Friday, January 19, 2024

Hexcrawls Kinda Suck

 Hexcrawls kinda suck, don't they? 

Or at least, the best hexcrawls are never as good as the best dungeons. You can probably name your favorite dungeons, but can you name your favorite hexcrawls? 

What makes hexcrawls different from dungeoncrawls?

  • In dungeons, exploration is typically my goal. Exploration and gold. It's fun to clear out dungeon rooms because those rooms have interesting rewards and interesting risks (and interesting choices). In hexcrawling, I'm usually going from one point to the other. Hexes often don't have interesting risks that are as concrete as dungeon rooms.

  • Specificity. Dungeon rooms are frequently customized. Many hexcrawls use random generation as an exclusive method of stocking, which tends to create less cohesive stories between the hexes. Because of this, there's little intrinsic incentive to explore the hex map.

  • Surprise. Dungeon rooms connect to each other in surprising ways. Hexes rarely surprise (except in the sense that there's more swamp tiles in this direction than I was expecting). True, there might be something on the random encounter table, but when you're walking overland you can typically see things coming from a lot further off.

  • Size. The root cause with a lot of these issues is size, with dungeons commonly having less than 20 rooms and hexcrawls commonly having more than 100. It makes it hard to have a specific challenge. I might think of a way to make a vertical ascent challenging in a dungeon (ghost spiders!) but if I think of an interesting way to make a mountain hex challenging (living waterfall) then I either have to put it on one hex (where the players might miss it), make it a random encounter (where the player might miss it) or make it a quantum encounter (where I put it in front of the players no matter which hex they go into. . . but of course they are usually free to go pick a new hex to cross the mountains).

  • Meaningless choices. In a well-written dungeon, all (or nearly all) choices should be meaningful. If you come to a T-intersection, there should be some difference between both directions. Maybe a smell. Maybe the players know the approximate direction to the treasury. Maybe they can listen at the doors before they pick which one to open. But when hexcrawling, you usually just pick blindly, oftentimes between two

  • Engagement. Most of the stuff in a hex is skippable. You notice a dragon on a hill in the distance--you better go way around it so it doesn't see you. Spooky tower? Skip it if you don't think you can take it. Hexes are skippable in a way that dungeon rooms aren't. Dragon in a room? Sneaking past it is a much trickier proposition. Dungeon rooms force you to engage.

  • Resource management. The primary resources in dungeons are HP, rations/healing, and torches. When one of these runs low, it's time to leave the dungeon. They run low often, so I'm always paying attention to them. When I'm hexcrawling, the resources are similar: food, money, HP--but they rarely feel limiting. Lost HP is recovered quickly, and I can usually stash enough food that it never feels critical, just like empty bookkeeping.

  • Homogeneity. Every dungeon room is unique, and my players can often remember their favorites. Hexes are often similar (and often identical) and blend together.

  • Challenge from the location. If a hex is too difficult, I can almost always go around it. If a dungeon room is too difficult, I usually need to find a way through (although there may be alternate routes, its not as likely).

Remember: good gameplay comes from interesting and meaningful choices. If your hexcrawling is just empty bookkeeping, then it's not good gameplay.

I stopped tracking ammunition a few years back for the same reason. It just felt like bookkeeping. I never had a situation where someone was running low on arrows and had to make interesting decisions about when you use them. Resource management is only fun if there are interesting limitations and scarcity risks--arrows didn't have either, in my experiences.

"You cannot have a meaningful campaign unless strict time records are kept" is only true if there is some benefit to keeping time records--it leads to interesting limitations and scarcities.

Luckily, all of these things can be fixed. Here are some guiding principles:

Gameplay > "Realism"

Yes, we've both watched a lot of videos about how much food Roman soldiers could carry and researched how far a horse can travel in a day.  That doesn't mean that we have to base a game around it, or that those metrics will be fun.  (Yes, our game has to follow real world rules to a point, in order to let the players make informed decisions, but it doesn't need to be our first priority.)

Smaller Hex Maps

This is a root cause for a lot of these issues.  It makes the next few items easier to accomplish.  This might mean that there are more miles in your hex, but that's okay.

