Monday, January 21, 2019

Hexcrawling In Fassulia And Beyond

So I'm playtesting Lungfungus's Fassulia and it's going well so far, but I'd like to talk about some things I do with hexcrawls (or rather that I do NOW after dissatisfaction with the vast, barren expanse of simultaneously boring and dangerous wilderness that passed for a hexcrawl in Sarkomand's Fault).
Some of this is reinventing wheels other people have invented, mind you.

Improv & Connections Here's some (rewritten) hex keys

1-Plains- Road from Kabuli to Phavea
Blocked by floral maw and 1hd sproutspawn

4-Plains-Kabuli Village, Near the desert there is a cave hiding a crashed ship with a magic scimitar
Feuding Family of Gharib and Jasim, gharib the taxmen, Jasim the singers, rebels, contest for singing

7- Hills-Pillar monastery. Isolated and bored nuns. One has 18cha in terms of singing voice

3-Swamp-A vast tar pit bubbles before you, it's stench  unmistakable

As the players investigated, I turned things into a blood feud where Gharib blamed Jasim for a missing son and slew one of Jasim's sons, causing the outraged Jasim family to in turn slay one of Gharib's sons. Jasim claims Gharib's first missing son got drunk and wandered into the nearby tarpit at night, Gharib's son claims Jasim slew the son rather than hand over a goat for tax purposes. In truth, the Floral Maw was the responsible culprit because a player guessed that was the case and that seemed reasonable to me. The players decided to reconcile the familes via marriage because a wizard character claimed to have read at the academy that was the best way to resolve such things (again, reasonable enough sounding and so declared canonical) and so the hunt for an eligible pair from the families was on. Since Kabuli has singing contests and the nearby nunnery had a nun with a good singer, it seemed reasonable that she could be the daughter of the rich (and suspected corrupt by the players on account of the rest of the village being poor as dirt) Gharib, so the plan was to retrieve her and convince her and a son of Jasim to marry to end the blood feud. The Floral Maw was in the way and had to be destroyed, revealing the ring of the devoured missing son and providing further incentive to end things peacefully, and things wrapped up handily, with the reason the daughter being sent away that she fancied a brother of Jasim anyway but Gharib didn't care for his daughter to marry into a family of lower economic status. But now love finds a way, blah blah, blood feud ended and tiny podunk village saved from both themselves and nearby monsters.

So big whoop, a GM used improv and player input to spin together a session, what's my point?

Well! On the one hand, it is important for hex crawl features to have connections to each other. So the players are encouraged to walk back and forth through the hex-crawl and discover context that makes the layout meaningful. If hex fillings are totally self-contained and not actively grinding against each other, well, it's a sterile and noninteractive land the players have found, isn't it? That would be the dungeon equivalent of a delve where monsters stayed in their rooms and had no knowledge of anything outside their 20x20 boxing ring and every room was spaced in a predictable grid where you could go in any direction whenever you wanted and backtracking to old rooms was never necessary because they could all be handled and written off after the first time entering.

But on the other hand, when you're designing/running a hex-crawl, you have to realize you're not designing/running an adventure module, either. The goal is not to guide the players along particular paths and events, its to let them bumble about exploring and to have something emerge from play. So while I spun the above plot from a few minimalist hex fills and it worked well, it would not necessarily be an "improvement" for a hex crawl to write out that pseudo-romeo-and-juliet blood feud drama word for word as a hex fill, because then a hex crawl becomes like 5 different interconnected modules that you won't be able to remember anyway. Hex crawls are meant to work well on the fly, and that means improv and random content, not heavily prepped super-dense pre-made content. Which brings me to the next point.

