Level One Wonk: Hex-Crawling

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week, an old-school favorite: Hex-Crawling!

RPGs have been narrative devices for their entire history. Games specifically designed from a narrative perspective may be relatively new, but a whole range of interesting and effective storytelling modes have been developed since Dungeons and Dragons first came out in the 1970s. Some of these have lived on to the present day, while others have been all but abandoned in modern products, supplanted by different ideas or even board games and video games. And while some artifacts of gaming history are best left there, others provide a really neat spin on games that someone who started playing after the d20 era may have never heard of. Enter hex-crawling.

Hex-crawling is a form of campaign written for D&D and other systems (The Spinward Marches campaign for Traveller is a good non-D&D example) that focuses on exploration. The campaign world is laid out in hexes, with the size of the hexes chosen based on how detailed the campaign is. The players choose which way to go and map the world as they go, using game rules to determine how long the trip would take, what supplies they’d use, and if they get lost. The GM would use their version of the map to determine what the characters would find in each hex. This could be done top-down, with a world map that has every location of interest labeled and every hex terrain type detailed, or bottom-up, using random encounter tables or maybe even randomly generating each hex as the players go. It could even be argued that hex-crawling, or at least wilderness exploration in general, was a significant part of how D&D was originally intended to be played…classes like druid and ranger, which seemed out of place or underpowered by AD&D Second Edition and then moreso in Third Edition, could play a significant role in wilderness exploration that other classes couldn’t.

The big thing that makes hex-crawling different from other published campaigns is that the existence of a plot or pre-written story of any kind is essentially optional. The world would have a conceit which explained why it was profitable or desirable to go out and explore the world, looking for hidden treasures and riches. Then, the characters just did. Anything else that developed was organic.

You can still find resources scattered throughout the internet for this playstyle, but in terms of support in published products it is a very small niche. The biggest reason for this is how much work it takes, both to run and to play. If you write the world beforehand, you’re going to be filling in hundreds of hexes, and trying to think of at least skeletal encounter and adventure ideas for a large fraction of them. If you’re making it up as you go along, you’re going to have to do a lot of bookkeeping to keep everything straight. As for the players, the sort of mechanically detailed play that hex-crawling lends itself to is not for everyone. There’s also a lot of old-school assumptions baked into most hex-crawling products that still exist, most notably the idea that random encounters should be designed based on how they fit into the world, not based on game balance or suitability for character power level. Not only does that make a lot of the older hex-crawling campaigns lethal for characters, it also clashes with the design philosophy of a lot of newer games, specifically the most recent editions of D&D (D&D 4e, as an example, is sometimes said to be impossible to use for a hex-crawling game).

Despite being an unapologetically old-school approach, hex-crawling slots in nicely with a lot of more modern games. Dungeon World’s principle of “Draw Maps, Leave Blanks” is a fantastic example of a more recent game making a deliberate effort to make exploration a priority in the way the game should be run. The entire range of Powered by the Apocalypse games is built around “play to find out what happens”, which works great with a large world where the players have no idea what’s in it. On a more broad note, hex-crawling fits well with the ideals of the Old-School Renaissance, so games written in that vein not only work well but often can use a lot of old materials.

So what would a hex-crawling game look like in a recent system? One of the conflicts to be resolved right from the start is what degree of resource management the GM wants to involve in the game. It shouldn’t be zero; the tension of working your way through unknown wilderness comes from potential scarcity, and exploration isn’t interesting without at least some tension. That said, most people don’t want to be tracking water by the ounce or making rolls for every hour of walking. For a lighter game, a mechanic akin to the “rations” system in Dungeon World is simple but works like a charm, and can be easily ported. If you do feel yourself drawn to grim and gritty, the game Torchbearer is nice and crunchy, but still fairly intuitive.

The next question is one of encounter design. As mentioned above, the traditional method for encounter design was a combination of deliberate setpiece encounters and random encounters, rolled off of a table keyed to the environment the party was in (but not their level). Of course, this isn’t required, and you can moderate encounters by character level or forgo random encounters entirely. There’s also the possibility of using a system like Fate Core, where failing an encounter involves being “taken out”, but not necessarily killed. This is a great compromise because it allows the GM to portray the world as harsh and forbidding, but without the disruptive and often frustrating cycle of character death. The “taken out” mechanic can also be easily ported from Fate to other games if your group doesn’t want random character death.

The final question is how to design the map. As mentioned above, there are two basic approaches to world-building: top-down and bottom-up. If you’re going top-down, you write out the whole thing, place all your setpieces, and have the map ready for when your players start exploring. If you’re going bottom-up, you decide what’s in the starting hex of the campaign, and then figure out everything else only when the characters come to it. Anyone who has ever GMed a game is going to look at those two methods and immediately know which one is going to be more fun for them. That said, it’s a mistake to say one is “easier” than the other. Top-down requires a lot of mapping and writing, probably a lot more than the alternative (because the players likely won’t see the whole map), but when you run the game you already have everything you need. Bottom-up eliminates a lot of writing, but in addition to requiring a lot of improv it requires a lot of bookkeeping. Every time there’s a new city, you need to consider anything the characters have already seen that might tie in. For example, what if three sessions ago an NPC said there was a city ten miles down the road? When the characters walk ten miles down that road, they will be expecting a city. The biggest advantage of bottom-up mapping is not that it’s less work, it’s that the GM gets to share in the fun of exploring the map with their players.

Hex-crawling comes straight from the wargaming heart of D&D, but is still relevant for any group that wants exploration to play a major role in their games. In addition to slotting in nicely to any traditional game with a lot of physical area, hex-crawling can be aligned with more narrative games fairly easily by letting player decisions drive where the party goes and which points of interest become the most relevant. It is a fair amount of work, and at first blush looks most appealing to the detail-oriented among us…but even with that caveat, it’s still one of the best ways to effectively use the geography in a large campaign setting, especially one you’re writing yourself. The principles of hex-crawling can add a new layer of detail to the world you’re writing, and make exploration a fully fleshed out part of your game.

Further reading:

Old-school fantasy hex-crawl resources: From the Gnome Stew blog. Martin’s list has pretty much all of the sites I bookmarked on this subject, and is a great place to start looking for software, random tables, and advice.

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