Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Good Old-Fashioned Hex Crawl

I started on this post before the drama mentioned last post kicked-in, so some of the details aren't immediately relevant to my campaign anymore. Even so, the overall

Just on a lark, I did some poking around a couple of weekends ago to see what sort of gaming software I could find on the web and I came across a little piece called RPG Manager and another called Hexographer, both of which can be used to make hex-based maps. I saw some potential in both for my own campaign.

As I played with the programs, I found myself recreating the maps from the Kingdoms of Kalamar Atlas in hex form, using a 6-mile hex as my scale. I found myself surprisingly delighted with the results. I haven't used a hex map as the basis for a D&D game since . . . well, almost ever. I used the more easily obtainable graph and plain white paper in my younger years and Campaign Cartographer since my 20s. The latter made beautiful maps and was fairly easy to scale, but was time-consuming to use. Nevertheless, I remained far away from hex maps for years.

Recently, I came across my old JG stuff and had some fun going back through it. While it didn't sell me on the wisdom of the hex entirely, I did like the way it enabled sandbox play, since one could simply set up the contents of each hex and assume that if the party passed through it, they had a good chance of encountering whatever was there. Some have decried this as unrealistic, but it serves a useful purpose: It gives the party a basic unit of exploration in the wilderness, just as the 10' square does in the dungeon. Few referees would force the players to describe the area they are searching down to the square inch; rather, we rule that it takes a turn to search a 10'x10' area. In the same way, while it may be realistic to have the party miss the entreance to the dungeon by a mere hundred feet in a forest, it's bound to lead to frustration and styme exploration.

Of course, not everything in a 6-mile hex (an area encompasing approximately 20 square miles) need be seen the instant a party enters it. A lot depends on the type of terrain, how big the object (or creature) is, whether it was built on a hill (as most human fortresses are) or hidden in a cave, whether the area's paths (whether paved roads or just the easiest way to traverse its contours) pass near it, etc. There are too many factors to create a table that would cover all situations, so the referee will need to make a ruling based on his best estimate of the object's size, form, and prominence.

To give an example of how this works in actual play, let me share some highlights from this last week's game: The party, following up on rumors of Dejy raiders wearing palid masks, decide to seek them out in a nearby wood. The first day, they left late, traveled a hex through clear terrain and two hexes into the woods. A random encounter showed a result of a "wreck" of some sort, so I ruled that the players found a crude cart at the bottom of a ravine. One player asked if there was any sort of trail. I said there was (common sense dictating that a cart needs a trail to go far in heavy woods) and the party followed it along the ridge of the hills that lay to the south.

They encountered nothing of note the second day, but on the third day, a random roll indicated a band of cultists. Fortunately, the party's thief, scouting ahead, won the surprise roll and was able to hide before they noticed him. The cultists were turning on another trail leading to the south and, as it turns out, up the slope towards the monestary of St. Gaxyg. At that point, the party is outnumbered and decides to avoid a confrontation, instead taking shelter for the night in a nearby cave . . . which another random encounter indicated was the haunt of four dryads.

What tickled me is how well the hex-crawl worked with random tables. I simply created the encounter tables for the forest, including a "Ruins/Relics" result which directs me to a set of random tables drawn from the old JG Wilderlands sets. The existence of an actual trail through the woods all followed from a random cart on the road, and the path of the trail followed the contours of the land. The other encounters were equally random, with the imagination filling in the blanks. There's definitely something to be said for the Oracular Power of Dice.

Of course, not everything in the campaign is random. After all, I created specific encounter tables for the region in the first place, which gives a good idea of the local population distribution, and my map does include specific sites to visit. But by including that random element, I got a chance to be surprised, and being surprised is one of the greatest pleasures of a referee.


  1. One rather ingenious idea is to use the saving throw mechanic, applying applicable modifiers for ability scores, and a plus or minus modifier depending on the background of the character and the difficulty of the proposed action to determine the final target number

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