|Hot Springs Island: an interesting hexcrawl
Note: If you just want the rules and don't care about context, a rules PDF can be downloaded at the bottom of this post. Updated May 2022.
So as I covered in my previous post, which examined the history of wilderness exploration in D&D, I'm looking to create a simple, straightforward rules skeleton to facilitate a hexcrawl-style game, with the ultimate goal of having my players actually want to play in the wilderness (hence the "meaningful" part of the post title).
In short, most of the existing D&D rules for such are vague (in a frustrating way, not in a freeing way), time-consuming, and not directly conducive to actual exploration. Here's what I concluded I wanted instead:
- An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel. No
trying to mash hexes and miles together. It needs to cleanly integrate
mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with everyday travel. Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate.
Random encounters, already a staple of
D&D, need to fit into whatever new is added. Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map
is called for must not be a groan of dismay.
- Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play. For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, things that generally don't feature in wilderness or urban play. Hunting is a wilderness standard, as is weather, but ideally we're going to have more interesting elements than "fending off starvation" and "it's raining". Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even at this stage.
- Player-facing mechanics. As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.
#3 doesn't really need to be covered here, as it's simply a matter of making sure that the players have access to whatever rules you come up with, rather than walling them off behind the DM screen. I've put these in my players handbook, and so they can consult them and plan around them.
Fundamentally, I want a better adventuring experience at the table, and also have no desire to increase granularity or simulationism. Of course, the latter two might translate into the former for some, but not for me. As such, some might feel my system is bare-bones, but for me it gets to the heart of what I see wilderness play should be: moving overland with a minimum of rules hassle, giving players the means to find cool stuff while doing so, and giving them meaningful choice in it all.
An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel
In my previous post I expressed my admiration for OD&D's system of hex-and-points based travel, despite it requiring the Outdoor Survival boardgame to use. This is one of those cases where, I think, original D&D got it right and AD&D, in the quest for more rules and more granularity, went astray. Since my primary goal is to play a hexcrawl anyways, let's go back to that. Using hexes and points as the foundation of the system in a stroke gets rid of the awful miles vs. hexes interaction problem (again, see here for a recap).
First we need to set a hex scale. Outdoor Survival used three-mile hexes. OD&D used five-mile hexes. However, I'm going to standardize on six-mile hexes, thanks to this seminal post over at the Hydra's Grotto. The scale is reasonably common, and works well (six miles is also precisely two leagues, which is a pleasant if meaningless bit of old-timey verisimilitude).
Now, for a moment here we have to switch to miles per day of travel, solely for the purpose of establishing a baseline of how far a group can travel each day. Assuming open ground and no major obstacle, OD&D allowed characters to cover 15 miles per day, while 1st ed AD&D went for 24 or 30 miles per day (depending on whether you used the PHB or DMG, each of which had different rules). B/X, BECMI, and 2nd ed AD&D all went with 24 miles per day, which became the standard that's carried on right through to 5th edition. As 24 is a power of 6 (and 30 is going to be a bit high as a base due to some other modifiers I'm adding in later), it's going to work well with our six-mile hexes and so I'm going to stick with what is generally expected. With our baseline established, we can ignore miles from here on out.
With the scale chosen, that gives a walking, unburdened party the ability to cover 4 clear hexes a day. Simple enough, I think, with a six-mile mountainous hex taking the better part of a travel day to navigate.
|Click any image to enlarge
Next, we need to allow for environmental variance. I don't want to get bogged down in a thousand subfactors here: in the same way that all terrain falls into three base categories, I'd like only a handful of modifiers to the above.
So if it's hard to see and/or hard to move, the rate slows. If there's extreme heat or cold, it also slows. A frozen, snowy mountain would be less than six miles a day (though if it was the dead of winter I'd just say mountain travel was impossible, as classically when winter came many mountain passes closed altogether and people could be stuck up there all season: this just covers blank-slate, first snow on the mountain-type situations). Alternately, good roads can boost your travel rate to 30 miles a day.
Encumbrance is noted at the end of the above chart. It needs to be covered, but this is trickier in that there's a lot of different encumbrance systems out there, and so we'll need to keep things simple if we want the mods to easily port over to whatever system is being used.
What Light, Moderate, and Heavy means is something you'd have to define yourself, but the matching Combat Speed penalties should give you a guideline. For AD&D, they could translate to heavy, very heavy, and encumbered loads. For B/X, they match up neatly to leather armour, metal armour, and metal armour plus treasure. For BECMI, it would be the second through fourth burden categories, which have the same combat move percentage penalties. For LotFP, they translate straight across to light, heavy, and severe encumbrance.