Directional Constraints

Let's consider the three basic types of movement that your players will make when they're hexcrawling:

1. Fixed Route.  Well, that's just a pointcrawl, isn't it?  A collection of scenes that the DM throws at you.  Random or not, you either go forward, rest, or go back.  Not a hexcrawl.

2. Fixed Destination.  Now the players need to make choices.  Which route do I take?  There usually isn't a meaningful choice here.  Either they have a path that they know and trust, or they have to choose between two similar options.  The constraints (HP, money, time) usually aren't limiting.  You might have the players choose between a fast route or a safe route, but those are rare.

3. Searching / Exploring.  Now this is where it feels like dungeoncrawling.  You want to make sure that they have meaningful choices to choose from.  It's easier to have two choices feel meaningful than to have six.  In this case, having fewer directions to choose from feels better.

So give them limits in which directions they can go.  The average hex map shouldn't just be a hive of rooms with six doors in them.  Create interesting connections between hexes, e.g. the only way up to the plateau is through the Stairs of Leng. 

Think about how much the "Obvious Door, Hidden Lever" type of secret doors drive player ingenuity.  They know there's a way up to the Plateau of Leng, but they've walked around the whole thing and haven't seen any path up.  So now they have to search.

Your two big forms of barriers here are water and verticals.  (Elden Ring uses this to great effect, turning an open map into a huge dungeon where you're often asking yourself "how do I get there?").  Other forms of barriers include hostile people (who can chase you off from horseback), giant prehistoric walls, forcefields, poison swamps (DO IT), and cold places (like mountaintops).

Give your players fences to push against (and peer over).

More Information

Tell players more about what's in the hexes ahead.  It shouldn't be blind guesses.  They've been in taverns a lot--I'm sure they've heard about what sort of thing is beyond the hill that looks like a lobster.

More Unique Hexes

Give each hex more details.  Not just "Grasslands.  Wild horses."  but "Ratwind Plains.  Wild horses."  Give them more connecting details.  Bespoke.

Meaningful Resource Depletion

I've come to believe that the resources that are typically depleted during hex crawls (time, money, food) aren't very good constraints--they don't affect people's plans often enough to be worth the time tracking them.

You'll have to come up with your own solution.  (I'll attempt my own below.)

Strong Hooks

Strong hooks force players to interact with them.  A random encounter is a strong hook.  So is the king announcing that you are the people he's been seeing in this nightmares.

Soft hooks are things you can walk away from.  A beggar in the street.  A dire slug noticing you from a mile away.

You obviously don't want to only have strong hooks.  You want your players to have some freedom engage/disengage, but hexcrawls tend to have only soft hooks scattered on the map.  (The only strong hooks tend to exist as random encounters, and even those tend to be easier to run away.)


You'll notice that the stuff above is really a mix of "hex map design" + "hexcrawling mechanic".  I jumbled them up because they overlap in some places, but really you need a good hex map alongside your mechanics.  

Anyway, let's try to make some hexcrawl rules that don't suck.

Design Goals

1. Simplicity.  Too many people are driven away by the complexity of hexcrawling.  What's the minimum amount of complexity I need to hit my goals?

2. Resource constraints.  Money, food, HP, and time are rarely limiting factors.  Food can stay--food can be limiting.  I'm also going to add morale as the second limiting factor.  Hopefully those two are sufficient motivators on their own.

3. Integration with Hirelings.  It seems strange to have your characters be loners (or nearly-so) until they suddenly start building a stronghold and attracting followers.  Shouldn't it be a more gradual process?  Before you're king, you are managing smaller groups of people.  Porters, hostlers, mercenaries, etc.

Hexcrawling Rules for GLOG v19

(This is actually my first time writing this section.  The first two attempts were too complicated.  I'd wager that 80% of system designers have a first draft that is more complicated than their second draft.)

Hexes take a number of days to pass through.  You only count the days when you enter a hex, not when you leave.  A forest hex takes 3 days to enter.  A road hex takes 1 day to enter.  So if you leave a road hex and enter a forest hex, that takes 3 days.  Returning takes 1.  The whole trip takes 4 days.

You can feed yourself for 1 day for every 2 rations you are carrying.

Once you hire porters, you can explore for 6 days.  It doesn't matter how many rations you are carrying.  You have to hire a porter for each PC and mercenary.  A porter costs 10s per trip.

