The Alexandrian


June 1st, 2012

Hexcrawl Map

As part of my essay on game structures in roleplaying games, I specifically discussed the basic structure of the hexcrawl:

(1)   Draw a hexmap. In general, the terrain of each hex is given as a visual reference and the hex is numbered (either directly or by a gridded cross-reference). Additional features like settlements, dungeons, rivers, roads, and polities are also typically shown on the map.

(2)   Key the hexmap. Using the numbered references, key each hex with an encounter or location. (It is not necessary to key all of the hexes on the map.)

(3)   Use (or design) mechanics which will let you determine how far the PCs can move while traveling overland. Determine the hex the PCs start in and track their movement.

(4)   Whenever the PCs enter a new hex, the GM tells them the terrain type of the hex and triggers the encounter or location keyed to that hex: The PCs experience the event, encounter the monsters, or see the location.

Initially a core component of roleplaying games, the hexcrawl structure slowly faded away. By 1989 there were only a few vestigial hex maps cropping up in products and none of them were actually designed for hexcrawl play. 2nd Edition removed hexcrawling procedures from the rulebooks entirely. It wasn’t until Necromancer Games brought the Wilderlands back into print and Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign went viral that people started to rediscover the lost art of the hexcrawl.

During my discussion of game structures,  I mentioned that I had been developing and playtesting a robust structure for hexcrawling. Since then I’ve received several requests to share my rules for hexcrawling. Although still very much a work in progress, over the next few days I intend to do exactly that.


Before we get to the actual hexcrawling, however, I want to take a moment to clarify what my design goals were (and are) for this project.

First, I wanted a structure which would hide the hexes from the players. Although I find the abstraction of the hex extremely convenient on the GM’s side of the screen (for tracking navigation, keying encounters, and so forth), I’m of the opinion that it has negative effects on the other side of the screen: I want the players interacting with the game world, not the abstraction. Therefore, the hexes in this hexcrawl system are a player-unknown structure.

Second, building on that, the structure is explicitly designed for exploration. The structure, therefore, includes a lot of rules for navigation, getting lost, and finding your way again. It’s built around having the players constantly making new discoveries (even in places they’ve been before).

Third, the system is built around the assumption that every hex on the map will have at least one keyed location. And note that I said “location”, not encounter. Traditional hexcrawls will often included hexes keyed with encounters like this one (from the Wilderlands of Magic Realm):

A charismatic musician sits on a rock entertaining a group of Halfling children. He sings songs of high adventure and fighting Orcs.

While this system certainly could be used with such keys, my intention was to focus the key on content that could be used more than once as PCs visit and re-visit the same areas. (Particularly useful for an open gaming table.) In other words, the key is geography, not ephemera.

Fourth, to support all of these goals (hidden hexes, exploration, reusable material) I wanted to introduce uncertainty into whether or not the keyed content of a particular hex would be experienced (instead of automatically triggering the content when the hex was entered). Furthermore, I wanted a rich system for generating encounters (in order to both create content and to replace the ephemeral hex keys I had eschewed). I accomplished both of these goals by creating a unified, streamlined system of encounter checks.

Go to Part 2: Wilderness Travel

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27 Responses to “Hexcrawl”

  1. Monstah says:

    I found your site this week, and found many, many pearls here. Today again, this is a most happy find: in my next session, two weeks from now, I’ll probably run out of excuses to keep my players trapped in a Son of Ether building, and they’ll reach the part of the quest in which they explore the Umbra.

    Great finding, great timing. Thank you!

  2. Jack says:

    I’m currently running a semi-open table-like hexcrawl game (tonight I get to be a player rather than the dm!). I’ve cobbled together a rough collection of mechanics for encountyers and getting lost and foraging for food. there are A LOT of tables involved, and even at that I feel like the content is really limited (my random tables have encounter seeds that I can/have to build details up around, but it’s only 20-30 seeds per terrain type). I’m really interested to see what sort of system you’re using and see what I can use to improve mine.

  3. Ed says:

    I don’t know if you have seen it or not, but I remember Paizo made an adventure path called Kingmaker which has several aspects for exploring a Hexmap. Perhaps you can find some cool ideas from there to mine. Wish you luck in your endeavors!

  4. Yahzi says:

    Looking forward to more of this!

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  8. Ben Scerri says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for this guide. I’ve been wanting to plan a hexcrawl / West marches game for a long time now, and have always put it off because I had no idea where to start… Until I found your guide. I’ve now plotted out an expanse for my players to rummage through based off your notes. I’m using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition, but everything is easily transferable, and modifiable for any game system, really.

    Again, cheers. A truly awesome guide. I’d love to see something like this wrapped up alongside tips and tools for generating maps, etc, so there could be a comprehensive “How To Toolkit” for hexcrawls.

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  10. Sir_Scropi says:

    I love your Hexcrawl series, it has given me many ideas in an upcoming Kingmaker adventure I’m running. However, I’d like to get your take on camping/night watch rules (in a hexcrawl). I know a lot of gamers downplay the keeping track of rations, light sources, equipment, etc, but in order to have a meaningful hexcrawl, I’d think that these elements would have more emphasis.

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    (1) There are six watches per day, generally with two watches spent traveling and four watches of rest/sleeping.

    (2) Use the worksheet to record who’s keeping watch during each of the four “down time” watches. (This means that you don’t have to ask, “Who’s keeping watch?” every single day.)

    (3) Make the normal encounter checks and call for Perception checks as appropriate.

    (4) Generally, I just trust the players to track their rations and other daily supplies. If I wanted to put particular emphasis on this (if I was running something like Beyond the Mountains of Madness, for example) then I might require the group to track the supplies of their expedition on a large white board or something.

  12. Sir_Scropi says:

    Thanks, Justin. Appreciate the response :)

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  17. robbbbbb says:

    Mr. Alexander,

    I’ve been spending the last few days reading over your materials on GMing in your spare time, and I love them. Thanks for sharing them.

    Do you have a published version of your hexcrawl adventure? A PDF (or something) that I could purchase/download? I’d love to be able to run a long hexcrawl adventure, but I don’t necessarily have the time to build it all from scratch. (I have kids, and Scouts, and church choir, and…) In fact, in a few years, those kids are going to be prime age for a long, regular D&D adventure, and a hexcrawl might just fit the bill.

    If you don’t, can you please recommend some shortcut materials to assist in building a hexcrawl? Adventures/dungeons to insert in places, a map, encounters, anything that might be pre-prepared for those of us who have limited time?

    I think there’s a market for your hexcrawl, if you wanted to do it in D&D 5e and publish under the OGL, or publish an OSR version for Basic D&D or a retroclone. Alternatively, if you published it as a reward for your Patreon backers, that might be an excellent idea.

    Thanks for sharing with us. I appreciate your work.

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  20. Josh says:

    Mr Alexander,
    I’m a little late to your hexcrawl party. I just found this website a couple of months ago. Do you think the DC modifiers for size in your tracking rules could also apply to spotting buildings and other structures? Also, do you think the modifiers would need to be adjusted in any way, or would they be fine as-is?

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