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Angry Rants: Hex Crawls

All right, it’s time for me to shout out something I don’t hate: Fantastic Maps. I don’t mean “maps that are fantastic,” though I like those, too. I mean Fantastic Maps the website/map publisher/soon to be software publisher. You can get cool free maps and see mapmaking tutorials on their website and follow them on Twitter.


Why this sudden show of support for something I didn’t make? F$&% you, that’s why. I can support things. I support lots of things. I’m a motherf$&%ing force for good and community. I’m totally supportive. But also, they let me in on their alpha test of their new tile-based hex-mapper for RPGs. And it’s pretty cool. Check out the hashtag #hexallthethings on Twitter to see what’s going on there. And keep an eye on it.

But, as I futzed around with the program a little bit this past weekend, I made the comment on Twitter that it almost made me want to run a hex crawl. Except I wouldn’t. Because hex crawls suck. And as usual, when I post a perfectly reasonable, calm, and objective statement like that, some people wanted to know what particular type of brain damage had caused me to say something so ludicrously moronic as “hex crawls suck.”

So, let’s talk about why hex crawls suck.

What the Motherloving F$&% is a Hex Crawl

Now, maybe you are wondering just what a hex crawl is. A hex crawl is a type of game structure, typically for a D&D game. Instead of the normal game which begins with some sort of premise (goblins attacked the village, go kill them and take their stuff), a hex crawl begins with a map of the local area. Generally, the map is unexplored and therefore mostly blank except for a few large and well known features and points of interest. The PCs then explore the world, filling in the map and looking for interesting things like ancient ruins and fanes and goblin lairs and lost cities and other dungeons. So, basically, instead of the GM telling the players where the fun adventures are, the GM hides them underneath a blank map and says “okay, go find the fun.”

The reason it’s called a hex crawl is because, in old-school D&D, overland maps were generally drawn on paper divided into hexagons instead of squares. Each hexagon was a certain size (6 miles across, for example) and contained precisely ONE type of terrain and ONE terrain feature. So, the PCs would enter a hex, it would be described by the GM, they would make note of the terrain and search it for interesting things. When they didn’t find anything interesting, they would move on to the next one. And so on, until they found the fun.

The Ur example — the example that introduced an entire generation of gamers to the sheer unbridled joy that is clicking on one hex at a time to reveal the terrain and slowly zero in on the actual fun parts of the game like a less enjoyable version of Minesweeper — is The Isle of Dread by David Cook and Tom Moldvay. Initially released in 1981 and later repackaged and sold as part of the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set, the module saw the PCs shipwrecked on an unknown island filled with dinosaurs and spider people and pirates and all sorts of crap.


You know, cause…. fun!

The hex crawl is actually a subset of the adventure known as “the wide-open sandbox,” a style of play in which the GM basically creates a setting and then tells the players to go play in it and let him know when they’ve found something fun to do. The PCs are self-driven, self-paced, and self-motivating.

Am I Being Unfair to Hex Crawls and Sandboxes?

You might detect a slight hint of vitriol toward the idea the sandboxes and hex-crawls in my normally calm, objective writing style. And you’d be right. I have a lot of anger toward this general style of play. But I won’t apologize to it because the title of the column is Angry Rants not A Dude Gives Everything a Fair Shake and Never Lets His Emotions or Cartoon Swearing Ruin His Critique. But I will outright admit that this anger is unfair. This is really unfair, nasty, unkind anger.

Here’s the thing: hex crawls and sandboxes are not, in theory, bad ways to run a game. Hell, you’re probably a little baffled by my anger because I tend to be very focused on exploration-based game play and freedom of choice. In fact, done right, I LOVE running a good hex crawl or sandbox.


There are two major problems with hex crawls in D&D. One: D&D. Two: Many GMs are utter f$&%wits and do hex crawls wrong.