If you swap the porters for donkeys, this turns into a maximum of 9 days.  Donkeys cost 50s up front and cost 10s per trip.  However, you can pasture them in grassy/forest places and they'll forage happily.  Hire a hostler (10s per trip) and you'll automatically succeed at checks made to control them.

Horses are identical except that they cost 200s.  You can also take the bags off them and ride them, plus they can be trained for combat (another +100s).  Untrained horses shun combat.  Like with donkeys, you don't ride these horses when they're covered in packs.  You walk beside them.

Carts costs 100s for the whole party and requires donkeys/horses.  It increases your range to 12 days, but it can only move on roads, paths, and plains.  Outside of those environments, it moves it half speed.  It's pulled by 2 animals.  If you have a wagon, you still need the regular 1 mount per PC.  So you'll have two horses pulling your cart and the rest walking alongside, with packs on their backs.

A wagon costs 800s.  It increases your range to 20 days, but can only travel on roads.  It's pulled by 4 animals (minimum 2 to move).

How big is this wagon?  How many carts does the party need?  

It's handwaved.  Everyone needs their own horse and donkey.  When you pay 100s for a cart, it's appropriately sized for the party.  When you pay 800s for the wagon, it is similarly appropriately sized.  

Hunters can also be hired.  1 hunter per PC is typical.  When stationary, they can feed themselves and also generate enough food for 2 other people per day.  So if you park yourself in a forest and just hunt for a while, the hunters can feed themselves, the PCs, and allow you to replenish your rations.  Lasts for 3 days in a single location--after that you'll have to move around a bit, even if its just inside your hex.  Hunters can only hunt on certain types of terrain.

Lastly, because I like the idea of the party traveling with a group of hirelings, you can also hire camp followers.  The party can decide if these are cooks, bards, prostitutes, servants, or whatever.  Point is, these are people who make your life in the wilderness more comfortable.  If you travel with camp followers, the PCs wake up each morning with +1 temporary HP (from good cheer and good food).

Streamlined.  This is roughly based on 5 PCs going on a 10-day journey.
You may want to double all of the "Per Trip" costs once they get a wagon,
or if they have a 10-person party.

Morale -- You leave town with a group morale of 8-12, depending on how happy everyone is.  If everyone went carousing and got massages: 12.  If you only at the cheapest food and stayed at the cheapest flophouse: 8.

Every time something bad/spooky happens, the party loses 1 morale and then the DM rolls a d12.  The first time you roll above the hirelings' morale score, they get skittish and there will be some sort of small delay / inconvenience / argument.  The second time you roll above the hirelings' morale score, the hirelings insist that they return ASAP.  They'll leave without you if necessary.  (You can grab your share of the food, but without porters/wagons, how will you carry it?)

Morale applies to horses and donkeys, too. 

Fights don't count as spooky if they go smoothly.  If someone drops to 0 HP it counts as spooky.  Really awful shit (a demon bursting out of someone's chest) causes the loss of up to 3 points of morale.

You can raise morale by paying them money (100s spread across all the hirelings = +1 morale, price increases by 50s each time you use it) or by resting somewhere safe(ish) for a day and eating double rations (this also causes +1 morale).


I like the look of it.  I think I got it down to the level of simplicity that I like.

It's kind of gated like a metroidvania.  The Getting a wagon can be a big deal--you could even make it a gated purchase.  Maybe wagons are scarce, and you'll have to befriend the right person before they'll even consider selling you a wagon.  (These are pre-industrial times after all.  No one has a big stock of wagons sitting in a warehouse.)

Hunters also function as a type of metroidvania gate.  Once you get some hunters on your team, you can penetrate into the further reaches of the map, existing there for longer (and maybe indefinitely).

As you gear up, you become able to penetrate further into the hexes.  By yourselves, you can search 1 forest hex at a time.  With a wagon and a full complement of donkeys, you can search 7 forest hexes before needing to return to town.

However, the wagon can't come into the forest with you, so you'll have to park it on the plains, making a temporary camp by the roadside.  Your hunters will stay there and stockpile food for when you come back.  This is good, because you'll eventually have favorite campsites and NPCs.

