The Alexandrian

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Hexcrawl - CompassIn general, you can either navigate through the wilderness by landmark or you can navigate by compass direction.


Generally speaking, it’s trivial to follow a road, river, or any other natural feature of the terrain. It’s similarly easy to head towards any visible landmark. The landmark or terrain feature will determine the route of travel and there’s no chance of becoming lost, so you can simply track the number of miles traveled.

IDENTIFYING LANDMARKS: If the PCs are unsure of a landmark but have had previous experience with it, it may be possible to identify it with a Survival check at the DM’s discretion. The accuracy and detail of the identification will depend on prior experience.

Example: A ranger is passing through the woods when they encounter a river. If it’s a river they’ve walked up and down before, the Survival check might let them confirm that it is, in fact, the Mirthwindle. If they’re less familiar with the region, the check might tell them that this is probably the same river they crossed earlier in the day – it must be taking a southerly bend. If this is the first time they’ve ever seen this river, the Survival check won’t tell them much more than “this is a river”.


Characters trying to move in a specific direction through the wilderness must make a navigation check using their Survival skill once per watch to avoid becoming lost.

A character with at least 5 ranks in Knowledge (geography) or Knowledge (local) pertaining to the area being traveled through gains a +2 synergy bonus on this check.

BECOMING LOST: Characters who fail the navigation check become lost and veer away from their intended direction of travel, as indicated by a 1d10 roll on the diagram below. When lost characters exit a hex, they will exit through the face of the hex indicated by the die roll.

Note: Characters who are lost remain lost. In the new hex neither their intended direction of travel nor their veer will change.

Hexcrawl - Hex Veer

If characters who are already lost fail another navigation check, their veer can increase but not decrease.

Example: A lost party is already veering to the left when they fail another Navigation check. A roll of 1-4 on 1d10 would cause them to exit two hex faces to the left of their intended direction, but any other result would not change their veer at all.



Absolute Degree: Roll (1d10 – 1d10) x 10 to determine the number of degrees off-course.

Compass Direction: Roll 1d10 and consult the diagram below. (The blue arrow indicates the intended direction of travel.)

Hexcrawl - Compass Veer

USING A COMPASS: Compasses grant a +2 bonus to navigation checks. In addition, they automatically eliminate veer at hex borders even if the user doesn’t recognize that they were lost. (Even if you don’t recognize that you ended up off course, the compass constantly reorients you towards your intended direction of travel.)


Recognizing That You’re Lost: Once per watch, a lost character can attempt a Survival check against the Navigation DC of the terrain to recognize that they are no longer certain of their direction of travel.

Characters who encounter a clear landmark or unexpectedly enter a distinctly new type of terrain can make an additional Survival check to realize that they’ve become lost.

Note: Some circumstances may make it obvious to the characters that they have become lost without requiring any check.

Reorienting: A character who realizes that they’ve become lost has several options for re-orienting themselves.

Backtracking: A lost character can follow their own tracks (see Tracking, below). While tracking allows them to retrace their steps, they must still recognize the point at which they went off-track. If a character is successfully backtracking, they may make a Survival check each watch (using the Navigation DC of the terrain). If the check is successful, they’ll correctly recognize whether they were previously on-track or off-track. If the check is a failure, they have a 75% chance of reaching the wrong conclusion.

Compass Direction: It requires a Survival check (DC 12) to determine true north without a compass or similar device. On a failed check, randomly determine the direction the character thinks is true north.

Setting a New Course: A lost character can attempt to precisely determine the direction they should be traveling in order to reach their desired objective by making a Survival check (Navigation DC of the terrain + 10). If the character fails the check, they immediately become lost. Determine their direction of travel like any other lost character.

Conflicting Directions: If several characters in a single party all attempt to determine the correct direction of travel, make their Survival checks secretly. Tell the players whose characters succeeded the correct direction in which to travel, and tell the other characters a random direction they think is right.


