Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How I Make and Run Hexcrawls

Most hexcrawl procedures are too complicated for me. I think many rulesets strive to make travel an interesting challenge, while I would rather serve other ends. I want it to be easy to cross a map, but likewise easy to get distracted. Every hex should have effluvia, marginalia, phantasmagoria, anything that provokes the visceral joy of travel through strange places.

The Steps:

0. Come up with a concept and 3-4 themes

  • A strong concept is beyond the scope of my ability to briefly explain here, but you do want conflict.
  • For Okucenza, the themes were "disquieted local spirits", "the aftereffects of war," and "community-building." Notably, these were the themes for the campaign as well, and everything from the starting classes to additional rules played into this.

1. Get a big hexmap.

  • I use a chromebook for my role-play work, so most of my image manipulation is with google drawing. I found a very large hex grid, lettered and numbered online. They come in a variety of comely sizes, or you can make your own.
2. Throw up some coastline and major geography
  • One "hex" in my method is 12 miles across, for reference. I don't bother drawing small features like hills or woods. Mostly just rivers, mountains, and notes about settlements I already know I want to include. Without a hexmap, you can show the players something like this:

3. Separate the map into different regions.
  • Exaggerate the differences between different parts of the map. In the top-left corner, I imagine a land of holy radiation and devastation. The bottom-left, a depopulated coastal metropolis.
  • These regions should be compact enough that you can get a good zoomed-in picture of the region for reference later. But! Don't make more regions than you have good, distinct ideas of what they feel like.
4. Each region has two terrain types that make up their hexes.
  • Another rule of thumb! Don't assign these to each hex yet, but come up with them now to help you brainstorm later. So the top left is primarily "petrified trees" and "goodlands"-- like badlands but sanctified. Whereas the bottom left is "thick forests" and "ruins." There will be exceptions, like the occasional mountain or bog. That's fine.
5. Make a million hex descriptions— settlements, landmarks, odd residents. Just a big list based on your themes.
  • Make more than you think you need. Your first 200 ideas are not your best 200 ideas.
  • These should be settled (not likely to leave the hex), specific (Brief! Key details to distinguish one landmark from a similar one elsewhere), and salient (players will have some feeling about the contents)
  • Some examples: 
    • Luanist monastery, dedicated to chiseling copies of the Salvation of the World (settled spot, containing servants of a particular faith. They can be helpful, they might be opposed to the party, etc.)
    • Abbey served by religious laypeople (social dynamic at play here. Two groups that might have different goals.)
    • Xaptian utopia ruins (worth exploring? If the party knows what the Xaptians were like, they might better judge whether to enter. Is there a dungeon entrance?)
    • A jade-hilted knife that curses with weapon blindness (This description didn't give context so we can refer to our previous work-- the themes. Maybe it's wielded by some weapon-blind warrior who wants to restart the last war, or it has corrupted a local spirit.)
    • In the hollow of a great fallen tree, a witch vivisects a spirit. (Maybe she can hide it from the party? Maybe they want to learn about her findings?)
    • In the middle of a clearing, a box shrine to Xapt with prayers stuck inside. (Who left this here? There's probably a mundane solution. It could be a five-minute mystery, and you shouldn't underestimate a succession of fulfilled minor mysteries.)
    • Moaning well overlooked by grey myconids (What happens when you drink from it? What are these "myconids" like?)
  • Notice how all of these have some evocative image, or convey some mood. This is by design, and when you know what you're going for you will birth a thousand strangenesses.
6. Assign these descriptions to each hex, aiming for variety. 
  • Key these by region.
  • This is when you assign terrain types to each hex as well. Since you know what the hex descriptions are, you can massage the direct composition. Maybe you had more goodlands hex descriptions than petrified forest descriptions.
  • Each region should have multiple meaty hexes and multiple mostly-just-evocative ones. Keep in mind how many hexes contain civilized elements, and any other density issues that should stay aligned with your themes.
  • Example:

7. Each region gets its own random encounter table, mostly creatures but also signature traders, mundane wildlife, and weather. 
  • For Okucenza, I roll a d20. 1-8 are unique to the region, 9-10 are general, 11-15 are no event but with signs or spoor of 1-8, 16-17 are local wildlife, 18 is a travelling merchant, 19 is notable weather like rainstorms or radiation,  and 20 is "pursuers catch up."
  • Example: 
    Notes: number 7's bazaar refers to a janky market system I use. Number 8 is a link to a random spirit creature from Magic: the Gathering.
  • Travelling merchants are based on PKdragon's merchant system, where strange travelers offer a small amount of heroically-relevant goods. Each region has two different merchants, and most merchants can be found in two or more regions.
  • Every time the party leaves a situation unfinished, where someone might follow or run into them again, I add them to a list called "Pursuers." Then, when I roll a "pursuers catch up roll," I re-introduce an NPC off this list.

You've made your hexmap. Add whatever processes you need to fulfill your campaign.

Running my Hexcrawls

  • You travel through one hex per day on land usually. Half- or quarter-speed along mountains, twice as fast on a river barge, five times as fast on the open ocean.
  • Every day of travel, I roll for a random encounter. 
    • About 40% of the time there is none, but some are very minor, like seeing an animal. 
    • The table also generates an alignment, regardless of event, so that the same hex feels a little different each time. The axes are constructive vs destructive and concord vs discord. So constructive concord with a panther encounter might just be that the normal inhabitants are building something or observing a peaceful ceremony, or that the panther is non-aggressive and happens to be useful.
  • You don't heal from resting unless you take a day off travelling. I don't make you track how you get food, but you need to take time or money to acquire rations if you want them to heal you.
  • I think that's literally the whole system? It doesn't lack for much.


  1. "Pursuers catch up" is something missing from my list that is GENIUS. I'd love to steal this. A+ work

  2. Great post! I read it as you generate all the hexes from the get-go, but keep those in a list with the only map being the player-facing one? I've vacated between generate-as-you-go and pre-roll-the-whole-map, but I'm currently leaning towards the latter, as it's always uncomfortable diving for the dice anytime a player ask an NPC "what's the next village up-river" or something along those lines. Even if it's more work upfront.