Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Crawling Without Hexes: the Pointcrawl

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?


  1. I really like this method and plan on using it sometime. It reminded me of a similar post by Shamus here-


    1. It is too bad that Shamus left us in mid 2022.

      So many losses in the gaming community this last seven or eight years....

  2. @Mike
    Thanks Mike, good article there. I knew others must be doing it this way too as it seems a as logical of an extension from board gaming as hexes were.

  3. Rather than hexes I use numbers between locations (Depending on the area this may be leagues, miles or whatever, units). Each "Encounter roll" on a terrain table gives you a certain number towards your progress. This is where terrain is important.

    Mountains give you 0 units movement for instance, only some random seed results give you a path or some such (to move you forward). A lot of back tracking happens.

    Going down a road might be worth 4, 8 on an unladen horse.

    A ship going downriver might be worth 6 or more.

    Add that into the rules for travelling I use (which means travelling through the wilderness , even if you don't fight anything, is brutal and deadly) and people take roads and inns a lot, unless there is a need not to.

  4. I'm having traumatic flashbacks of graduate school algorithms. Dijkstra was the bane of my existence.

    Purging graph traversal from my mind, this sort of map works great for RPGs, but I never particularly cared for it in wargames.

  5. Nice. I thought I recognized that map as being from A House Divided. My wilderness maps aren't nearly so sophisticated, but then I've never been a wargamer. Wilderness maps for me are usually for color, to stimulant player's to decide where they want to go, and just basic distance. But I like your approach. :)

  6. @Zzarchov
    That sounds like a great system. I didn't see it in NGR. The devil is obviously in those details of the charts.

    "I never particularly cared for it in wargames."

    It depends on the game for me. In some cases the connections (or lack there of) are too arbitrary, take the water connections in Risk. But when it reflects actual terrain bottlenecks like in House Divided it can actually make for some deeper strategic choice.

  7. Sure, I'm not saying it's useless for wargames, more that I prefer hexes. Contradicting myself, something like this is better when you have hexes containing multiple terrains.

    I think for open-map style play (SFB, Battletech), this makes no sense, but perhaps specific applications, of course. Traveller star maps come to mind.

  8. How do you handle getting lost? Hex maps make handling that very smooth, and also not arbitrary.

  9. @Brad
    Agree, in tactical wargames the hex reigns supreme.

    Remember this is movement along paths--I have a separate sub-system for off-the-grid travel that I will clean up and share some time.

    Getting lost it therefore more "organic" in the sense that it takes player error (they aren't seeing the grid, just getting the verbal clues from the sites): forgetting what direction they were travelling, getting turned around, or confusing similar-sounding landmarks.

    Was that the Ironwood tree tilting to the north or the one titling south? Didn't we enter this clearing from the northeast last time?

  10. We've been using grid coordinates like on tourist maps and such for a long time. It works fine, and places the emphasis on what will actually get encountered/used in a session, as opposed to a lot of wasted effort detailing areas where no one really goes. But hexes are a standard, so we also do some hex maps.

    Your approach up above is a lot like Node Mapping. It can work well for building flow-chart-like depictions of really big structures such as megadungeons. saves on paper and cuts down on the carpal tunnel as well...

  11. I've used both hex-based and non-hex-based maps. In my last campaign it was a mixture of both.

    For travel along known routes I've never found use for hexes. So road/path/track/sea-route based travel the hexes have at best been superfluous. The technique you outline in your post is pretty close to what I use, usually with the addition of numbers indicating days or hours of travel between the points. Here's the map: http://hertfordshirekap5.wikidot.com/hertfordshire

    For travel in an unknown area the hexes have helped me keep track of player position as well as organize my own activities. For example, when fleeing through the hills of Normandy from Frankish axemen I tracked progress on hexes and used the hex organization to place random encounters/sites (one per 5km hex.)

    Interestingly, I also used a hex map for the home county of the party (this is Pendragon and they're all landholding knights.) This helped immensely as the campaign really took a wargaming turn when Saxon hordes tried to overrun the county and the knights moved their household forces strategically across the landscape.

  12. Hmmm. the map pointer in the second paragraph really applies to the last paragraph. Cut&paste error.

  13. Very useful, in particular your explainations on how you annotate the map, it takes it from a simple node map to something useful at the table.

    I actually used something like that in my last game, although the players have only gone down one path, it gave me the relationship to other places if needed.

  14. It is perhaps significant that the Baldur's Gate games -- the first in particular -- use a system almost exactly like this for their wilderness travel segments.

