The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘hexcrawl’

Epic Pokemon - Saiful Haque

Awhile back I was having an online discussion with someone who struggling to make a Pokémon-based hexcrawl interesting. He found himself facing “a bunch of really boring hexes” and couldn’t figure out how to make them interesting.

The key element of the hexcrawl structure is that of exploration. It becomes kind of pointless if all you’re doing is moving between civilized locations. It works best if you’re out on an untamed frontier or in a point-of-lights setting where the known settlements are separated by vast zones of mystery.

There are a couple things that makes a hexcrawl easier to stock in a D&D-esque fantasy setting:

  1. Ancient Civilizations. The area may not be known to modern explorers, but it was previously home to any number of ancient civilizations who could create (and leave behind) cool stuff.
  2. New World Syndrome. This area may be unexplored by humans/elves/dwarves/halflings, but it’s chock full of humanoids and intelligent creatures who (once again) create cool stuff and varied interactions.

I’m not a deeply committed Pokemon fan (I’ve watched a few episodes of the TV show; I’ve played a couple games). But from what I remember of the game, it featured a lot of little tiny villages and you traveled through distinct wildernesses to get from one village to the next. The focus was primarily on civilization, but it wouldn’t take a whole lot to emphasize the wilderness which surrounds them. So there’s your point-of-lights element.

You can start adding depth by looking at the random Pokemon encounters in the wild and breathing life into your wandering monsters. Give them lairs, relationships, etc.

Re: Ancient civilizations. I remember that Pokemon has stuff like fossils and the mystery of the GS ball from the anime. Those are the seeds I’d pursue and develop into something more rich, robust, and varied. (The Pokemon lore already contains a lot of “legacies lost to history”; there’s no reason you can’t add to that lore.)

Re: New World Syndrome. I seem to recall lots of stuff in the Pokemon lore which suggests some Pokemon are a lot more intelligent than just “animals that can be captured to fight each other”. I’d explore that. I’d also look at Mewtwo’s original back story (created in a laboratory in the middle of the wilderness) and run with that basic idea — strange Pokemon cults and Pokemon research labs hidden out on the frontiers.

Also: Do some googling on the “Pokemon is post-apocalyptic” fan theories.

Finally, if you’re looking for inspiration, pull up lists of Pokemon episodes and use them as brainstorming seeds. Going through that link, for example, I immediately pull out or interpolate:

  • Haunted blimp
  • Hidden pokemon laboratory
  • Crashed airship with pokeballs
  • A large antenna complex trying to mass-control Pokemon
  • Encountering random pokemon hunters in the wild
  • A remote island with unique pokemon possessed of unusual characteristics
  • An island formed entirely of fossilized pokemon (which are said to awaken and wreak havoc)
  • A community of talking pokemon

And so forth.

Pokemon Logo

Go to Part 1

And at long last, the Hexcrawl essay draws to a close. As a final parting gift, I offer up two cheat sheets for running your own hexcrawls.

The Basic Cheat Sheet offers the stripped down core of the game structure. If you occasionally found your eyes glazing over during the previous 12 installments, this is probably the cheat sheet for you: Just basic navigation, encounter checks, and hex movement.

The Advanced Cheat Sheet is the full package: It includes the full watch checklist, the robust encounter system, the ability for characters to become lost, all the modes of travel, terrain modifiers, foraging rules, and tracking. The whole nine yards. (The tenth yard is the one where you make an awesome campaign out of it.)

Of course, you can also selectively pick-and-choose from the advanced elements, deciding what stuff you want to incorporate into the basic system.

Hexcrawl - Basic Cheat Sheet

(click for PDF)

Hexcrawl - Advanced Cheat Sheet

(click for PDF)

Thought of the Day: Hexcrawl in the Underdark
Check This Out: Hexcrawl Tracks
Check This Out: Hexcrawl Sighting Distances
Game Structures
Thinking About Urbancrawls

Go to Part 1

This will be the final installment in this essay series. My goal here will be to describe the actual process of what I do at the gaming table while running a session of my Thracian Hexcrawl. I’m not entirely sure how useful it will be, but I”m hoping it will provide some sort of insight.

This post is going to be an attempt to provide an abbreviated, annotated record of actual play from my hexcrawl campaign. The goal is to show what I was thinking, the decisions I made, the procedures I used, the tools I exploited, and so forth.


An hour or so before the game is scheduled to start, I’ll set up the table.

I sit at one end of a long dining room table. I place a TV tray to the left of my chair and another TV tray to the right of my chair. Then I pull out the box that I keep all my Thracian hexcrawl material in.

On the TV tray to my right I place the Binder that contains the campaign key and the Folder which contains the documents detailing individual locations.