We also have to consider mounts. I've not made these a massive speed boost, as I'm assuming long-distance travel rather than short dashes: you have to be careful not to ride them to death or break their legs. As such, a lot of these look similar. Much of what will distinguish a mount will be its encumbrance capacity, which I've cut off because again, people probably have their own rules on that.
The main advantage to this system is that there's almost no tracking travel across hexes. That is, you're either in one hex, or the next. At most you'll have one fractional hex per day (the one at the end of the day, when you might run out of points for the day before making it to your next hex). For example, if you want to enter a woods hex (2 points) but only have 1 point left, then you spend the 1 point and call it a day, and pick things up the next morning. This ensures that you avoid having to record progress in awkward fractions (like, say, 1.43 hexes per day, which can easily happen with the AD&D system, e.g. 3.5-mile hexes, with a speed of 5 miles per day in the mountains on heavy horses).
Lastly, I wanted some player choice available even here. I suppose what mount to buy is sort of a choice, but it's not quite what I had in mind. I'm thinking the basic dilemma in the desire to push on/go faster, vs. the desire to move at a normal pace or even slow down and be extra cautious.
Force marches are of course a travel staple. Procedurally there's rarely a need for speed, but when a curse or lethal disease kicks in or it's a race against time against the grimlock hordes, rules for extreme haste are valuable. With a forced march on clear terrain, a unit can cover up to 30 miles a day, 36 if good roads are present. This is well within the realm of the possible: the American 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in late 1942 covered, in a three-day forced march, 136 miles with full equipment (Ambrose, D-Day, 141; about 45 miles a day).
Regarding the note on fatigue: I have my own separate fatigue system that defines what light or heavy fatigue is. Like encumbrance, I'm presuming you can define what those labels mean yourself rather than me trying to shoehorn yet another new system into this post. The relevant gameplay effect here is that, assuming you're fresh, you can force march for up to two days (fresh to light fatigue on day one, light to heavy fatigue on day two).
The cautious march is the more unusual choice. While I found the in-depth hexcrawl rules presented on the Alexandrian blog to be far too in-depth for my liking, the idea of the cautious approach was one that appealed to me, and so I salvaged it for my own ruleset. How this ties into random encounters I'll get to later.
Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play
Fundamentally, all I want my wilderness rules to really do is to be a process
smoothly funnelling adventure material to the players. Before I get to the mechanics, I want to explore what I see as an important distinction.
Exploration vs. Survival
What's worse is that the system that designers often go with for their source of wilderness entertainment are focused on procedural survival realism. That means weather, watches or other segmentation of the day, hunting, fishing, foraging, crafting, disease. However, in my experience survival elements become their own minigame but do not, through their results, make players want to actually do something wilderness-related.
In short, though frequently confused, survival and exploration are not the same thing. Survival rules don't actually facilitate exploration. In fact, they make exploration more onerous: mechanically more difficult and, in terms of the metagame, often outright tiresome. As old-school games aren't averse to adversity, greater difficulty isn't necessarily bad, but tiresome always is, and even if one doesn't find it tiresome, conflating survival and exploration is unlikely to make wilderness exploration compelling: you still need a reason for players to bother facing off against the dangers of survival in the first place.
As such, survival is not really what I'm interested in, and if you are you might want to check out things like the Forbidden Lands system. In terms of survival elements I do like, weather is good, but this is going to be long as it is and so I'll possibly look at that at a future date. Disease I see as a generic system item--valuable, but just as likely to show up in sewers or dungeons as it is in the wilderness, and so not really belonging (just) here. Fatigue, which starvation and other deprivation fits into, I see in the same way. Crafting I dislike on a purely conceptual basis: I want an adventure game, not a crafting one. Hunting is simple enough. B/X has rules for it, and they're bad: you cannot rest that day, and have only a 1 in 6 chance of rolling on the animal encounter table (after which you then determine how much food the encounter gives you. Or I think so; no guidelines are given and some of the encounters are decidedly non-edible). For all that people say B/X and BECMI are identical, they aren't: BECMI is much clearer here, and that's more the version I use (not included here).
Finding Your WayNow, to the exploration system. Here's how you make your way from hex to hex.
