Hexcrawl High: Coming home to a place he’d never been before

It was about a week ago when the urge struck. I wanted some old school fantasy. I wanted D&D with alignment penalties, with arguing the merits of a Bec de Corbin versus a Guisarme-Volgue, with THAC0 and big swords and helmets with wings on them, with Larry Elmore art and half elven stablehands molesting horses (that last one may be specific to my own AD&D history). This urge was pretty odd to be honest. For two reasons, the first is that fantasy is a genre that I have very much cooled on, I honestly cannot remember the last time I read a fantasy novel and I have no urge to change that. The second reason is that while I have very fond memories of AD&D there is absolutely no rose tint to those memories. Modern systems with unified mechanics are infinitely preferable and while I do miss Stoneskin being amazing I have no urge to return to older mechanics. But still the urge was there.

Perhaps you just cant fight your roots. Fantasy was the genre that originally drew me to roleplaying, back in the hoary days of the late 80’s/early 90’s. In fact the first session I ever ran was when I guilted my parents and younger sister into trying out the black box D&D starter. I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea. My father really didn’t take to being an elven thief in a prison cell (not the greatest adventure start but it was what was in the box!). Maybe being in prison was too real for him. Anyhow, for some reason I wanted to play some classic fantasy roleplaying. But as I was unlikely to get to play I figured I’d just run something. There’s probably where the trouble started.

To cut a long story short over a day or two I went through various options for campaigns and started leaning very strongly towards running a pre-written campaign set in an urban environment, with no dungeons and with much less combat than the last D&D campaign I ran. It’s one I’ve been kicking around for a while, I purchased the original PDF version but was waiting for the updated version to come out (which it has) before running it. I spend Friday and Saturday reading it and getting my ducks in a row. But something wasn’t right.

I wasn’t excited about running it, in fact while reading it I could certainly see that it was a good adventure but I just didn’t give a shit about it. I knew it wasn’t going to satisfy the urge that random chance had spurred a few days before. I tried to pin down why it wasn’t working for me. At first I thought that it was the system so I spent a day or so casting around for another system to use. But here’s the thing, while I may not be in love with every facet of D&D (every edition has its pros and cons) there really isn’t anything else out there that delivers quite the same experience. 3.x derivatives give you largely the same experience with more work, BRP fantasy just can’t really replicate the experience because of the lethality baked into the systems, modern attempts to replicate the feel without the mechanics e.g. Dungeonworld fail to account for the fact that the mechanics are intimately tied to the feel and the worlds.

To distract myself from my distraction I burned some time pinning down where in the Forgotten Realms I could transplant the adventure to. While not an ardent fan of the Realms its useful to use for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the only significant player options book for 5th Edition is set squarely in the Forgotten Realms. It also works as a decent “generic” fantasy setting and one with which most people are passingly familiar with from novels, comics or computer games. So come Sunday I at least had the campaign setting nailed down. But my lack of enthusiasm was beginning to get in the way. But while sloping back into the house from an excursion to the shed to secure a Solero it hit me. I wasn’t interested because I knew what was going to happen.

I’ve played in pre-written adventures and campaigns and I’ve run pre-written adventures and campaigns. Some have been good, some have been bad. Excepting the more rail-roady ones most leave a lot of room for player choice. But by their nature that choice is somewhat constrained within the loose frame of the campaign or adventure. If the players go too far off base you’re sort of fucked because you could have several hundred pages that are now useless to you. But for some reason it just wasnt working for me. As the GM I didn’t want to know what was going to happen. I wanted to be as surprised as the players. So clearly the urban campaign I was looking at wasn’t going to work.

I’d also been thinking about running a colonisation style adventure in WHFRP where the players have to explore and settle Lustria so the idea of kingdom building was in my head. So off I set into the wilderness of google to try to find something that combined not knowing what was going to happen with some kind of exploration or colonisation theme. Well, that’s not entirely true, I already had a copy of Renegade Crowns. Which is a WHFRP sourcebook for setting up your own kingdom in the Border Princes. But, while pretty good, it was fairly tightly tied to the setting, which in turn relies somewhat heavily on its mechanics. So it didn’t really fit the D&D feel I was looking for. Luckily Google kicked up plenty of results, the most interesting of which for me was the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder. I’d seen it mentioned before when looking through reviews of adventure paths a few years ago. It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

Bit as it turned out it wasn’t. Reviews for it were mixed and most of the problems mentioned seemed like they would be major stumbling blocks for what I wanted. The two big ones being a lot of bookkeeping on the players part, which experience suggests they are not fans off, and a weird twist in the last part of the campaign. It also of course had the major problem for me of being a campaign, something I wanted to avoid. However I picked up a PDF of the first part and I’m glad I did because while the later parts may not be of much use to me the basic setup for the campaign certainly was. Largely because it consisted of a hexcrawl.

What is a hexcrawl? Well according to one site I stumbled across:

“A hex crawl is an open-ended sandbox-style adventure that originated in old school D&D games. In a hex crawl, the GM produces a map of interesting Points of Interest (POIs) for the players to explore within a fairly large geographic area. The map is given to the players, usually as an in-character item. They usually have a reason for exploring the area, but it’s not clear how to achieve their objective without exploring the map more first. “

As I mentioned above, I’ve been playing roleplaying games for a number of years and a lot of that playtime involved various editions of D&D. But, unless I’m suppressing the memory, I’ve never played or ran a hexcrawl. Honestly when I came across the framework for it in Kingmaker I was pretty excited. This seemed to be exactly what I wanted. It was a sandbox but with direction, it could be set-up in advance but how things turned out was based entirely on the players actions and the world’s reaction to them. It seemed like a great mix of “lazy GM” with the option of “hands on GM.” So the die was cast (no pun intended), the Rubicon crossed. My next campaign was going to be a hexcrawl.

How that worked out I’ll detail in my next post.

Vent your spleen