Posts Tagged ‘hexcrawl’

Hexographer Hex-ifies Anything

Posted: 8 February 2013 in Toolbox
Tags: ,

This one snuck past me, but catching up on the other blogs I follow I just learned from Trollsmyth that the Hexographer program just got a new feature that will convert any .png file into a hex map, making it easier to build RPG maps from any old map you find laying around the Internet.  This sounds like a GREAT feature, and I can’t wait to try it out: I’ve been very pleased with Hexographer so far, anyways.

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).

So before the hex crawl that I did this weekend, I started working on a few of projects that should become posts when they’re done.  Turns out that there’s a bit more effort involved than I expected, especially since I didn’t touch any of it over the long weekend.

The first bit I’m working on is trying to address the issue of feats.  So far I’ve gone through the Pathfinder SRD and binned the feats into Tiers based on how many feat prerequisites they have — this roughly translates to “what is the earliest level this feat could be taken,” but not entirely (I haven’t accounted for Base Attack Bonus or Level requirements, for example).  even at that, easily half of the feats are simply unavailable to a 1st level character, and a good chunk are unavailable before 4th level.

The second bit is a review of the 5th Edition playtest materials that got released.  Other people are already going over their first impressions — The Alexandrian made a couple of comments that hadn’t occurred to me, such as “how much of an improvement on 3rd Edition can we expect” and the possibility of an infestation of disassociated mechanics.  I’ve only gone over the “How to Play” packet and skimmed the others; my initial thoughts are positive, but there are a few things I’m unsure about.  I may get my players to try to run through the playtest adventure with me this weekend and maybe that’ll help inform my opinion.

Finally, I’ve been toying with the idea of reducing character creation to a high-density blurb. It’s not a final solution and doesn’t produce a completed character but I think it should distill the necessary choices a player needs to make, and that will hopefully speed up character creation.  I think as it is it might only work for 1st level characters, and even at that some of my players have pointed out that I may have blind spots where my own expertise with the system makes things more intuitive for me than they are for others.

This weekend, my brothers and I got together for the long weekend and I took the opportunity to try my hand at a hexcrawl game.  We had limited time to work with, so I told them to keep it basic and make characters with whatever background they wanted, as long as it gets them to this town looking for adventure in the wilderness.  The game itself was essentially the same idea as the Western Marches campaign I’ve heard about, though I’ve never read up on it specifically.  Adventure is to the west, retirement is to the east, and in the middle is a town you can spend your money at, brag about your adventures, and prepare for new ones.

Setting up the game took a lot of work on my part.  It’s the kind of work that’s done once and can be used over and over again, but as this was my first game it all had to be taken care of.  I used Hexographer to build my map, following the guidelines of Welsh Piper. I really wanted to use the one-page hexcrawl encounter system from Roles, Rules, and Rolls, but I didn’t have the time to hand-key even a significant portion of my hexmap, and I wanted to incorporate non-combat encounters. So instead I used a multi-table setup recommended by Pencils and Papers — I had a d20 table to determined if there was an encounter and what type, and then sub-tables for Combat, Location, Sub-Quest, and Special encounters.

Making those random tables took the bulk of my effort.  The Welsh Piper guidelines make building a hexmap really easy, and the Pathfinder core rules have a lot of information for how to put together encounters (so my Combat table had entries like “2d4+1 Goblin Warriors”), but I haven’t really found any good advice or suggestions on what a Random Encounter table should look like, especially not for non-Combat encounters.  Sub-Quests were probably the hardest, but possibly because (for time’s sake) I was restricting myself to one-line hooks.  “Lay the Dead to Rest,” “Explore the Ruins,” “Stop the Mad Wizard.”  This also kept it general enough that I could build details around them during play, so that no two “Stop the Mad Wizard” quests necessarily felt similar, let along the same.

After all that I found that there were a few systems I wanted to have that I didn’t have any good notion for.  How to move around the map was pretty easy: I remembered reading a post on Pencils and Papers about movement points and went off what I remembered from there.  My group had a Dwarf so their speed was 24 miles in a day, so they got 24 “movement points” to spend.  I kind of wish I’d thought to look over that post again before playing, though — I gave plains a move-cost of 5 and pretty much everything else a move-cost of 10 and i like the better granularity that P&P offered (which I guess he inherited from Brendan – who was riffing off Delta? I kind of love all the cross-pollination I’m finding). Anyways, I decided that you paid the Movement cost when you tried to leave a Hex.  I rolled for an Encounter whenever the group entered a Hex, and they could pay half the exit-cost to “search” the Hex and get another encounter roll.

Two systems I didn’t have that I wanted were a method for getting lost (and a similar method for finding your way again) and a system for foraging.  The latter, foraging, got preempted at the table by going with Pathfinder’s rules on the subject from the Survival skill (though I did vary DC based on terrain).  The Alexandrian hinted at what sounds like a really great hexcrawl system that included a mechanism for getting lost, but as far as I can tell he’s never posted the details.  The P&P/Brendan/Delta posts have a notion of getting lost based on Survival checks, and I spontaneously settled on a very similar system, with Survival for getting lost and Geography for finding your way again.  Still, I feel like I want something more-defined than that.

The game went off really great.  We had an Elven Ranger, Half-Elf Cleric of Gorram, Halfling Cleric of Pharasma, Human Fighter and Dwarven Druid.  They heard rumors of a dragon in the woods and met the sole survivor of a group who were apparently attacked by giant ants.  They got lost in the forest a few times, found a magic spring that got them drunk (the elf is the only one paranoid enough to not drink) and finally happened upon a dragon hunter who they joined up with to slay a Green Dragon wyrmling.  The cool thing is, I never planned on that happening when I seeded the rumors about the woods, I just wanted to warn them that dragons were on the table for Forest encounters.

My favorite scene of the night came about thanks to some odd behavior by a player and my inclination to say “yes.”  Early on the group met a travelling merchant, and the fighter spent a bunch of time going through his wares while the others asked him for rumors about the wilderness. He finally decided that he wanted to buy a shovel, and then proceeded to make Perception checks at every opportunity, looking for “anywhere that looks like there might be buried treasure.” I let him make the rolls and fail to find anything interesting, until he rolled a 1 on his check.  I decided that he found something recently buried that turned out to be a goblin grave under an oak tree.  Another of the players asked if goblin typically buried their dead in caskets, and the Ranger (who’s favored enemy is Goblins) rolled Knowledge and recalled that some tribes of goblins bury certain of their dead under oak trees as a sign of deep respect.  None of this was planned (I didn’t think they’d question a goblin in a casket), and now we’ve determined that they desecrated the grave of a goblin king. (I found out later that all my players thought he was digging up another traveler’s latrine pit…)

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.