The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘hexcrawl’

Check This Out: Hexcrawl Tracks

February 21st, 2013

Gray Wolf TracksSomething that I touched on only briefly in my Hexcrawl series was the subject of tracks: The system I use for encounter generation features the ability to create random encounters, lairs, and tracks. Random encounters provide immediate obstacles and interludes while traveling; lairs spontaneously generate new locations in the hexcrawl (organically building up material along well-traveled routes as the campaign develops); and tracks are a trail that can be followed to a point of interest.

What I didn’t really extrapolate on is the fact that the concept of “tracks” isn’t necessarily limited to hoof prints in the sod. In the wilderness exploration of the hexcrawl that sort of physical spoor is most likely very common, but the concept of “tracks” really generalizes to “clue”. For example, if I generated a result of “tracks” for bandits that might include a merchant caravan in panicked disarray due to their latest highway robbery; the dead body of a bandit that was critically wounded and abandoned; a bolt-hole containing documents implicating the mayor of a local village in collusion with the bandits; and so forth.

Roger the GS recently posted “Almost Encounters: Sights, Sounds, and Leavings” which breaks this sort of thing down into some useful categories:

  • Sights (“a pair of griffins flying across the sunset, many miles away”; “a brief red glow, sighted across a far-away ridge line”)
  • Sounds (“snatches of shouting and song down in the valley”)
  • Body Parts
  • Victims
  • Tracks
  • Smells and Vapors
  • Environment Damage
  • Intentional Markings

Check it out. There are a lot of great examples over there.

Rob Conley over at Bat in the Attic has posted some nice “rules of thumb” for long distance sighting in hexcrawls.

Meanwhile the Hydra’s Grotto points out that Conley is low-balling mountains in his post “Mountains and Mole-Hills“.

HexI’m posting this because (a) I find their posts useful and insightful, but also (b) because I think they’ve both missed the mark on mountains.

(Note that Conley uses a 5-mile hex, the Hydra’s Grotto uses a 6-mile hex, and I use a 12-mile hex. I use the 12-mile hex specifically because it simplifies away a lot of hex-to-hex sighting questions. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to try to simplify things by converting back into actual measurements.)

When I did my series on Hexcrawls, I included a post on spotting distances. In that post, I included my rule of thumb that mountain ranges can be seen from 72 miles away, but I didn’t talk much about where I derived that value from: Basically, I did some quick research and determined that most mountain ranges have an average height of 3,000 feet or thereabouts. Notable peaks within a range will often be higher than that, but the average height of the range is 3,000 feet. And if you just do the calculations, you’ll discover that you can see an object 3,000 feet high from about 68 miles away (which I then rounded up to 6 hexes x 12 miles per hex = 72 miles). Or, if you reverse the math, I’m saying that at a distance of 72 miles you can see the occasional peak that’s up to 3,500 feet high in that range or thereabouts.

And so, for example, PCs can see the mountain range in my OD&D hexcrawl from about 6 hexes away. But there’s also a notable peak in hex L2 (the Stone Tooth from Forge of Fury) that’s not as high and can only be seen from 3 hexes away. And there’s also a volcano in hex K1 from which the smoke plume can be seen from much further away if it’s smoking. And a very tall peak of 10,000 feet in hex A1 which could theoretically be seen from 10 hexes away on a clear day.

The “clear day” proviso is an important on. The atmosphere itself will have an impact on your viewing distance (particularly for fine details) and haze can significantly decrease it:

Aerial Perspective - Joaquim Alves Gaspar

But I digress: Conley makes his calculations on the distance mountains can be seen from based on an elevation of 1,000 feet. That’s roughly the minimum height of a mountain and, therefore, way too low for seeing a range of mountains from the distance. Hydra’s Grotto aims equally high above average with an elevation of 5,000 feet, which actually exceeds the maximum height of some mountain ranges.

One thing I would pick up from both Conley and the Hydra’s Grotto is the idea of adding a specific mechanic for “finding a good place to sight from” that chews up some time but allows you to see a little further than you normally would. That idea is inherent in the guidelines for determining spotting distance based on the horizon and height (find a tree and you can see further), but hooking it as a specific, mechanical choice might encourage its presence in actual play.

Go to Part 1


Okay, we started by filling the map with every ounce of creative thought we had. Then we started recklessly stealing everything we could lay our hands on. But we’re still staring at empty hexes. What now?

