Meet the Campaign: Apocalyptic Hexcrawl

A Cannibal Halfling mainstay since well back into the Mad Adventurers days has been Meet the Party: a collection of ready-made adventurers to get your creative juices flowing for a number of game systems. Today, we’re introducing something different. Nipping at the heels of System Hack but less mechanical, looking for detail like Meet the Party but more broad, we have Meet the Campaign! Cannibal Halfling examples and Level One Wonk playstyle editorials come together in a mashup that might even be useful.

Post-apocalyptic games come in a number of flavors: from grim to fanciful, and from fighting over every last scrap to bullets mysteriously appearing in guns and gasoline in cars. No matter the world, though, post-apocalyptic games are about scarcity, the world before it collapsed, and starting over with a blank slate. And there’s no better blank slate in the RPG world than a hexcrawl.

Since I wrote my first article about hexcrawling, the form is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the OSR. New settings like Hot Springs Island show that there’s a lot of life in the form, and are introducing new players to this rich and methodical form of exploration play. For GMs, though, running a hexcrawl can be a lot of work, especially if you aren’t using a pre-written setting. There is a solution, though, and it also helps create a sandbox full of interesting details and points of interest, no matter how inspired (or not) you are.

While today’s campaign frame comes from a number of locations, the person who deserves the most credit for laying the groundwork is Erin “The Welsh Piper” Smale. His “Hex-based Campaign Design” articles provide the overall structure to how the hex-filling process works. That said, we are going to make this super apocalyptic, so everything’s getting overhauled.

Unlike Meet the Party or System Hack, today’s Meet the Campaign is system-agnostic. There are tons of ways to roll in the post-apocalypse, and games ranging as widely as Fate, GURPS, Apocalypse World, and Twilight:2000 are all going to provide some inspiration here. Take the game for a spin in your favorite system, and see how it works! Before we can get to mechanics, though, we need to establish where the game starts, and how your players and your characters get into the mix.

The Intro: Great Artists Steal

The introductory premise is an old heel, and I won’t try to claim otherwise. That said, what we need for this game is a premise that allows your players to start without a map. This is important, because you aren’t going to have a map either at the beginning (at least not a complete one). This premise is, as some of you have likely already guessed, that the characters wake up from being cryogenically frozen. Wait, wait! Don’t close the tab! While it’s a cliche at best, it benefits from providing the characters with a completely blank slate as far as the setting and conflicts go, while still letting the GM set the power level. The power level is going to be a big decision, and for various reasons it will determine how you fill in your map. Let’s set up some examples.

The Morrow Project

In The Morrow Project, the characters find themselves awoken in an apocalyptic future in a bunker filled with military supplies, vehicles, and weapons. Originally put to sleep before the apocalypse, they are elite military operatives who were supposed to be woken up by instructions from Prime Base. The Morrow Project represents one of the highest practical power levels for a post-apocalyptic game, with the characters having access to a wide range of skills and weapons, and being challenged by massive undertakings focused on rebuilding and re-establishing contact with Prime Base.

Twilight:2000

In Twilight:2000, the characters are part of a military unit cut off from the chain of command during an apocalyptic event. While T:2000 characters are just as competent and well-equipped as their Morrow Project counterparts, there is more immediate scarcity and pressure to secure shelter, rations, and ammunition.

Fallout

In virtually all of the Fallout games, the main character is a former vault dweller who must enter the apocalyptic surface world as a result of some calamity within their underground vault. Though Fallout characters begin unskilled and are immediately faced with survival challenges, the presence of energy weapons, power armor, and nuclear warheads mean that the power level will climb, often quickly. Of note is that in Fallout games, there are usually few to no overland vehicles.

NEO:Scavenger

In NEO:Scavenger, the main character wakes up in a cryogenics lab somewhere in rural Michigan with no memory of how they got there and a mysterious beast down the hall. The game is unforgiving, requiring that a player constantly work for their food, shelter, warmth, light, and health. My own deaths in the game have come from hypothermia, blunt force trauma, gangrene, poisoning, thirst, and (yeah, I know) dysentery.

So where do you want to start, and where do you want to go? Scarcity should be an overriding theme, but both what is scarce and on what scale are open questions. In Mad Max, Max himself is never lacking for water or fuel, even if he struggles on the behalf of others who are. That said, scarcity and survival as merely an overarching conflict may work in a movie, but it’s going to fall flat in an RPG. Even on the higher end of the power scale, PCs should need grit and creativity to accomplish their goals. On the lower end of the power scale, food and water can disrupt plans and create plentiful side missions. The key on either end of the scale isn’t to slow the PCs down, it’s to make their victories sweeter, even the small ones. To wit, whatever scarcity you choose to emphasize, make sure you have a plan for if the PCs run out. Dying of starvation is not fun, but having to make tough decisions about dwindling rations could make for some great drama. Check out the Fate Horror Toolkit for more ideas on how to run survival and scarcity in your game.

