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General Hexploration Design

jgsugden

Legend
I'm curious about the thoughts of DMs on designing Hexploration Elements of a Campaign. I'd like feedback on my thoughts, and to hear any insights from others.

As a basic definition, Hexploration is using a Hex map to create an area for PCs to explore during their adventures. It is often used in sandbox adventures, with the PCs having more places to potentially visit than they have time to find. An example would be a party trapped on an island with no resources - needing to explore the mysteries of the island to find a way off of it. I last played in one that mimicked a fantasy version of the exploration of the United States during a revolutionary war event while a Sauron style villain lurked in the expanse.

My basic thoughts are:

* It works best between levels 1 and 8 when the PCs do not have ready access to their own teleportation. You can likely expand that range by utilizing the Shadowfell and Feywild to cause them difficulty in just teleporting around. I think that level 13, with access to 7th level spells, marks an endpoint for this type of exploration being something they can't just trivialize away.

* Hexes that are roughly 3 or 6 miles across are a great size. People can see about 3 miles distance on a flat surface before the curvature of the earth starts to block sight. Thus, 3 to 6 mile hexes give you reasonable sight ranges into hexes from adjacent hexes. Also, Each hex that is 6 miles across (face to face) is a little over 30 square miles in a hex. Exploring a 30 square mile area for features is reasonable in one day of travel (to spot buildings, large landmarks, etc...). Searching a 6 mile wide hex for large features like buildings would be reasonable in a day of travel. Searching it in fine detail to find smaller features (such as small caves, a campfire site, etc...) may take several days. For reference, the hex covers about 20,000 acres, and a typical house lot in suburbia is a quarter acre.

* I divide my hexes into 7. There is a central hexagon, and then 6 trapezoids (one for each side of the hexagon). In a 6 mile wide (face to face) hexagon, those areas are each about 4.5 square miles. That gives me an easy way to note the location within a hex for features.

* In a hexploration game, it is good to mix up the features found. Some combat locations may contain a single combat encounter, others a dungeon with 3 to 20 encounters. As you have a budget of about 12 encounters per level under the DMG guidance for 5E, 8 levels of encounters would be about 100 encounters. That breaks down to three or so large dungeons of 12 to 18 encounters, 10 or so small dungeons with 2 to 4 encounters and 25 or so solo encounters. In addition to the encounters, you'll want features that are intriguing to the PCs, but not likely to be combat encounters.

* In addition to combat encounters, you'll want social encounters (villages, crazy hermits, etc...), hazards (fire swamps, puzzles, mysterious objects, etc...) The old 'match game' philosophy of connecting multiple locations with things that are found a ways apart (I found the mysterious book the hermit wanted - now where was that hermit located?) can give your players some goals to accomplish, but too much of it can make for a pretty flat game.

* If PCs explore a hex a day, a couple of years of adventuring to explore the region may be reasonable - so 700 or so hexes (or 22,000 square miles) is a good size if you want them to explore every hex (a little les than the size of West Virginia) . If you want them to bypass a lot of the hexes, 2500 hexes (or 80,000 square miles) is a good size (about the size of England + Ireland).

* There have been two recent KS that are great for this type of mapping. One is ongoing - Hexplorer: Create Whiteboard Maps for 5e and Other TTRPGs) - for flat magnetic terrain hexes. The other was Hexton Hills, a 3d print KS for hexagon 3D terrain.

Any other thoughts? Any other suggestions?
 

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J-H

Explorer
This is timely for me, thanks. I am going for a smaller hex count for an upcoming campaign, probably 50-80 hexes. Each will be about 20 miles across, so it'll be "1 day to cross" by land, or 1/2 or 1/3 day to cross by air (they'll have an a flying skiff thing). This will be for level 13->epic.

This will be on a continent they were previously not aware of, and no comprehensive maps will be available to the party. If they want to do point-to-point and skip numerous hexes, I'm fine with that (except for wasted work), but they will miss many opportunities along the way. They'll be stopping a deity from manifesting by collecting allies, foiling his allies, and finding artifacts or places of power, so "knowing what's where" is worthwhile.

My rough plans are for each hex's write-up to have:

1, Name/designation
2. Terrain type(s), max 3, with modifier to ground travel speed.
3. Description of any special environmental effects or smells.
4. Weather table
5. Random encounters (Airborne)
6. Random encounters (Ground travel)
7. Places or encounters of note. Probability of discovery of each. (Survival check? Time spent?
Passive Perception?)

With each hex ending up with 1-5 pages (for villages/cities/dungeons), it may end up being 200+ pages, which is a bit intimidating to write.

NPCs will be able to alert them to "known" things in other hexes, or to rumors and general directions.