In a dungeon, HP essentially functions as your risk budget.  If you have 10 HP when you walk in a dungeon, you know that you can take twice as many risky actions as the guy who walked in with 5 HP.  You're allowed to venture 2x as far, really.

HP can't serve this purpose when hexcrawling, since it gets replenished every day, so instead we have morale.  Not sure how well it'll work, but I'll playtest it soon.

Hex Map

Of course, good rules are nothing without a hex map that embodies the same principles.

I chose to rely on rivers and lakes as the primary type of "walls", but you can also see where I have some cliffs (thick red lines) to make certain hexes impenetrable from certain directions.

The roads are accessible for even a new party, but you'll need more people and equipment to penetrate the further reaches of the forest.  I wish the rivers were on the boundaries between hexes, instead of in the middle of them.  They're meant to be boundaries.

You'll need cold-weather gear for the mountains.  (Not readily available in town.)  You'll have to ask around to find someone who will sell it to you.

And some places will require water transport to reach, which is its own separate thing.

And each location needs a strong description and key features.  Bottlenecks between hexes (like bridges) need to have a strong sense of location on their own.  And you'll probably need to have some NPC events on the random encounter chart, and/or risk of your wagon breaking.

Anyway, feel free to disagree with me.  I'm sure lots of you guys love hexcrawls.


  1. I like the simplicity, and how acquiring mounts, vehicles, followers, and other NPCs is like "upgrading" your traveling retinue. I love that having miscellaneous followers and hangers-on is beneficial, although I feel that it would make more sense if they increased morale, rather than granting temporary HP.

  2. I do have a favorite hexcrawl... Hexenbracken. But any crowd-sourced hexcrawl nails one of your suggestions: The hexes are bespoke. Almost every hex has something going on. The "stories" in the hexes even link with each other sometimes, because the humans enjoyed setting that up. While crowdsourcing has its problems (takes a lot of time to finish, dumb hexes that are worse than nothing, doubling up, etc.), it makes the task of making a ton of bespoke hexes much more manageable, because no one has to do a ton of them.

    Since all crowdsourced hexcrawls started with a map, creating a map with direction constraints like you suggested can only make things more interesting and help the hive mind with ideas. "Ooh, the cliff has a city of cliff dwellers..."

  3. My favorite hexcrawl is Isle of Dread :)

    Neverland looks good, but I haven't had a chance to play with it yet.

    That's a good writeup, but if I read between the lines, it seems like you're saying most hexcrawls are just poorly/lazily designed.

  4. I think it's a bit of a mistake to treat hexcrawls as a gameplay experience like dungeons. My guess is it stems from how old-school games were played (or envisioned to be played).

    I think it makes more sense in the context of a sandbox game, where the players, through exploration (even the boring specificity of 12 forest hexes in a row), discover more of the naturalistic world. It's more of an aimless game which I would guess takes more time than most have the luxury of spending of slow pacing.

    As players move around the world and hear about things and see things they get the chance later to reflect and pursue things they missed before. To wonder "what ever happened to that dragon on the hill?" and go find out.

    I'll admit there is probably a better way to capture this idea than spending a session crawling forest tiles, but in a more aimless slow-paced kind of game I think hexcrawling is a perfect compliment to dungeons and downtime.

  5. Wilderlands Of High Fantasy is not only my favourite hex crawl, but my favourite D&D thing. As has been said above, it's probably the case that most are badly done, but the same can be said for most dungeons.

    Personally, I like them to be the means by which one communicates a given setting
    Ideally, they ought to present gameable situations that fill in a detail or beg a question.
    World building via praxis.

    As an aside, there was not much worse than cracking open a trad-game setting splat book, only to be presentedb with short fiction and useless, broad strokes treatments of the major features.

    At any rate, some really useful ideas, especially the tidbit about river boundaries... I'll definitely use that!

  6. I like the gatedness but have to throw in that rivers and (even more so) lakes are the earliest well used freight routes of mankind. Rivers might be unshippable but living close to a lake or even hiring a carpenter to come along and make you a boat might be another one of those game-changers.
    Also you don't just buy a wagon, you order one to be made. So the cartwright (am I using the coorrect English term here?) may have a waiting list of customers anyway. Perhaps you have to do a quest for a merchant who then allows you to take theis spot on that list?
    My grandfather fled on a wagon when he was a teen. The villagers had built the waggons in secret because the Nazi government didn't allow the preparation of civilians for fleeing from the advancing Soviet army (they expected the people to fight and die) - perhaps waggon-building is highly regulated by the powers that be in your hexcrawl.