The difficulty and complexity of finding a specific location within the wilderness varies depending on the character’s familiarity and approach.

VISIBLE LOCATIONS: As described under Exploration Encounters, some locations are visible from a great distance. Characters within the same hex as the visible location (or within a certain number of hexes, as indicated by the key) automatically spot a visible location.

ON ROAD: If a location is on a road, river, or similar trail, then a character following the road, river, or trail will automatically find the location. (Assuming it isn’t hidden, of course.)

FAMILIAR LOCATIONS: Familiar locations are those which a character has visited multiple times. Characters within the same hex as a familiar location can be assumed to automatically find the location. (Within the abstraction of the hexmapping system, they’ve demonstrated sufficiently accurate navigation.) Under certain circumstances, characters may also be considered “familiar” with a location even if they’ve never been there. (Possibilities include possessing highly accurate topographic maps, receiving divine visions, or using certain types of divinatory magic.)

Note: If characters are flailing about in their efforts to find a familiar location – by repeatedly “missing the hex”, for example – the DM can decide to treat the location as being unfamiliar until they find some way to reorient themselves.

UNFAMILIAR LOCATIONS: Unfamiliar locations (even those a character has been to previously) are found using encounter checks.

Characters spending time to specifically search a particular area enter exploration mode. They make no progress towards exiting their current hex, but the DM continues making the necessary encounter checks (to represent the result of their search).

If the party is looking for something specific that they suspect might be in the area, the DM may allow a third check each watch for that location and only that location. (Any other encounter indicated is ignored. Obviously if the location they’re looking for isn’t in the current hex you can skip this check – they are, after all, looking in the wrong place.)

Note: The extra check represents their ability to narrow their search based on the information they have available. If they don’t have enough information to narrow the search, don’t make the extra encounter check. Alternatively, if they’re somewhat familiar with a location the extra encounter check may be employed and any success used to indicate to them that they’re not in the right area.

Go to Part 4: Encounter Tables

This material is covered by the Open Game License.

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27 Responses to “Hexcrawl – Part 3: Navigating the Wilderness”

  1. Rubberduck says:

    My greatest problem with making the hexes invisible to players has been: What do you do when the part moves due west or east?

  2. neophage says:

    Turn your map 90 degrees and treat it as going north?

  3. Auroch says:

    @Rubberduck: When they entered the starting hex, were they coming from the north or south? Keep track, then have them move to the SW hex, then the NW hex from there, then the SW hex, etc. Probably use the alternate veer chart.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    @Rubberduck: Let them. Figure out which half of the hex they’re traveling across and use the rules in part 2 for tracking hexes.

    In absolute terms, the difference in distance is not significant. Even more importantly, if you’re comparing it to simply counting hexes, the difference is nonexistent.

    The trick of this method is that you’re hiding the abstraction of the hex from your players; you’re not hiding it from yourself. Quite the contrary: As the GM, you’re using it aggressively to minimize your bookkeeping.

    The only thing you need to know is (a) how much progress they’ve made in the current hex and (b) what face of the hex are they going to exit from.

    If you find yourself starting to worry about where the PCs are “in the hex”, you’re doing it wrong. I made the same mistake the first few times I tried running with “hidden hexes”; that’s where the face-and-progress method came from.

  5. Frank Filz says:

    One thought on more organically using hexes, go ahead and use them, and translate these rules. Some games have allowed traveling along hex-sides also (which then lets you go due East and West. You could even key encounters for the hex sides also (which would about double the size of your key).

    I’ve always liked Judges Guild maps for not forcing the terrain to follow the hexes strictly. They have always felt more organic as a result. But then of course they add complications to simple rules procedures, however, a little bit of GM arbitration on procedures like the above will help a lot.