There’s a second folder which contains a DM screen, the four pages of reference tables that I paperclip to the DM screen, a copy of the campaign map, and several copies of the DM’s worksheet I designed for hexcrawling. I place the worksheet on the table in front of me. I place the DM screen on the TV tray to my left. And I conceal the campaign map behind the DM screen.

Next, the rulebooks: I have several copies of Volume 1: Men & Magic that I place in a stack on the table for the players. I take my copies of all three OD&D booklets and place them in a stack behind the DM screen to my left.

I also have a stack of graph and hex paper, including several “communal maps” that have been drawn by the players. These are placed on the table.

I also have a stack of three folders: One for blank character sheets, one for living characters in the campaign, and one for characters who have died. I place these folders on a counter off to one side of the room. (I rarely need to access them, so it’s easiest just to have them out of the way.)

I print out a copy of the Campaign Status sheet for the current session and also place it on the table in front of me.

I grab my dice bag and pull out the dice I need: 2d4, 6d6, 6d8, 2d10, 2d12, 6d20. 6d6 for fireball and lightning bolt damage. 6d8 because it means I can roll an entire day’s worth of encounter checks in a single go. 6d20 because I can simultaneously roll an entire mob’s attack rolls. (The 6d20’s are selected in three pairs of matching colors because it allows for easy grouping for mixed types.)


As players arrive, I pull their character sheets out of the appropriate folder. Many players need to choose which of their active PCs they’re going to be playing.

Two things happen at this point:

  1. I make a rumor check for each primary PC (not for hirelings). There’s a 1 in 3 chance for each PC that they’ll receive a rumor. (The current rumor table is part of the Campaign Status document. It’s generated based on the activities of PCs in previous sessions and by randomly generating hex numbers and creating rumors based on the contents of the generated hex.)
  2. I make a morale check for each hireling employed by the active PCs. On a success, the hireling continues adventuring with their employer. On a failure I use a system based on the OD&D reaction table to determine the hireling’s action: They might automatically leave their PC’s service or demand an additional bonus of some variable amount. (Usually nothing happens because the players have learned to keep the morale of their hirelings high.)

I keep a master list of every hireling in the campaign — including their current loyalty and morale values — in the Campaign Status sheet.

While I’m doing this, the players are generally getting prepared for the adventure. This includes:

  1. Discussing what their expedition is going to be.
  2. Buying equipment.
  3. Hiring hirelings.
  4. Any other business they might need to attend to while in town.

If they go looking for hirelings, I have a simple system I use to determine how many hirelings are currently available for service in town; what classes they are; and what level they are.


While the players are wrapping things up, I’ll grab my 6d8 and roll them: Virtually all of my regions use a 1 in 8 encounter check. Each roll, therefore, represents a full day’s worth of encounter checks (since there are six watches in a day). By reading the dice left-to-right as they fall, I can very rapidly determine which watches in the day have an encounter. Since I don’t yet know where the PCs will be on those days, I can’t generate the specific encounters (which are region-dependent). But on my DM’s worksheet, I can write down the Day/Watch when encounters will be happening. By generating three or four days worth of encounter checks up front, I can simplify my workflow once the PCs hit the road.

(Note, however, that if I know at this point that the PCs are going to be heading in a direction which will almost certainly have them traveling through a given region for a lengthy period of time, I can also go ahead and generate full encounters at this point.)

Maernath - Thracian HexcrawlIn this case, the PCs are in the city of Maernath, located in hex O6. Maernath is an old city-state in this setting. It was here long before the Duchy of Thracia began pushing east in recent years (establishing the Keep on the Borderlands and the logging village of Caerdheim to the south) and the City Fathers occasionally chaff against the “authority” of the newcomers. Although the early adventures of the PCs were based primarily out of Caerdheim (which was near the Caverns of Thracia), an increase of interest in the Palace of Red Death to the north led to an increased number of expeditions being mounted from Maernath. Those expeditions resulted in various PCs gaining a lot of lore about the area surrounding Maernath and that, in turn, spurred even more expeditions here.

The PCs leave town along the road heading south. They’re lightly encumbered (12″ movement) and they’re traveling along a road through open plains, so they can travel 12 miles per watch. Maernath’s position within hex O6 is biased, so it only takes 4 progress to exit the hex. They’re aiming for the river, which is on the road right on the border of the hex (so they obviously have no difficulty finding it).

