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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hexcrawling and its Fundamental Use in Old School D&D Part 1

The first in a series of posts whereby I discuss the merits of the old school hexcrawl.

In new school era games (3e, 3.5, 4e, etc.) when PCs are expected to travel long distances to get to their next destination, it might be typical for a DM to say "after a week long travel you all arrive at 'destination x,' subtract a week's rations," for the sake of "moving the story along."  That's fine and dandy and all, and maybe the players want that at times, but let's face it, in a world of medieval/weird/apocalyptic fantasy, "getting there" is half the battle.  That's the difference between the old school game and the new school era, video game centric scaled "encounters" in modern RPGs.  In the old school, it's not always about the destination, but more about the journey.  After all, in a fantastic setting peopled with monsters and magic, all kind of things can happen when the PCs are moving through the wilderness, even if they take a populated and well traveled road.

In my present game, it won't be long before the party gets a clue to what will likely be their next destination, should they follow that path of course.  They could certainly choose to ignore it, but most likely they won't.  As such, the journey will take them almost a month, on horseback, even if they take the main road.  In a world of fantasy, a lot can happen in a month's time.  So, in essence, they'll be doing some hexcrawling for a while.  Maybe even a few entire game sessions.  A lot can happen on the way to town.

Hexcrawling has been covered in great detail all over the OSR blogging world.  There is already a wealth of information on the subject.  While some may argue semantics, at its heart hexcrawling is similar to dungeon crawling, except the "crawl" takes place above ground, often in wild, and relative uncivilized lands where lots of interesting things might happen.  It becomes even more dangerous at times than the dungeon crawl, with the probability of getting lost, running out of food, or encountering creatures and people well above the level of the party.

If handled properly, a wilderness hexcrawl can be an exciting and engaging part of your campaign that will be just as enjoyable (maybe even moreso) than the "story" you have presented them with.  So, here is my take on the hexcrawl, some pointers on how to make it engaging, and keep your players' interest in the game.

First, the basic elements of what you need for a hexcrawl are pretty much considered universal.

- A numbered hexmap of the area (preferably with hexes representing 5 or 6 miles...I like to use 6 miles) with various land and terrain features like hills, plains, scrublands, marshes, forests, mountains, radioactive volcanoes, or whatever suits your flavor.

- Populate the hexmap with some interesting locations/events the PCs will discover if they enter the hex.  Basically you're creating a key corresponding to the number of the hex you want the feature to be located in.  Obviously, at first you want to focus on the immediate areas around the hex your party will start from.  There is no need to fully flesh out some ancient ruin 20 hexes away which your PCs might never encounter.  Keep focused on what's immediately ahead of you for the time being, as it will save you hours of unnecessary prep time.  When you're initially doing this, just make small notes about the features, and worry about fleshing out major details, drawing dungeon maps, etc. until later on.  In some cases, you're just going to have to wing it.

- Create random encounter tables.  Depending on the terrain or area, you might roll for an encounter 3 times a day or 6 times.  This is usually up to the DM to determine, although there are guides for such.  The 2e DMG has a table which gives the encounter chance, number of encounters to roll per day and what not based on the terrain type the PCs are passing through.  Random encounter tables can be simple with say only 6 options if triggered, or as complex as 100.  This is up to you.  Obviously the less time you spend on the encounter tables, the less diverse the random encounters will be.

Traveling over long distances for PCs can be tedious.  It's up to the DM to keep things entertaining and engaging for the players.  Random encounters or hex features designed for your party to find should be engaging for some reason.  Perhaps the PCs will discover a village in the next hex they travel to.  But let's say that village is cursed, and its citizens can't leave the village.  The PCs can investigate and maybe find the source of the curse lies in a barrow just outside of town.  Perhaps they'll be led to free the village from the curse at the rumor of some hidden treasure in the barrow.

These types of encounters can lead to little mini-adventures on their own, and can make the hexcrawl something the players will remember and actually WANT to be engaged in.  What you want to avoid is dragging out a pointless journey with uninteresting events i.e. "you travel for half a day, you're attacked by goblins (roll out stupid pointless combat), you take up watch for the night, you encounter some wolves (roll out stupid combat), you wake up and head out again," wash, rinse and repeat...boring.  Make the journey count, and make it interesting.