A Primer on Hex Crawling

OK, so you’ve written a dungeon (it even has a dragon in it). Your players meet at a tavern and decide to journey to the dungeon and get the MacGuffin (the quest goal). What happens next? How do you narrate the journey from point A to point B?


Well, you could simply say, “OK, y’all journey for two days and arrive at your destination. The mouth of the dungeon yawns before you.” That’s fine. Or you could make traveling part of the “game,” too.


Hex crawls are a way to think about wilderness travel. It’s a system (like combat) that accommodates the “what happens” of long-distance journeys.


Part of the Overworld Map from The Legend of Zelda, shown are rocks, bushes, trees, a cave, and a brave Elf

If you’ve played any of the Legend of Zelda games, you know the joy of exploring the “overworld.” There’s a thrill in occasionally finding a secret, a hidden mini-dungeon, or an interesting character. There’s an excitement in seeing a distant spot on your map and thinking, “I want to go to there.” That’s what hex crawling is all about.


Systems of Play


Role-playing games have a sense of scale and scope. When combat begins, the camera lens zooms in. You begin thinking in six-second intervals. When you’re hex crawling, the camera lens zooms out. You start thinking about days and miles instead of minutes and feet.


Hex crawling is just a system of play. Games can accommodate many such systems, and a game table can seamlessly transition from one to the other. For example, combat might break out when bandits ambush the player characters (PCs) as they travel through the forest, or the players can go into dungeon exploration mode if they uncover a set of ruins on the road.


At its heart, a hex crawl is a “sandbox” style of play. That means that the map is a sandbox—a somewhat bounded space—wherein the players can play. The Referee doesn’t have a specific plot in mind: they introduce the world and the map and let the players choose what they want to do inside of it. The game’s story emerges as the players explore the world and follow whichever plot threads seem most interesting.


History of Hex Crawls

A section of the map used in the game Outdoor Survival, the image shows mountains and grassland with icons representing animals and a grid of hexagonal lines

Hex crawling has long been a part of RPGs, going back to the earliest days of the hobby. Thus, old-school renaissance enthusiasts often include hex crawl rules in their systems and campaigns.


Hex crawls gain their name from hex maps: maps made out of patterns of repeating hexagons (six-sided shapes). These maps are popular due to their functionality. The center of one hex is equally distant to the center of all other adjacent hexes—this allows movement to be calculated easily. Early wargame companies like Avalon Hill would publish pads of hex paper explicitly for miniature gamers to draw their own maps.


The origins of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) lie in medieval wargaming. When Gygax and Arneson were building out the earliest RPG paradigms, they used whatever they could get their hands on to represent their fantastic medieval dioramas. When it came time for their fighters and armies to move across the wild landscape, they reached for a board game that was already on their shelf: Outdoor Survival, published by Avalon Hill. The game was about orienteering hikers and featured (you guessed it) a hex map of a wild expanse. A copy of this board game was actually required to play original D&D (it’s listed as a requisite on page 5 of the “Men and Magic” book, alongside polyhedral dice and a “patient Referee”).


Excerpt from Men and Magic by Gygax & Arneson

Hex crawl adventures were published as early modules (pre-packaged adventures) for D&D and other early RPGs.

  • Wilderlands of the Magic Realm, published by the Judge’s Guild in 1980, boasted sprawling hex maps of over 800 miles west to east and 1,000 miles north to south.

  • Isle of Dread, by Cook and Moldvay in 1981, was one of the first “official” D&D hex crawls.

  • Griffin Mountain, made for the RuneQuest system and published in 1981, was an ambitiously-thorough gazetteer of the titular Griffin Mountain and surrounding wilds.


Hex Crawl Procedures


If this all sounds appealing and you want to try running a hex crawl, you will need to choose a system of play that can handle the mechanics of traveling across the hex map. Ultimately, each hex crawl system is built to answer some basic questions, discussed here.


Time Management


Time is one of the core concerns for hex crawling. How will the Referee respond when the players ask, “How far can we get in a day’s travel?” Can the players get to shelter in time? Will they have to sleep outside in the harsh weather? Can they get the ring to Mordor before Sauron conquers all of Middle-earth? That sort of thing.


Like many systems of play, managing time can swing between concrete and abstract.

  • Time management might be as simple as a twenty-four hour clock: the PCs travel nine miles over the course of three hours, rest for an hour at noon, then travel another five hours until the sun begins to set.