Modern D&D Sucks for Sandboxes

Modern D&D is actually far more steeped in narrative flow than most people realize, even though it is utter crap in many narrative respects. Before you get mad, remember, I love D&D and that most of the crap comes simply from the fact that it expects the DM to do a lot of the narrative heavy lifting without actually explaining anything. And two of the strongest bits of narrative structure in modern D&D make running sandboxes and hex-crawls a nightmare. Those are ‘the adventuring day’ and ‘experience levels.’

See, D&D is steeped in this idea that the PCs have enough resources to get through a certain number of obstacles and encounters before they exhaust their resources and need to rest. Individual problems rarely threaten the PCs, but attrition makes it harder and harder to keep going. IN THEORY (though this is never really explained to the GM), in a day of encounters, the encounters should build to something so that, just before the PCs rest, they deal with a climax or resolve a major issue. That’s called narrative pacing.

Now, you also have a campaign level version of that called experience levels. The idea is that new, young, fresh PCs can only handle the smallest, simplest of deadly problems. If they get in over their head, they quickly get dead. This manifests itself most strongly in the idea of challenge ratings and encounter balance systems. The concept here is that the PCs grow in power, becoming capable of facing more and more powerful threats, and feeling more and more badass as a result. IN THEORY this also extends to non-combat things, and to some extent, that does play out. But it also isn’t very well explained to anyone. And it’s sort of clumsily implemented. Especially when you look at the f$&%ing spell lists.

These two structures encourage — require really — the GM to pace the game carefully and plan out the challenges accordingly. If the players stumble into too great a challenge, they will often get pretty badly wrecked before they have a chance to run away. Or, if they exhaust their resources too much and face a big encounter, they can also be devastated before it occurs to them to flee. On top of that, if the PCs are given total freedom to rest and recover whenever they want and face every encounter at full power, the encounters will become trivial. The game is DESIGNED that way.

So, the idea of cramming self-direction and self-pace into modern D&D is usually pretty disastrous. I say usually because you can do it, if you know what you’re doing and how to keep more problematic bits of the game under control.

And that’s kind of why the hex-crawl remains the purview of old-school editions of D&D. Old school editions of D&D were much more fast and loose with things like encounter balance. They were also more focussed on avoiding combat or finding ways to shut down a combat than they were on a carefully tailored combat experience of exactly five rounds during which the PCs will expend exactly 25% of their resources.

“Find the Fun” is Not Good Gameplay

Now, let’s look at the execution problem. You’ll notice I keep referring to hex crawls and sandboxes as a sort of “find the fun” game. Here’s a blank map, somewhere I’ve put a fun dungeon, go find it. And that’s not because that’s what hex crawls and sandboxes are SUPPOSED to be, it’s because that’s what most hex crawls and sandboxes run by most GMs ACTUALLY BECOME. So, I am blaming the concept for poor execution. But, hey, you don’t come here to listen to me be reasonable.

The basic concept behind the hex-crawl is that exploration is a fun mode of gameplay. And exploration sure CAN BE. But that sort of exploration rarely is. “You enter a hex, it’s a forest, mark it on your map, roll for random encounter, nothing jumps out to kill you, now search the forest for points of interest, you don’t find anything, move to the next.” The problem is, that kind of exploration is a grind. It’s a “crawl.” So, the only rewarding part of the exploration is when you actually find anything. And the vast majority of the hexes have nothing to find. There is nothing interesting about yet another forest of hexes. And random encounters — dinosaurs waiting to jump out of the forest and kill you — are interesting, but they are the painful, dangerous kind of interesting. That’s not a reward.

It takes a very specific player to find that fun. The rewards are rare, the losses are common, and it’s a grind. And in the meanwhile, there’s no motive force other than the promise of “eventually you might find something.” Exploration is the only drive and it’s mostly a chore.

That isn’t to say a hex crawl can’t be run better, that it can’t be run to appeal to more than the one type of player that purely finds that crap rewarding. But most GMs don’t understand how to do it.

