deriving the hex crawl

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.

Why hexes?

Because hex kit.


Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at Lulu, DTRPG, and

deriving the ranger

I saw a bunch of traffic on Twitter lately about the ranger. What is the ranger? How best to represent the ranger? Why does the ranger seem so dull sometimes? So what I thought I’d do is write down who I think the ranger is and then derive the rest from that. If we stay true to concept, the idea goes, we get mechanisms that match their context.

I bolded the bits that are ready to mechanize. You do that. I don’t know what system you love.

The Ranger

img_20160603_104159You live your life in the wilds and mostly alone. Maybe you don’t like people or they don’t like you. Maybe you made some mistakes in the past and they are still hunting you. Maybe you just like the wilds better than you like people. But you do love people. You see yourself as their first line of defense — when things are going wrong in the wilds, soon enough the impact will be felt by people. You are always on patrol, always looking for those problems, and solving them if you can. And if you can’t you, reluctantly (because it means you have to return to civilization, however temporarily), raise the alarm.

Your core principle is self-sufficiency. Your equipment is at least repairable if not creatable, by you alone in your wilderness home. You know how to find food and shelter, since you’re always on the move. You naturally heal quickly and are resistant to natural toxins, and when that doesn’t serve you, you are adept at administering first aid to yourself. You don’t need anyone, or at least that’s what you tell yourself and what you trained yourself for.

You’re wary of making friends with wildlife since animals are often essential to making and repairing your kit. But who could resist the companionship and skills of a good dog or trained wolf? If you have a pet, it’s probably a predator and it probably sees you the same way you see it: a friend, a companion, and someone to be respected. It’s not going to be any more loyal to you than you are to it. So you make careful choices about that loyalty.


You prefer equipment you can make yourself and you can live with equipment you can maintain yourself. Anything else is useless to you. And if your gear has more than one use then that’s fewer things you need to carry.

Consequently you like bows. You can hunt with it and you can fight with it, though in your head these are much the same thing. Crossbows have fiddly bits, typically metal, that are just not worth your attention to keep, maintain, and (worst of all) go into town to replace. You can make a bow yourself in a couple of hours. Arrows too, though metal arrowheads are a treasure: you hoard them, keep them dry, and recover them whenever possible. And you keep them very, very sharp. In a pinch you can make stone or bone arrowheads that are almost as good.

You are proficient with all bows.

Swords are just not worth it. They are not the best weapon in the first place and then they are not useful for much other than fighting. And that fighting is mostly duels, which you think is profoundly stupid: the idea of engaging in a fair fight just makes no sense to you: that’s not how one survives a hostile world. You avoid unnecessary fights and when you have to fight you make it on your terms. And your terms are very good for you and very bad for them. You probably carry some knives which you keep as carefully as your arrowheads. You may carry an axe or two since they have a thousand uses, many of which you come across every day. Or maybe just one but you have some spare axeheads. You can make the shaft any old time, but the axe head is scarce (unless you enter a town) and your time is too valuable to be swanning around a village. You don’t dress fancy enough anyway. And, if it’s to your taste, you probably have a spear. It’s a walking stick and a weapon. You can throw it and you can thrust with it. You can kill and you can just keep enemies at a distance. And you can make every part of it but the metal tip.

You are proficient with knives, axes, and spears. In some Regions you might have other proficiencies related to the survival needs of the area (a mattock or pick in stony territory, for example).

If you could get away with it you probably wouldn’t bother with armour, but most of the threats to people on the edge of the wilderness wear armour and you will need to handle them face-to-whatever if need be. But it’s armour you can maintain yourself, it’s armour you can get on (quickly) yourself, and ideally it’s not something else to carry awkwardly. So no shields, no big metal plates. Mail is handy and you can probably make some repairs, but it’s not ideal. It gets ragged pretty fast and time spent with special tools and a lot of squinting is better spent sleeping or eating. So you prefer cloth with metal plates sewn in, or good leather with lot of padding. If you’re in the mood to make it you might make a cuir bouillee breastplate or (more likely) some vambraces to protect your arms from thorns and your rugged fletching.

You are proficient with leather, cloth, and mail. If you wear mail it’s probably not very good quality.

You would not be caught dead without rope and you know how to make it with any one of a dozen local sources, whether plant or animal. You know where flint is found naturally but you can whip up a fire with dry sticks and your bow if need be. And while the dark is dangerous, you probably don’t like travelling with a torch or (worse) a lantern — it’s an invitation to trouble. Instead you sleep when it’s dark.

If you need a particular piece of equipment while in your Region and you could reasonably be carrying it, then you have it when you need it or you can swiftly make it.

You’ve no need for money. It just adds to your load, both physically and metaphorically. You might keep a few coins or gems for emergencies, but that’s exactly what you feel commerce is: an occasional emergency that you hate. But you prepare for.

If your system has an XP for gold scheme, consider changing it up for the ranger: you only get XP for you gold share that you give away.


You hunt to survive and consequently you are an expert at tracking prey. You’d starve otherwise.

In your region you can follow any trail made by any being not magically protected from being detected. Except maybe another ranger.

You always create an environment that is advantageous to you and you don’t trust others. So whether or not you’re in a party sleeping in shifts, you have certainly prepared a campsite with alarms if not deadly traps.

In your region any site you have prepared has traps and alarms around it.

Your approach to a fight is more procedural than most: you reconnoiter, you prepare, you trigger your encounter, and you leave when you have to. And you set yourself realistic goals from the outset: no one wants to fight to the death, least of all you.

You have great stealth in your region.

You have great observation skills.

You can make traps in your region.

You attack by surprise.

You effortlessly escape by prepared routes.

If you must travel in a party you must have a really good reason. And you’re probably very dedicated to that — if you make yourself part of a party then they become a tiny village that you hate that you love. You are now their protector. But know why.

You have a reason for being in the party. Declare it. Why do you love these people this much?


You prefer a particular region. It might have many kinds of terrain but it probably has one dominant climate. You know all the animals in this region and all of the plants — you know what’s safe, what’s dangerous, what’s edible, what’s medicinal, what’s a potential weapon, and what’s better to avoid altogether.

You are never poisoned and never go hungry in your region.

You can heal yourself in your region on par with magical abilities.

You can heal others in your region to a lesser degree.

You never get lost in your region.

You move faster than normal in your region.

You know the special abilities of anything native to your region.

Outside your region you may have only limited abilities — if the wood’s unfamiliar and the animals are unfamiliar then you will start to have trouble maintaining your equipment and even surviving unassisted. You are very much a creature of your place, and though it may contain mountains and forests and lakes and swamps, it doesn’t extend forever. But you can learn, especially from other rangers.

You can learn a region by acting as a ranger in that region for an extended period of time or through multiple advancements. If you are mentored by another ranger, this happens faster.


Your region has existing trouble and you specialize in guerilla warfare against that trouble. It might be people or it might be monsters or it might even just be weather or fire. Whatever it is, you have trained and equipped yourself especially to deal with this threat. You know everything you need to know about it and value new information very highly. And you will go out of your way to do it harm.

You have bonuses to all your abilities when facing your enemy.

You will want to divert from a task to kill or hinder your enemy if the original task has nothing to do with them. There is no bonus or penalty for this, you just want it. No need to be a dick about it in a party.


Thanks to patrons as always.

Games are at Lulu, DTRPG, and