Now we need to get our creative juices flowing again by rapidly injecting fresh ideas that will break us out of the dried-out box our thinking is currently trapped in. There are a lot of ways to provide this stimuli. A simple one I used was to simply roll on a wilderness encounter table and then combine the result with a treasure generator. For example:

(1) Roll 1d8 to determine a column on the AD&D “Sub-Arctic Conditions” encounter table. I rolled a 6, so the result is “Mountains”.

(2) Roll 1d100 with a result of 65. That’s a giant owl. According to the Monster Manual, giant owls appear in groups of 1d4+1. I roll and generate a group of five owls.

(3) Giant owls have a treasure type of “Q x 5, X”. I roll on those treasure tables and I get 1 miscellaneous magic, 1 potion, and 1 gem. Rolling on the sub-tables I get a black pearl (500 gp), a potion of human control, and an amulet of life protection.

Okay. The hex I’m looking at is in the Old Forest, so let’s try something like this:


A giant tree, over 80-feet wide at its base and towering several hundred feet in the air. Around the base of the tree are a number of strange carvings, intermixed with primitive pictures of owls.

CALL OF THE OWL: Anyone performing an owl call near the base of the tree will cause a hidden door to open, allowing passage into the hollow center of the trunk.

COUNCIL OF OWLS: Within the tree, four giant owls sit on perches. For an appropriate tribute, these owls can each cast augury once per day.

UPPER EYRIE: For a much larger tribute, the Council will have the supplicant remove their arms and armor. Then one of the owls will clutch them by the shoulders and fly them to the upper eyrie where they will be placed before the Elder Owl.

THE ELDER OWL: The left eye of the Elder Owl has been replaced with a black pearl (500 gp) and he wears an amulet of life protection. The Elder Owl will answer questions as per a commune spell, but he is also completely enamored with physical beauty: If someone of particular beauty (Charisma 16+) presents themselves, he will use his potion of human control in an attempt to enslave them.

Now we can move onto the next hex. Using the same procedure I generate a herd of wooly rhinos. They aren’t interesting, so I skip them and roll again. This time I get a gynosphinx with 4,000 platinum pieces, a potion of plant control, a bag of beans, and wearing a platinum belt studded with six black sapphires (worth 3,000 gp). What do you make of that?


Regardless of how you’re stocking a hex, you should keep your mind open to other locations that the current hex suggests.

For example, you’ve got a necromancer in a crystalline spire who’s served by a bunch of goblins he’s charmed by writing arcane runes on the inside of their eyelids and then sewing their eyes shut. Where’d he get the goblins from? Maybe there’s a village of them living nearby. They protect a tree that bears a single, bright red fruit each year. The fruit has magical properties and each year the necromancer comes to claim the fruit and take away goblin slaves.

Or you’re keying a grotto that a bunch of bandits are using as a hideout. Turns out these bandits have longbows of remarkably high quality. This is because they’re trading with a one-eyed troll who lives in a cave that can only be accessed through a green crystal which thrusts up through the forest floor: Lay your hand upon the crystal, say the magic password, and the crystal becomes intangible. The troll is a master bowyer.


Finally, be willing to walk away from the project and take a break: Watch a TV show. Read a book. Flip through some unrelated game manuals. Power up the PS3.

Give your brain a chance to breathe and your creative batteries a chance to recharge.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a comprehensive catalog or definitive technique for keying a hexcrawl. It’s just what I happened to do while keying the Thracian Hexcrawl.

Go to Part 12: At the Table

Go to Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that my Thracian Hexcrawl consists of a 16 x 16 map in which every hex has been keyed with geography: That’s 256 hex keys.

Several people have asked me how I did that. Here’s the first secret: When you’re prepping material for yourself, polish is overrated. (Details are also overrated, with the proviso that essential details and awesome details should always be jotted down.)

For example, consider the Skull Rock mini-dungeon I posted in Part 8. If I were writing this dungeon up for someone else to use, I’d probably take the time to mention how wet and slick the stairs leading down into area 1 are (due to the river above); the damp moistness in the air of the first chamber (providing a slight haze that can be burnt away dramatically by the flames of the dragon head); and the way that dampness gives way to a chilled condensation that hangs in glistening drops from the rough hewn walls as you descend into the dungeon.

But since I’m just prepping this for myself, I don’t need to write that down.

Trust your own voice as a GM. During play, based on your intrinsic understanding of the scenario and the environment, it will provide the logical and evocative details necessary to flesh things out.

And by placing that trust in yourself, you can save yourself a ton of prep time. (Something like Skull Rock would take me seven or eight times longer to write-up if I took the time to include and polish all the details.)