Giving Structure to the Structureless

The major problem with hex crawl type games is they ultimately ask the players to just wander around. Your goal is literally to wander around until you trip over something interesting to do. But because most of the actual wandering is uninteresting, it’s the equivalent of hiding a board game somewhere in the house and telling the players they have to find it before they can play it. It’s sort of misguided and it’s not the way to accomplish exploration.

First of all, one of the most powerful things you can offer the PCs is an incremental goal, something they can work toward and accomplish as part of the ongoing game. Even something as simple as a plot thread that starts in the local village that says “goblins raiders have been coming out of the hills to the west,” is neat. If the hills take up three to four hexes, the PCs have a nice, narrow area to explore and, when they find the goblin lair, they can celebrate the minor victory. They accomplished an incremental goal. This is where the vast majority of sandbox games fail. They fail to offer incremental goals that narrow the exploration.

They don’t even have to be firm, hard goals. They can be just quiet rumors or weird sightings. Anything really that promises “a thing in this general vicinity” and gives the players a direction to go. Even if they don’t take it, even if they are intrigued by the dark forest to the north and want to wander around there, that’s fine. But make sure they can always CHOOSE a purpose before they leave town if they want to.

Second of all, the exploration itself has to be more interesting. There has to be more to find out there. Most GMs only have two types of things to find during exploration: a point-of-interest (an adventure site, an encampment, a town, a fortress, or whatever) OR a random encounter. And random encounters are routinely either fights, hazards, or other travelers.

One of the things that makes exploration fun is learning about the world. Exploration is — when you get down to it — an act of conquest. It is an act of conquering the world by driving back your ignorance of it. So, there should be something interesting to find almost everywhere. A random encounter table for a given region should be HUGE! It should have about half as many entries on it as there are hexes in that region. And a good half to two-thirds of that table should be “interesting tidbits.” Wandering the elf forest, you might meet an elf part that try to drive you out or you might meet the goblins they are at war with or you might meet the spiders that eat goblins and elves. But you should also come across other things. The abandoned goblin camp. The slaughtered elf camp. A webbed-over area of forest with broken egg-sacs and no spiders in it. An ancient, fallen circle of stones. The PCs should startle wildlife like fey-deer and fox-bunnies. They might find a place that is weirdly quiet and devoid of life for no reason. Or a place where the fruit trees have a slight glow to them because it was once a magical elf orchard and some of the magic seeped into the soil. None of these things have to have any payoff. They don’t need treasure. They don’t need fights. They just need to say “hey, the world is alive here and you just learned something neat about it.”

Third, there have to be ways to explore the world OTHER THAN wandering. Imagine if the PCs hear rumors of a ruined temple somewhere in the windswept plains to the east. That’s a big place and they could be out there for days. But let’s say they decide to do some research instead. One PC talks to the bard who knows the story of the Fall of the Temple of the Windswept Plains and he mentions that it was built on a bluff overlooking a river. That sort of narrows down the area, doesn’t it? Another PC goes to the library and turns up some information that it was built near the site of an ancient battle. So they research the site of the battle and discover it happened in the northern portion of the plains. They look at their map, and there’s a big river that flows from the northwest to the east across the plains. And that is where they start their search.

Or suppose the PCs go out to the hills to track down the goblins. They find one of those abandoned goblin camps. Can they now skip some of the wandering and track the goblins back to their camp?

The point is, a good hex crawl doesn’t make the PCs find their own goals, it offers them goals and gives them a variety of tools to accomplish them. Not knowing exactly where something is and having to find it is just another obstacle to overcome. A bad hex crawl is simply a blank map and a promise that somewhere out there is something fun to do.

Now, if you want to tell me how horrible I am for hating hex crawls and HATING The Isle of Dread as a crap adventure that does EVERYTHING WRONG for wilderness exploration, feel free to leave a comment below. You can also Tweet directly at me on Twitter where I’m @TheAngryGM.

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