Hex crawls

May 26, 2015 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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I’ve spent some time lately reading some OSR blogs, mostly one in particular: Hack & Slash. I started reading out of curiosity, and now I’ve noticed it’s begun to influence me. “Influence” is the operative word, though; I intend to pick and choose.

I’m continuing to think about choice. I wrote a bit about choice already, just recently. Since then I’ve done a bunch more reading of OSR posts. Eventually I want to collect some of the ones which I’ve found most interesting all in all. For now let’s set out the problem and talk about some solutions which OSR has suggested.

Also, fair warning: this is a long post.

I haven’t run that many games. But when I have, they’ve primarily been White Wolf. White Wolf lends itself to event-based adventures, where something is happening and the players decide how they want to react or involve themselves. This works well in White Wolf.

In D&D, it works for some style of games. But a big part of D&D is, potentially, the dungeon crawl. The wilderness. Hunting a bounty. Exploration. Killing things and taking their stuff. You don’t have to leave the same environment for this. It’s just that much of D&D revolves around going somewhere for adventure.

All right? So that’s one reason my usual style feels like a poor fit.

I talked about breaking adventures out into branch points, or a flow chart of sorts. I think this is promising and I like the idea of throwing inconvenient situations at the players and letting them decide what the hell they want to do. In a way, this is similar to the above, with a different gloss. The players arrive at the dungeon and find the Gem of Ages has cracked, its luster gone. Can they repair it? Who can help them? Can they do it themselves?

My problem is that I “have” to give them a way to fix it. And since they’re dependent on me for that information, I can guide them in a certain direction. Have they made a choice, or are they just following a trail of breadcrumbs I’ve left?

I want to break that cycle.

In the above example, let’s say the PCs decide to consult a sage. In the old style, I would say, hey, there’s a sage in town. We’d have a roleplaying scene with some exposition, possibly hints of betrayal, ulterior motives, or an exchange of favors. The next piece would begin. I suppose the choices here would be what the PCs do with the sage’s information.

What if, instead, we offer the choice of sages? What if, instead, they go to the nearest city to gather information? They find that they have a few choices: a sketchy expert nearby, a well-known sage who is a decent journey away, and a sage who lives in some dangerous territory. Each of these has different trade-offs. They could conceivably see all or none of them.

Now this is more like it. But if we want travel as a mechanic, how do we make it meaningful? I think journeys are a critical part of D&D. You want it to “feel” like something when you travel.

A montage is a start. You don’t have to play out every day of travel, let alone every day. But if you want something novel to happen, you’re going to have to get old school. Or old school-ish.

Hex crawl

If I had to pin it down, I would say the concept of the hex crawl is what won me over. In some sense it’s the nexus of many D&D mechanics which may not make a lot of sense.

I wasn’t familiar with the hex crawl until recently, so here’s a definition, courtesy of Run A Game:

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 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.

If you’ve played a number of Final Fantasy games, for instance, you can see the analogy: it’s the “overworld map,” and you go exploring. You have random encounters. You find novelty or you have a destination. Or both. Right?

Most if not all the mechanics that support hex crawls are interesting to me. They all weave together into a web of novelty, resource management, and risk.

A beautiful web

I’ve decided I love random encounters. You can run them many ways, though. For my purposes, it works like this: each biome has its own table, possibly one that varies by day/night. Every interval, you check to see whether an encounter occurs. The 5e DMG suggests a 15% chance. An encounter prompts you to roll on the appropriate table to see what the PCs encounter. Encounters may or may not follow a bell curve.

This is where some old D&D systems begin to make more sense.

When you want to have novel encounters, not every encounter on the list should be a combat encounter. Let’s say you encounter bugbears. They’re about an even match against the PCs.

Did I decide that they’re automatically hostile and combat begins immediately? Why did I decide that? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were more possibilities? What if they could be friendly, indifferent, or afraid? Say that they’re wary, and demand half the party’s food, or else. Do the PCs haggle? Opt to fight? Give them the food, because they’re wounded and in a hurry? Intimidate them? Blitz them, hoping to scare them off?

Oh, scaring them off? Yes, that’s morale. When you incorporate something like morale, higher level parties can co-opt, avoid, or demolish “easier” encounters. An intimidated pack of bugbears might be a good information source, or you could press them into guiding you in exchange for sparing their lives.

I said “avoid” them, which leads them to rolls like who sees who first, and at what distance. Sometimes the party is ambushed. Sometimes the party sets an ambush. Sometimes the party is in a hurry, or an area is so dangerous that they opt to take it slow.

The party rests for the night. Who watches? Elves have only 4 hrs of trance, but who cares? Oh, because of random encounters while resting. In that light having an elf or two in the party means that elf can take multiple shifts.

