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D&D 5E Hexcrawls/wilderness adventures

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I'm running a hexcrawl campaign with a group of 14 players.

I've set it up so that anyone from the pool of players can play, but each 'expedition' has a maximum of 5 players so groups at the table don't get too big and unwieldy. So they decide who is adventuring when and with which group of people.

I use 5 mile hexes, just because they fit nicely in my overall 25-mile campaign sized hexes.

For some online blogs for inspiration, I'd recommend:
www.thewelshpiper.com (his section on hex based campaigns is great)
http://thealexandrian.net (he has a 12-13 part series on hexcrawl campaigns with lots of insights)

Besides the isle of dread I'd recommend checking out the following on DrivethruRPG:

Points of Light 1 & 2 (both have some great mini campaigns centered around different general themes, like the area is a borderland between to warring factions, no man's land after the empire withered away, there is a lone colony on the edge of
a jungle filled with a lost civilization, a ship based campaign exploring different islands, etc.) Great starting point for mini campaigns.

Hexcrawl Chronicles (There are 7 or 8 of these) looser on a general theme, these are more focused on exploration and have an old-school feel. Some of the individual encounters are really creative and are pretty great.


Try making the hex crawl the 'dungeon'. Isle of dread is a great example of this type of thing.
Yeah I think this is the way to go. When I think of a hex crawl designed as a dungeon, I'm thinking of not just a willingness to include gonzo content but:
- map provokes interesting navigational choices
- restricted rests
- encounters might snowball into others. I will need some simple rules to handle other parties searching for the PCs
- no dungeons within the dungeon. Or nothing larger than a single session's play anyway. Larger dungeons might exist underneath cities or possibly via altered states of consciousness.

I have run the Isle of Dread before, with B/X. I liked the content but found it poorly designed. It's too big, too empty and it was an exercise in frustration to have the players try to map while also using the rules for getting lost. It's gotta be one or the other: either the players get a blank map but can fill it in hex-by-hex reliably, or they get a good map and sometimes get lost, and then reorient themselves with the map.
The scale for the map is 6 miles per hex, which I find nice because it gives potentially multiple hexes explored in a single day.
I'm going to try the 1 mile-per-hex scale, advocated by the 5e DMG. I like that at this scale you can assume that the PCs find whatever there is to find in the hex, and you can have different visibility ranges depending on terrain and weather. My hope is that this will make the exploration feel more concrete, rather than just wandering around until they bump into something interesting. A 5 or 6 mile hex is really quite huge. I'm going to shoot for less of a Lewis & Clark expedition feel and more Robin Hood stomping around Sherwood Forest. Nottinghamshire is in fact right about the size of a single sheet of paper with 1/4" 1 mile hexes.

Short and long rests are handled by there being a random chance (I think I was doing 1 chance per short rest, and 2 per long rest, for differences in activity cycle between mid-day short rests and over night long rests, but I haven't checked my notes) of wandering monster, using the tables present in the module itself.
When I asked about short and long rests I was thinking about 1 hour/8hours vs. 8hours/1 week. Seems to me long rests can't be given every night or the party won't come anywhere close to 6-8 encounters per day.

Balance and placement of encounters is basically that there is no balance - the wandering monster table is filled with the expected inhabitants of the area, weighted for commonality, and the specifically placed encounters in hexes are things that would be expected of the locale like nests of pterasaurs, bands of lizardmen, and the like (all expected on a jungle island). It is distinctly up to the players to decide whether to defeat the challenge presented by encountering island inhabitants with combat, evasion, negotiation, or some other tactic (all of which, besides not encounter things in the first place, are worth the same XP value to them).
I think there's a logic to pairing high encounter difficulty variance with nightly long rests (the variance provides tension in the absence of resource attrition). I would like to control long rests though, so I think a rough measure of balance will be best. Easy enough: the farther away from civilization, the more dangerous the wilderness is.

As for when to use the hex-crawl style, I find it works best when the goal of the adventure is exploration. If the characters are either looking to see what all is present in an area, or headed to some location they know a very general location of but not the route to take to arrive there or the specific location itself, a hex-crawl model is fitting. But if the characters are just trying to get to a known location, a different model is more suited for the travel portion (such as just describing the travels and having no encounters at all, or the basic 1-per-day + 1-per-night 18+ on a d20 is a random encounter model shown in the DMG).
What level was the party? Characters of very low levels are in a bit over their heads in most wilderness adventures. Higher level parties have the resilience and resources to be away from civilization longer.

Also the majority of hex crawls are very much exploration focused. The rhythm of play revolves around discovering things as new territory is explored. If your players are expecting a game with more intrigue & plot development then an exploration focused campaign typically features, then they may be confused. Such a campaign expects players to be more proactive than reactive. If your players are not used to this style, then they may feel that something is off.

Another important distinction to make is between outdoor adventuring and true wilderness. PCs may travel over unsettled areas in many types of campaigns. The party might answer a plea for aid from a nearby kingdom. To get there, they must pass through the Dread Willows, a dangerous forest. This is certainly outdoor adventuring but not wilderness exploration.

A true wilderness exploration campaign takes the PCs into territory unknown to the civilized world. There they may find lost civilizations, ruins, dungeons, and other wonders. The campaign itself is all about the adventuring it takes to discover these things. Unlike "known" dangerous lands, there is no research that can be done to find out about the wilderness, it must be experienced firsthand.

