Describing a dungeoncrawl is easy. Your feet splash through puddles; you climb over debris; there are three hallways leading out of this room; there’s a tapestry.
Describing a hexcrawl or pointcrawl, I would venture to say for just about everyone, requires more effort. I’ve been trying to learn more topological terminology, to take walks, and to read fictional descriptions of landscapes; and, while that’s helped, it’s still not the piece of cake that dungeon description and navigation is.
An unoriginal thought occurred to me: treat the wilderness like a dungeon.
The rooms are your hexes or points/nodes. There’s stuff in them, or not. Easy. See the Features heading below for more info.
Exits in a dungeon room? No biggie: door in the far wall, chasm below, hallway to the right.
For hexcrawls, the problem is, what does going from one hex to another of identical terrain look like? How are the PCs navigating it? The hex may provide no description or landmarks. So this fictional content is often elided.
And further this means that the players need their own hex map and are making choices based on the meta representation of the journey.
I don’t like this. It’s functional, but is it optimal? Can we make this navigation process more like a travel vignette from Lord of the Rings or Blood Meridian? And that without adding a bunch of paperwork?
There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers. The dwarves and the hobbit, helped by the wise advice of Elrond and the knowledge and memory of Gandalf, took the right road to the right pass. (The Hobbit, ch. 4)
If you look at actual wilderness, your options are pretty constrained. It’s either featureless, in which case you just keep going on ahead or else veer left or right, or there are desire paths, valleys, streams, ravines, ridges, roads, mountains, landmarks, and so forth.
Long days after they had climbed out of the valley and left the Last Homely House miles behind, they were still going up and up and up. It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long. (The Hobbit, ch. 4)
More Hobbit to make my case:
They limped along now as fast as they were able down the gentle slopes of a pine forest in a slanting path leading steadily southwards. At times they were pushing through a sea of bracken with tall fronds rising right above the hobbit’s head; at times they were marching along quiet as quiet over a floor of pine-needles; and all the while the forest-gloom got heavier and the forest-silence deeper. (Ch. 6)
Always paths, you see. Mirkwood? A path.
So this means that, effectively
Henceforth, you will convert all hexcrawls to pathcrawls.
How to Convert Hexmap into Pathmap
Take your standard hexmap. It’s great. The units of distance are overlaid. But it’s merely the base.
Now trace over it two kinds of objects:
The easiest paths you may already have on there: mountain ranges, rivers, roads. But you should add others as well, contextual to terrain type.
Then landmarks. These don’t have to be keyed; they can simply be ways, outside of paths, that travelers could orient themselves in the landscape: ancient crumbling towers, a mighty tree. It has to be something you can see from pretty much anywhere in the hex.
These are the options you present to the players; these are the “doors.” Do we follow this valley, head toward that obelisk, or go “through the walls,” in the true trackless waste, and risk getting lost?
Paths on a hex scale should generally be pretty large, large enough to label. Or you can use icons and a legend if either your map or path is too small.
Landmarks are obvious, like the things that can be seen immediately upon entering a dungeon room.
Other features are either:
- encountered naturally along a path
- On a random table of pathless encounters, for when they go off path
- Or on the map explicitly, such that the party would have to veer off path in a particular direction to happen upon it by chance
Hexcrawls = canceled.
Take your hex maps and add paths to them.
Take your pointcrawl maps and label the edges between the nodes.
Concluding with Tokien’s description of navigating by landmark, without a path:
Balin and Bilbo rode behind, each leading another pony heavily laden beside him; the others were some way ahead picking out a slow road, for there were no paths. They made north-west, slanting away from the River Running, and drawing ever nearer and nearer to a great spur of the Mountain that was flung out southwards towards them.