Gameable Content
Each hex is often 6 miles across which is a lot of space. If a hex has only one content fill, it better be something both cool and easy to stumble across. Something the players want to interact with, will inform their decision making, something they'll return to again and again with different ideas, or otherwise the content is quite likely to fade from memory and relevance and you'll have an 'empty' hex on your hands.
Here are some things that I think are good fills, and how to make them better still.
  1. Civilized Settlements- This is an easy player attraction- a place to rest a resupply without having to fight off like a random encounter per day. It's also easy to improv for- you know on an intuitive level(probably) what people are like and what conflicts may mar otherwise enjoyable stays at a settlement. The easiest thing to do is probably just settlement+random encounter menacing settlement, and you can also just introduce any NPC you like in a settlement without raising too many eyebrows too. They're a good combination of stable but flexible in what hooks for adventure can emerge from them.
  2. Monster Lairs- This is different from a dungeon, in that it's not a kooky collection of tricks, traps, terrors, and treasures, it's just where some local wandering monsters hang out. A bandit camp or dragon lair or bear cave. It's more of a way for players to 'hunt down' particular menaces and strike them from the wandering encounter tables for that hex, and maybe get some loot/accolades than a true adventure site. I don't think it's at all unreasonable to have a monster lair of every wandering monster in the region hidden away in hexes- 6 mile hexes are big and this allows a sort of metric for 'how much work does it take to slaughter everything in a hex so I can build a castle/hire miners to dig up the crystal mountains unmolested'
  3. Dungeon- Minidungeons are fun to scatter throughout the land, but are also a fair bit of work and their contents tend to be somewhat aloof and separate from my earlier advice to keep things connected. Overreliance on dungeon as hex contents turns hexcrawls into pointcrawls, where the points are dungeons that are interesting and travel is largely an annoying wandering monster tax between dungeons (at least that's how my Sarkomand's Fault was). To differentiate them from monster lairs though, you should have them repopulate with wandering monsters or specialized dungeon monsters very quickly. Dungeons are constant features that should reward return visits to a certain extent, especially if they have weird features like statues that shrink you or other fun tricks. What you don't want to have a dungeon be is a one shot visit, clear, and never return because that hex is now boring thing. It's fine if the players decide not to ever return, but that should be because they have other things on their plate, not 'the dungeon has been cleared.' Dungeons aren't mastered until you've deconstructed the walls and built a fortress out of them. One of my favorite things a player did back in Sarkomand's Fault was use their flying ship to loot the stone of The Gelatinous Dome and another minidungeon of my own construction to build their temple a over a third ancient ruin. In returning to the dungeons, they made extra use out of those places and managed to find things they missed the first time.
  4. Terrain- Mountains and swamps, the roughest things to cross, can get glossed over pretty easily according to a lot of wilderness procedures. They just cut down travel time by x1/3 or something. If you've ever been in mountains, and not even fantasy-sized everest mountains, that's a vast understatement of how totally confusing and impassable harsh terrain can be. Those places should have extra chances to get lost, chances to have to turn back due to impassable mires/cliff faces blocking the way, multiple paths 'through' the hex that well send you east instead of north because there's no known route north, and extra secret hex content fills that, if you stick to the known mountain passes/dry land through the swamp, you won't ever see.
    An opposite issue comes from roads- you find a road, you follow it, it goes somewhere, hooray. But there's reasons roads are where they are, and so there should be off-road hex contents that, again, you won't find unless you look for them (though if a road was built to avoid them, you may wish you hadn't after all).
    The short version of this is to have obvious hex contents, and hidden hex contents, and to make terrain relevant in finding and reaching those contents. Harsh terrain where it's hard to see and unwise to linger leans more towards lots of hidden hex contents, while nice, flat, well-populated farmlands lean towards obvious hex contents. Think mountaintop temples and hidden valleys and secret caves and forbidden groves for hex fills that won't be stumbled across when travel is the only goal- they might be found when the players are lost, fleeing in a blind panic, or following instructions via guide or treasure map.
  5. Treasures, Tricks, and Traps- Lungfungus and I talked about hexcrawling having a parallel to dungeon rooms. If all a dungeon has is monsters, exploration is punished severely. Similarly, for exploring to be valuable in a hex crawl, there has to be nice things to find, not just different encounter tables by terrain. Healing springs, unmined gem deposits, friendly dryads. But for exploring to be interesting, there needs to be ambiguous things too, where weal or woe comes more from player decision than anything. Mysterious mystical merchants, glowing runed monoliths, localized weather conditions, sketchy mushrooms. And then there can be explicitly dangerous things, like sagging snow on mountainsides, quicksand, crumbling sandstone ravines. It's up to players to really exploit these features, but unless they exist, the wilderness might find itself shunned as a purely negative experience.
  6. Weird Shit- This arguably falls into the above category, but having some truly outrageous, fantastical stuff can really pique the player's interests and give you blank checks to expand on later. Things I've done in this category are portals that spew out sand in a water(sand)fall 100' feet up in thin air, a mountain made of water, rifts in the sky that are always night, deserts of glass shards, tree stumps 6 miles across, shattered mountains with the shards hanging mid-air, and so on. Naturally you don't want to overuse these things (unless your game is like Adventure Time in which case please invite me to your games) but they add some serious fantasy and mystery to fantasy games, which I think have a tendency to slump into stale genre conventions if you go 'no that'd be too crazy' too often.


  1. I've been randomly generating my hexcrawl material. With only a 1-in-6 chance of a feature, and some of those being pretty sparse, it's been called "brutal" and "barren". They've kept coming back though! Starting with very little food and no money has impacted that greatly though, since the characters *need* to find a dungeon that contains loot (tricky, when that is randomly generated as well!) or they could very well starve. The moment when they have to decide between healing in a dungeon and having food the next day was very powerful...

    1. That's actually a really good point to bring up- barren hexcrawls definitely aren't as bad as I may have made them out to be here. Having barren, dangerous, and spread-out hex-crawling encourages finding ways to exploit what little you have and makes the 'good stuff' really stand out when aimless wandering is mostly a dangerous use of resources.

      To clarify some, my own current departure from that style is less of a 'prescriptive design philosophy' and more of a reaction to my players sticking to known paths between known areas because going off the beaten path was so statistically unrewarding, so the hexes sort of faded from consideration outside of being indicators for how many random encounters would be chanced during travel between points of interest. The barrenness ended up making things feel more like a pointcrawl than a hexcrawl. And so I've made things less dense in an attempt to reward going off the beaten path some... though come to think of it, I'm not sure if it's really worked.