Once you’ve figured out your power level, you now can pull out the hex map. Mark the starting location, and note one important thing: is this place safe? Starting from a base of operations and having to run for your life are two very different campaign introductions. Knowing that, you can sketch out exactly what this place is: underground vault, abandoned lab, military installation, or maybe something completely different.

The Map: Start Small, Work Out

You have hex 1, your starting location. Now, we’re going to establish some things about your map. First, scale. In the original Welsh Piper article, a 25-mile main hex (or Atlas hex) was used. This works nicely for fantasy games, where there’s a mix of travel on horseback and on foot, and there are generally assumed to be roads. For post-apocalyptic games, the resolution you need will depend on what’s available to the PCs. Vehicles mean you need more distance, extreme scarcity and scavenging will mean you need less.

One other nice thing on the Welsh Piper’s website besides “Hex-Based Campaign Design” are a collection of freely available hex templates, available for freehand use or programs like Hexographer. The core of all hexcrawls I run is the sub-hex template, which shows a large hex with 18 whole hexes and 12 half-hexes inside. This makes the larger hex 5 times the linear distance of the smaller hex. For our game, we’re going to choose three sizes that are modular with each other: so if you have a 125 mile main hex, it is 5 25-mile hexes across. Those 25-mile hexes are 5 5-mile hexes across, and so on. If you wish you could start at the 125-mile hex size and drill all the way down to one mile hexes. I wouldn’t, that’s a whole ton of work for detail and area you likely won’t use.

125 Mile Main Hex

125-mile main hex with 25-mile sub-hexes loses a lot of detail, but if you’re going Mad Max-style with muscle cars and truck convoys, your players will be able to cover 3 main hexes in a day so you’ll need to gloss over things a bit. Big long car chases are fun, but I’d limit this scale to Cannonball Run type antics rather than most other campaign ideas.

25 Mile Main Hex

25-mile main hex with 5-mile sub-hexes is the default size on the Welsh Piper. At this scale a typical party will be able to travel 3-5 sub-hexes per day on foot, 5-7 hexes on horseback, but 20-30 hexes per day with vehicles, as many as 100 if the roads are good. This scale is good for games where there isn’t a need to be very specific with the terrain, but your distances are limited by the endurance of humans or animals. If there are vehicles, difficult terrain can help you constrain the travel distances (and is probably fairly realistic, to boot).

5 mile main hex

5-mile main hex with 1-mile sub-hexes represents a lot of detail. Even with difficult terrain you can expect your characters to travel 10 hexes per day, and closer to 15-25 if there are good trails or roads. The reason you build a game on 1 mile sub-hexes is if the contents of each hex matter. If you aren’t running scavenging rules and really pushing on food, water, and other resources, this is likely too much detail.

In the end, most games end up working well on the 25 mile main hex, with the two scaling options covering relatively specific special cases: vehicle-heavy campaigns, and scavenging-heavy campaigns. As a general thought, unless there are special mechanics you’re planning on using for scavenging or vehicles, stick with the 25-mile main hex.

The first part of the hex you need to define is geography. Now for this part, post-apocalyptic and fantasy need not be particularly different. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’ll be using the same basic terrain types defined in “Hex-Based Campaign Design”: Water, Swamp, Desert, Plains, Forest, Hills, and Mountains. For the most part, any further variation can be covered by climate, which you should also choose. If you want something taking place on the snowy tundra, a cold climate with plains works nicely. For a tropical jungle, a warm and wet climate with forests is ideal. There’s no map-based need to define the climate, but consider if your system of choice has rules for survival in cold or hot conditions.

For each main hex, the primary terrain makes up half of the whole sub-hexes (9). If the terrain type has a secondary terrain type, that terrain makes up one-third of the whole sub-hexes (6). From there, the remaining three can be pretty much anything else; Hex-Based Campaign Design has a more detailed system that also stats out ‘tertiary’ and ‘wild-card’ terrain, but unless you’re going to randomly roll for terrain types, that level of detail isn’t necessary. Below are each terrain type’s secondary terrain and any exclusions (terrains that can’t share a main hex with that primary terrain):

Water: Mountains Excluded

Swamp: Desert, Hills, Mountains Excluded

Desert: Swamp, Forest Excluded

Plains: Water, Swamp, or Forest Secondary, Mountains Excluded

Forest: Plains Secondary, Desert Excluded

Hills: Mountains or Desert Secondary, Swamp Excluded

Mountains: Hills Secondary, Water, Swamp, and Plains Excluded

With this information, you’re going to fill in the 18 sub-hexes in your first hex. Hopefully you’ve chosen a terrain type that makes sense for your characters’ starting location, it will form the character of at least the first session of the game. Once you’ve gotten all the sub-hexes filled in, fill in the half-hexes using whatever type makes sense (but following the same restrictions).

