A post on hexcrawls, three ways of using them, and why you might actually not even need to anyway.
First off, I adore the hexcrawl and the hexmap. To me, they scream old school gaming in a way that’s hard to quantify. Many a fantastical land has been envisioned through the medium of 8 or 12 or 24 miles-per-hex, and that’s awesome. But ultimately, all this hexagonal goodness is a tool, and any tool used improperly will produce poor results.
I don’t think all campaigns need hexcrawl procedures. If a campaign is doing just fine without, hexmap traversing and navigation has a tendency to introduce tedium and disengagement. After all, not all campaigns need procedures for domain management, or magical research, or griffin-taming. If the logistics of adventurous travel are not important to the experience at your table, a hex map might do just fine, but a hexcrawl might disrupt the flow of the game. Similarly, campaigns that deeply revolve around dungeoneering might not need full hexcrawl rules. Some sense of space and distance between dungeons and adventure sites will likely suffice. If players show up to play daring dungeon delvers, there’s no reason to spend gaming on in-depth traveling. In short: Don’t try and force your game to have hexcrawls segments if it doesn’t need it.
I see three main ways of using the hexmap and, more importantly, the procedures of the hexcrawl as tools of play.
Note: You can probably replace “hex map” with whatever your preferred map type is; it’s just that convention dictates that hexes are the common format. And I like hex maps.
1. The Hex Map As Obstacle
You start at point A. You need to get to point B. Between A and B, there’s a big ol’ hexmap full of dangers, and it’s your mission to make it across safely.
These types of hex crawls should emphasize danger and time constraint. If Frodo could have made it to Mordor at a leisurely pace, I daresay that story would have quite less dramatic. The role of the hexmap here is to help the player’s plan their route and help them make meaningful decisions. It needs to be full of regions that are inherently dangerous (foul swamps, dangerous forest, scarred demon-haunted hills, etc.), but also needs to be peppered with safe spots – enough that the PC’s can have the occasional quick breather and regroup before they press. Similarly, some kind of time pressure is good; an index of rising darkness, of the veil between worlds tearing, or how many of the undead king’s hordes have awakened so far. The quest, if you will, needs to propel and push the story forward, and meaningful player choice emerges in how they deal with dangerous encounters with limited time and resources. Discovery is of secondary priority here, and the players should have at least rudimentary intelligence about what they can expect to face.
2. The Hex Map As Conquest
Before you stands a fractured and factionalized land, and it is up to you, dear adventurer, to make a name for yourself and become king/queen/autocrat/first consul/scoundrel duke by your own hand!
This is the kind of hexcrawl suggested by things like Kevin Crawford’s excellent An Echo Resounding sourcebook, but also seen in Paizo’s Kingmaker module for Pathfinder – and indeed present, in a very latent form, in B/X D&D and it’s suggestions of establishing domains. The procedures of such a hexcrawl needs to be sensitive not only to the actions of the PC’s as a party, but the PC’s as a potentially factional/political force.
In a hexcrawl like this, the map needs to be peppered with places that in some way are important to ruling and governance. It needs castles to rebuild, villages to clear of doppelganger conspiracies, lairs from which raiders and ravaging monsters sally forth – problems that when solved would enhance the reputation of PC’s as would-be rulers. Furthermore, it benefits tremendously from having factions already established, preferably tyrannical or dysfunctional ones. Crucially, there needs to be spots of hope and a sense that things can improve and get better (unless you’re want a classically grimdark game). In this type of hexcrawl, each adventure site, location and faction is interesting because of how it fits the politics and power dynamics of the area. Things need to be intertwined and interrelated. Players need to fight in both social and environmental arenas, and they need to be wary of factions and mobilizations beyond a single site.
3. The Hex Map As Exploration
A country unmapped by scholars of the known world. A place uncharted, and likely full of wonder and weirdness. A place of adventure most certainly!
Two issues have high priority here: Information and resources. Scouting, gathering intelligence, and generally piercing together a bigger picture is paramount in this type of hexcrawl, and these activities need to be weighing against their cost in resources – which should be scarce or hard to get. A relatively safe home base is good, but beyond that, we’re in terra incognita. Anything could be out there, after all. As long as they have at least one safe place for provisions, equipment, and recruitment, the world around them can be a strange and dangerous place. Exploration-based hexcrawls tend to benefit from a kind of “no mercy” approach to hex contents – what’s there is there, and it is 100% up to the players to beat a retreat when necessary, and 100% up to the GM to telegraph danger and risk meaningfully. This kind of level-indifferent brutality does not fit every kind of group or game, but it is a big part of what gives the West March style of play appeal. And it provides a very genuine sense of achievement and heroism to overcome a terrible obstacle that you discovered, you prepared for, and you ultimately overcame.
This type of hexcrawl really benefits from “push-your-luck” mechanics. Zzarchov Kowolski’s quasi-OSR game Neoclassical Geek Revival has mechanics for giving players more XP the more the press into the dungeon without resting – a similar XP mechanic could very well fit a hex map exploration campaign.
Mixing and Matching
These three broad archetypes can and should cross-pollinate. The 5e module Tomb of Annihilation mixes exploration with a quest. A lot of hexcrawls have areas that are unexplored, and others that are hotbeds of faction play. Classic Mystara tends to have a little bit of each. None of these are mutually exclusive. But either individually or in combination, they require some thought about which procedures to use, what to emphasize, and whether such procedures will help create the gaming experience you want at your table.