  6. Zeta Kai says:

    If you’re going to hide the abstraction (which I support), why not use a square-based grid instead? Squares are much easier to track, estimate, & manipulate, as they are far more intuitive to deal with. Plus, you can easily handle travel in the 8 cardinal directions (N/S/E/W, & the 4 diagonals in between), which could help immensely with keeping the player (who is playing a character orienting via compass) & the DM (who is tracking the characters’ position via a map) on the same proverbial page.

    I’ve never understood this hobby’s adherence to hexagonal grids. It seems like a clunky, archaic way of doing things, which perhaps goes some way to explain the decline of this form of gameplay. Square-based grids can also be labelled more simply (B9, M17, Z3 as opposed to 0209, 1317, 2603), & one’s position can be determined with greater accuracy within an unseen grid (IMO). I know that hexcrawl sounds better than squarecrawl, but the pros don’t seem to outweigh the cons. Perhaps the best way to revive the hexcrawls of yore is to replace the hex with a difference type of grid.

  7. Frank Filz says:

    Cross posted with Justin… But good point, you can keep most of the abstraction and just have a general idea where in the hex, but I like the point of not getting consumed with knowing exactly where in the hex they are.


  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @Zeta Kai: Either method (square grid or hex grid) distorts movement. For example, in the real world if Guy 1 moves 10X east and Guy 2 moves 10X north and then 14X southeast they should basically end up in the same place. If you do the same thing on either a hex grid or a square grid, however, Guy 2 will end up four hexes or four squares away from the other guy.

    There’s pretty simple counting rules to fix either problem. The 2-1-2-1 counting pattern for diagonal movement on a grid, for example. In terms of hexcrawling I usually don’t worry about the fix: Gross errors only accumulate over very long, straight distances. And since I’m already varying travel by 50-150% of the base value, it all gets hidden in the abstraction anyway.

    It should also be noted that there’s nothing magical about a square grid that allows you to use alphabetical coding. My hex maps all use letters down one axis and numbers down the other.

    I did look at using square maps, but:

    (a) I was unable to detect any actual advantage to using them;
    (b) Hex maps allow for more naturalistic mapping of terrain;
    (c) Having a system that works with a hex map allows me to use 40 years of legacy hex maps

  9. Darklighthitomi says:

    I am wondering why the the DC for finding compass direction is so high. There are some easy and pretty accurate methods to determine north, some depend on weather but in that case you know that you can’t determine north and thus know you are “lost” till the weather changes.

  10. Muninn says:

    @Darklighthitomi: How do you get the impression that the “find north” DC is high? It’s listed as DC12. Assuming that a character takes 10 on it, they only need 2 ranks in the Survival skill (doable at first level, even for characters that don’t get it as a class skill). A character with 14 WIS doesn’t even need any skill ranks.

  11. Jack says:

    @Darklighthitomi: For most characters, you’re going to have at least a 50% chance to hit a DC12 check. That’s better odds than my wife has of finding north (true story).

  12. Jack says:

    @Justin, this is starting to look like a really elegant way of tracking player progress, and I’m liking it a lot. Are you going to touch on ways that players/characters can map where they’re going and where they’ve been? Not having a thing to look at is probably going to be the most frustrating thing for my players.

  13. Darklighthitomi says:

    @Muninn It’s not that its high compared to other aspects of the game but rather its high compared to real life. Some methods are so simple that failure would come from weather not your skill and you would then know that you don’t know rather then believing the wrong direction.

    I.E. one method is to put a stick in the ground to cast a shadow from the sun. put a rock or marker at the shadows tip, wait a minute or so and put a second marker. The second marker is due east of the first. Only way to fail is to have overcast weather.

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    Re: True north. Note that this is a check you can Take 10 on. So if you make it DC 10 or less you’re saying that, in the real world, absolutely anyone who isn’t a significantly sub-average intellect is capable of reliably finding true north with complete accuracy 100% of the time.

    That doesn’t match my experience.

