Notes on Hexcrawls

These are some scattered notes on hexcrawls, to brainstorm some fun ideas for places of interest and to reflect on my past experiences with hexcrawl rules. There's no order to this; just some thoughts and research.

Hex Prompts

I don't know.

  1. A lupus (i.e. werewolf) colony is due for a contractual delivery of wooden furniture from a carpentry guild on the other side of the forest.
  2. You need to get your hands on enough money to pay your taxes to the baron or skip over to another territory.
  3. A local dairy farmer family claims that there's a legendary dragon abducting their cattle and depositing them in a mountain.
  4. A giant axolotl competes with anglers for the fish that live in the local lake, and it's only getting bigger the more it eats.
  5. Families of deceased miners seek the remains of their loved ones in an abandoned Byetkoin mine suddenly infested with psionic worms.
  6. A territorial dispute has erupted between two baronies who are mutually excluded from each other's non-aggression pact, due to a political schism.
  7. A camp of goblins lost their original patron deity, a wax statue of Elvis (?), and have substituted it for the time being with a mummified body.
  8. An outdoor bank has lost many of its massive boulders, a traditional sort of coin whose ownership is now only transferred on paper. Nevertheless, their conspicuous absence has shaken people's faith in the value of the currency.
  9. Luddites are constructing a ritual stone circle to summon a giant psionic worm and destroy a nearby factory. They will attempt to capture anyone with manufactured products.
  10. A fence outlines the perimeter of the area, with signs posted that ask travelers not to pass through unless they know the proper path through via song. Ruins lie ahead.
  11. Ancient skeletons have become restless since the burial mound of their last chieftain was unwittingly desecrated.
  12. A dragon's fossilized skeleton rests in what was once its den, as are the more recent remains of other creatures. Now a strange flying vessel occupies the mountain valley.
  13. A decrepit library is crumbling with fungus and psionic worms, but the librarians are surprisingly (if supernaturally) persistent in their continued defense of knowledge--even against outsiders.
  14. Meddie Tussad's is a roadside tourist trap that abducts passerbys and steals their time. Even worse, they are turned into wax sculptures after spending enough time there.
  15. A commune of artists struggles to adjust to life outside the baronies. They will trade their works for food and other supplies, with an air of desperate hostility.
Will add onto the list as more ideas come to mind.

Time & Distance

The average speed of a hiker is 2.5 mph, which is about 20% slower than an uninhibited walking speed of 3.1 mph--that is to say, a pretty small difference. The original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons prescribes hexes with a long diagonal of 5 miles (short diagonal of ~4.33 miles). It gives movement rates for various modes of travel, e.g. on foot or on horse, but these are not derived from the usual rates given for movement in inches. That is to say that a usual rate of 12", or an encumbered rate of 9/6/3", has no bearing on how many hexes one can move through a day.

The 1982 B/X edition unifies the outdoor travel rates with the other movement rates, saying to divide one's dungeon movement rate by 5 and read the result in miles rather than in feet; for example, 120 feet becomes 24 miles. Using the original conventions, this is the same as saying that 1" when traveling is equal to 2 miles, for a unencumbered movement rate of 12". The same book seems to use 1-mile hexes for small-scale exploration and 36-mile hexes for large-scale exploration, but the 2019 B/X retroclone Old School Essentials instead lists these as 6-mile and 24-mile respectively [1].

When I first ran a hexcrawl, I used the hourly movement rate given in Joel Priddy's "Fancypants" version of Knave [2], which was 1 hex per 3 hours. Although there was also a daily rate of 24 miles (i.e. 4 hexes per day), I wanted to be able to narrate the passing of the day with each hex passed. I eventually switched to the daily rate in terms of hexes, because keeping track of both hours and hexes confused my friends. That's where I'm at right now.

Movement Rates & Action Economies

I liked sticking to the "You can move 4 hexes a day" sort of thing because it was easy to grasp, but it doesn't easily account for variable movement rates caused by characters being encumbered. You can say, for example, that now you can only move 3 hexes instead of 4, but leaving it at that abstracts the passage of time and thus makes it difficult to figure out how other actions scale in comparison. 

Old editions of Dungeons & Dragons don't seem to have this problem with hexcrawls: OD&D because it just doesn't consider encumbrance, and D&D B/X because it doesn't consider hexes except as a convenience for the referee. In situations where a character might take a portion of their turn to do something besides move, OD&D seems to recommend spending a fraction of their movement rate [3]:

So for instance when a giant attacks the door on a standard ship it will probably only cost him half his movement points while it would take ten men an entire turn to break it down.