Their goal is to follow the river into the Old Forest (in hex P7), so now I’m going to look ahead: Their course along the river takes them through the near side of the hex (6 miles away) into hex P6 and from there they will then pass through the near side of hex P7 (another 6 miles). Although they’ve left the road, they’re still traveling through open plains and the river provides enough of a track that they’re still traveling at 12 miles per watch. Total it up:

4 miles (Maernath to river) + 6 miles (O7 to P6) + 6 miles (P6 to P7) = 16 miles

Which means they’ll arrive at the edge of the Old Forest a little over an hour into their second watch. This is notable because, looking at my DM’s worksheet, I can see that the second watch of the day has an encounter. I can determine the time in the watch by rolling 1d8. The result I get is a 3, which basically means the encounter is scheduled to take place just as they’re reaching the edge of the Old Forest.

1. First, there’s a 50% chance that the encounter will be the location keyed to the hex. I roll the dice and it is not. (If it had been and they were traveling through open country, I would flip to the location key and they would have that encounter. In this case, however, they’re following the river: Unless the keyed encounter for this hex was on the river, they would not encounter it. That would either result in no encounter happening despite the check or they might experience an encounter connected to the keyed location. For example, the keyed location for P6 is Orkam’s Hole, which is inhabited by a family of basilisks, so they might spot basilisk footprints in the muddy banks of the river.)

2. If the PCs are in a hex bordering another region (and they are), there’s a 50% chance that they’ll get an encounter from the other region instead.

3. I roll a 13, so that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

4. I flip to the Old Forest encounter table and roll. The result I get is “Slimes”, which has a sub-table which generates Gray Ooze. The slimes don’t have any % chance of being a Lair or Tracks encounter, so I can skip that step.

Given the confluence of all the factors involved, I’m going to have the Gray Oozes appear just as the river passes beneath the boughs of the Old Forest. They’ll be draped down from the tree branches above the river like some kind of horrific spanish moss.


Forest River

After the PCs have dealt with (or avoided) the Gray Oozes, they’ll be able to continue along the river. It’s a medium forest and their speed is going to drop by 1/2. They had 8 miles of movement left in their second watch, so they’ll be able to gain 4 progress through hex P7.

Three miles along the river, however, they come to a tree on the south bank of the river with the Dwarven letter “mu” carved into its trunk. They’re familiar with it. In fact, one of the PCs left it here as a marker: Gordur, a powerful orc stronghold, lies several miles due south from this spot.

This, however, is not their goal. They continue along the river for another mile and then make camp for the night. The next day, they continue another two miles until they find a similar tree with the Dwarven letter “thod” carved into it. This marker was placed due north of the Crypt of Luan Phien. The crypt is their ultimate goal and so now they turn south, away from the clear navigational marker of the river and into the depths of the Old Forest.

At this point, they need to start making Navigation checks. Epicaste, a hireling rescued by the dwarf Aeng from the Caverns of Thracia, is the group’s best navigator, so she steps forward and takes point.

1. It’s a medium forest, so the Navigation DC is 16.

2. Epicaste blows the check. (Possibly because Delmhurst, another hireling, keeps second-guessing her.) I roll 1d10 to determine the group’s veer. With a roll of 8, I determine that they’re veering to the right. Instead of heading due south into hex P8 (which is where they want to go), they’re going to end up in hex O8.

When does that actually happen? Well, they entered hex P7 from due north. Whether they’re leaving into hex P8 or O8, they’re still exiting through the far side of the hex. So they need to rack up 12 progress to exit the hex. They’d gained 4 progress in the hex during their second watch; they’ll gain another 6 progress in their third watch of travel (the following day), and they’ll enter hex O8 about midway through the second watch of that day.

I’ve also generated an encounter for the second watch of the second day, so once again I generate a random time and determine that the encounter will be taking place after they’ve entered hex O8. This is particularly important because this time the encounter I generate is a location encounter, so I flip to the key for O8:

Me: “Towards the waning hours of the day, you enter a small clearing. Criss-crossing branches grow into what appear to be houses with walls of woven moss.”

Aeng: “I don’t remember this.”

Delmhurst: “I think the thousand-year dummy has gotten us lost again.”

It turns out the strange houses are empty and abandoned. It’s getting late in the day, so the PCs decide to make camp here for the night. They’ll try to backtrack their trail the next day and figure out where they made the wrong turn.


 And that’s basically all there is to it. With a strong key and a clean procedure, the hexcrawl will flow naturally in response to the explorations of the PCs, drawing them deeper and deeper in to the mysteries of the wilderness.

Although this is the final essay in this series — and the end of my thoughts on hexcrawls (at least for the moment) — there will be one final installment containing system cheat sheets for hexcrawling.

