Over at the OSR discord we get a lot of questions about how to run a hexcrawl, often from 5e refugees. There's a lot of great how-to posts out there, but many of them overcomplicate what is, in my opinion, a very simple thing.
Here's my hexcrawling procedures, without all the extraneous junk, culled from various sources. Start here and expand your own methods as your own experience requires.
This is pure sandbox. Complicated prep is unnecessary. It simplifies wilderness exploration. It puts players in the driver's seat, letting them choose where they go, what they do, and how they solve problems. It's simple, fast, and open ended. If you like open world RPGs like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Arx Fatalis, this is like that. Random tables and reaction rolls keep things fresh and interesting.
When preparing a hexcrawl you're freed from dreaming up plots, adventure paths, or stories. Instead, you focus on populating the map with dangerous locations and interesting situations, letting what happens unfold in play.
There's some similarities between dungeon crawling and hex crawling. Both have a DM facing terrain map, a key to locations, and encounter tables. Both have a map the players create as they play. However, dungeons use grid paper and hexcrawls are on hex paper.
The key for your hexcrawl is numbered by coordinates on the sheet. If your hex sheet is 10 hexes by 10 hexes the top left hex is labeled 0101 and the bottom right hex is 1010. A couple hex key entry might look something like this:
0508 Cave of Wonders - at midnight on the full moon a stone lion head emerges from the sand. When the passcode is uttered ('Lama Innut') the mouth of the lion opens, permitting entry into the Lair of the Manticores.
0602 Lake of Largess - this lake is home to 12 gnomes which will do all in their power to befuddle unwelcome trespassers. Bathing in the pool causes random change in size (equal chance to double or half in size) for one week.
Once the key of interesting locations is made players are presented with a blank hex sheet of equal size. Only the starting location and perhaps a few obvious landmarks or known areas are pre-marked.
As play progresses players explore the given area, revealing the terrain, uncovering secrets, and plundering monster lairs. The keyed locations, procedures, random events, and player actions work together to create a unique, unplanned, organic narrative.
The hexcrawl world is a microcosm. Usually, and certainly at first, you'll be working with a postage stamp sized corner of land in a distant kingdom. In all cases resist the urge to plan the entire articulated clockwork of world-spanning cultures, continents, and histories. In time, and as necessity dictates, you may expand the starting range by adding additional maps to the world. At first it is unnecessary and wasted busywork to prepare more, as well as constrictive to the natural growth of the campaign. It is enough to know scraps and hints that a wider world exists 'over there'. You will have time. A properly prepared 10x12 hexcrawl map can provide numerous sessions of adventure without exhausting.
The sandbox world of hexcrawling isn't concerned with the big picture; the movement of cosmic forces or matters of earth shaking consequence. Instead, it is focused on scenarios of a more provincial sort. Robber barons, dragon hoards, goblin reavers. The game world is expressed through the variety of encounters.
Most hexcrawls are measured at 6 miles across each hex. Some use 12, 24, or more. I find 6 miles to be the ideal level of granularity. At the larger scale you'll find yourself in need of mapping the important hexes on their own, creating more fusty busywork. These distances are based on human walking speeds over rough, wild terrain.
I know from experience that walking 24 miles over flat road in an 8 hour period is truly grueling. Real world death marches have taken place over similar distances in rough terrain. If you wish to use common sense in adjudicating your campaign, I would limit travel on foot over rough terrain to 12 miles or 2 hexes per day, adjusted by terrain difficulty (see "direction of movement" below) unless the players wish to perform a forced march.
How to make a hexcrawl map
Start with something small. 10x12 is a good size. No more than 20x20. You can expand later.
Generate random terrain and adjust to suit your taste. There's several automatic hexmap generators online. Hexographer can do it. There's tables in Delving Deeper. I'll include my own tables at the end of this post.
It's good to start with a large body of water on one side of the map. Initially this will prove a limiting barrier. Eventually, however, it may give the opportunity for seafaring adventures and provide a connection point to the wider world. A variety of modes of travel and obstacles is an important part of encouraging player agency within the game.
One way to place the water is to throw a d8 for which side or corner, then a 2d6 or d20 for number of water hexes. Afterwards, fill in the remaining land using your preferred method.
You can think of this as procedural generation. Combining random elements with your natural human faculty for pattern recognition and symbolic thinking is what creates a living, breathing world.
