Initially a core component of roleplaying games, the hexcrawl structure slowly faded away. By 1989 there were only a few vestigial hex maps cropping up in products and none of them were actually designed for hexcrawl play. 2nd Edition removed hexcrawling procedures from the rulebooks entirely. It wasn’t until Necromancer Games brought the Wilderlands back into print and Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign went viral that people started to rediscover the lost art of the hexcrawl.
I’m an avid supporter of the use of ‘hexcrawl’ and hexmapping procedures for role-playing, but only for the specific purposes of making the travel and exploration phases of a RPG game engaging for players. Whilst I admire the design and execution of the epic hex-based campaigns like the West Marches, I personally have no desire to play or DM such a game.
But for the design of a gameplay experience that makes travel and exploration engaging for everyone at the table, the hexcrawl is an under-utilised mechanism, but one which is fast making a comeback.
I’ve gathered some resources here for the purposes of developing a hexcrawl within a larger campaign experience. This page is a work in progress – please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below.
For me, this is the definitive benchmark for the deep consideration of a hexcrawl design, presented in a thirteen part essay. Where I have developed my own variations or deviations on the classic hexcrawl approach, it has been always been referenced against what Justin Alexander has developed through his rich consideration of the design mechanics. I will periodically go back and read sections to review this essay, if only to remind myself of why I’ve adopted or adapted different conventions.
Specifically, I share many of the underlying design assumptions and goals that are articulated in this essay. For example, I continue to adopt his recommendations for a “player-unknown structure”:
First, I wanted a structure which would hide the hexes from the players. Although I find the abstraction of the hex extremely convenient on the GM’s side of the screen (for tracking navigation, keying encounters, and so forth), I’m of the opinion that it has negative effects on the other side of the screen: I want the players interacting with the game world, not the abstraction. Therefore, the hexes in this hexcrawl system are a player-unknown structure.
Generally, if you are going to develop your own approach, make sure you understand why you are departing from the hexcrawl mechanics developed here.
I’ve installed Worldographer, and tested quite a bit of its capability. I can confidently say that there is no better hex-based cartography software available. I can say that it is reasonably priced, but also that there is a free version that will meet many of your hexcrawl mapping needs.
I can also tell you that I don’t use it. Frankly, I simply prefer the pen-and-paper hex-mapping process, partially because of the aesthetic and practicality of it, but also because as the paper maps evolve over time, they become a critical artefact of the tabletop experience. This just can’t be replicated via a computer.
That said, there is no reason why you wouldn’t immediately download a trial version and test Worldographer out to see if it meets your needs. I genuinely wish I had more of a use for this, because it is perfectly fit for its purpose.
(I should note that Worldographer is also known as Hexographer 2, and it upgrades almost all the features of the much loved Hexographer, including a vastly superior interface).
Overland movement in fifth edition D&D has been vastly simplified, and for most purposes this is fine. But in a hexcrawl scenario, where the travel and the experience of exploration is the core game mechanic, I prefer a systematic approach that allows the players to make meaningful decisions with consequences. These rules are more fine-detailed, but not excessive, and allow the movement component of the hexcrawl to be systematic and transparent for DM and players alike.
As I discussed earlier, I like the hexcrawl component itself to be ‘player unknown’ in the sense that I want the players making decisions about the gameworld, not about the calculus of moving through hexes on a grid. The hexmap is a DM tool, not a player’s handout. As such, it will never replace a players map as a gameplay component.
That said, I’ve found the cartography developed by Mike Schley in the official D&D products published by Wizards of the Coast to fit a sweet spot in between. The hi-res regional map that Schley produced for the D&D adventure Princes of the Apocalypse is a case in point. The inclusion of the hexcrawl option in these maps makes the process of reproducing the DM’s map infinitely easier, but also gives transparency to the hex-based mechanics that are underpinning the dynamics of exploration in this world. The price-point alone makes these maps worth considering, even if you aren’t running the adventure they are based on!
PrinceNarnode’s Sword Coast Hex Map
Similarly, if you are using the Forgotten Realms setting in a more general way, you can short-cut the mapping process by using this a hex map of the Sword Coast from Imgur user PrinceNarnode. Each hex represents 10 miles, which is slightly out of scale for 5e’s overland travel rules, but more or less suitable for the needs of most campaigns. This is an epic piece of work, and a must have as a reference for your Faerun-based hex mapping purposes.