Despite spending 1-2 hours a day sinking psychic energy into this here rpg blog, I am still as much or more of a wargamer as I am a roleplayer. There have been too many years of pushing little lead men and cardboard counters to deny it.
Hexes literally come with the terrain in both worlds. Yet as much as I love that old six-directional organization in my wargaming--where relative position is a top priority--I have to admit that I find them not terribly useful in running day-to-day wilderness exploration in my games.
Don't get me wrong, I still use hex maps, but they have been relegated to only one of several layers of maps I use in campaigns. Right below a top level “symbolic” map (a map, often shared with players, filled with out-of-scale markings and illustrations distorting things by their relative importance) is often a large-scale map of six-mile hexes.
Neither layer of map is what I actually use at the table.
What I actually use at the table are two kinds of hexless map systems: the first being a point-to-point system (the second a “vector” map akin to the West Marches that I may discuss tomorrow).
What's point-to-point? Simple, it's a map that replaces hexes with locations and connectors only. Fortunately I didn't have to invent another wheel, but looked to some old favorite wargames. Take the map from the Civil War classic A House Divided pictured below.
Why bother switching? Because a hex map places “empty space” areas, the countless hexes that may contain nothing much of interest, on the same semiotic level as interesting locales (and by interesting I mean a wide latitude of things from minor curiosities/landmarks to settlements or adventure sites, any point that is worth more than a cursory description). It reduces the amount of information I can see at a glance and the paper shuffling between hex map and gazetteer becomes a stage management nightmare for me when I run a game.
Secondly, hex maps tend to play down the fact that most overland travel is rightly conducted along some kind of track or road. Pathless travel is exhausting, massively disorienting, and dangerous to the point that even something as rough as a mule track or a game path is usually preferable.
Hex maps also tend to not be able to show impassable terrain on a granular level, cliffs or peaks that prevent a line of travel or wetlands areas where the water gets too deep. Note how paths bottleneck in mountain and coastal wetlands areas in the House Divided map. I want to be able to portray the situation where an area maybe be close by how the crow flies but involves a circuitous route by foot. I also want those bottlenecks—places of “strategic” importance to find or hold.
This is what my typical PbP map looks like (click to enlarge).
The squares represent the sites of interest and are color coded with map pencils for ease of reference. In this case, dark blue equals a settlement a town or larger (sky blue is for smaller ones), green is a landmark, and brown is a potential adventure site with its own sub-map.
I always draw in terrain as background under the grid (note the bands of hills and mountains) roughly to scale from the higher-layer hex map. This reminds me exactly where topography begins and ends if I need to use it in-game—and what type of encounter or weather chart to use. I use a wide range of terrain and vegetation type, so this is especially important for me.
Now let's look at the all-important connectors. Solid lines represent roads, double solid lines Roman-like roads with sturdy road beds. Broken lines represent tracks. I will add letters if I need to code the path further, “S” represents a secret or hidden path, for instance, “G” stands for a game path that the party will need an outdoorsman-type to find and use. Rivers and creeks can also be used as connectors.
The dots on connectors play a big role in simplifying things, they are the units of measurement between squares. They typically represent about six hours of unencumbered walking and three hours of normal riding time. If a connecting path is shorter or longer or more difficult I note it directly on the map. The typical foot time just happens to correspond to my encounter checks. The system lends itself to wanting to minimize too many dots, so I tend to brainstorm lots of green-coded minor landmark boxes to both give players more choice in direction and make travel seem more colorful.
The last thing you will note are random notes to myself (the chance for finding on a d6 the stairs to a cave system under the Old Tower square, for instance.) This on-map notation plays a big part in helping me run the game at the table and my actual maps will get very busy with them. Again I can't emphasize enough how helpful this is ease to play flow.
That's one of my systems. I know you devious people have your own. What's up your wilderness-running sleeve?