Go to Part 13: Hexcrawl Cheat Sheets

Valley of the Sapphire Waves

September 22nd, 2014

Valley of the Sapphire Waves

Many moons ago I was talking with a guy online who claimed that, by the year 2017, computer games would exist which would allow GMs to create off the cuff in real-time just like they can currently do at the table. And I said, “Bullshit.” (For obvious reasons.) In the process of calling bullshit, however, I ended up creating an example of off-the-cuff design that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a computer game engine even with procedural content generators vastly superior to anything we have available to us today.

It’s nothing particularly spectacular, but it’s got a few touches of the fantastical that I think are rather evocative and worth sharing.


The Valley of the Sapphire Waves is filled with rolling fields of vibrant blue grass. Anyone standing in the waters of the valley will perceive the sun as eclipsed because Helios mourns the loss of his first wife (the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers, see hex 1).

HEX 1: The Falls of the Ur-Goddess. The 300 foot tall waterfall at the end of the valley flows up because it is the place where the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers was slain millennia ago.

HEX 2: Obelisk of Moonstone. Raised as a holy site by the Heresy Cult of the Ur-Goddess. The moonstone will heal anyone touching it at night, but under the rays of the sun it is cursed. (Anyone touching it suffers as per a bestow curse spell.)

HEX 3: The Stirge Mires. 1 in 3 chance of encounteing 1-6 stirges.

HEX 4: Goblin Moonstone Scavengers. Small tribe of goblins scavenging the moonstones scattered in rocky crevasses here.

HEX 5: Vale of the Dryad. This forestland is protected by a dryad whose spirit is bound to a treant. All the squirrels here can talk, many spontaneously forming acting troupes performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

HEX 6: Graveyard of the Moonstone Cults. 1 in 3 chance per turn of encountering 1-3 wights.

HEX 7: Medusa’s Vale. A medusa makes her home in the Sinkhole of Statuary.

HEX 8: Sphinx Guardians. Once a great tribe of sphinxes guarded the entrance to the valley (they were placed there by Helios), but their numbers are depleted. 1 in 3 chance of encountering a sphinx, which 75% of the time will be an undead skeleton. Remaining sphinxes will ask sun-oriented riddles before attacking.

Exit, Pursued by a Monster - Alex Drummond (Legends & Labyrinths)

An idea that I’ve toyed around with for years is creating a hex map for the Underdark. I still haven’t done it. But recently I’ve been running a huge technological complex for Numenera with a hex map that shares a lot of similarities with the Underdark. If the idea of running a hexcrawl through the Underdark is something you’d like to try,  I think there are a few key points to consider:

(1) What makes a hex map work is that it abstracts the actual terrain of the game world. If you’re doing a wilderness hexcrawl, you shouldn’t try to map every tree… or even every single country lane. If you do that, you’re defeating the entire point of the hex map. Similarly, if you’re designing your Underdark with a hex map you should not try to map every individual tunnel. (You might map major thoroughfares, the same way that major highways or rivers would be indicated on your wilderness hex map.)

(2) One key distinction between a wilderness hex map and an Underdark hex map is that, generally speaking, travel is always assumed to be possible through the side of a wilderness hex. This is not necessarily the case in the Underdark and one thing you’ll want to develop is a key indicating a minimum of three states for each side of the hex:

  • Open (there are lots of tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Closed (there are no tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Chokepoint (you can get from this hex to that hex, but only by passing through a specific keyed location)

Note that the existence of a given chokepoint could also be a secret that needs to be discovered (by either obtaining the information elsewhere or perhaps by performing a detailed survey of the area).

(3) The RPG industry has developed a fairly standard “vocabulary” of wilderness terrain types. (These actually predate D&D and were inherited from Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival when Arneson used it as a template.) These terrain types also have the benefit of being familiar to us in our every day lives: We know what forests are. We know what mountains are. And so forth. IMO, you’re going to want to develop a similarly interesting vocabulary of at least 4-5 different Underdark terrain types. And you’re going to have to figure out how to clearly communicate those differences to a group that probably doesn’t contain spelunkers (and certainly no fantasy spelunkers). The point of this, obviously, is to make the map more interesting: This both rewards exploration (a key component of any hexcrawl), but also to make the actual description of the PCs’ journey more engaging.

(4) The Underdark is fundamentally three dimensional in a way that the surface of the world is not. Keep that in mind, but don’t worry about it too much: The surface of our planet varies from 1,400 feet below sea level to 29,000 feet above sea level but we still successfully visualize it as a flat plane. Consider the minor elevation shifts I discussed in Jaquaying the Dungeon and apply the same logic at a macro-scale here: You can probably make your Underdark more interesting by saying “you have to go down and then over and then up to get to there”, but vast slopes and slants and descents and climbs can be abstracted onto a two-dimensional map. So go back to Point #1 above and remember to embrace the abstraction of the hex!




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