Thursday, January 18, 2018

How Many Hexes Should My Hexcrawl Have?

This is a common question I see asked by gamers across the web, so I thought I'd share some rambling thoughts on the size of my BFRPG game, Sarkomand's Fault. It lasted about 80 sessions, and the highest level anyone ever achieved was 7, with most characters boasting 2 or 3 deaths (as each player had multiple characters, total death count per player was higher). We never quite reached 'domain level' play but one player ended up building a temple and claiming some land and another built a pirate outpost on an island, and it was a design goal of mine that they shouldn't feel like they have to level grind to interact with content. But I digress.
Initially I thought I'd use this beast as my map. This is because initially I hadn't run a hex-crawl before and had no idea how players would approach travel. I too read advice on the web for 'how many hexes should I have' and sanely downgraded the size to this, with points of interest generally being between 2 days to 2 weeks away from each other.
And we actually played for a while on this map. Now, I had the classic west marches rule going on where every session end meant a return to the home town, and every day+night of travel had 6 1/6 chances of a random encounter. This meant that inexperienced players couldn't get ANYWHERE without getting their ass kicked and going home. Early on, it was easier to just head into the Megadungeon below town, and day-long trips to nearby places of interest (usually the lumber camp which generally had some monster problem to solve) or following the coast south looking for things. There were about 7 minidungeons within a day or two of town, and by the end of the campaign, 5 had been found. One thing I wish I had done in retrospect was seed the map with a boatload of treasure maps.

Also, when faced with such a savage and dangerous wilderness, players tend to stick with known options. Castle Gondalo in the Norther Wastes became a popular destination, such that I eventually sickened of the long, perilous journey through the undead-infested desert and had an airship offer passage there and back. But even with the rideable floating jellyfish steeds purchased from the Gondalons, I had a strong suspicion that the players still had too much empty space to deal with. At this rate, I couldn't imagine the players ever getting to the beast-taming barbarians of the northeast deserts or the snakepeople of the far west or the fomorian giants of the unnaturally frozen southeast and I realized in trying to separate content between 'early' and 'lategame' content, I was wasting my time on making cool stuff that no one had a realistic chance of seeing because it was 'gated' behind potentially months of dangerous travel. So overall, I think you should start small, and you should put your prep where players can reach it, and definitely do not build content 'for when they're level 13' or 'for when they walk 200 miles due west.' Put Dark Castle Dumandred three days away and fill it with vampires and let the players go wild at level 1 if they want.
Ultimately I condensed the map to this, and honestly I could have shrunk it to 1/4th the size and I don't think it would have felt crowded. Empty hexes were deleted, consolidated into the same space, flooded by seas and lakes, and generally tossed into the bin. I didn't want the players to find everything because for sandbox exploration to be meaningful there must be the opportunity to NOT find things, but I think even now, it was a little oversized and definitely too empty. There were 1400 hexes, roughly, and about 80 had pre-planned(but not entirely finished or even begun) stuff in them. With that distribution of content, it was almost more of a pointcrawl than a hexcrawl. Travel as adventure gets old when travel is a required adventure between EVERY adventure.
The round black blotch happened post game after retrieving the Orb of Omnipotence and was the ascended player's way of showing how their land and faithful were hidden and protected.
 The vast majority of hexes had nothing cool in them, which left me room to suddenly plop things down, like the castle-engulfing Gelatinous Dome, or a random comment from a player turning an empty patch of coast into the Face Rocks/Benthic Chimerae Research Station, or them saying 'we track the axebeak(aka Chopcock) riding goblins back to their camp!' and then the camp being noted down after said tracking. But the thing is, a 6 mile hex is HUGE and can absolutely support multiple features, so even with the concept of 'leave empty space' I still had WAAAY too much empty space. 6 mile hexes really shouldn't be described as 'yah, nah, nuthin to see here'. They have room for hidden dungeons, villages, landmarks, lakes, all manner of things.

Now, you definitely don't need even close to that many hexes, and if you're just starting out you can get away with like, 4 starting locations and just build the world as the players branch out. The players probably found less than 1/4 of the keyed locations (but quite a few unkeyed impromptu locations were created) because often, a single location turned out to be good for more than one adventure. The common factor between these popular locations was almost invariably treasure, by the way. Treasure is the lowest common denominator of motivation, especially when treasure=XP, so if you're ever wondering how you can possibly convince the players that they want to go into a hideous deathtrap, just stuff it full of loot and they'll convince themselves. Ancient evil awakening, captured damsels, forget that. They'll brave ifrits with phenomenal cosmic power, minotaurs with ray guns, the T-1000, and 100 miles of ghoul-hyena infested desert just to obtain some unstable reactor cells so they can use their once per day spell of Heat Metal to blow up said reactor cells along with 80% of the party and an Ancient Black Dragon on the other side of the map just for one shot at that sweet, sweet type H treasure.

Anyway. Sarkomand's Fault was about the size of Florida, and most of it was never seen over the course of ~70 sessions and 8 months. The first big push to really travel came from a random dragon encounter in session 8, in which 10 level 1 and 2(maybe we had a 3) characters and hirelings just BARELY managed to slay a dragon, with about 50% losses(I think I changed my death and dismemberment tables to be harsher after that fight, or at least it sowed the seed for such changes), and the month it took to travel there and back again to the dragon's hoard was the first time the players really went away from civilization a single direction for more than a week. My players explored around the starting town for quite some time, then when they discovered castle Gondalo they used that as a forward base for explorations in that direction, and finally, when the high level priestess founded a religious village on the far side of the map near snakepeople villages, that became a common launching point for the furthest exploratory travels. If not for these forward bases the players found or established, I think what would have happened is that the players would have explored the coastlines north and south, perhaps even getting a boat and launching expeditions from that.

So how many hexes should you have? If you have lots of villages for the players to rest in and set out from, they will have a lot more mobility, and so you will need more initial prep. If you have a very hostile wilderness, you will have scads of time to prepare new locations as the players laboriously hack their way through the wilds. But either way, they can only do one thing at a time, so 5-20 starting keyed hexes is probably plenty, and if you make 1 new location between every game you'll probably far outrun what the players have time to ever explore. 'Empty' hexes between locations can quickly inflate your numbers and can be important if you're trying to convey a sense of 'this is unknown territory and you are far from home.' but I think they should not be the norm.

So, uh, in conclusion, have 100 hexes exactly. Yup.

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