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March 14, 2014

The Hex Crawl

So you've heard about this thing called a Hex Crawl.  What is it?  Why should it interest you if you're not an "OSR" fan?

A hex crawl is an open-ended sandbox-style adventure that originated in old school D&D games.  In a hex crawl, the GM produces a map of interesting Points of Interest (POIs) for the players to explore within a fairly large geographic area.  The map is given to the players, usually as an in-character item.  They usually have a reason for exploring the area, but it's not clear how to achieve their objective without exploring the map more first.

The map is divided into hexagons, hence the name.  These help the players and GM determine how far apart things are, and whether the PCs will need to camp in the wilderness along the way.  They also tell the GM what route the players will take as they travel, which may lead to the players stumbling upon hidden POIs.  As they travel, the different areas of wilderness have "random" encounters, which are actually based on the terrain type and nearby monster lairs.

The player experience of a hex crawl is that of uncovering a lot of secrets about an area and exploring it however they want.  It feels like free exploration, though there are usually good story hooks for why they're here in the first place.  Then of course, the PCs will find more hooks along the way.

The POIs on the hex map are the meat and drink of the hex crawl.  At the POIs, the players encounter monsters, humans, or undead living in ancient ruins.  These creatures can be friendly, neutral, or hostile.  Monsters lair in ruins.  In large ruins, often multiple kinds of monsters form a symbiotic existence.  Humans hide out in ruins or make new villages inside or atop them.  Undead are unique because they might connect the history of the ruin with the present (or not -- they could be recent undead; say a vampire that moved in, or a necromancer making trouble, or a recently hanged criminal's ghost).

The current monsters represent the "A plot" of the POIs.  Because you have a map with several POIs on it -- known and secret -- the different POIs exist in a milieu that should generate relationships, conflicts, alliances, and plots.

Example:  The PCs are looking for an ancient artifact called Sehanine's Tear in the ruins of a river valley.  They have a map showing a village and a wizard's tower.  When they get to the village, they learn about a band of pirates operating out of the ruined temple on the other bank of the wide river.  The pirate band is allied with a local lizardfolk tribe who live in an abandoned gold mine.  The lizardfolk disapprove of the pirates' predation, but depend on the purloined meat the pirates bribe them with.  The pirates are enemies of the fishing village across the river that the PCs find themselves in.  The village used to be protected by the wizard in the nearby tower, but the wizard recently disappeared after saying he was going off to explore a mysterious palace that appeared in the mountains above the hills across the river.  The tribe of lizardfolk cannot get meat for themselves because displacer beasts lair in an old coliseum, in the hills and prey on the game that the lizardfolk used to hunt, killing deer, goats and lizardfolk hunters equally.  The pirates are having their own problems:  Their leader recently became "ill" and cannot tolerate sunlight.  He spends his time in the crypt below the temple, plotting a "new strategy" for dealing with "those pesky villagers."

This milieu gives us several POIs with solid A plots.  Get some hex paper and put a different terrain type in each hex.  Place the POIs in hexes.  If you are using random encounters, use the dangers in your POIs to decide what encounters are likely to occur in what geographical areas.

For non-D&D games, this is all you really need.  For non-D&D games, each faction or threat is relevant because of its relationship to the local milieu.

But if you're running D&D, you have another step!  You need to install proper dungeons in each location.  In D&D, each POI contains a plot point (e.g. "the ruined coliseum needs to be cleared of displacer beasts before the lizardfolk will stop protecting the pirates") and each plot point is an excuse to have a dungeon.   The next step is to dream up the B plots for each one.  The B plots are the lingering remnants of the histories of the ruins in the area.  See last week's post for advice on traditional dungeon design.

Quick aside:  Let me explain the difference between dungeon design and typical RPG design:

  • Typical Design:  Each plot point in a typical RPG usually involves some challenge that the PCs must overcome, a consequential decision they must make, or a cost they must pay.  The displacer beasts in the hills would represent a discrete challenge, that may be broken into sub-challenges: 1. Find out why they came to the hills.  2. Undo the cause of their migration.  3. Chase them back to where they came from.
  • Dungeon Design:  The discrete challenge of the displacer beasts would be resolved within an isolated geographical area full of discrete zones where encounters can happen in a bounded way.  Instead of 3 challenges, the GM has the opportunity to expand the number of encounters by adding a B plot, which generates additional encounter hooks.  In this case, the coliseum is more than just a site for overcoming the 3 basic challenges of ousting the displacer beasts.  Perhaps the displacer beasts come from a portal to the feywild in the ruins, which opened when the fey palace appeared in the mountains above it.  The PCs must find out how to close the portal, and that leads to more encounters.  The B plot can also connect to other POIs:  The PCs may need to venture to the fey palace to end the overlap of the two planes of existence.

In any case, you need to place the ultimate objective -- the location of the thing the PCs came to the mapped area to find or accomplish -- somewhere in the area.  Select a location for it that -- based on the web of plots in the area -- the PCs cannot find without interacting with a few other POIs.

So in our example we have 6 POIs...

  • Village
  • Wizard's Tower
  • Ruined Riverfront Temple
  • Abandoned Gold Mine
  • Ruined Coliseum
  • Mysterious Palace

Two of these are known to the PCs initially: The village and tower.  They will learn about the palace in the village.  They will also learn about the pirates, and if they search for the pirates' base, they will find the temple.  The temple will lead them to the lizardfolk in the mine, which will lead them to the coliseum.  The coliseum is on the way to the mysterious palace, as well. They could ignore the pirate problem and chase after the missing wizard, and that lets them skip the temple and mine; but they will still encounter the coliseum and palace in that case.  If we want to place the ultimate objective in this setting, Sehanine's Tear, we would put it in a location in the coliseum that can only be accessed by something they find in the palace.  That way the PCs will have to explore most of the map before getting their objective.  So we will put the artifact in the hands of an ancient treant living in a fey grove on the other side of the portal to the feywild.  The PCs can't interact with that portal without getting the Rowan Staff that was stolen from the friendly wizard by the evil Eladrin in the palace.