You'll want a varied terrain, a mix of swamps, icy mountains, forested hill, jungles, etc. Try to avoid large swaths of one terrain type - the diversity of ecosystems will encourage variety. You'll want about 6-10 different terrain types.
Pay attention to how the diversity of the landscape effects travel. Rivers can impede movement across, but serve as a helpful landmark, or offer a highway when traveling downstream. Mountains, forests, deserts, tundra, and swamps all provide their own challenges. Having diverse terrain allows players to discover, and then choose, the best possible route and what dangers they're willing to face as they explore.
Once you have your terrain in, look at where the bodies of water, mountains, and swamps are located. Swamps, lakes, and seas indicate low elevation. Pick a few mountains (maybe d4 or d6) and add rivers winding their way toward the nearest body of water.
Important features, such as villages, cities, castles, and dungeons, should be placed logically. Settlements must have a water source, often a river or lake, place them nearby. Castles need a defensible location and are often situated near trade routes, or in areas where their influence will be most felt. Dungeons are generally off the beaten path, hidden in the tangles beyond the reach of law.
Speaking of roads, these are links between civilization. However, they should be used sparingly. Adventure happens in the Wilderlands, not under the watchful eye of a tightly organized society. Roads indicate safety, security, and a strong enough force to maintain and patrol them. You may wish to connect the starting village with one or two other locations (perhaps a megadungeon or castle) via a road, facilitating a little movement and a familiar 'safe zone' for the party while they're still fresh. Since this area is less dangerous it'll also be less profitable - the 'good stuff' requires risk.
Stocking your hexmap
Once you have your body of water, rivers, terrain, and a sprinkling of civilized outposts, possibly with a road, it's time to populate the map with dangerous and interesting locations.
For each hex throw 2d10, each of a different color. One color is for 'monster lairs' the other for 'ruins'. A 1 indicates an interesting location - mark it with a dot on your map. Some may have two. For mixed terrain types, say forested hills or jungle mountains, throw for both types, for a possibility of 4.
In this example a 'monster lair' is a mini-dungeon or small area, perhaps d12 rooms, which serves as the lair for a particular monster type and their treasure hoard. Delving Deeper contains rules for generating monster lairs, though you'll need to create the map yourself. The two examples I gave above are both of the lair type.
A 'ruin' can be anything. A crystal obelisk, a wizard tower, a field of soporific poppies, or an actual ruined castle or proper dungeon.
Feel free to adjust these as whim dictates. You are the master of your domain.
The exact content of each location is detailed on your separate key, as demonstrated above, using the four-digit coordinate for the hex. Much like with dungeons, brevity and flavor are the meat and potatoes of this type of keying, allowing for improvisation and open ended play. Keep your descriptions short, punchy, and to the point. Refer to my examples above, or the linked hexcrawls at the end of this post as a guide.
There are a limitless number of tables and generators online for creating content to fill your map with. Likely you already have ideas of your own. You can also shamelessly steal ideas from other people's games and hexmaps, real world history, mythology, and fairy tales, as well as books, movies, and games, with or without manipulating them to obscure the source. You can also drop in published adventures.
Do not even think of creating a hexmap to sell as a product until you've developed your faculty in this playstyle. However, I fully encourage you to share your creations on a blog, website, or on the OSR discord so that we can rifle through them and steal from you. Tis only fair.
Finally, once you've done all that, think of a few competing factions in the area. Large lairs of powerful monsters, potent wizards, castles, and cities are all ripe for this. Put a couple in with their hex key description noting their goals, allies, enemies, or resources.
Running the hexcrawl
You've generated your map, peopled it with people (and monsters), and a few interesting locations, but what exactly are the procedures of play? That's why you're really here, isn't it?
Nothing could be simpler.
Opening and context
First, decide where the players are to start, and the context for the beginning of their adventure. I would caution the intrepid referee from starting new players in town, especially those unfamiliar with hexcrawling, or used to being lead by the hand through an adventure path. Often times they become lost and overwhelmed by the variety of choices and possibilities at their disposal, leading to a rather flat initial experience.
Also I would recommend against starting the players in the middle of the wilderness with nothing to go on, for the same reason. Although these starts are viable, they are better reserved for veteran players who already know what to expect from this type of campaign.
Instead, I would suggest starting them in the middle of something interesting, which gives them a small number of interesting choices to make right out the gate. An obvious goal and a direction. The olden and golden standby here is plopping them in front of the local dungeon with a tattered map to the location and a few rumors about the treasures and dangers that await then within. Go get 'em!