Fieldcraft is something from my homebrew: it translates straight across to "is a ranger" or "has the appropriate Survival skill". (As an aside, I often use a D12 rather than a D6 for things like this, because I like how it gives greater granularity than a D6 while still being easy to roll, easy to read, and yet compatible with anything originally designed to use D6.) The base odds of getting lost are on average lower than the traditional rules: B/X gives you a 33% chance per day of getting lost in a forest (one of the more common terrain types); in AD&D it's a 70% chance, and being a ranger doesn't help with this unless the DM says the ranger is familiar with the area they're in. Here, assuming you cover four clear hexes or two woods hexes in a day with no ranger-like aid, a day's travel results in about a 30% chance of getting lost at least once, which I felt was enough. It's very easy to raise, whether as a whole or just for select terrain types--just a matter of raising the terrain modifiers--if you prefer the more punitive old-school rates.
So, enter a hex, make a check. For most of the old-school systems, getting lost requires a table and/or determining degrees off-course: far too fiddly for what I'm aiming for. Inspired by the system found in The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad, I've changed it to a time waster (it consumes hex points) and a potential monster generator. If you get lost, you make a navigation check to find your way. As each navigation check requires a random encounter roll, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness may result in you stumbling onto more monsters. There's a clear cost involved, but it's mechanically very easy to resolve: no tables to look up or protractors to consult for degrees off-course.
Note that "a respectable map" would include one that the players make, i.e. once the players have navigated their way through one hex to another, they don't need to make a check if taking that same path in the future. As such, players will slowly tame the wilderness to a certain degree over the course of play, or at the very least carve out preferred paths.
Okay, you've made your navigation check and all is well. Now what?
In a hexcrawl it's often assumed that you just find whatever is
in a hex once you entered it. In part this annoys me because of the
lack of realism, but the main issue is that it doesn't give much in the
way of depth to a hex. A six-mile hex is big: plenty of room for
obscure things buried in the corners. I want a system that makes the
game world feel like there are all sorts of hidden wonders out there,
awaiting only a dedicated party willing to risk the time and chance of
battle to find them--one willing to explore. Having every oddity
leap out at you the moment you arrive doesn't give me that.
With this system, as a GM you'd classify each hex feature as one of two types: overt and hidden. Overt are the classic type: enter the hex, find the thing. Hidden features are your lost cities and hidden caves and clearings and bandit lairs: the stuff it takes time and effort to uncover.** Having the two types allows you to really make your world feel layered, while preventing the player perception that everything is in a bizarre kind of stasis, lying around solely in wait for them.
By default I have hidden features automatically found if the players make the effort to search, with the assumption that not all hexes will have such a thing. This can be easily modified via a quick added roll for certain features to represent especially well-hidden items (or perhaps an increased search cost representing especially difficult-to-search hexes). However, my general belief is that if the players have invested the time and are willing to risk the extra encounter roll, you might as well just give them the hidden feature. This approach makes even more sense when you consider that hex content is almost always written assuming that its is automatically encountered. As such, it's generally not "you find a holy avenger +5 lying in a field" or whatnot that deserves being strongly siloed away, as that sort of thing would in a dungeon. At most I would institute a known but otherwise secret roll of "you find any hidden feature on a 2+ on D6": just enough to add a touch of uncertainty to the process, while making it the vast majority of the time worthwhile.
And then comes the last part. You need to have this all tied into the random encounter system, to reflect the types of terrain you're using but also so that player choices are meaningful. Slower pace equals less monsters. Time spent searching equals more monsters. There's not a lot of modifiers, and most of them are static: that is, they're almost all based on the nature of the hex itself, so you're not juggling too many numbers. You can just pencil each hex's base mod onto your hexmap to save time.
As for camping, you can light a fire at night, which allows you to see your attackers if ambushed, but also makes that ambush a bit more likely (though with most natural predators, such as wolves, I automatically adjust their reaction roll to "not interested" to reflect their fear of fire and probably end the encounter).
Below is the entire hexcrawl system in two pages, as a PDF (remember: Fieldcraft = is a ranger / has the right Survival skill):
Simulacrum Wilderness Exploration Rules v3
This has been a longer post than I intended, but I didn't want to split this part over multiple ones, and I find rules posts useless without a solid grounding in the theory behind them, so one can understand why the designer's choices were made and better see how the rules will play out.
**After coming up with this I was pretty impressed with myself, until I saw afterwards that the Necropraxis blog had done the exact same thing back in 2013, the only difference being "obvious" features rather than overt ones. As my version saves two letters, it is clearly the objectively superior choice.
28 Sept 2020: Updated draft to better explain when navigation checks were made, and to increase the costs in most cases of getting lost.
28 May 2022: Further clarified navigation checks (thanks to Dustin).