In a typical RPG, each can be the location of a particular challenge.  In D&D, because of the unique feature of dungeons, each should contain at least a small dungeon (2-4 encounters) if not a large one (5+ encounters).  Each encounter should relate to the A plot, B plot, or arc plot of the hex crawl.  If your players like random encounters, you might still use them if they camp in the wilderness.  You can also make "random" encounters have plot relevance by having them reveal secrets about the nearest POI.

The example hex crawl would have the following encounters:

  • Village (2-4 encounters):  There would not be a dungeon per se.  There would be several skill encounters in the village, as the PCs piece together where the wizard went.  They may also find a pirate spy - a villager who has been coerced into putting out signals to the pirates to warn them if there are soldiers or adventurers in the city.  He would represent a combat encounter and a skill challenge opportunity to learn the location of the pirate base before the next pirate raid.  On the South bank of the river, the PCs are not likely to have random encounters.  This area is civilized.
  • Wizard's Tower (5 encounters):  This is definitely a dungeon.  The wizard has died, so the PCs may eventually come here to look after his affairs or loot his treasure.  It contains constructs and cunning magical traps.  On the South bank of the river, the PCs are not likely to have random encounters.  This area is civilized.
  • Riverfront temple (6 encounters):  This is a ruin with a dungeon.  There would be encounters with pirates but then also with vampires, as the leader of the band has been turned.  Deep in the crypt is the leader's vampiric master.  The master vampire slumbered in a sarcophagus for centuries until the Eladrin Lord led the pirate leader to the secret "fount of eternal youth" which turned out to be the vampire's sarcophagus.  He did this in an attempt to draw the wizard into his trap, for the wizard was the only thing standing in the way of the Eladrin taking over the valley.  Random Encounters:  On the North riverbank, the PCs are likely to encounter vampire spawn or pirates, depending on the time of the encounter.
  • Abandoned Gold Mine (4 or 6 encounters):  The old gold mine has a bunch of lizardfolk, but it also has a B plot with hidden rooms and traps devised by the paranoid, greedy dwarves that dug in here.  D&D's unique subterranean threats would be useful monsters for the sealed dwarven areas that the ignorant lizard people couldn't get into.  If the PCs are friendly to the lizardfolk, they will talk about the dwarf vaults they can't enter, and offer to let them past peacefully to explore the old vaults, in exchange for a share of the treasure (how much is another skill challenge).  Random Encounters:  The PCs could encounter lizardfolk patrols or basilisks, which are friendly only to lizardfolk, and therefore tolerated by the tribe.
  • Ruined Coliseum (5 encounters):  This crumbling structure stretches hundreds of feet into the sky in places, and its crumbling terraces house agile and deadly displacer beasts.  It also has a subterranean area that was used to house slaves for arena fights in ancient times.  That area has secret passages dug by rebellious slaves centuries ago, traps devised by the jailers to keep the slaves from escaping, and fey creatures (in addition to displacer beasts) that came in through the magical portal.  Random Encounters:  Displacer beasts!
  • Mysterious Palace (4 encounters):  A magical palace appeared earlier this year.  It is an Unseelie Eladrin palace that crossed over from the feywild.  The local wizard crafted a Rowan Staff to banish it back to the feywild before the Unseelie fey could cause trouble, but they tricked him and killed him.  His cat familiar survived and is hiding near the palace to give the PCs cryptic hints in charades about the dangers within.  Random Encounters:  Unseelie fey creatures, such as eladrin, spriggans, etc.
I hope this description of a hex crawl was useful for the GMs that read this blog.  My goal was to describe what a hex crawl is and how to design one.  My example hex crawl should actually be enough for a mini-campaign, with a few dozen encounters worth of material - enough for two levels in Pathfinder or three in 4e.  If you ran this without dungeons, it would go a lot faster.

In a way, the hex crawl offers the PCs more flexibility and freedom.  They can explore the area in any way they want.  They can skip areas if they want, or try to delve for as much treasure as they can get.  Because the area contains enough encounters for multiple levels, the order that the PCs explore in will define how easy the area is.  Some encounters may be too hard, and they will have to flee and come back later.  Some may come out to be too easy, which is fine.

In the example, if we presume that a Pathfinder GM runs this hex crawl across levels 4-6, we might have encounters ranging in CR from 4 through 8.  The level 8 encounters should be reserved for the Treant and the Eladrin Lord.  The Master Vampire encounter might be CR 7, as would the hardest encounters in the Palace, wizard's tower, and the sealed area under the gold mine. A half dozen CR4 encounters would make up the easy fights and "random encounters" if used.  Most  of the other encounters would be level 5 or 6.

If you have any questions, ask them here or find me on twitter @RunAGame

Note!  I added to this idea with more on Hex Crawling with Icons.


  1. Just came over from Forths of 4e. Goodness this post is dense. Must bookmark for later reading. Looks good at a glance.


  2. I think Google at my last comment. As I was saying, great little write-up. You've done a great job illustrating how to integrate points of interest. I've added this to my list of Hex Crawl Resources.