  15. My scouts are mapping your area as we speak....see you soon!

  16. @Eric
    "Interestingly, I also used a hex map for the home county of the party (this is Pendragon and they're all landholding knights.)"

    I use the hex map a good deal more in the Domain Game as it's the basis for all kinds of mechanics: resource allocation, the number of square miles in cultivation, population density, etc. It's handy having it on that grid with its precise measurements and numbering system.

    Yeah it's the notation and on-map information that make it much more the all-powerful tool while actually at the table.

    Bingo. Those games where my only connection to D&D during my two decade laps--and I have been playing Planescape as of late--probably not a big surprise that they would influence my mapping.

    The stalwart lead ranks of the Hill Cantons await the oncoming Northland hordes.

  17. I will draw rough maps for my players during the play session to help them record...

    1. Landmarks they've seen from their path of travel, and their approximate relationships to each other.

    2. Things they've been told about by NPCs or read in books or inscriptions, or heard in tales/legends.

    3. Things and places that the characters might know about but the player doesn't.

    When it comes to them looking for somewhere specific, they'll actually have to follow directions they've been given or that they've puzzled out (which can lead to die rolls and/or roleplaying to see if they stick to the right path). If they get lost, they need to find high ground to survey the area (at which point I'll draw a map of what they see... depending on system, die rolls and/or roleplaying will determine if this new view gets planted accurately onto their world map).

    I've found this system gets rid of undue recordkeeping and preparation on my part as a GM, and adds a layer of uncertainty and danger to overland travel bringing the tension level up to that of traversing a dungeon. I think it also simulates to some extent real world orienteering (not to mention the unreliability of maps and directions in worlds where nobody has accurately surveyed every square mile of land), and further encourages the players to pick up wilderness skills if they are appropriate for their character.

  18. This kind of blew my mind. I've been hesitant to take my game into the wilderness because I didn't know how to narrate traveling through multi-mile hexes in a way that wasn't boring. I think you just showed me how. Thank you.

  19. Daaaaaamn.

    This is a great idea. I'm running a game in emulation of the classic "West Marches" right now, so I'm using the vector style of mapping you mentioned. I like this so much, I'm going to start doing it as of now and see how my maps turn out.

  20. Relatively old post, I know, but this is an area which is pretty interesting to me lately, so I hope the necromancy is okay.

    I happen to be interested in the hex crawl sort of gaming, particularly in a sandbox fashion. I also happen to be totally blind, so hex paper and so on isn't super helpful for me. In fact, maps in general are kind of a pain in the neck, because I can't read them easily, and I always feel like I'm missing setting info of one sort or another.

    So I'm wondering if anybody has ideas for combining the point crawl approach, or one which avoids maps, with randomized terrain generation? I'd love to run something solo, like Scarlet Heroes from Sine Nomine, for instance, but they all seem to presume hexes. Another way to look at it would be an experience kind of like the Elder Scrolls video games, which I can't play. It could be a lot of work doing something like that solo, but…

    Any ideas appreciated. :)

    1. Hey Zack, a couple ideas come to mind. I am going to post about this in a little bit.

    2. CHris,

      THanks! :) I'd love a link to the post whenever you make it—assuming it wasn't going to just be here in the comments. I'd appreciate any notions I can get with this question. I think my struggle is mostly finding a place to start which I'm comfortable with, and which won't require so much prep I lose steam halfway through. Kind of contradictory goals, on the surface.

    3. It's up here: http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2014/11/reader-query-random-solo-wilderness.html

    4. I think your struggle sounds exactly like my own dilemma when creating sub-systems.

  21. I used to own "A House Divided" but the gameplay of grinding attrition was rather dull. :)
    I think Pointcrawl structure is great when you don't want to use detailed maps, it would work for eg Underdark caves (and I've used it for that), for a mostly-empty megadungeon like Moria, and for a big city. It reminds me a lot of how Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are structured. What it does not help me do is describe a large-scale overland journey; I find that regular maps or detailed hex maps are best for that, with the particular points of interest called out. If hex map then I want a scale like 1 mile/hex or 2 miles/hex that gives a detailed view of the terrain, not 30 mile hexes.

  22. I much prefer the idea of a point crawl vs a hex crawl. Reminds me of most RPGs, in particular original Dragon Age and it's quest points. Couldn't you just make these handwritten notes straight onto your region map? (assuming there is one)

  23. I was wondering, how do you handling discovery unknown locations using this system? It looks very interesting.

    1. Searching for secret paths just as if they were doors.

  24. Frederick is completely missing from that MD map. We have so many battlefields around here.

  25. If I may, just adding a little essay on the topic