Now that you’ve gotten the first hex filled in, do the same for the six adjacent hexes. These seven hexes, an abstract area roughly 75 miles in diameter, will represent the starting environment for your campaign.

The next step in your map-making is to place some encounters and points of interest. Now, in Hex-Based Campaign Design, it was expected that these outposts, ruins, and other bastions of civilization would be supplemented by wilderness encounters, and animal lairs would add further to the amount of danger on the map. In the post-apocalypse, though, we have guns, potentially many guns, and the ruins of civilization. 60% chance of a major encounter at most? That won’t do.

Instead of rolling for major encounters for each main hex, we’re going to roll for the first arc of the campaign. Roll a 1d4. This is how many threats you have. For each threat, we’re going to roll a type and a subtype. Both are 1d4.

Type

  1. Warlord: A nearby established settlement. Could be violent or looking to trade, but even if there is peace that doesn’t make it safe.
  2. Raider: A group without an established home. They can be eponymous raiders, a biker gang, a group of cultists. The difference between a raider and a warlord is that warlords rule over a place, raiders have no place.
  3. Aberration: A beast that should not be, or a twisted human shaped by the apocalypse. Something horrific.
  4. Dungeon: A location that, by virtue of what it is, is a place of great danger. It could be strange ruins, it could be fighting pits run by local slavers. It could be the consequences of a pocket of radiation.

Warlord

  1. A large settlement with an intimidating leader.
  2. A cult led by a charismatic preacher.
  3. A military organization, either pre- or post-collapse.
  4. A settlement ruled from afar by an enigmatic person or organization

Raider

  1. A biker gang.
  2. Murderous cannibals.
  3. Slavers.
  4. Amoral mercenaries.

Aberration

  1. Mutants of one form or another.
  2. A group of psychics who are building a psychic amplifier.
  3. A pre-collapse AI gone wrong.
  4. A mysterious cryptid beast.

Dungeon

  1. A locked Vault, presumably still occupied.
  2. A massive fighting pit which draws huge crowds.
  3. An abandoned city, occupied by multiple warring factions.
  4. A large building overseen by a mysterious proprietor, who offers all manner of vices

 

The type and location should get you started thinking about what sort of threat is in the area. The items listed there are only suggestions, but should get those creative juices flowing. Of course, if you have a better idea then ignore the dice rolls!

After your threats are determined, throw down some minor encounters. These will be points of interest which exist within the main hexes, but somewhere else in the area. If you’ve defined a threat within the main hex, roll 1d2 for minor encounters. For a main hex with no threats, roll 1d4 for minor encounters.

Minor Encounters

  1. Settlement: A group of survivors, without a leader or enough armament to be considered a Warlord.
  2. Nomad camp: A small cadre of nomads, more peaceful or less armed than Raiders.
  3. Abandoned Settlement: A recently occupied settlement that has been abandoned.
  4. Ruin: An abandoned strip mall, supermarket, or other similarly sized complex.
  5. Battlefield: An area with war dead, vehicle wrecks, the site of a skirmish.
  6. Strike zone: Area of destruction from either an orbital strike or a nuclear strike. Radiation present 33% of the time (1-2 on a 1d6)
  7. Vault: Likely abandoned or otherwise compromised, an active Vault would be better as a Warlord or Dungeon.
  8. Animals: 1-3: Feral dogs, 4-5: local predators like bears or wolves, 6: zoo animals.
  9. Shopping Mall: May or may not have been completely looted.
  10. Inhabited ruin: large retail space or apartment building that has been repurposed as a settlement.
  11. Port: An airport or seaport.
  12. Stadium: an abandoned sports arena. Likely not converted into gladiatorial fighting pits, as that would make it a Dungeon threat.
  13. Gas station: A large gas station, like a highway rest stop.
  14. Power plant: A power station or dam.
  15. Supply dump: An active cache of weapons, vehicles, or supplies. Likely secured.
  16. A hermit, claiming to be an oracle. Or the “Sole survivor”, whatever that means.
  17. A small establishment, like a restaurant. Hopefully not run by cannibals.
  18. Warehouse. Possibly filled with unmarked crates and barrels.
  19. A woodland shelter, deep in the forest. Possibly occupied by survivalists, or worse, hippies.
  20. A crashed spacecraft of some kind.

