The hex crawl is a classic supporting structure for role-playing games. Many of my most memorable early experiences with Dungeons & Dragons were hex crawls, and the crawl was probably a bigger factor in their success than the D&D part. But let’s look at what a hex crawl ought to do by (like with the ranger) starting with some suppositions and deriving the technology.
So a few interesting things are true about the hex crawl: there are hexes (no more about this), the player side of the game doesn’t know what’s in those hexes until they enter or get adjacent to them, and something is interesting about each hex even if it’s just the terrain.
Let’s start with the “not knowing part”. This seems essential to me and I think it ought to play a part in defining the kind of adventure that takes place in a hex crawl. Let’s say I want to get from point A to point B in order to accomplish something at B. Obviously what I do is buy a map or a guide. I am not going to strike blindly into the wilderness if I have any other options. And I’m probably going to take a road which also implies the presence of maps or at least good directions. So this is not that.
Why would I strike out without a map?
There is no map.
Why no map? Why are we in this predicament?
Why not? Here are some possibilities:
No one has been there in a thousand years. There are stories about very roughly what is where but no one really knows. This is new territory.
So you might keep a map as you go in order to get back safely. You might use it as a predictive tool (if the ref’s map is rational enough) to find rivers and mountains based on gradually revealed changes in terrain. But mostly, since no one’s been here, you might be doing classic explorer stuff: making a map so others can make this trip more safely in future. When you find Point B, you will have one possible route there.
This last is pretty fun: if you find a very difficult and shitty route, you will be motivated to improve it, to find a better path. Otherwise the next person with the same idea might make a more valuable map.
For this to work, the map has to be fairly rational. If I hit plains and then hills, I should rationally predict mountains. If I move from dry to wet, I should expect a river. If I’m in the plains I can probably see cities and mountains on the horizon. If I find a road, it’s probably on territory much easier to build a road on than surrounding territory. I want players to be able to make rational predictions based on what they’ve found since they are trying to map an exploitable route without just randomly walking it.
Maps are illegal. Someone has maps but they are very protective of them and sell them for outrageous prices. Copies are dangerously imperfect and worse than no map at all.
Most of the above applies except now what you’re doing is probably illegal — not only are you lost in the wilds but two other things are true: some people aren’t lost (they bought maps) and someone probably wants you to stop mapping.
The land has recently changed. You might have a map but it’s wrong. What happened? I’m not here for that — you can already think of a thousand zany things.
You could be mapping this newly changed place in order to find routes through it, as though it were virgin territory, but really this problem demands another kind of adventure: figuring out why it changed. And you’ll have to cope with the fact that huge magical changes to the landscape don’t necessarily follow geological logic since it didn’t take place over geological time periods using natural processes. The terrain can lie to you here.
Now, I don’t the the ref needs to go into this knowing why the land changed — they might be interested to discover this as well. But whether or not they know, the landscape itself is going to have to provide some clues. Each new revealed terrain is not just a choice to follow or divert, as with exploration, but also a potential insight into the why of the changed terrain. Randomness can be your friend here with the very contents of each hex acting as an oracle for you to riff off of.
You don’t know where point A is. You’re already lost and mapless. Someone out there might have a great idea about the topography but you’re not that person and they aren’t handy.
Again, this is like exploring a route, except that at some point you should be able to put the puzzle together and recognize where you are. This territory not only needs to be rational, but it also has to be consistent with a (maybe shitty) map you DO have.
So fine, that’s how a map needs to deliver a theme, but there’s another question.
Why do I care what’s in each hex?
This is only partly obvious. If I’m mapping a route, I care what’s in a hex so I can make decisions about the next direction to travel in. But we are going to reveal each hex in turn so we want each hex to have more impact than that, otherwise we might be tempted to shortcut it, and say things like “I follow the ridgeline until we reach water or flatter terrain”. But the very nature of the hex “crawl” is to reveal each hex for some reason. What reason?
Usually it’s Random Encounters. Fine, sometimes, but seriously that’s the lowest common denominator. Maybe the old Risks list has some power here. What if each hex is not just one kind of risk, but one of those?
Cost. Something in this hex requires payment. Maybe it’s a monster extracting a toll to pass the only way through. Maybe you need special equipment to get through and you don’t have it. Maybe bandits steal from you. But passing through this hex risks a Cost.
Harm. Okay fine, here’s your random encounter. Or maybe a risky chunk of terrain that could break your leg.
Delay. Risking delay is only interesting if you have a deadline to meet. I recommend that — you should have a deadline. There should be a point at which you run out of rations or your competitor finishes their map first. Or you will arrive to late to stop the wedding. Something! A delay could be a washed out bridge or terrible weather or even just incredibly dense undergrowth. Something threatens to slow you up unless you find a away to cope.
Spillover. This one at first seems a little hard to handle, but suppose your intrusion on this unsullied wilderness is having a side-effect on the locals? Maybe you are bringing attention and banditry to an otherwise peaceful people. Maybe your presence wrecks the local magic flux that is such delicate balance. Maybe you scare off the delicious unicorns. Whatever it is, entering this hex does unanticipated harm to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Ineffectiveness. Fuck this risk. Maybe you just can’t enter this hex, period. For sure if you tell players that they will try ALL NIGHT to do it anyway though.
Revelation. Something is in this hex that reveals something unexpected (ideally even for the ref) and not necessarily good. High ground reveals that you are no where close to your objective. A magical storm reveals that the land is still changing and your map may not be helpful for getting home. The partial map you stole from goblins is not just wrong, it’s a trap.
Confusion. You risk getting lost. You can’t find north. Your next move might be in a random direction. Try not to be a pain in the ass about this: making players build a map that is wrong or useless is not actually as fun for the players as the ref. But forcing them to occasionally move in a random direction and calling that “lost” is not a bad compromise.
Waste. You can get through this hex but the horses won’t make it. Or you’re out of water and need to find some as a priority. Something you had in plenty is eaten up in this hex.
Because hex kit.