    With a DC 12 check, it takes only a moderate intelligence or a little bit of survival training to get you the +2 bonus and guarantee success. Even those of merely average intelligence with absolutely no survival training will still be able to figure it out 52% of the time (45% from the check + 12% chance of randomly getting it right on the subsequent randomization).

    Knowledge of the”easy and pretty accurate” methods you’re talking about are represented in the Wisdom bonus or Survival ranks that very easily guarantee success. Or they involve constructing ersatz compasses (which also guarantee success).

    @Jack: What’s been interesting about using this system is the plethora of mapping techniques I’ve seen my players use. Some of them whip out compasses and rulers. Others just default back to hex paper and give it their best guess. Some of my favorites are the ones who orient themselves to rivers, roads, and other landmarks and then map progress along those natural trails.

    For example, when my players discovered the Crypt of Luan Phien they figured out how to travel there reliably by leaving the crypt and heading due north until they hit a river. Once there they carved a trail symbol into a tree and then followed the river back upstream to where it hit the road. Over the course of several trips they were able to get a fairly precise idea of exactly how far south from the river the crypt was, which allowed them to reorient themselves if they ever veered too far east or west during that trip.

  15. Darklighthitomi says:

    I would say perhaps true now a days but that comes from life being made easy and such skills and knowledge being unneeded. Back in the days that DnD is generally modeled after, such knowledge would be available and seen as valuable. Modern times its not so because people rely on gps and addresses or street names instead of compass directions.

    Mostly it’s the idea that one could do such a check and think that east or west was actually north that disturbs me. I can easily see someone failing(they knocked over the stick) but to use such a trick and believe that north was actually east seems almost ridiculous.

    A better failure is a null result, the character has no idea (because he put the stick in the shade of a tree, or a cloud drifted in front of the sun, or he couldn’t find a stick, etc)

  16. Jack says:

    @Justin: regarding veering off/getting lost — if crossing to a new hex doesnt “correct” the veer, wouldn’t they end up going in circles? That is, if they intend to head toward 12 o’clock and veer off, now they’re heading toward 10 o’clock, and crossing in to the next hex their veer would continue to 8 o’clock… Or am I misreading something?

    @Darklighthitomi: what stick?

  17. Jack says:

    @Darklighthitomi: Found the stick.

    First, I’d say there are two ways to fail: have overcast weather, or not know the technique. I guess you could argue that “everyone in the D&D world” should know that technique, but… *shrugs*

    Secondly, I think Justin noted above (before your#15 post) that a makeshift compass is one sure way to find direction, which is pretty much what you’re talking about.

  18. Confanity says:

    @Darklighthitomi: your reasoning is kind of weird. You say “There are easy methods for finding true north that I know, therefore even a dead-simple DC of 12 is too high.”

    But by the same token, a professional musician might think the DC to, say, read sheet music correctly should also be super low — not taking into account that lots of people can’t at all, and that just because you have special knowledge, does not mean it is common knowledge. What percentage of the population actually knows your stick trick?

    One more point that nobody seems to have noticed: your stick trick doesn’t work as well at certain latitudes and times of year. You also say to “wait a minute or so,” but that’s not going to give a significant reading if you’re making your marks with random rocks on rough ground.

  19. Justin Alexander says:

    @Jack: “@Justin: regarding veering off/getting lost — if crossing to a new hex doesnt “correct” the veer, wouldn’t they end up going in circles?

    Yup. Which is actually what people lost in the wilderness do. Random video.

    @Darklighthitomi: “Mostly it’s the idea that one could do such a check and think that east or west was actually north that disturbs me. I can easily see someone failing(they knocked over the stick) but to use such a trick and believe that north was actually east seems almost ridiculous.

    Well, like I said: Either the player is volunteering that method (in which case their character is using a makeshift compass and they automatically succeed) or the character’s possession of that knowledge is abstracted into their Survival skill bonus (in which case they Take 10 and automatically succeed).

