So I’m kind of in love with hexcrawl mechanics right now. This is the structure from the Alexandrian post that really grabbed me, and though I can’t quite put my finger on why I think it just solves a lot of issues I’d had with running games that have any amount of travel. They’re an elegant way to give the party information on their surroundings, meaningful choices to make on where they go and how they get there, and a structure for random encounters that’s more than just “roll the dice to see what you fight.”
In fact, I think that the departure from hexcrawls as a meaningful game structure is the root of a lot of common problems that the hobby has these days. DMs lack the tools they need to build the games we want.
So, what do you need for a hexcrawl? The only real essential is a hexmap, but you’ll also want a way to key the map with encounters. One option is to simply key each hex by hand but that leads to a lot of potentially-wasted effort, and what happens if the party revisits the same hex? Random Encounter Tables or a system for Wandering Monsters is the better way to go, in my opinion.
I’m currently using Hexographer to build my maps. They’re pretty intuitive and you can use it for free online. I bought a copy, but that’s because it’s hard for me to no go full-bore on things I get excited about. I’m using the Atlas Hex templates from Welsh Piper, and building my map based on their guidelines for the same.
The cool thing about the templates is they readily scale from a map the size of Alaska down to a regional or local level; just keep dividing the scale by 5 to zoom in to a new map (or multiply be 5 to zoom out). There’s a tool here I use to get an idea of how big the Atlas and Region templates are (radius for the Atlas template is 312.5mi, radius for a Regional Template is 62.5mi, radius for a Hex template is 12.5mi). The Welsh Piper guidelines for painting hexes are useful and produce reasonable/realistic results, though I think their rules should bend or break occasionally to get the map you want. I’m not sure every mountain range needs 5 miles of foothills, but you’d need to ask yourself what it means to have Mountains bordering right on your Plains; maybe a sheer rock face?
There are lots of options for how to key your map with encounters, and I actually haven’t settled on one yet. I may try various systems by turns to see which I like the most. Welsh Piper has a key-by-hand system based on their Atlas Hex templates and a notion of Major and Minor encounters (either of which can be anything from a settlement to a monster lair or a natural feature). They also have advice on how to make these encounters meaningful without adding a lot of extra prep work, and the advice can be useful regardless of what encounter system you’re using.
Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a couple of posts on a Random Encounter system that goes well with a key-by-hand system; in fact, I kind of love it. The first post talks about how the system works, and the second post gives an example of what it’s like in play. Basically, once you’ve keyed the hexes of your map, this system lets you randomly choose how the party experiences those features and monsters as they travel through hexes. It allows for stumbling upon the creature’s lair, but also has options for finding clues about monsters in neighboring hexes or encountering a creature that’s ranging out from it’s home. My only lament is that I haven’t figured out a good way to incorporate it with random encounter/wandering monster tables.
Random tables are the alternative to keying each hex by hand. Instead you mark off regions of your map (the Hohum Plains or the Fifo Hills or the Everglades) and construct a table of encounters based on what characters are likely to find in that area. Goblins in the forests, farmers on the plains, crude altars in the hills. Paper & Pencils has some good advice on ways to build out random encounter tables. And there are other considerations that can be useful regardless of what encounter structure you’re using, such as what the monster’s doing when the party finds it, but I think I’ll set that aside for now.