Today I’m just going to be talking about stocking hexes. Before you can do that, though, you need the map you’ll be keying.

First, figure out how big you want your map to be. Having worked with a 16 x 16 map with 256 hexes, I’ve concluded that (a) it’s bigger than it needs to be and (b) it requires a ridiculous amount of prep work. So I recommend that people start with a 10 x 10 or 12 x 12 map: 100 or 144 hexes are substantially more manageable and the map will be more than big enough.

Hexcrawl MapSecond, place the the home base for the PCs in the center of the map. (This way they can go in any direction without immediately riding off the edge of your prep.)

Third, grab a copy of Hexographer and lay down your terrain. I recommend large blocks of similar terrain, which can then immediately double as your regions. (Remember that any individual hex is huge. Just because you threw down forest as the predominant terrain type doesn’t mean there can’t be a lot of local variation within it.)

I also recommend having two or three different types of terrain immediately adjacent to the home base: If the PCs go north, they enter the mountains. If they go west, they enter the forest. If they head south or east they’re crossing the plains. (It gives a clear and immediate distinction which provides a bare minimum criteria that the PCs can use to “pick a direction and go“.)

Fourth, throw down some roads and rivers. You’re done.


Before we get into any tips, tricks, shortcuts, or cheats, first things first: Do some honest brainstorming and pour some raw creativity onto the page.

The neat ideas you’ve been tossing around inside your head for the past few days? Everything your players think would be cool? Everything you think would be cool? Everything you wish the last GM you played with had included in the game?

Put ’em in hexes.

Then think about the setting logically: What needs to be there in order for the setting to work? What do you want the setting to have?

Get ’em in hexes.

Bring your creativity to the table. And make sure everything you include is awesome because life is too short to waste time on the mediocre or the “good enough”.

Finally, throughout this entire process be sincere. I think it’s really important to stay true to yourself when you’re doing design work: You have a unique point of view and a unique aesthetic. Even when you’re bringing in inspiration or material from other sources, apply it through your own perspective and values.


It can be useful to start at hex A1, go to hex A2, and then systematically proceed on through the A’s before starting the B’s.

But if you’re working on A3 and you get a cool idea that belongs on the other side of the map, don’t hesitate: Jump over there and key it up in hex F7.

This is not only useful from a practical standpoint: It also feels great when you get to column F and discover three-quarters of the hexes have already been filled.


Okay, you’ve filled a couple dozen hexes, but now you’re starting to run out of ideas. What next?


If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’ve got a stack of modules that you’ve collected over the years. Go pull your favorites off the shelf and start plopping them down into your hexes.

The Forge of FuryBy simply expanding the distances between locations in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, for example, I was able to fill six hexes: The Keep, the Caves of Chaos, the Mound of Lizard Men, the Spider’s Lair, the Raider Camp, and the Mad Hermit’s Hollow.

Additional locations in the ‘crawl include Caverns of Thracia, The Sunless Citadel, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, B3 Palace of the Silver Princess, Temple of Elemental Evil, Gates of Firestorm Peak, L3 Deep Dwarven Delve, Return to White Plume Mountain, DLE1 In Search of Dragons, and Forge of Fury. (Quite a few of those supplied multiples hexes.) Plus stuff from the Book of Treasure Maps 1 & 2, Book of Ruins, Touched by the Gods, Supplement II: Blackmoor, The Book of Taverns, quite a few 0onegames products, and The Secrets of Xendrik.

Having 20+ years worth of collecting to fall back on is nice, of course. But even if you don’t have that kind of gaming library, you can find a ton of stuff online for free. And I did: The One Page Dungeon contest is basically an all-you-can-eat smorgasboard for this sort of thing. Dyson Logos has oodles of gorgeous maps. I also pulled a ton of great stuff from Rust Monster Ate My Sword.


No, seriously, go steal stuff. Pillage and loot with wild abandon.

For example, I own an almost complete run of Dungeon magazines. Not every Dungeon adventure is appropriate for keying a hex, but a lot of them are location-based (or contain locations that can be ripped out).

Dungeon Magazine #65For example, let’s flip open Dungeon #65.

(1) “Knight of the Scarlet Sword”. This adventure details the Village of Bechlaughter and the magical silver dome in the center of the village which serves as home to a lich. Use the whole village or just use the dome.

(2) “Knight of the Scarlet Sword” also contains the Caves of Cuwain — the tomb of a banshee. Another location that can be used as a key entry.

