Monday, February 1, 2016

Hexcrawls vs Pointcrawls

Despite the header this is not a cage match between hexcrawls and pointcrawls. Pointcrawl reputation notwithstanding, I both love and use hex maps all the time in my campaign. Having run all kinds of wilderness in my campaign, I've started to become keenly aware of how each format complements certain types of outdoor gameplay.

Let's unpack the distinctions.

In a hexcrawl, the party is presented with a 360-degree, six-direction choice most every time it exits a hex. Terrain will often foster soft positive and negative natural choices, the presence of a road running into a different hex or a bordering “open” or “rough” hex (easy/quicker travel in a grasslands or what) codes incentivizes/deincentivizes choices.

The problem from a design perspective with that approach is this the “paradox of choice”, that lovely study that showed that an over-abundance of variables, tends to surprisingly reduce meaningful choice by causing option paralysis (that “fuck it, let's just do this” exasperation). And I believe that paradox often extends to the designer of the hexcrawl. I find making hex maps an incredibly quick (maybe too quick process) I think about the kinds of sub-regions I want, pop open hexographer and the map just flows out of geographic naturalism (or at least some kind of internal logic).

Unless you densely pack your hexes (I am insane about this) you end up with large amounts of empty hexes. Now you need pacing (and a sense of travel) and a principled sandbox GM just has to live with the fact that players may never see this or that thing you worked so hard to make, but it does mean at least for me that I can make some sub-optimal choices about placement.

A weird serendipity often hangs over the map when you start playing put these kinds of hexcrawls. The party runs this way and that way, sometimes running into a good run of interesting hexes, sometimes just somehow, inexplicably hitting the dullest string of hexes one could imagine.

A pointcrawl on the otherhand is all about the deliberate path choice of say a dungeon. You place a node much like a room with its doors and corridors leading out.

The drawbacks are much like that of dungeon design again. Make the decision choices too limited, too linear and/or too chokepointed and you end up straight-jacketing the players and making for a dull-ass map to explore.

Secondly it's also more challenging presenting an environment where wide-open wilderness exploration for its own sake is the goal. Sometimes you do want that 360-degree exploration/clearing or serendipity. Hexes give an exactness of space and have the advantage of being gridded with a recognizable number pattern. Being able to call a hex number is a convenient short-hand both for the GM during play and for players thinking about how to explore an outdoors area.

The punchline here is this...

I use a hex map when I want a campaign phase that...
3. is quick and dirty.

I use a pointcrawl when I want...
1. choice in travel and exploration to feel more deliberate and meaningful.
2. to highlight the major and minor sites in a wilderness as the major goals of exploration. (Revoca being an example of a pointcrawl hidden behind a hexmap).

Oh and while I am on the subject, Luka (again for the umpteenth time in our collaboration) wowed me with this weekend with this beauty of a pointcrawl map for Misty Isles of the Eld. Maps can and should be beautiful also in themselves, no?
Do so click on me. 


  1. You can also have the option of a pointcrawl that zoom on into a hexcrawl, i.e., the PCs travel from locale to locale according to the pointcrawl but then each locale has a detailed hex map with various encounters.

  2. I present my hexmap as a point-crawl. Quests and missions provide the information and impetus for the point-crawl, whereas hexcrawls are when players are out to explore and conquer.

    I find that I still map in a hex world, but it's easy enough to add points and address them as such in-game.

  3. My players are presented with what their characters see, hear or learn. They never know if they are playing in a point- or a hexcrawl, and we much prefer it that way.


    I use hexcrawls when I want players to think about the logistics of surviving in that environment for a while, and of searching cleverly.

    Pointcrawl when I am pressed for time.

  5. That map kicks but. Wouldn't a hexcrawl feel more like a pointcrawl if players could see a lot of the map in play?

    1. I'm not following you JD. How do you figure?

    2. If the players can see a hex map of the setting/adventure where features and sites are identifiable in some manner they are provided with more deliberate and meaningful choices than what is provided by staggering about a blank map and a totally unkowable landscape are they not? All 3 of the points you use abovee to define a pointcrawl can apply to a hexcrawl where the entire map isn't a mystery. ,

  6. How is direction determined in your campaign? Are dry compasses in existence or only "East and West" by using the sun? I am curious as to how game play is. Is it something along the lines as we exit hex "a1" and go to "b2" Or something more organic? Is there a chance of getting lost? Do your players hand draw the maps as they go (as was done in OD&D or yore) or is it just assumed that once they have explored a hex the hex is "known"

  7. I discovered hexcrawl and started running a campaign recently. It's an OSR inspired system (Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells) in a Sword and Sorcery setting. I came across the term pointcrawl in an article about HC I've read and it seems pretty nice to try, but I'm sort of conflicted. First,it looks kind of soon to abandon hexcrawl(or hybridize HC with PC), since I'm experimenting it (I'm trying hard to don't make the obvious pun). Second, I'd like to let open the possibility of maybe start a pirate adventure on the sea (hey, it works for Conan!). But I might try pointcrawl in a near future campaign (maybe star wars, since everybody will be crazy about it by December).