Along these lines, I think an economy based on time seems much more flexible than an economy based on discrete and abstracted actions; however, this requires some granularity for actions with respect to the time spent doing them. This means you need a unit of time small enough to accommodate different movement rates. If you define the base unit of time as 4 hours (often called a 'watch') and the base distance as 1 hex (now usually 6 miles), then you can only describe rates as x hexes per y watches--and you'd be unwise to mix whether x or y are variable. For example:

  • Clear terrain --> 1 hex per 1 watch
  • Forests, deserts --> 1 hex per 2 watches
  • Mountains, swamps --> 1 hex per 3 watches

If players afford themselves 12 hours or 3 watches a day, then this math resembles OD&D. Then, just like OD&D, it does not account for the usual adjustments in speed according to encumbrance, nor can it really because the chunks of time considered are so chunky. A simplified system for time, movement, and other actions that is also compatible with early D&D encumbrance must scale to the original ratio (1.00 : 0.75 : 0.50 : 0.25) while also having an external measure of time for non-movement actions. You have two options at this point: granularize hexes, or granularize time.

Granularizing Hexes

Make the scale of hexes smaller such that our new hexes are 1/4 the width of the old 6-mile hexes. Characters can make 1 action per 'watch', including movement; however, the number of hexes moved per watch is a function of encumbrance.

  • 12" (Unencumbered) --> 4 moves/watch
  • 9" (Encumbered by 1 degree) --> 3 moves/watch
  • 6" (Encumbered by 2 degree) --> 2 moves/watch
  • 3" (Encumbered by 3 degree) --> 1 move/watch

Different types of terrain would have to cost different numbers of move 'points', which adds a really annoying dimension especially if you have to consider the overflow of time from one watch to another. We are basically dealing with the issue I mentioned before with abstracting actions, except taking place multiple times a day. This isn't great.

Granularizing Time

We can take the inverse of the ratio above to find modifications in time across the same distance, rather than finding modifications in distance for the same amount of time. So now we have:

1.00 : 0.75 : 0.50 : 0.25 inches per turn --> 1.00 : 1.33 : 2.00 : 4.00 turns per inches

Where a turn is simply a base interval of time. To remove fractions, multiply by 3:

3.00 : 4.00 : 6.00 : 12.00

Let us suppose that the above ratio represents how many hours it takes to travel through a 6-mile hex based on one's encumbrance. This would require the referee to keep track of an hourly clock each day, but that's not the worst record-keeping ever, and it might help ground the players' actions within a more intuitive timeframe.

You can multiply time-cost by 2 or by 3 if the terrain is difficult, but now we will experience friction between the hex-abstraction (i.e. discrete 6-mile increments of distance) and our own timekeeping. If the party moves at the slowest rate, it will take 36 hours for them to pass through a mountain (12 hours * 3 terrain-modifier). This is not an issue of inter-hex travel in the sense of exploring a hex area for any detailed bits, but in the sense that characters will spend 3 days (or 2 days with less hours of sleep) stuck in the same area.

The worst part is that granularizing hexes here won't do you any good because you'd also be forced to granularize time into fractions, since there is not a common factor of any of the multipliers above when represented as integers. For example, if you used 2-mile hexes and a base time-cost of 1 hour, then at one degree of encumbrance (given as 9"), it would cost 1 hour and 20 minutes to traverse one hex.

A Solution?

What this ultimately comes down to is that you cannot introduce so many factors and so much granularity into an abstraction meant to be used on paper. There's definitely other ways you can keep messing with the factors of terrain and encumbrance: you could give constant modifiers to one or both factors and avoid any inflationary math (e.g.  mountains add +2 hours or encumbrance adds +1 hour), but for the latter factor this would reduce compatibility with existing conventions of movement.

I would be content to decide that the prime determinant of outdoor travel is terrain rather than encumbrance, with a hard rule that you cannot hope to travel outdoors while wearing full plate armor and also carrying a fucking ton of things on your back. In this case, it works just fine to say you can move 1 hex per 'watch' or whatever and multiply that based on terrain.

You could also decide that encumbrance itself does not change movement per time, but time per move; hence an increase an encumbrance makes everything you do more cumbersome, and limits the number of things you can do per turn. For example, with one degree of encumbrance, you might go from having 4 actions per turn to 3 actions, and you can spend 1 action to move a hex or do whatever else. However, I'd just be worried that this wouldn't scale well or account for actions that really wouldn't be impacted by how much you're carrying. Plus too, it would need something extra to account for terrain modifiers in travel (with the annoying possibility of overflow).

A basic "You can move 1 hex every couple of hours" with terrain costs and an ad-hoc rule for overflow would work just fine, I think. 


[1] Besides being more intuitive given the B/X movement rates, it also reflects the common 6-mile hex as popularized by Steamtunnel: http://steamtunnel.blogspot.com/2009/12/in-praise-of-6-mile-hex.html

[2] http://abominablefancy.blogspot.com/2018/10/knaves-fancypants.html

[3] Underworld & Wilderness Adventure, p. 32.

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