Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Importance of Hex Crawl Agency

I discovered the "OSR blogosphere" some 8-9 years ago and the insights I gained elevated my approach to running dungeons and hex crawls.  We stand on the shoulders of giants; those early bloggers articulated important tenets on running games that maximized player choice, the essential foundation for a fun game.  The most important tactic I've internalized is the need to radiate information as a dungeon master to enable player agency.  It becomes a virtuous cycle:  players have some information, players make meaningful choices, choices lead to action, action lead to more information, and so on.  The game begins to propel itself.

An example that stuck with me was the meaningless of a typical dungeon intersection*.  Which way should the players go?  Absent useful information, going left or right is basically a coin flip - a random choice.  This is how dungeons become boring.  Instead imagine the characters are at the intersection, but to the left wafts an off-putting odor like stale vinegar; a slimy trail leads off into the darkness.  To the right they can hear the faint echo of maniacal laughter drifting from some distant hall.  It's not much information, but now it's better than a coin flip - they have a basis.  If the players previously heard a rumor about the deranged murderer Smiling Jack, who haunts this level, even better.

The same techniques apply to the hex crawl but more so.  During our first Chult session, the players gained a partial map with some locales marked right on it, which they discussed with guides in the city to learn rumors or hearsay; from a chance meeting with a priest, they learned of a powerful oracle in a ruined locale not yet on their map (but supposedly visible from a ruin that was already marked on the map, a place called M'bala).  One guide they interviewed offered to lead them to M'bala for free, if they first accompanied her to a place called "Firefinger" where she wanted to retrieve a lost heirloom from some enemies.

It's important to occasionally frame the options to make it straightforward for players to understand their alternatives, but let them work through the implications and how to proceed.  Example from the paragraph above, I'd say something like "Based on what you've learned in the city through your sources, you could":

1.  Hire a guide to take you down the western river by canoe to M'bala, as a first step to finding the oracle at Orolunga.
2.  Go with the free guide to Firefinger along the eastern river, help her recover her heirloom, and go to M'bala on the next journey.
3.  (Ideally the players have 3-5 reasonable choices at any given time...)

Continuing my example, the players did choose to go to Firefinger with the free guide.  They met a bird man prisoner there and learned about the monastery of the bird-men and received an offer of friendship (it became a new location on their map called Kir-Sabal); they also learned of another ruin near the bird-men monastery, an evil forsaken place called Nangalore (they put Nangalore on the map in a wide circle - they had a sense but not the specific hex).  Meanwhile, an earlier interaction now made sense; a potential patron from the city had offered the gift of a sailing ship to explorers who could provide a map showing the location of both Nangalore and Orolunga.  They now had a rough area where both places sat on the map.  Information, choice, and action leads to new information which keeps the cycle going.

In my prior discussions of running the hex crawl components of Chult well, I focused on the procedural aspects of keeping the hex crawl moving briskly and delivering evocative encounters.  However, the concepts discussed here, radiating information and helping the players to frame their choices so they can plan and decide, are most important to ultimately making the game fun and satisfying.

*Pretty sure I'm remembering an example used by Matt Finch, but lots of smart folks have expressed the importance of information and choice for sandbox games.


  1. When the game begins to propel itself, that’s magical isn’t it? There are a few different prerequisites for it, but once it happens it is great. Well said.

  2. I'm glad you're posting again.

    Play is often impacted in ways many DMs don't understand when they try to be overly-efficient in creating detail. A DM almost has to enjoy the making more than the playing, for the playing to work best.

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  4. hex maps are for wargaming... I would bin them not least because they are never used in the real world so nothing says fiction more than a hex map. And mainly they are an offense to the eyes i.e. ugly to the point of complete distraction. Kill all hex maps!

  5. Agency and information, yep. Best to let knowledge of the sandbox come to the adventurers by way of its denizens (NPCs).