Hexcrawls are a type of adventure that focuses on macro-level exploration. They give the party a more freeform way to explore the region as they travel from point A to point B or as they look for a hidden point of interest.
I’ve always wanted to run a hexcrawl, but for one reason or another, I’ve never slotted one into my various D&D campaigns over the years. Recently, however, I was able to fit Black Candle Games’ Beware the Bayou into my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign.
We haven’t finished the adventure just yet, but it was a great introduction to running a hexcrawl for me. I’m itching to throw more into my next long-term D&D campaign as it made exploration quite effortless and engaging. Something that I believe is a weak point for my campaigns and D&D 5e in general.
Let’s talk hexcrawls. What are they and what have I learned from running one?
What is a Hexcrawl?
The most important piece of a hexcrawl adventure is the map. Unlike most world or regional maps, hexcrawl maps are broken up into hexagonal sections. These hexagons could contain a variety of different events or locations that the party will stumble upon when they travel to them.
The size of each hexagon depends on either the map itself or the game system you’re playing. However, every hexagon is the same size. This is to ensure that travel time is uniform and easy to keep track of as the party explores the region.
Keep in mind that certain events or locations could impact the party’s travel time. For example, if they landed in a hexagon that contained a muddy swamp, their travel would surely slow down. So instead of 1 hour of travel time, traversing that hexagon required 2 hours.
Exploration is the Focal Point
Notice how the only information the above map gives to the players is the general landscape of each hex. This information gives the party multiple choices to make. For instance, if they are ill-equipped to traverse the mountainous regions of the map, perhaps they’ll chart a route around them.
The GM has a separate copy of the map that labels which hexes contain specific events, locations, or encounters. When the party lands on these hexes, they’ll interact with whatever the GM has planned.
Another option would be to give the party an entirely blank canvas of hexes. As they explore this uncharted region they can create a map, marking down what terrain and events they’ve found as they travel.
Encounters Within a Hexcrawl
Upon landing on a hex the party may be privy to some form of an encounter. Not every hex in the map needs to have something unique or pre-planned. You should leave plenty of “blank” spaces that can be filled in on the way or can contain random encounters.
It’s also important to keep note that encounters should not all be combat-centric in a hexcrawl. Think of these exploration-based encounters as “events”.
The party may find some interesting ruins or they might find a traveling merchant whose cart is stuck in a ditch. Think up some events and problems that make the world feel alive, and not just in a hack and slash way.
You want the party to explore the map as they please. The goal of a hexcrawl isn’t to explore every nook and cranny of a region, but it should make traveling to and from the party’s destination an open-ended adventure.
Random encounters are super easy to throw into a hexcrawl. I’d wager that they feel more natural in a hexcrawl rather than a standard point A to point B travel session.
Whenever the party lands on a new hex that doesn’t have a preset event, reference your random encounter table(s) and roll to determine what they find. You can make the table as detailed as you wish or reference a few different tables for different categories such as locations, combat, and events.
Keep in mind that unmarked hexes don’t have to be a random encounter. Hexes can just be “blank” too and that’s fine. The terrain itself may be the difficulty in a blank hex.
You could make blank hexes a part of your random encounter table(s) or declare that only certain conditions will trigger a random encounter. Random encounters are nice to have as they make traveling more interesting, but you also don’t want to bog down the exploration with too many encounters and events.
In Beware the Bayou the hexcrawl takes place in an impossible-to-navigate swamp. To showcase this whenever the party wished to travel, one member needed to make an Intellect Challenge roll with a bane. On a failure, they moved to a random adjacent square instead of their intended destination.
There was always a chance of landing on a random encounter in any hex, however, when failing the Intellect Challenge the hex the party was forced to travel to had a considerably higher chance of the party finding a random encounter. I thought this was a fantastic way to showcase the dangers of the uncharted swampland.
Every hexcrawl should have some unique events or locations that the GM marks somewhere on their copy of the map. At the bare minimum, there should be enough marked hexes for whatever it is the party is trying to find in this region.
This could be a single hex marked for a hidden dungeon. It could also mean having a few hexes to help tell a story about the issue(s) that plagues the region you’re traveling through.
Unique events and locations don’t have to be focused on moving the story along either. They could just be cool locations or fun events that aid in worldbuilding. Hell, it’s a game, an event could be included just because it’s fun.
Exploration is the Focal Point
This is the most important thing to keep in mind when creating and running a hexcrawl. This unique style of adventure and map is a perfect way to let the party loose and dig deep into the world around them.
Hexcrawls also present tons of choices. A party may be pressed for time and wish to make it to their destination quickly. This may involve plotting out the most optimal route to their destination, skipping a few of your unique encounters.
On the flip side, this open-world exploration could entice the part to take their time, provided they have the luxury of it. You may wind up playing some additional sessions just so that the party can comb through every hair of the map.
There’s no wrong way to play. No matter what the party’s decision is, make sure that you have stuff for them to do along the way. Spread your unique hexes throughout the map and ensure that you have some random encounters lined up in case they never travel to those unique hexes.
Hexcrawls are fantastic tools for both worldbuilding and exploration. They’re such a pure and open-ended way for the party to experience the world. Sure, the GM controls a few elements of a hexcrawl such as a map’s layout and the encounters within it, but the party can choose what they want to see.
That’s not even considering that the party also chooses how they interact with the various encounters and events they are involved in.
I know that I’m going to try and include more hexcrawls in my future games. This first, albeit small, foray into running a hexcrawl I think was a great success. My players were much more engaged with exploring the world than they would’ve been during any of our typical traveling sessions.