Content of the article: "Designing a Hex-crawl – Alternative Map Scales and a Guide to Making Useful Hex-maps for Running the Exploration Pillar in 5e"
I’m a world builder at heart. When I chose to begin a campaign based around a hex-crawl exploration I decided to build the setting from the top down to give the most grandeur and realism possible to the landscape. The hope was to create a sense of vast distance and scope while applying the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide travel pace/exploration rules, so that travel has higher stakes and occasionally requires greater attention to resource management in harsh environments. The campaign was envisioned as an exploration into the wilderness of a newly uncovered lost continent.
This left me with the challenging task of turning my maps into a cohesive hex-crawl that I could easily track, and that my players would enjoy. I set out to devise an easy way to turn my own digital map resources into a tool for planning a west-marches style sandbox campaign, and I think that I’ve accomplished my goal!
This short guide outlines how I went from a map of my whole globe to creating a set of physical exploration maps and map keys that are easy to integrate and useful for running the exploration pillar in any game.
To begin with I started with the adventure's location. This map set was made by importing the coastlines and heightmap of my location into Wonderdraft and making a hex-grid overlay, however any map making tool of your preference will work for here if it will allow you to specify the scale of your hex-grid. The length of the short diagonal on your hex-grid should correspond to one of the map scales outlined below, and it should be 1-2 scales above the level of detail that you want to represent with each hex on your exploration map.
My maps use this nested hexagon pattern to accomplish easy translation between styles of gameplay. Because we can continually nest 7 hexagons inside of a single larger hexagon this way, we can expand the map scales on page 14 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide as follows:
- Provincial scale: 1 hex is 1 mile (suitable for hunting for monster lairs)
- Regional scale: 1 hex is 3 miles
- Kingdom scale: 1 hex is 8 miles (suitable for overland travel)
- Political scale: 1 hex is 24 miles
- Continent scale: 1 hex is 72 miles (suitable for ships and sea travel)
- World scale: 1 hex is 216 miles
At the new regional scale the land is rendered in enough detail to track the characters movement across each hex in terms of hours instead of days, and small wilderness expedition can be tracked with a satisfying level of granularity.
At the political scale each hex is a single day of ordinary travel, so a journey on established roads that is tracked in terms of days or weeks is easier to show on this map scale.
The world scale makes it easy to visualize your world map (if you have one) in terms of the length of sea voyages or other fast methods of travel.
A case for the 8-mile hex
Travel in the Player’s Handbook (p.181) follows a 4:3:2 system where a group of creatures can move 4 miles per hour at a fast pace, 3 miles per hour at a normal pace, and 2 miles per hour at a slow pace. Over an 8-hour day the travel pace table generalizes the mile per hour speeds, but we will see a good reason not to do this.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for flying (p.119), which can be accomplished to increase the rate of travel for the party. These rules state that mounted flying creatures can use their flight speed for 9 hours over the course of the travel day, taking a 1-hour rest after each 3-hour span of flight.
The rules for traveling on overland mounts are hiding on page 181 in the Player’s Handbook as well. It says that mounted characters choose their travel pace as normal, however at any point in the day they can choose to replace their travel pace with a fast ‘gallop’ covering 8 miles in 1 hour. A character in a well populated region can conceivably find an inn or stable every 8-10 miles where fresh mounts are available, allowing for repeated uses of this ‘gallop’ feature and letting the character travel for 64 miles before potentially becoming exhausted, but otherwise the distance covered by a character on an ordinary mount simply obeys the travel pace table in the Player’s Handbook.
Finally, every vehicle or vessel, such as those provided in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and other supplements, give their speed in miles per hour. Since many of these creations can travel for 24 hours a day, provided their crew works in shifts, it is more useful to think of the rate of travel for ships and similar vehicles in terms of miles per hour instead of miles per day.