I don’t want to belabor the point here. At the same time this was all news to me. I played AD&D 2e without using rules like morale or random encounters, and I never thought much about them. But they’re all interwoven. Travel becomes interesting because it has trade-offs.

The randomness, in my opinion, is a big part of what makes this interesting. The party can express itself by which trade-offs they make. Sometimes they get a big payoff by making smart choices, and other times they push their luck. I get to cede some control and put the players in a situation about which I have very few preconceived notions. We can make a game of the various numbers, whether that game is relatively simple or not.

The other part which intrigues me is this: while the PCs may have a map of the surrounding area, they may find other things on their way there. That gang of bugbears might have information leading to the PCs current quest, or inform them of nearby points of interest. These POIs may be an integral part of the plot, or not. In a situation where the PCs need to worry about being ambushed at night, some easily-defended temple ruins sound like a good idea. I really want to have the sort of game where you can have a “base” like that.

The End

So this time we talked about hex crawls, and all the mechanics that come along with it. It mostly boils down to random encounters, and how they can introduce novelty by varying what they are, how they happen, frequency, and so on. What appeals to me is that you don’t need to go whole hog with it if you don’t want to. Merely adding two choices for travel, with varying trade-offs, is a step in the right direction.

As you can see, the overall theme I’m exploring one of using the novelty of randomness. Novelty and conflict are what create story. Throw randomness in there, and I think it introduces something magical, whether or not the players know I planned it or not.

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  • Joshua Fontany

    Good post. I’ve also been re-examining these old mechanics. Somethiong I’ve stumbled on makes them work really well for me:
    – Roll the “Encounter” rolls ahead of time. That way you have a list of “random” events and know what order they will occur in, but not know “when” they occur (that’s still rolled each “Turn”). This worked beautifully when I ran T1: Hommlet & The Moathouse.

    Another thing to think about is the difference between Dungeon level Random Encounters, and Overland Random Encounters/Wandering Monsters. While they use the same base mechanics (1/6 chance “per turn” of an encounter, roll on encounter table for specifics), the Dungeon RE check was supposed to fill out the dungeon from your RE rosters on the fly and add time-pressure to the session. The Overland 1/Day check was used to generate Adventure Seeds (that’s why you can encounter hundreds of Orcs instead of a group the party’s size… you don’t run into all of them as a group, you run into scouting party but can see evidence of the horde in your Hex and have to make the call of what do do from there).

  • It sounds like you’ve run using these rules. Is there any particular reason why you only check once per day? I have guesses but I’m curious to hear your rationale.

    So that’s cool, that you ran T1. I hope to do it someday. What edition did you run T1 in?

    One thing that’s interesting about 1e vs. 5e is that it’s quite easy to do the conversion, as far as I can tell. If you’re lazy, there are charts out there that help. Also, for the most part it seems like most 1e adventure content is, well, adventure rather than stats. I don’t have a great basis for comparison though.

    But yeah I was thinking about how I need to ruminate a bit on dungeon encounters. Time pressure is a great way to ratchet up the tension. My favorite imagined scene so far is when the PCs run into something truly nasty, relatively rare on the RE table, and just barely manage to defeat it. In the aftermath, they have to ask themselves whether that’s a sign of more to come or whether it’s a fluke.

    Of course for time pressure to work some version of loss (e.g. death) has to be a possibility. :) I’m still grappling with that.

  • Joshua Fontany

    I actually ran it by converting the NPCs to Earthdawn 3rd edition. The players only had a few trips to the Moathouse and into the dungeon, so Lareth is still lurking around. I hope to continue with Earthawn 4th edition once the GM’s Guide is out (www.fasagames.com). I converted the gold-scale to the silver standard in ED, and used a rough 2 class levels = +1 Circle in a magical Discipline to convert characters.

    My 2 players ran with 2 NPCs with class levels (“Adepts of a Discipline” in Earthdawn jargon), and 6 other “non-adepts” (4 crossbowmen on loan from from Burne, and the outcast brother and sister from town – which I had re-skinned as Earthdawn Orks). The players almost lost the Theif Adept npc twice, and one of the crossbowmen took a nasty wound. No deaths in the party tho, but they forced morale checks against the bandits in the tower a couple times by dropping some.

    As such, I think time-pressure and risk-of-death is accentuated when you have a group of people you are responsible for, instead of only yourself or other PCs.

    There is some early actual-play accounts over here if you are interested:

    As to overland encounter checks, well, the players haven’t really started ‘hex-crawling’ so it was one check either going to or from the Moathouse. I’ve been investigating a “4-hour Watch” turn recently, and playing around with map scale too.

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