There will be some time pressure, but it'll be a soft time pressure based on enemy actions/reactions every X days. I don't want to do what I've read about with ToA.

The mental block I have at the moment is figuring out how to do balance things for the fact that a typical "adventuring travel day" only has 1-2 encounters unless they're in enemy territory. This has implications for short rest vs long rest recharge abilities, as well as meaning that even a super-CR 20 Roc will likely get Nova'd unless I make it absurdly durable.
 

* It works best between levels 1 and 8 when the PCs do not have ready access to their own teleportation. You can likely expand that range by utilizing the Shadowfell and Feywild to cause them difficulty in just teleporting around. I think that level 13, with access to 7th level spells, marks an endpoint for this type of exploration being something they can't just trivialize away.
Roll20

Not sure Teleport wrecks Hexploration at all. 'Fast travel' teleportation doesnt wreck computer exploration games like Witcher, Fallout or Red Dead and similar, and that's available from early on in all of those games.

Check out teleport above; you cant Teleport somewhere (say; a Hex) you havent explored yet without at least a description, and a description of that Hex only leaves you with only a 1/4 chance of being on target.

Even being able to see a Hex far away (say due to elevation) gives you less than a 50 percent chance of landing there safely.

In fact, laying some Teleportation Circles about the map (4-5) actually provides some safe 'fast travel' options for high level PCs, as a reward for clearing out an area.
 

tommybahama

Adventurer
I didn't like the hexcrawl in Tomb of Annihilation. The random encounters were boring. They took a lot of time for our DM to set up and then they were always too easy. Our DM had problems with pacing the game and the hexcrawl made it worse.

I'd rather have the DM pre-plan the encounters. Let the players pick a route to a location and the DM choose the encounters along the way that build up the story rather than distracting from it.

I thought the daily survival rolls were repetitive and boring. A good roll shouldn't allow you to avoid random encounters. It should unlock great encounters.
 

Orius

Adventurer
Here's a couple of links I have on hexcrawling that might be of some use:


When you're doing a hexcrawl, you want to go with something like 1 mile and 6 mile hexes. 1 mile is good for basic low level hexcrawling; a sheet of hex paper that uses a standard of something like 5mm hexes will cover an area that a typical party can cover in a day's time starting from the center. 6 miles is when you're zooming out to show whole provinces or kingdoms. 6 mile hexes are a good standard because movement rates tend to be multiples of 6 in the various editions of the game, so it's good math.

Bigger hexes are generally for domain level play. The 1e DMG suggested hexes on a scale of 20-30 miles for that, and Gary went with a standard of 30 miles for the Greyhawk maps. The classic D&D stuff had a standard of 24 miles instead, and I think that's a slightly better measurement mathematically, but it doesn't really matter too much. But it's too big to use one its own for actual hexcrawling, and you want a scale like this if players are running kingdoms. At the very least, you're using this scale to depict things on a partial continental level.
 



DeviousQuail

Explorer
I've played in a couple hex crawls and ran one myself. They are fun but it's easy to overdo it as a player and GM. There are plenty of resources available on building and running them online so I'll stick to my biggest takeaways:
  • Unless you plan on releasing your hex crawl to the world, it's not necessary to plan out every hex in advance. This assumes you're using a lot of hexes. If you're working with 20 then plan it out. Working with 200, don't.
  • If you plan for the PCs to gain multiple levels over the course of the hex crawl then you should have challenges that scale over distance. Hitting the CR 1/2 bandit camp shouldn't be followed with an ancient red dragon. The way I handled this was I would pick a hex and make that the "danger hex" for a portion of the map. The difficulty of encounters would escalate the closer one got to that hex. Sometimes there would be clusters of danger hexes but usually they were spread out with a few hexes between them.
  • If a hex is more dangerous, make that apparent to the players. Describe the giant footprints, how quiet the animals have become, the hairs on the players necks standing up. Roll more often on the random encounter table and make sure the players know that's what you're doing. Players should be able to make informed decisions, not blindly guessing.
  • Random encounter tables are great for hex crawls. Save your detail for the important dungeons, towns, and landmarks. Additionally, random encounter tables are good but you can choose how random an encounter is. If a random encounter occurs in a moonlit grove you can choose to use the "unicorn with rabies" encounter if you think it's the best for that situation. Don't feel beholden to the table.
  • Don't set up too much backtracking. The goal is to explore new things. If every session ends with traipsing back to the same town then it's not really a hex crawl.
  • Make sure everyone is on the same page with rules for eating, drinking, sleeping, encumbrance, foraging, travel times, etc. This goes back to the whole "informed decisions" piece.
 

You can combat EL fluctuations by having areas of differing levels of danger. If your PCs are starting in the central Hex, have the surrounding 3-4 hexes in all directions contain EL 1-4 threats, then as they get further out have different zones (or fixed areas) that contain higher level threats.