(3) “Flotsam” is a side trek featuring a couple of pirates who pretend to be legitimate merchants; they lure people onto their ship by offering legitimate passage and then rob them on the high seas. Not hex key appropriate, but what if the PCs found this ship — and its weird, seemingly crazy crew — just sitting in the middle of the forest. Might be workable: Make it a witch’s curse or a strange haunting. Or just crazy people.

(4) “The Ice Tyrant”. Heavily plotted adventure, but you can start by ripping out the fully-mapped Lodge and placing it along any convenient road that needs an inn.

(5) “The Ice Tyrant”. Also contains a map for a Sentinel Tower occupied by evil dwarves.

(6) “The Ice Tryant”. Finally, the Keep of Anghanor — guarded by a white dragon and containing a bunch of bad guys.

(7) “Reflections”. A side trek involving a cavern where a will ‘o wisp has imprisoned a gibbering mouther.

(8) “Unkindness of Raven”. Location-based adventure triggered by stumbling across Crawford Manor while wandering through the wilderness. Plop it in.

(9) “The Beast Within”. Location-based adventure triggered by stumbling across a werewolf’s cottage in the wilderness.

And there you go. One random issue of Dungeon and you’ve got 9 hexes keyed. Pick up a dozen issues and you could probably key a full 10 x 10 hex map entirely from the magazine.

Go to Part 11: More Hex Stocking

Go to Part 1

Organization of campaign material is always an interesting topic for me, and I don’t think there’s enough discussion of actual, practical methods. (As opposed to the idealized theoretical stuff you usually see published in advice books.) Although I’m constantly learning new tips and techniques, I’ve also found that no two campaigns ever use the same methods of documentation: Even similar scenarios will often have unique characteristics that benefit from a different approach.

In the case of my Thracian Hexcrawl, I maintain four “documents”:

(1) THE HEX MAP: This is 16 hexes by 16 hexes, for a total of 256 hexes. (If I had to do it again I would either go with a 10 x 10 or 12 x 12 map: Coming up with 256 unique key entries was a lot of work. But I had some unique legacy issues from the pre-hexcrawl days of the campaign that resulted in a larger map.)

(2) THE BINDER: This contains the campaign key. It includes 2 pages of background information (current civilizations, chaos factions, and historical epochs), 8 pages of random encounter tables (one for each of the six different regions on the map), and a 100 page hex key.

(3) THE FOLDER: Each document in this folder details a single location. These are locations with a key that takes up more than a single page and/or any location which requires a status update (because the PCs have visited it and shifted the status quo).

(4) CAMPAIGN STATUS SHEET: This document is updated and reprinted for each session. It’s responsible for keeping the campaign in motion. At the moment, the Thracian Hexcrawl campaign status sheet includes: A list of current events in Caerdheim and Maernath (the two cities serving as home base for the PCs); a list of empty complexes (which I reference when I make a once per session check to see if they’ve been reinhabited); the current rumor table; details about the various businesses being run by PCs; and the master loyalty/morale table for PC hirelings.

Of these documents, the most difficult to prep is, of course, the hex key itself (along with the folder of detailed locations). I spent two weeks of hard work cranking out all of those locations. But the up-side of that front-loaded prep is that, once it’s done, a hexcrawl campaign based around wilderness exploration becomes incredibly prep-light: I spend no more than 10-15 minutes getting ready for each session because all I’m really doing is jotting down a few notes to keep my documentation up to date with what happened in the last session.


My general method of prep — particularly for a hexcrawl — is to originate everything in a state of “status quo” until the PCs touch it. Once the PCs start touching stuff, of course, the ripples can start spreading very fast and very far. However, in the absence of continued PC interaction things in the campaign world will generally trend back towards a status quo again. (This is something I also discussed in Don’t Prep Plots: Prepping Scenario Timelines.)

This status quo method generally only works if you have robust, default structures for delivering scenario hooks. In the case of the hexcrawl, of course, I do: Both the rumor tables and the hexcrawl structure itself will drive PCs towards scenarios.

The advantage of the status quo method is that it minimizes the amount of work you have to do as a GM. (Keeping 256 hexes up in the air and active at all times would require a ridiculous amount of effort.) It also minimizes the amount of prep work which is wasted. (If you’re constantly generating background events that the PCs are unaware of and not interacting with, that’s all wasted effort.)

It’s important to understand, though, that “status quo” doesn’t mean “boring”. It also doesn’t mean that literally nothing is happening at a given location. For example, the status quo for a camp of goblin slavers isn’t “the goblins all sit around”. The status quo is that there’s a steady flow of slaves passing through the camp and being sold.

Go to Part 10: Stocking the Hexes



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