Once an experienced GM has learned how to use a particular game structure, it’s usually trivial for them to “bling it out” with additional game structures that add flavor, complexity, or detail to a scenario.
If we take the basic structure of a hexcrawl, for example, what could we add (or tweak) to change (and hopefully improve) our game?
Random Encounters: A simple example. Just as random encounters add life and activity to a dungeon complex, they can also make a wilderness setting come alive. And it’s pretty easy to add periodic encounter checks to our hexcrawl procedures. Of course there are still questions to be answered about our exact methodology: Do we check once per hex? Once per day? Several times per day?
Hexes Are Big: Does it make sense for PCs to automatically find a hex’s keyed encounter as soon as they enter the hex? Probably not. A typical 30-mile hex (like those used in the original Darlene map of Greyhawk) is larger than New York City and two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. That’s a lot of territory for a couple dozen orcs or a lonely cave entrance to get lost in.
To model this, we could make the chance of experiencing a hex’s keyed encounter variable. We could even vary the probability of this (making it less likely to encounter hidden locations and more likely to encounter highly visible locations).
Navigating the Wilderness: Once you’ve left roads and well-beaten trails behind you, it’s relatively easy to become lost in the wilderness (particularly if you’re not properly trained). So rather than just letting players determine precisely the direction they want to go, we could add a skill check to determine whether or not they become lost (and, if they do, determine their true direction of travel randomly). To spice things up, we could set the difficulty of this check based on the terrain type they’re currently traveling through. We could even have weather conditions modify this check (so that, for example, it would be more difficult to find your way on stormy, overcast nights than when the stars were visible).
Mode of Travel: Are the PCs traveling at a normal pace, racing at high speeds, covering their tracks, spending time foraging, or crisscrossing their own path in order to thoroughly explore the local area? Based on these decisions, we could vary the speed at which they travel; the difficulty of navigation; the odds of finding local points of interest; and so forth.
Other Game Structures: Tulan of the Isles, a lesser known product written by Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Abrams in 1981, includes a full game structure for prospecting gems. The Ready Ref Sheets from Judges Guild included a similar system for prospecting, detailing the amount of time it takes to prospect a hex, the percentile chances of finding a vein of precious metal, and a methodology for randomly determining the type of vein and its value.
I offer this up not as something that every hexcrawl campaign requires, but rather as an example of how we often don’t think about the game structures that we use. If your players decided they wanted to go prospecting, how would you adjudicate that at the table? Would the method you use remain balanced over time if the players decided to make prospecting a major part of their characters? Could you make it as much as fun as dungeoncrawling? (If not, why not? Think about it.)
Consider, too, how the availability of game structures subconsciously shapes the way we play the game. Would you, as a GM, be more likely to design a scenario hook in which the PCs are hired by a dwarven king to prospect potential gold mines in the Frostbite Peaks if you had a fun little mechanic for prospecting to build a larger situation involving goblin reavers, icingdeath undead, and rogue frostmancers around? Would your cash-strapped players be more likely to spontaneously consider prospecting in the wilderness a viable alternative for cash if the rulebook included a chapter of rules for it?