounding area, or have distant goals, or you want them to have distant goals, then things suddenly change.

In this scenario, you need to prep any hex the PCs could possibly get to.

This kind of hexcrawl would seem to suggest the world-building Bat-In-The-Attic-Approach, where you map out a whole section of your world, complete with a few triggerable plot seeds and drop-in-anywhere encounters.

The thing about this kind of approach is that it's extremely easy for the PCs to get to a stretch of territory that you haven't written much detail on. So either you have to write lots of detail on every possible location (which some people like to do, but that's a hobby in itself) or write some detail and be prepared to wing it a lot.

I am thinking the approach I'd want for me is something in the middle--the PCs should be able to choose distant objectives and map out paths using known geography, but I don't want to have to write up towns and cities unless I'm definitely going to use them soon, and I want to have at least one un-improvised, well-planned-out thing going on each day.

Plus, I want to know as little about the world when I start as possible so that I'm exploring as much as the players are.

Plus, oh yeah, I hate wilderness encounters. Ok, maybe "hate" is not the word. But compared to the intricate, cthonic majesty of dungeons having the PCs run into a bunch of bandits in a forest next to a river seems like a waste of my oh-so-precious gaming time. At least, I hate random, garden-variety wilderness encounters. I want to front-load awesome.

So, I think I'm going with a cousin to the Worldbuilding Hexcrawl. I call it:

The HexKit

1. Make a map, include every location you've already used in your game. Also choose a PC start point and, if possible, place this point in the middle of all the others.

2. If you have any dungeons or other completed locations, place them on the map and give them names.

3. Throw a few other places onto the map. The names should sound good, but you don't have to know anything about them yet.

4. Hex off the map.

(There seems to be a controversy about what constitutes appropriate hex-scale--either pick one or do what I do, which is say each hex represents "a days travel" and, if questioned further, tell whoever's asking that they really need to get out more. This should work fine until they're at a high enough level that they've got spells with ranges in miles, by which time you'll have sorted it out. So relax. Hell, you can just grid it with squares, really, but then you'd have to change all the nouns in this post, so I'm going to pretend I didn't just say that.)

5. Make a list of all the kinds of outdoor terrain that you think it's cool to watch PCs fight in. Keep in mind that each form of terrain should have some horrific, dangerous thing that could happen during a fight associated with it--frozen ice on a lake could crack, a battle in a black forest could awaken sleeping (evil) treants, etc.

6. Place geographical and topographical features on the map. Include every kind of cool terrain plus any uncool terrain necessary for verisimilitude.

7. Make a list of all the kinds of monsters (and opposing NPCs) that you think are cool.

8. Make a chart with the monsters/NPCs along one axis and the types of terrain along the other.

9. Place a mark every time you think it would be cool to have the PCs fight that monster/NPC in that terrain. (For example: it is cool to encounter a pack of dire wolves on a frozen mountain-face, it is boring to encounter a basilisk in a cave.) Now you have a List of Wilderness Encounters.

10. Sort the encounters by terrain-type, see how many you've got.

11. For each type of terrain, make at least one encounter more detailed and add a triggerable event or adventure seed to it, for example: killing the wolves on the frozen mountain-face angers the Frost God Cor-Greth and causes the Blue Jewel of Cor-Greth to begin absorbing the souls of men. These are your Complicating Wilderness Encounters. The location of any macguffins in these seeds should be left vague until the encounter occurs, at which point the necessary macguffins will be as far from the PCs current stated objective as possible (the PC shouldn't be able to get to the city/town/location where the macguffin is without doing a day's worth of playing--this gives you time to write more stuff about it before the PCs get there.)

12. Within each terrain-type, sort all the encounters (detailed and un-detailed) by interestingness (keeping in mind the level of your party). This is the order in which you will spring the encounters on the party.

13. Make a list of small (one-page-mappable) locations you think are cool to watch PCs fight in (small ruined temple, forgotten zeppelin factory, briny pub, etc.). These can be locations in a town or city or isolated lonely buildings or both.

14. Make another table with the monsters/NPCs down one side and the small locations down the other.

15. Place a mark every time you think it would be cool to have the PCs fight that monster/NPC in that location. Now you have a List of Indoor Encounters.

16. Expand some (2-4) of these Indoor Encounters and make them more detailed. Add some adventure seeds or triggerable events to them--they can be specific to the location, to the monster/npc, to both, or to neither.

17. Sort all the indoor encounters into two lists: ones that can be isolated in the middle of nowhere, and ones that have to be in a town or city.

18. Take the ones that can be in the middle of nowhere and sort them by interestingness. The most interesting ones will be the ones you pull out first. This is your Middle-Of-Nowhere-List-Of-Location-Based-Encounters.

19. Now: Wilderness encounters will ONLY happen during travel through wilderness zones which you have decided are cool. So, before the first day of play, look at each named location on the map in relation to the PC start point:

-If travel between the PC start point and a given named location crosses several different kinds of terrain that you have deemed cool, then you can be lazy and not stat the place they're headed to, because you've got a whole list of encounters (including ones with adventure seeds attached) to keep them busy with until you stat up the objective.

-If travel between the PC start point and a given location does NOT cross more than one kind of terrain you have deemed cool, then you have to stat and detail that location with enough information to keep the PCs busy for a whole session. If it's a town or city, you can use your List of Indoor Encounters but remember--an encounter can float until the PCs actually meet that foe--that is, if you've hidden a Zombie Pieman in Waldheim but the PCs leave Waldheim without going into the bakery, then just use the Zombie Pieman in the next town, if it fits.