Taking all this in, I found that making the basic unit of my own hex-crawl the 8-mile hex provided an elegant solution to overland travel. Unlike other sizes of hex the 8-mile hex scales up and down neatly as seen above to make tracking daily travel a breeze. 8 miles is also the shortest amount of progress that a party can make (moving slowly, and through difficult terrain) in one day of travel.
By discarding the daily adjustment provided in the travel table, a fast pace of 4 miles per hour sustained for 8 hours can cross 4 hexes on this map, a normal pace can cross 3 hexes, and a slow pace of 2 miles per hour crosses only 2 hexes. This makes it useful for tracking both distances and time spent travelling over journeys of an indefinite length, or ones where the speed of travel may change drastically (such as utilizing a folding boat or magic carpet).
Creating the exploration map
The first step is to settle on a scale for your exploration map. Your chosen scale should reflect two things: the time scale of the journey cycle (will it be tracked in hours, days, or weeks?), and the level of detail at which you want to track changes in the environment for the purposes of tracking navigation difficulty and random encounters.
While creating my maps I wanted to track a journey of about one week using a journey cycle of days, and to allow for up to three environments (Dungeon Master’s Guide p.302) to be crossed in a single day of travel. I chose the 8-mile hex for my map scale and made the 24-mile hexes visible on the exploration map for clarity and ease of use. For shorter journey cycles tracked in hours you might choose the 1-mile hex map scale, letting you zoom in close on landscape features or visualize the regional effects of powerful creature’s lairs.
Once you have chosen a scale you must then reproduce the features that you want to be visible on your map at that scale. Software can help with this, or you can do it the old-fashioned way! No matter how you create your exploration map the result should be the same. A map that shows the entire span of a journey, to accurate scale, representing the features of the terrain as you have designed it, and usable by your party to navigate (Player’s Handbook p.183) to any of the locations that it shows.
With this finished you’re 50% of the way to being able to run your hex-crawl, you just need to populate your map with some environments! On a separate sheet of hexagonal grid paper label each of the hexes on the exploration map with a coordinate and assign each one with an environment, creating a map key.
Environments, such as coast, swamp, grassland, or mountain, are useable with the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual to give you an idea of the type of creatures that call this area of your map their home. The map key is also the place where you can note which hexes are home to unique creatures or locations that will require more expanding upon, such as a settlement or a dungeon.
Bringing it all together
The hex scale, the exploration map, and the map key all come together into a useful set of tools that operate fluidly within the existing exploration framework of 5e, including the Unearthed Arcana: Into the Wild, and the new Dungeon Master’s Screen: Wilderness Kit.
As the party moves across the landscape they will set their travel pace and choose their destination on the exploration map at the beginning of each journey cycle.
They can follow roads or waterways to their destination, or navigate against the difficulty class of the terrain making some number of miles of progress with each day of travel.
As the party travels there is always the potential for an encounter. When an encounter has been determined the prevailing environment on your map key can be used to quickly create a believable encounter using the tables provided in Appendix B of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or you can roll on the Random Encounter tables provided in a book like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
Supplies that are consumed regularly over the course of the day can also be easily tracked. Because the hex-scales nest into one another, and you can fit multiple scales onto one grid, you can always have a hex-scale available to you that will neatly reflect the distance covered over one day of travel.
Finally, the party may track their progress on the exploration map at the end of each journey cycle (an hour, a day, or a week). They can make notes of interesting locations and encounters or determine how lost they’ve become through poor navigation.
Ready to explore!
I think that the hex-crawl is an awesome tool for giving players freedom, whether you’re running a sandbox-style campaign or chronicling the hunt for a legendary monster’s lair, and I want to see it used more! If you’ve gotten this far then I hope that this small guide has given you a place to start if you are thinking of running a hex-crawl adventure in your own game. Thanks for checking out my post, and if you have any constructive criticism or improvements I would love to hear them!
- Today I noticed Chult and Icewind don’t use the PHB travel times
- A Completely RAW Day of Exploration in 5E
- I finally made travel interesting to my party… by using Gritty Realism
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