    No one’s arguing with you regarding the reliability of the technique. But the reason the check is DC 12 is specifically because such techniques exist. If such techniques didn’t exist (and, therefore, determining north was more difficult) the DC would be higher.

    Let’s try this a different way: What DC do you think the check should have?

  20. Jan says:

    While reading this series, I was wondering how you handled mapping conflicts. I mean, basically the players never know if they are right. It’s like solving a crossword puzzle with not much understanding of the language used. You only know whether you are right if you have verified a location from several other angles. Is that how it works? They track their progress according to what they think is right and erase trails every now and then or even frequently? Or do they usually know quite quickly that they have been wrong and erase the trail before starting the next?

  21. Justin Alexander says:

    Jan: “You only know whether you are right if you have verified a location from several other angles. Is that how it works?”

    That’s basically it. The value of a map is in your ability to use it to find whatever you’re looking for. If a map repeatedly fails to do that, then the players know something went wrong with its construction and can work to correct it (or discard the map and start over). If a map can successfully do that, then it’s useful regardless of whatever other flaws it may have.

    Depending on circumstance and resources, the speed with which the PCs will figure out that something has gone wrong. There’s one map my PCs are using which is geographically wrong in multiple respects, but because of other factors can be used to reliably navigate them to the dungeon complex they were exploring.

    On the other hand, there was an early expedition where some bad rolling and some bad record keeping resulted in them going due west when they wanted to be going due east. When they unexpectedly left the jungle, they immediately realized that they had gotten hopelessly lost and that the map they had been drawing was completely useless.

  22. Jan says:

    Okay. That is tough and a lot of work, but a cool challenge for the players. I’m tempted to try that out. How do you give things like roads or lakes to the players? They might have pretty curved shapes. Travelling should be easy, since it happens in a straight line for certain periods of time.

  23. Jack says:

    Here’s a notional problem I’ve got. You’ve said that if we’re trying to determine where the group is “in the hex” that we’re doing it wrong, but you’ve also talked a lot about mapping, getting directions, reorienting, and (maybe it’s in a later post) the fact that encounters in a hex can help “populate” the ~124 square miles of a hex.

    So what do you do when players start trying to make spacial associations between the places they’ve been? If they go south from town and find a troll cave, then east and find a magical glade, can they then go NW and get back to town? How do you keep track of where they are or, failing that, what do you do without keeping track? If they head NW and get lost, what do you tell them when they use your reorienting mechanic to set a new course for town?

    And I just over-thinking this?

  24. Justin Alexander says:

    If the players start trying to make a lot of navigational decisions at a scale that your map isn’t supporting, then your map is at the wrong scale. Zoom in.

    I talk a little bit about how the “campaign hexagon” breaks down in a comment over here. The various Wilderlands products from Judges Guild and Necromancer go into a lot more detail about how the “campaign hexagon system” can be used.

    In general, I haven’t found it to be an issue in actual play. Since the points of interest are keyed, they end up generally being more than one hex apart. If the PCs start regularly interacting with hexes that have more than one location keyed, that might change. But after 40 sessions in a 16 x 16 grid of hexes it hasn’t come up.

  25. James says:

    Quick question: let’s say that a party failed their navigation check during the second watch and veered one face to the left. During the third watch, they have to make another navigation check. As you state, if they fail this next check, their beer can increase, but what happens if they pass this check? Do they recognize that they are lost, or do they start moving in the desired direction (but are still lost)?

    Thanks again, you’ve been a great inspiration!

  26. Justin Alexander says:

    @James: Good question! Check the “Lost Characters” section. The successful check indicates that the realize that they are lost. That does not, in itself, get them back on track. Basically, they know which way they were heading when they realized they were lost and they know that it was wrong, but beyond that they’re still lost.

    The rules for backtracking, determining a compass direction, and setting a new course are the process by which they can become “un-lost”. (Additional methods might also be available depending on situation, but that’s basically up to the players being clever.)

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