To make such a campaign interesting, the DM needs to prepare a suitable wilderness filled with interesting things to discover. Things that will be quite a big deal if the PCs ever make it back with evidence of them. The wilderness is a place to use all that wacky stuff that doesn't really fit into the explored and known world.

Level 4-7. This was in B/X and AD&D though, not 5e. I've run the Isle of Dread, a bit of the Land of Nod hexcrawl and a hexcrawl I made around Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil. I have the latter particularly in mind when I say that the hexcrawl seemed to interrupt the rhythm of the game. I placed various other adventures in the area for the PCs to tackle between excursions to the temple, each of which had some connection to every other adventure. It worked very well overall, but each adventuring site was so well-developed that the hexcrawl between them became extraneous. The campaign would have worked just as well, probably better, if travel between sites was handwaved. The PCs didn't discover anything of importance through exploration alone.

IME plot dominates exploration. I think for a true sandbox feel you really have to approach it resolutely anti-plot. But repetitive play + lack of plot = grind. How to avoid grind? The PCs need to be able to change the world, rather than just explore it.

"Things that will be quite a big deal if the PCs ever make it back with evidence of them."
Yep, that's part of the answer. Instead of an NPC giving the party a fetch quest to bring them back something from the wilderness, the party recognizes the value of something they find there (treasure, secrets, political intel), and heads to civilization to push their weight around.

Another way to avoid grind would be to have something happening on a timeline. You could introduce an orc invasion with random encounters: when an encounter is used, replace it with orc scouts. When you hit orc scouts, replace it with orc war band. When you hit war band replace it with an orc siege army. Or plot stuff on a calendar.


Isle of Dread doesn't work so well with 5E rules as the while 6-8 encounters a day thing doesn't work well with 5E hit point recovery.

i have used Paizo's Kingmaker adventure as a template for a good hexcrawl especially the 1st two adventures. Some thoughts.

1. PCs do not benefit from overnight/HD based healing if in wilderness areas or failing that extreme wilderness area (Sahara, Amazon etc).
2. No balance to encounters. If PCs encounter something potentially tough lto et them flee or RP around it. Death shouold always be an option
3. Award xp for exploring hexes.
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Our DM needed a break, so I pitched running a small exploration campaign in hexcrawl format to our group. They really liked the idea. Now, I guess I better start prepping it.

Everyone says use "Isle of Dread". Problem is we've used Isle of Dread already as an adventure (the central plateau hid a wizard's lair - he brought the group there via teleport kidnapping so he could use them in his 'experiments'. He got stabbed to death instead).

Any other good 1/2e adventures that anyone would recommend? I have a few of them in books or PDFs, but none of them are wilderness adventures like Isle.

Monkey Isle for BFRPG is a really good Isle of Dread expy - get that. :)


My Wilderlands 5e game has a lot of hexcrawling overland travel; not mapping per se though - I tend to find it's best to let players see the hexmap. I use 15 miles/hex for travel, also a few detailed 1 mile per hex local area maps. Those work particularly great for trail maps along major routes.


First Post
Another way to avoid grind would be to have something happening on a timeline. You could introduce an orc invasion with random encounters: when an encounter is used, replace it with orc scouts. When you hit orc scouts, replace it with orc war band. When you hit war band replace it with an orc siege army. Or plot stuff on a calendar.

I like this idea. This is my groups first crawl and I don't want it to be too sandbox-y.

I think I'm going to use X4 - Master of the Desert Nomads. The basic set up is the army of some border kingdom went into the desert to fight an evil army of desert nomads (and orcs and such) led by a BBEG, never to return. You are sent into the unmapped wilds of the desert to find that army (it was destroyed) and eventually to find the BBEG's hidden lair before his army marches on 'civilized lands'. I'm not sure if I want to have it end with the players neutralizing him themselves, or have them return with a map so the combined armies of the endangered kingdoms can deal with it.

I figure that should have enough plot and narrative drive to avoid being a "reveal all the hexes" grind.


First Post
I'll check that out, thanks. On a side note: Someone else I know suggested "Isle of the Ape". What is it with Islands and Monkeys that says 'exploration'?!


Seems to me long rests can't be given every night or the party won't come anywhere close to 6-8 encounters per day.
If you decide to concern yourself with that suggested guideline, that's fine - you don't have to though. I don't, and my games are enjoyable for me and my players anyways (because while I don't try to guarantee that 6-8 encounters happen before a long rest can be taken, I also don't guarantee that there won't be that many, or even more, encounters before a rest can be taken - so whether the party faces 1 encounter or 16 in a day, they behave in the same way where spending limited resources are concerned so they aren't steam-rolling those only encounter of the day situations by blowing more resources than they would if they knew for sure there would be 5-7 more encounters later).

Isle of Dread doesn't work so well with 5E rules as the while 6-8 encounters a day thing doesn't work well with 5E hit point recovery.
I disagree with both points, and assume that as usual your reasons for believing these statements true are entirely things which you cause by the way you choose to run the game since literally zero of the problems you've ever expressed having with 5th edition have been universally, or even widely, experienced by others.


First Post
So, if I understand correctly you have "encounters" based on either the hex (e.g., they find the ruins in hex 0112) or from a random table, without any concern how many that is. That's what I'd like to do instead of forcing X number of encounters to make the total meet the magic "6 to 8 per day"

Do you roll the random table once per hex? Or do you do it based on time? Or distance? I'll be using 6 mile hexes as well (so, 4/day at normal pace). I'd like to make sure I'm rolling random encounters enough to give the players the idea that anything can happen at any time (so, don't use all those spell slots!).

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