Once they've done what they will and are ready to get back to safety you can allow them to travel back to the nearby town where they can nurse their wounds, hire henchmen, refresh spells, identify and sell loot, collect additional rumors of other locations or about the previous dungeon, and ready for the next adventure. This is the original mode of play and works perfectly well today as it ever did.
It may seem counter-intuitive that a campaign based on exploration, agency, and free-wheeling adventure should begin with a shoe horn, but think of it as a warm-up. Once the players get their feet wet they'll begin to develop ideas of their own. Giving the uninitiated a cold-open leads to decision paralysis.
Procedures for Play
Here's what you've been waiting for. Your players have got back from their first delve. Maybe they have some loot, maybe they got their butts kicked, but now they're safe and there's a big world. What now?
Rumors and Hooks
These are of the utmost importance. Without them a game cannot progress. Rumors and hooks are the sign posts that direct your players towards ADVENTURE! They tell them what's out there, which way to go to find it, and what dangers they may find. They can be specific or vague, true, false, or a mix. Put a rumor at the lips of every washer woman, midwife, nanny, town guard, inn keeper, bard, leige lord, roustabout, bandit, child, and pig farmer they bump into. Have a table of d20 rumors about places near or far. Improv when you must and squeeze them in. OR give the players a hint but make them twist, poke, prod, threaten, extort, and pay for the details. With a handful (not too many at once! Two or three is good!) the players can decide what they want to investigate and what risks they're willing to take. Here's some examples.
"The elf queen is looking for a new husband. She has wealth beyond measure and beauty to match. Eh? What happened to her last husband? He disappeared in the mountains looking for a magic sword ten years ago! The fool!"
"The goblins of Black Crag keep turning up with Dwarven gold. Where are they getting that stuff?"
"I heard tell there's a gnome living in the Sundering hills - will grant a wish to anyone who manages to catch him! I'd go but my fool husband would drink up the farm while I was away. Ah well, might be worth it?"
"Don't go to the keep in the desert. Trust me on this. The wizard there dabbles in Necromancy. Shut hisself in. That place wasn't always a desert you know."
When the party enters a hex briefly describe where they are, what interesting things there are to see, and a bit about the adjoining hexes.
"As dawn spreads you pack up camp and head on your way. You begin to cross an expansive field, dotted with small trees. To the north, a day's journey away, you see the peaks of the steel mountains, shrouded in rain clouds. To the west is the edge of a black forest. Your view east is obscured by high forest hills."
Say they move towards the mountains. They're nearer now, but perhaps still in a grassland hex. You could describe the sun lowering in the sky as the day wanes on, drizzle moving in from mountains, or a stream or castle they couldn't see from their previous location.
It is good if the players ask questions about what they see, make adjustments to their plans, or become distracted by interesting things along the way. If a sudden thunderstorm strikes they may be forced to take shelter in the forest, which could be the haunt of robbers, werewolves, or the beautiful elven queen.
The brevity of your descriptions, though peppered with small visceral details, will draw the players in, speed up play, and facilitate an action-oriented game.
Direction of movement
Players decide which direction they want to move based on what they see, the rumors they've acquired, and what they know. They may say things like "we go north" or "we go towards the forest", or even ask questions like "how far away is...?" or do crazy things like climb up cliffs to get a better view of their surroundings. Encourage this by providing good answers.
When the players move you'll need to calculate their movement rate based on the kind of terrain they're leaving. My preference is 3 hexes of easy terrain (18 miles - plains, roads), 2 hexes of difficult terrain (12 miles - forest, hills), and 1 hex of very difficult terrain (6 miles - mountains, swamps). These are based on distances covered by real life hikers over such terrains. You may wish to default to whatever the ruleset you're using says - I won't judge you.
Note about mounted travel: over open ground or well-maintained roads a horse can cover much more land than a human when moving at a full gallop - say 4 to 6 hexes (24 to 36 miles) a day, depending on the quality of the horse. Such a pace would quickly exhaust and possibly kill your horse if kept up for many days, much like a human. However, at walking or trotting speed, such as over rough terrain, a horse may only cover the same distance as a human. In such scenarios the benefit of the horse is mainly in the ability to carry more gear and the comfort of the rider.
