Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Techniques for Hex Crawling through Chult

Port Nyanzaru squats on the edge of a foreboding rainforest and jungle that seems to cover the entirety of Chult.  Much of the early part of the Tomb of Annihilation campaign involves the characters entering the ominous wall of trees following clues towards ancient jungle ruins, camps, forts, and points of interest.  The problem is that hex crawls are troublesome to adjudicate; long winded narrative descriptions of the wilderness are dull; there's better things to do with a table full of players than to spend minutes each hex rolling on a handful of tables.  Here are the techniques I've used to make peace with the hex crawl.

First up is automating the procedural generation ahead of the game.  For a campaign like Chult, that means having an excel table using various random number functions to pre-generate daily weather, time of day for the weather, and random chance of encounters for morning, day, and night, as well as the actual encounter table dice roll.  If I know in advance what the players are doing from a terrain perspective (ie, canoeing down a jungle river next game session), I'll go ahead and identify the specific encounters, too.

The problem during the hex crawl is switching from the 10,000 foot view (10 miles per hex) down to the encounter level and making the encounter interesting.  I use two tables to help create an instant scene.  One of them is a d100 "what are the characters or retainers doing when the encounter happens".  It has entries like "arguing about something stupid", "drinking water", "scanning the skies", or "moving in formation".

The other table is a d100 of interesting features for the current terrain.  The players are not just canoeing on the river, they are passing over sandbars and shallows, drifting by thick reeds and grasses along a marshy bank, or facing an impenetrable jungle canopy on both sides of the river and an eerie stillness (and so on…)  This helps me quickly paint an evocative scene.

An example from one of the sessions - the characters are crossing some rocky shallows, walking beside their canoes around large boulders in a slow moving part of the river.  I asked them whether any one is prone to telling bawdy jokes, and would they have one handy for the table?  (If none of the characters are telling jokes, it's invariably one of the henchmen or porters regaling the group).  A series of rocks along the river bank started to shift and slide in the water.  A giant crocodile basking in the shallows was disturbed and swings it's massive jaws around towards the nearest canoe.  Roll initiative.

The last thing we've done to keep hex crawling moving along smartly is player preparation.  They've created procedures for setting up camp (who does which jobs), what is the order of the night watches, how do the characters collect water, what's a map of the typical camp layout, who sleeps in which tent, and what seats are in the canoes.  It's worked well to keep the player's side of the daily crawl move along and give me what I need to facilitate engaging encounters along the way.  At this point we've covered about 60 days of campaign time trudging through the rain forest or paddling down sluggish jungle rivers; it's stayed fresh and interesting.  Hope these give you some ideas for your own hex crawling.


  1. 60 days of happy hexcrawling sounds like a dream come true.

    You use a spreadsheet to generate content. I use a chart and five “oracle dice” to do the same thing. Yours is probably faster.

  2. How many campaign days did you cover in one session (how long was your typical session)? How many encounters did you have in one session?
    It would be interesting to me how much 'action' (encounters, points of interest etc.) there is compared to descriptions and procedures.

    1. Good question. We play 3 hours or so weekly, which translates to 2 challenging combat encounters per night under normal circumstances. In the wilds they can often avoid encounters or leverage guides to skirt them, and not all encounters on the Chult tables are adversarial - some represent friendlies or discoveries. The net is they cover about 5 days of travel in a typical night (50 miles through jungle, 100 miles on a river) although we've had some days where fewer encounters were indicated and the players made fast time.

      Any of the major points of interest they found (Firefinger, M'Bala, Orolungu, or Camp Vengeance) consumed most of a session.

    2. Good answer. Interesting that an in-depth combat encounter would last so long but not completely crazy.

      I like the 10 miles/20 miles. Since I use 6 mile hexes the actual number would be different but the ratio would be the same.

      How long would it take to travel up-river? Or is that even possible?

    3. Tomb of Annihilation advises the GM not to worry about the river currents, the jungle rivers are broad and sluggish for the most part so just make up-river and down-river travel the same speed.