-At any time, you can spice up wilderness travel with an encounter from your Middle-Of-Nowhere-List-Of-Location-Based-Encounters, or even a random hidden dungeon, however, unless there is some feature of the location that forces the PCs into the location, you have to be prepared for the possibility that the PCs will just avoid the location and head toward their objective. If this happens, mark the location on the map and either transfer its contents elsewhere so you can try again later or plant a seed in the next location pointing back to it. Then at least the PCs know there's something there.

20. Start the game. Have the PCs meet one or more talkative NPCs who generally let it be known that there are untold riches and/or rewarding intrigue to be found in roughly every direction and in every named location on the map. Give them lots of rumors and pirate maps and Dead Uncles Who Were Researching Mysterious Cults, etc.

21. After the game, note where the PCs are, go back to step 19 and repeat.

22. As usual, add detail as inspiration strikes. Remember to replenish your store of encounters and (possibly) evolve them as the plot develops.

*Regarding the micro-lite link--there seems to be a philosophical difference: hex 6 is empty. If it was a true sandbox, then hex 6 would have to have something in it. Otherwise the players could choose to go there, then there'd be nothing to see and no adventure and then you'd have to improvise and that seems to miss the point of mapping the place in advance. The example probably presumes that the DM gives the players information aiming them in the other 5 directions.


  1. "...then there'd be nothing to see and no adventure and then you'd have to improvise and that seems to miss the point of mapping the place in advance..."

    Respectfully disagree, most prep for me is throwing about hooks I can improvise with if the players encounter it.

    A lot of cool theory and practical processes here!

  2. I get it, but what I'm saying is, if you're going to the trouble to provide hooks in the the other five zones, why not put something in the last one?

  3. I like your pragmatic approach here! My experience with hexcrawling (six or so sessions) has used the OD&D wilderness encounter tables, which emphasized the "I'm exploring as much as the players are" aspect that you rightly shoot for - those tables are deeply strange to me, and the results of getting from here to there & unexpectedly meeting 1-4 elder dragons or 30-300 bandits has made me think about the world the PCs live in much differently than I would have if I'd planned it in advance.

    So for me, prepping cool encounters ahead of time would emphasize being ready to deliver awesomeness to the players over having the awesome experience of being as totally surprised by what's over the next hill as the players are. Or at least it's a different kind of enjoyment to do that ahead of time (and I do love making matrices) vs. at the table.

    One theoretical thing is that IMO the risk of random encounters should be more or less known to the players; as with trying to traverse a dungeon, the thought process should be "do we want to risk trying to make it that far without running into anything?" rather than "will we pass through the kind of place where the DM will spring something on us?" The likelihood of people thinking that way varies with their experience of other D&D playstyles, but I like to roll the 1 in 6 chance of encounter on the table, or have the lead scout roll it, to demonstrate that when dragons toast them it'll be the dice's fault not mine. Maybe the hexkit method is best for the initial exploration, and the chance-of-encounter-goes-up-with-number-of-hexes-traveled approach is for when the PCs are trying to get back from somewhere or otherwise go from one point you know enough about to another? -Tavis

  4. I suppose I create a Microlite/Worldbuilding Hexcrawl in some sense. I just did a post about my particular take on it, since I never really thought about hexcrawls the way the majority of the blogsphere seems to.

    I wonder if that's because of my Sci-Fi and Superheroes gaming preferences. Higher tech transportation often means less unnecessary travel and random encounters. Still, there is exploration on unfamiliar worlds...

  5. mule--
    let's put it this way: I'm too much of a snob to use most random tables. D4 Kobolds with bows stealing turnips lead by a 3 hd shaman? Screw that.

    Over time the players will realize (or be told) that certain territory is "dangerous" and certain other territory isn't. Just like real life.

  6. @Zak: I guess my rationale for empty hexes is partially kowtowing to simulationism and partially "pacing/rhythm/negative space."

    I like the nature of the game/world to oscillate to a certain degree. Sometimes everything goes good; sometimes rain clouds follow you everywhere; sometimes you spend a week walking through a tropical paradise feasting on fruit and nailing grass-skirted hotties; sometimes you have to claw and scrape every mile while being assailed by encounters and the elements.

    I like the contrast between a string of shitty damn days and a string of easy going while adventuring, it makes for sardonic comedy. "Party A was 90% decimated by the beasts of the Yin Jungles while Party B enjoyed the mellow climate and beautiful landscapes of the Ooog Plateau without any danger."

    I like random encounters a lot as well, so that factors into my okay-ness with empty hexes, although I do prefer making my own so that helps avoid turnip stealing kobolds.

    Plus, I do like to reward paying attention to the world and acting on it, so if the players figure out a "safer" route through the wilderness as an artifact of empty hexes, than by gum! they earned it.

    However, I do think that hexmap settings with Something In Every Damn Hex!, such as Carcosa and what you describe, are pretty awesome and I'm interested in exploring that approach.

  7. ...Not to imply that filing every hex precludes filling a hex with good times instead of a standard encounter.

    Which now has me thinking about adding things like gangs of wanton wenches or an overturned, abandoned beer wagon to my hex key & encounter tables.

  8. Excellent. 5,7,11 are key concepts lacking from the many other descriptions of this process I've read.

    re: turnip tossing kobolds. If every encounter is awesome turned up to 11. Then none of them are special and none are actually awesome. You have to have the occasional trivial encounter to make the awesome ones stand out. Well maybe Zak S. can be 110% awesome all the time. Me, I need gimmicks.

  9. things that are all awesome in different ways are still awesome. macaroni isn;t less awesome when you serve it with cheese.