You could have 'zones' with each zone a cluster of Hexes with threats grouped by tier (heroic, etc).

5E is pretty forgiving. PCs can hit and defeat a higher CR threat presuming they're fully rested. They may take that high level threat as an indicator they're in a dangerous area and are in over their heads.

As for upgunning low level threats, thats also pretty easy. If PCs hit an area where they're of a higher tier than the the area, give monsters in that area a slight up gunning (+2 to Saves, Attacks, Skills, +50 percent to HP, and all damage dice increase by 1 step (d4>d6>d8>d10>d12>2d8)) for each tier the PCs are higher than that of the area.
 


Myrhdraak

Explorer
You can combat EL fluctuations by having areas of differing levels of danger. If your PCs are starting in the central Hex, have the surrounding 3-4 hexes in all directions contain EL 1-4 threats, then as they get further out have different zones (or fixed areas) that contain higher level threats.

You could have 'zones' with each zone a cluster of Hexes with threats grouped by tier (heroic, etc).

5E is pretty forgiving. PCs can hit and defeat a higher CR threat presuming they're fully rested. They may take that high level threat as an indicator they're in a dangerous area and are in over their heads.

As for upgunning low level threats, thats also pretty easy. If PCs hit an area where they're of a higher tier than the the area, give monsters in that area a slight up gunning (+2 to Saves, Attacks, Skills, +50 percent to HP, and all damage dice increase by 1 step (d4>d6>d8>d10>d12>2d8)) for each tier the PCs are higher than that of the area.
Have not run a hexcrawl, but might want to try it out. I think the modified resting rules in "Adventures in Middle-Earth - 5th Edition version" would add to the danger and resource management. The PC would have to find "safe zones" where they can recover.
 


SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
Gearing up for an exploration campaign right now, so very timely topic for me. The last real hexcrawl I played was Isle of Dread with my little brother 35 years ago. We’re doing classical premise of a party that finds themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious, tropical island. OK, they all wake to find themselves in crashed starship escape pods on this island — and they have amnesia, so the exploration is of both the island and trying to discover more about their own identities.

Great callout Myrhdraak on AIME for travel rules. Having a set of mechanics for not only the navigation of unknown hexes, but jobs for everyone works so well. I hadn’t made that connection until seeing you share it.

Obviously, having random encounter tables broken out by biome makes sense. It’s more than a ”wandering monsters” table , though. And I feel like I need 4-5 good set piece encounter concepts at the ready for what the group mI got encounter in the jungle, along the coastal cliff side, atop the volcanic mountains. If anyone can point me to any sources for those sorts of encounters (more than just fights please), I’d be grateful. I can mine seeds, all the stuffs on my shelves, etc. for inspiration, but does anyone knows a site or published supplement they’d recommend?

Is the old AD&D Wilderness Survival Guide worth checking out again? Not to use as is, but to mine? I haven’t seen that thing since the late 80s, but I imagine it’s available on DMsGuild.
 
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jasper

Rotten DM
I didn't like the hexcrawl in Tomb of Annihilation. The random encounters were boring. They took a lot of time for our DM to set up and then they were always too easy. Our DM had problems with pacing the game and the hexcrawl made it worse.

I'd rather have the DM pre-plan the encounters. Let the players pick a route to a location and the DM choose the encounters along the way that build up the story rather than distracting from it.

I thought the daily survival rolls were repetitive and boring. A good roll shouldn't allow you to avoid random encounters. It should unlock great encounters.
What I did in my Adventure League game, was two weeks before the start; everyone gave me I think 5 % rolls. I then used those rolls as the wandering monster rolls for each chart. I typed up the encounter per terrain and put those in an bag. Tonight's encounter will be. Let Tommy pull from the No Undead bag. 29 T-rex. Submitter was Tommy. Everyone thank tommy.
I agree with on the unlock great encounters. But half the point of the book was It was a CLASSIC HEX crawl for those who never encounter one.
 

jgsugden

Legend
If you're finding you need to divide up your 6 mile hexes because you need a finer scale then why not use 2 mile hexes?
Map size. I don't want to increase the size of my map by 300% in each direction. Part of the fun, for me, is to put the map together with the PCs so that they can see it being discovered and completed. If the map is too big, tht becomes unruly.

And, this is mostly so that I can provide and be consistent on where, within a hex, a feature is located. For example: Hex AA37 is a swamp. In Zone 0 (center) is the hag's hut, and in zone 3 (SE) is the troll cave entrance. I have an excel spreadsheet that covers all of the hexes and the 7 subzones within them. The main terrain type for each hex is populated, as are a small number of subzones for features of note.
 

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