Monday, July 25, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 1: Whys and Wherefores

Chatting with a friend about Scott’s recent discussion of hex maps at “Huge Ruined Pile” it was pointed out to me that there’s really not a good, step-by-step description of how to use hex maps in a game. Yeah, the reaction you likely just had was the same as mine, but trust me, there’s a heck of lot we take for granted. The early versions of D&D did such a poor job of explaining what it was about that lots of folks thought nothing about removing EXP for treasure, wandering monsters, or not tracking the passage of time.

So, just to be complete (or anal, take your pick), I’d like to go through the process here of building and using a hex map, integrating it with creating and running a campaign. I’m going to try not to skip stuff and take it for granted, but if anything is unclear or just vague, feel free to call me out on it.


First off, why hex maps? They most likely came down to RPGs from a boardgame called Outdoor Survival (AKA “Nobody Survives Outdoors!”) in which your piece would be plopped into the middle of a wilderness area mapped on hexes. Hexes are superior for this purpose because they offer a lot more flexibility in movement compared to squares. Hexes do make a few measuring issues more complex, but we’ll get to that much later. But largely, they remove all the brain-breaking issues of attempting to reconcile diagonal movement that plague squares.

Now, you could just toss hexes entirely, but like square grids for dungeon maps, they do help organize and simplify mapping for you and your players. This is vital if you’re doing a hex-crawl style game like a West Marches campaign. Keeping things nice and regular simplifies everyone's lives. Especially since a hard-core hex-crawl is going to do all sorts of things to mess with the players’ maps already.


I guess I should back up here and explain what I’m talking about. A hex-crawl is like a dungeon crawl without walls. You’re outdoors, moving from hex-to-hex, mapping the wilderness, fleeing from (or occasionally fighting) monsters, and looking for treasure and dungeons to loot. Players can (and will) move in any direction. The big challenge for them is judging how far they can get on their supplies (and, in this case, supplies mean hit points and spells as much as they mean food and water). Misjudge the issue, and they could end up expiring before returning to safety.

The fun is the joy of exploration, of overcoming the open-ended challenges of natural terrain, logistics, and risk-to-reward balancing. It’s not for everyone, and some are just as happy to go straight from the tavern right to the dungeon (Ptolus is largely based on this simplicity). But it adds a whole new dimension to your typical dungeon-based play that offers players all sorts of extra flexibility and choices, and generally, that’s a great thing in an old-school game.

Next time, we’ll talk about scale and terrain.

UPDATE:And it’s just been pointed out to me that the original West Marches game didn’t use hexes! Xp Ben Robbins apparently felt that hexes make people think they’ve fully explored an area when they’d filled in the hex. True, but I’ll stick by them; they make all sorts of things much easier. We’ll get into more detail on this later.


James said...

Great idea for a series!

Anonymous said...

Actually I thought the early versions of D&D did a fairly good job of explaining how they worked, with the proviso that if you felt something, say a rule, was unclear, you could go ahead and make it up.

John Arendt said...

I agree with James - just dropping in to say I'll be looking forward to the series. I'm always looking to hear how other DM's do things at the table and while there's a lot of ink on building a hex crawl, there's not a lot on running one.

Chris C. said...

I agree with James and Beedo -- I'll be reading theses posts with great interest.

Timeshadows said...

From as photo I've seen reproduced, the CIA of the 60's (pocket protectors, horn-rim glasses, crew-cuts, slide-rules) were using hexes to break-up areas into 'take-able, holdable' Zones of Control, in theoreticals (wargaming).

Avalon Hill picked up a Wargame rules set from a private developer, and hexes were used in that, and that game being the first known commercially available hex-based combat game.

If I find the blog in which I found the photo and article, I'll post a link.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks, folks. Yeah, looking forward to having fun with this.

Anonymous: How was fairly clear, why (like, why give EXP for treasure) usually wasn't so clear. The folks who made the game assumed a lot about their audience, especially in the pre-1e publications.

Timeshadows: Very cool, yeah, please toss me the link if you find it. :D

DHBoggs said...

UM, well.... I just published the first installment of Champions of Zed in Fight On! magazine (12), which is a detailed explanation of generating the OD&D hexmap and playing through them as an integral part of the game. This section of Zed encapsulates all the methods found in 3LBB's and Arneson's further explanatory notes in the FFC. A nearly identical section was also prepared for D@D fans and can be found in Supplement 1.

So, respectfully, "there’s really not a good, step-by-step description of how to use hex maps in a game." is wrong by about 2 weeks, as it it a central mechanism in CoZ.

trollsmyth said...

DHBoggs: Neat! Yeah, I'm behind in my Fight On! reading, so I haven't gotten to 12 yet. Xp I'll be looking forward to reading it and seeing how our techniques differ.

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