  • Time management might be abstract. Days might be split up into four “watches,” which can be spent traveling, foraging, sleeping, etc. You don’t fiddle with the small numbers of minutes or hours, just first watch, second watch, etc.

  • Time management might be on a large scale. Perhaps you only track days, not hours or watches. You travel twenty miles on the 14th of January but only twelve miles on the 15th.


As time passes, so do the seasons. The rules for travel might be dramatically different in the spring vs the winter. Spending too long dawdling during the warmer months might force the players to face hardships in the cold months.


Travel


An excerpt from a map in TSR's Rules Cyclopedia, featuring Hexes representing various land and water features

The other essential element in the “How far can we travel in a day” question is the “far” part. Hex crawls must have rules for the distance traveled by the PCs.

  • What is the baseline distance traveled in a unit of time? Do some characters (like halflings) move slower than bigger characters (like humans)?

  • The baseline might be changed by different types of terrain. For example, you might move slower while hiking in the mountains than you would over open farmland.

  • How do animals or other vehicles aid you? Are there types of terrain where you cannot use them?

How fast the players will move across the map will be determined by their speed and how large of a tract of land each hex represents.


The procedures of travel should dictate how much the players should know about the hex map itself. Some systems present the map (or at least some portion of it) to the players in full. Others expect that the players will make their own map as they travel based on the description of the scenery provided to them.


To that end, another consideration are rules for getting lost.

  • Can the players journey through a dense forest and arrive safely at their destination? What if there’s inclement weather?

  • Consider how far the players can see if they stand on the edge of the hex. Can they see the other side? What if the players are standing in the center of the hex?

These factors will throw in elements of uncertainty as players travel through the world.


Survival


Hex crawls can make outdoor survival situations as dangerous and interesting as fighting goblins or avoiding traps. As such, they need to have rules for the dangers of the wilderness.


An essential question revolves around hunger and thirst. If this is a consideration, there must be a system to track how much food and water the player characters are carrying. If the player characters run out of food, there must be other rules to cover the process of hunting for food and finding water. How successful will PCs be at their attempts to find food in the wilderness? Hunting is time consuming and tiring work and might cost them hours or days, whether or not they are successful.


Weather also introduces elements of danger. The Referee might decide the weather each day by fiat or they might roll on a random table based on the current season. Depending on the weather, the players may need to make tests in order to avoid wasting time, becoming lost, or suffering from exposure.


Encounters


Of course, hex maps are only interesting if there are interesting things to discover. Ruined wizard towers, hidden smuggler’s coves, enchanted elven glens, and kobold-infested gold mines should be scattered generously over your hex maps. As the PCs travel across the hex map, you should have rules for what you encounter. Essentially, there are two types of encounters: keyed encounters and random encounters.


Keyed encounters are tied to a particular location. The name is derived from the term “map key.” The Referee might know there are bandits on the forest path and makes a note (a key) that they will attack the players if they travel that road. Heck, the map might even say “Here Be Bandits” in-character to advertise that fact to players. Keyed encounters will trigger whenever the players explore a particular area on the map.


Random encounters are a system are encounters that players may or may not bump into as they travel. During certain intervals, the Referee will roll on a random table that introduces a new encounter. The Referee hasn’t planned this out beforehand, so random encounters can be fun for player and Referee alike.


This is especially true if random encounters are added on top of keyed encounters. For example, the Referee knows that there is a giant that lives at the ford of the river. When the PCs travel there, the Referee rolls for a random encounter, which yields the result “12 knights on a quest.” Suddenly, the river ford is a busy place! There are twelve knights trying to cross the river that is being guarded by a giant. How will the knights react to the giant? Will they fight? What do these knights think of the player characters? Will the giant call for the players to aid him?


Hex Paper

Because OSR games are (more or less) modular, you can swap or substitute systems between them: if you’re playing Elf Game but like the hex crawling rules from Old-School Essentials, you can just use them! So find the hex crawling rules you like the most and use them in your system of choice.


Additional Resources


Lots of smart people have made great toolkits for learning how to create and run hex crawls. If you would like to add a hex crawling system to your game, check these links out and build a system that works for you!

Josh is a writer and game designer, he blogs at riseupcomus.blogspot.com as well as The Elf Blog. You can find his games at riseupcomus.itch.io


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