If you are using an old school ruleset they probably contain contingencies for the party getting lost or veering off course, often determined by terrain type. This adds an entertaining degree of uncertainty to travel, encouraging certain things like hiring guides from the locals. However, it can sometimes be an irritating and nitpicky problem. You may have to adjudicate this depending on the party's behavior.
Personally, I don't roll for getting lost if the players are heading towards a large visible landmark, have a guide, or are moving along a coast, river, or open ground such plains or roads. In such cases the direction of travel is obvious.
However, I do roll when the party is moving over difficult, trackless terrain such as deserts, swamps, forests, or mountains. In such cases the party may end up in a hex different than what they're expecting. They'll mark their map as if they know where they're going only to find they don't get there. It's up to the players to find a way of correcting their course.
You may wish for outdoorsy type characters such as druids or rangers to have a reduced chance of getting lost. Either lower the odds or use a larger die.
Locations and encounters
When the party enters a hex they find whatever is there to find. If there's multiple locations then determine which it is randomly. Some hexcrawl advice recommends rolling to determine if the party stumbles across the thing. However, the thing is what we're all here for, so just give it to them. You may wish to put obstacles in the way, or otherwise obscure its true nature, however.
Roll for an encounter check once for the day of travel and once at night, 1 in 6 chance each. I roll these when it seems prudent, often in the morning or evening. If an encounter happens then roll on the encounter table for that terrain type or region. You may assemble your own tables based on what you want or use the ones listed in your ruleset. Don't forget to roll for encounter distance and reaction! Not all encounters are a fight to the death. Especially if you're using a ruleset that includes potentially running into orc warbands numbering in the hundreds! This requires adjudicating. Monsters may wish to avoid the party, trade, ask for help, or anything else.
One ration is consumed per day of travel, usually in the evening when setting up camp. Iron rations last indefinitely and fresh rations spoil after a few days.
Parties low on food or wishing to supplement their tack may spend the day hunting or foraging. Roll a d6, adding +1 for the special ability of outdoorsy types, and +1 for terrain with a lot of food. Subtract a point for barren terrain. On a score of 4 the party gains d4 fresh rations, +1 for each point over 4.
Your ruleset will probably have rules for this. Usually I just make up what seems prudent or throw a d6 - a low score means sour weather.
Alternatively I also like Empire Weather. Its simple, clean, efficient.
Make weather matter. Sunshine is fine and dandy - snowstorms, hail, flash floods, and lightning have serious consequences. If players insist on traveling through inclement weather give them a higher chance of getting lost, losing equipment, horses, or worse.
That's all there really is to it. If you have any questions feel free to ask them and I'll update this how-to with more information.
Empire of Vavia
The Grab Bag
A collection of hexcrawling resources
Dead simple hex terrain generation table
Save yourself some headaches and throw on this table. When you get your terrain throw d6 for the number of hexes of that type and lay them out where they're touching at least one other terrain of the same time. Then, move on to the next empty space and repeat.
Any hill or mountain that touches tundra, forest, or jungle on two sides becomes a mixed type.
Any swamp that touches plains or water becomes marshes.
I like to start in the center of the map and spiral outwards. Another option is to jump around, filling in randomly. Sometimes I try to make mountains and hills meander in a diagonal direction like they're following a fault line.
Simple hexcrawl procedures summary
1. Prepare terrain on 10x12 hex paper, each hex marked with its four digit coordinates. Place settlements, castles, and dungeons logically. Place a river and road or two.
2. Roll 2d10 of different colors on each hex - one color represents monster lairs, the other ruins. Roll for both terrains on mixed terrain hexes.
3. Key locations with short flavorful descriptions. Create wandering encounter tables. Come up with a few factions giving them each a leader, a goal, a resource, an ally, and an enemy.
4. Decide where players will start. Come up with context.
5. Come up with a rumor table. Include some for nearby locations, dungeons, factions, monsters, or adventures.
1. Describe hex the players are in and nearby hexes - any obvious features. Be brief but let them ask questions.
2. Players determine which direction they move and what they do. Tell them what the see. Roll for getting lost if applicable, adjusted by difficulty of terrain. Calculate how many hexes they can move in the day based on their encumbrance and terrain difficulty.
3. Roll one encounter chance on d6 per day, and one per night. If an encounter is indicated roll for surprise, reaction and encounter distance. Have players subtract a ration at the end of each day of travel
4. Players automatically find special locations in hexes unless they're deliberately hidden or obscured.