    1. I guess rivers and lakes should act differently if you are in uncharted/unsafe territory (=barrier) or settled areas or if you have a boat (=far faster and more efficient. A "ladder").

  7. Does anyone have an example of a published dungeon you feel makes every (or most) navigation choices meaningful and informed ( as described above)? I can't think of any.

    1. I think the GM is usually meant to handle this a bit. Like, if the next room has a werewolf in it, the GM is intended to know that and tell the players "You hear some grunting and snarling up ahead."

      In practice this is pretty hard to do on the fly. The GM usually doesn't have a perfect memory of exactly what the nearby rooms all have in them. So you often do end up with a situation where the PC's enter a room, and then the GM goes "Ok, I'd better see what's in this room... oh shit, it's a werewolf, I should have hinted at that before. Oh well."

      I have actually had great success at simply giving the PC's a map of the dungeon. This immediately makes all their choices much more meaningful with no extra effort. And Hexcrawls often use the same approach honestly. The adventure usually comes with a pure art version of the map, so that the PC's can make decisions about where to go.

    2. Hole in the Oak, that I'm currently running does a lot of this. Pretty much every junction and room has some kind of sensation the players can consider when choosing which way they want to go

    3. I agree with everything y'all are saying. Maps are cool. And yeah, the burden of differentiating the paths is usually left to the DM's own devising, for better or for worse.

  8. I like this setup a lot. I enjoy tracking rations, but the group I gm for would prefer something simpler. I am curious how 'restocking' wagons/porters/carts works when they are out of supply under this setup, without hunters.

    1. You can restock in town (cheaply) or by buying food from people people on the road (more expensively). Or you can stop at a place and hunt/fish. Fishing is probably easier/cheaper.

  9. In the past I just ruled that HP don't necessarily replenish when you are roughing it out in the wilderness and travelling. Only when you are truly safe and warm somewhere. Or at the very least, staying in one place focussed on getting better and not pulling watch duties.

    That made HP a travel resource. Love the morale & food rules.

    1. That's actually a good solution. I like it.

      I take it they didn't have a cleric who could cast healing spells that replenish overnight?

    2. Usually not /not enough. I don't use clerics (spells folded into magic user lists) or memorising same spell multiples. So often as not there's no healing magic. When there is, it is fairly limited.

    3. I don't have clerics imc (folded spells into magic user lists) so no healing magic is a common scenario. If a mage does have access to it, I don't allow multiple memorisations of the same spell so mass healing isn't a common occurrence.

  10. I love the Mausritter approach to this issue, which is simply: Make everything smaller. This is basically a shortcut to interesting decisions.

    Instead of having hundreds of hexes, a Mausritter map has 19. That makes it very easy to stock every single hex with interesting, different things. Every hex is unique.

    Instead of taking 4 days to cross a hex, it takes 6 hours. That immediately makes the resource of time a lot more meaningful. When you're deciding whether to trek for 24 days, or 25 days... who cares? It doesn't feel like a meaningful difference. But taking an extra 6 hours is huge, because that means *you will have to stay in the wilderness overnight*.

    If you take the short way, you can get to your destination and safely back home by the time night falls. If you take a long way around, you'll be stuck out there, and you have to face the risk of all the terrible things that haunt the wilderness at night. So every hex you cross feels like a big deal.

    1. That is elegant. But what makes it work is the time pressure. "Gotta get back home before night falls". I feel like "gotta get back to town before my food runs out" is another form of time pressure that probably works equally well.

  11. Another resource/limiting factor you might consider is diplomatic relations. Wilderness is in the eye of the beholder and some of those hexes probably have inhabitants who think of it as their home and won't take kindly to uninvited bands of heavily armed adventurers tromping through. Alternatively, you might have to appease the local spirit who holds dominion over a given territory. The Wailing Dunes adventure for Pariah has a system for this. I like the idea of roles for each PC so the ranger doesn't get all of the glory, and this gives something for a cleric to do.

    On that note, if I were using your system, I would devise roles based on managing each of the resources you mention.