My experience with hex crawls is limited, despite gaming for many years. Of course, I know the general concept, and most ‘traditional’ fantasy games have a degree of traversing the wilderness, but in most the focus was on getting from point a to b rather than actual exploration. Despite this lack of experience, I shocked myself by deciding that my Depths of Xen’drik campaign was going to be a pseudo hex crawl.
In early 2022, I decided the next game I was going to run for my regular group was going to be a D&D 5e Eberron campaign. I batted around a few ideas, but eventually settled on the PCs competing to partake in an expedition to Xen’drik. It’s an area of the setting I haven’t been able to play or run very much and thought it could be fun. For those not familiar with Eberron, Xen’drik is a bit of a lost continent. In ancient times it was the seat of a powerful giant empire that was destroyed by a magical cataclysm that fractured the continent. It’s a place of wild magic, dangerous ruins, and many mysteries to explore and discover.
The early stage of this campaign was built around the competition to be chosen to accompany the expedition to Xen’drik. Consider it ‘Sharn’s Next Top Adventurer’ or whatever reality competition comparison you want to make. This turned out to be a great way to start off the campaign as it let each of the players introduce their character on their own terms, while steadily bonding together as they interacted with the NPCs and the challenges. Once the challenge was over, they boarded a ship to sail across the sea and… well… I realized I needed to figure out how I was going to handle them wandering off into the jungle to just explore.
I have never been a railroad GM and adapt pretty well to what my players do, but I also rarely do sandbox style games, so I usually have an idea of what plot they’re involved in at the time and where they’re going next. This helps with prep quite a bit. But doing a game where they can pretty much go where they want and do what they want? For a few moments, I considered just creating a bunch of encounters and slotting them in whenever it felt appropriate, but that felt a little bit like cheating. This game was going to call for a hex crawl plan.
While my experience with hex crawls is limited, I do get the general concept. I started doing some research and looking at the way other games handle this type of thing. I had played through the first part of Pathfinder’s Kingmaker adventure path, so had a little bit of understanding from that. I also looked at Forbidden Lands and how it breaks down the exploration phases of the game. I still wanted to keep this loose to fit my GMing style, but wanted enough structure to help both me and the players engage with the game.
The first thing I did was write up some exploration rules.
Each hex is determined to be 15 miles and can be explored fully within a day, provided there are no distractions, like ruins to explore, monsters to fight, or so on.
- One special thing they had to contend with for Eberron is the Traveler’s Curse. Xen’drik is a place of unpredictable, wild magic and as a result it is easy for travelers to get lost or magically delayed. I decided that each day spent traveling through the wilds, the PCs would make a Wisdom or Intelligence save to determine how affected they were by the curse. The DC would change depending on the nature of the place they were camping. Failure would impose a level of Exhausted (from the new One D&D playtest rules).
- Each of the PCs would take on an exploration role and make a skill check to determine how successful the group is. The roles are Navigate, Watch, Spotter, and Morale. We decided that if more than one person wanted to do Morale, it would slow down the exploration since they would be having too much fun to do their job right.
- There were also camping roles to determine how secure they were overnight. Those were a little more flexible and later I realized I could have better defined them since taking a watch overnight is a bit different than camp set-up.
The next thing I had to take care of was populating the map. Eberron is an established setting, but the continent of Xen’drik is quite large with very large areas for GMs to put in whatever they want. The official maps of the continent are gorgeous, but don’t provide too much for me to hang the exploration on, meaning it’s up to me to fill out the map and provide things for the players to explore and discover.
This has probably been the hardest part for me, because I tend to work a bit more loosely with planning out a campaign. I have an idea of where things are going to go, but I generally don’t flesh things out fully until I know the players are about to engage with a thing. I can’t really do that in this campaign. I have to populate the map with enough stuff to be able to legitimately let the players go where they want, but still be prepared to give them an interesting session. If I have some really cool stuff planned in the hex to the west and just loose ideas of the hex to the east and they go east, I’m in a bit of a pickle.
We’ve played multiple sessions in this exploration phase of the campaign and so far its going pretty well. I’m learning the balance of how much to prep without burning myself out, but still giving the players enough to explore. I still panic a bit when I have a bunch of cool stuff in one area and they talk about going in a different direction, but I’m also learning better ways to offer them clues about where stuff might be.
All in all, this has been a good experience, even if it’s not a style of GMing I’m used to. Do you have any stories of switching to a different style of campaign and how you handled it?
I’m also running my first hex crawl, a project I’ve been working on little by little for about 9 months. Filling all those hexes with interesting material is an enormous amount of work on the front end and, as you say, it creates a different approach to planning and running the game. However, I’ve found it to be a strangely liberating GMing experience. Let me give an example of what I mean.
In our third session, my players were hiking through the woods when they discovered the entrance to an 8-room dungeon with a few monsters, puzzles, and treasures inside. Exploring the caverns, they were attacked by some giant spiders, and shortly after the battle the cave walls cracked and water started pouring in, threatening to slowly drown the entire dungeon. At the same moment, their lantern burned out — purely by chance! Well, the bold explorers had had enough. Having only explored half the caves, my players simply called it quits: they returned topside to continue their hike through the wilderness.
In a normal campaign, that would have been disastrous for me as a GM. “But — but — that dungeon is all I had planned for tonight! You were supposed to explore the whole thing! There was even a Plot Point hidden in the last room!” Instead, when my players decided to ditch out, I delighted in describing the waters drowning the tunnels and all of their secrets, forever. I felt great knowing that this little dungeon didn’t really matter: there’s a whole world out there for them to explore. And the players’ sense of agency was undeniable. They made a decision that had a consequence: they risked less personal harm, but missed out on whatever was hidden down there, permanently.
Each session is just so breezy. The prep is done; the world is ready to explore. I feel like I can relax at the table and not have to sculpt the experience towards my prepared material. I just referee whatever the players choose to do, which is, after all, what GMing is supposed to be.