Once your seven hexes are filled in, you have what you need to start. Take your threats and minor encounters and flesh them out, changing things as necessary. One thing to note is to consider your scale. If your game takes place with vehicles and long distances, your major threats are going to be much larger and more significant. If your game takes place in a world where resources are only gained through scavenging, the major threats will be comparably smaller. As a result of this, the rolls for threats can be the same in all three scales…but consider what that threat would actually be if they have influence over either that much more or that much less territory than the default 25-mile main hex.

After the game has started, you’ll find you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of this area. That said, when your characters approach the edge of the map, use your prep time to roll another hex or two. The half-hexes on the edge should give you some idea of what your terrain choices are, and also help you half-fill if you need to keep the session going. When filling a new hex, consider the threats that already exist before rolling a new major threat. You can either place a point of interest related to an existing threat, or maybe a new threat that’s been alluded to, but randomly rolling a new threat and sticking it in might be incongruous. Also, as a general rule, try to avoid having more than four major threats on the board; your characters will be pulled in too many different directions.

The Conflicts: What’s Needed and Who Has It

So looking across these hexes, you have some major threats and minor encounters. What you need now is to understand the conflict which drives these threats and your characters into opposing each other. As noted above, post-apocalyptic games are fundamentally about scarcity. When building your game, choose a few items which are scarce. The basic feel of the game will depend on what your characters must struggle for, and whether they’re just trying to survive, figuring out how to thrive, or getting ready to expand. I’m going to arrange these in a basic hierarchy: you must survive before you can thrive, and you must thrive before you can expand.

Survive: Food, Water, Shelter

Thrive: Alcohol, Ammunition, Gasoline

Expand: Electricity, Labor, Livestock

As you can see, a campaign geared at “survive” is going to be about basic struggles and trying to stay alive. Ammo might be important, and thinking about labor could be useful when reinforcing an abandoned building against attack, but those items aren’t going to be available beyond what’s in character inventories. Once you’re at trying to “thrive”, the basics are in place and there’s likely a settlement which enables production and gathering of food, water, and shelter. Now, it’s booze to drink, bullets to shoot, and gas for travel which enables the settlement to run safely. And once that’s in place, it’s time to “expand”: start rebuilding civilization, provide power, use labor for building, and livestock to not just feed people but enable your population to grow. It is entirely possible to run a campaign that goes through multiple stages, but the driving motivations in the campaign are going to change. At the very least, you’ll want to define triggering events so you know when your prep is going to change.

So where do the threats come in? Well, that depends. The Warlord and the Raider threats are going to be the ones directly stressing your resources, either through competition or direct attack. The Aberration and Dungeon threats are a bit different, and more interesting. Aberrations and Dungeons change the environment, either directly (Aberration) or indirectly (Dungeon). When running these threats, you should be thinking about what’s going on in that area, and how it’s making your characters’ lives difficult. This is a good time to emphasize that your hex map, with its major threats and minor encounters, is not designed to be a hard and fast document! There will be other things going on. If there are fighting pits, there could be wandering slavers or escaped fighters or anything else along those lines…having your map for guidance and inspiration doesn’t preclude you from adding more and keeping the conflicts going. Remember the principle from Dungeon World: Draw Maps, Leave Blanks.

If your characters directly engage one of the threats, they may resolve the underlying conflict. Think about what’s left in its wake, and if any of the other threats would react. And don’t forget, your threats aren’t static. If your characters focus on one to the exception of others, things may develop and change. Raiders left unchecked may grow stronger, Aberrations may grow new abilities. Whatever changes, let the players know that things are afoot…it’ll make them think about their priorities and add new tension. If things ever get to something resembling an equilibrium, consider concluding the campaign instead of throwing more threats for the hell of it. The story’s natural breakpoint will help you come up with an ending that satisfies both you and your players.


With civilization in ruins and all known landmarks either destroyed or changed, the post-apocalyptic genre makes for a great hexcrawl. Hopefully with these introductory tools, you too will be able to write up your own little piece of the wasteland, and rebuild civilization in your image! Once again, thanks go out to The Welsh Piper and “Hex-Based Campaign Design”, Vincent Baker and Apocalypse World, and Evil Hat Productions and the Fate Horror Toolkit. If you give these guidelines a whirl, drop us a line and tell us how it turned out!

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