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Running Hex Crawls for D&D, 5e, or Shadowdark

by Mike on 17 June 2024

I've been enjoying running a lot of Shadowdark RPG games recently, the prep of which you can watch on my Shadowdark Prep YouTube Videos channel. During this campaign we began the process of crawling hexes through the Gloaming, the setting from Cursed Scroll 1. It's a lot of fun but I wanted to refine the process for more easily running the hex crawl.

There's many tools and processes for running hex crawls – and the whole topic is new to me. I wanted an easy and straightforward process for running hexes and here it is.

While I put this together in consideration of my Shadowdark RPG, these thoughts and steps can be just as easily used in a 5e fantasy game like D&D.

Planning a Hex Crawl

Here's my abbreviated list of steps for planning out a hex crawl. When prepping a hex crawl determine

Let's look at each of these as steps for our hex crawl.

Plan the Destination, Direction, Distance, Speed, and Terrain

Where do you want to go? What direction will you take? How far is it in hexes and how much does each hex represent? What terrain does it cover? How fast are you going to go? How easy is it to get lost?

We can offer meaningful choices here for the characters. Do they want the well-maintained road but run into gossipy or shady travelers more often or take the back paths and risk dangerous monsters?

You can usually determine the answers to these questions once for the whole journey.

Choose Character Roles

What roles do the characters take during the hex crawl? I like the following three roles, each which results in a potential ability check. Multiple characters can take on a single role, granting advantage to the character with the highest ability bonus for the check.

You can usually determine roles once for the whole journey.

Determine Danger

How dangerous is the path? In Shadowdark, the level of danger changes how often you roll for random encounters. You can do the same thing in your 5e games. The scout's job is to try to detect these dangers before they run right up and bite you.

You can usually determine the overall threat once for the whole journey unless you're traversing different biomes where the threat of danger changes.

Determine Weather

What's the weather like? You can use a simple table-less system of rolling a die. The higher the result, the more extreme the weather.

You could also come up with your own custom weather table for your particular region. The book Uncharted Journeys has a lot of outstanding examples of weather for different regions (as well as lots of other material related to making longer journeys across the land).

Determine weather daily.

Determine the Risk of Getting Lost

If the characters are going off the beaten path, your pathfinder determines whether you get lost or not. Depending on how nit-picky you want to be about checks, you can roll on behalf of the pathfinder so players don't know how well they did. If they fail, you decide which direction they headed towards instead or roll for it.

Determine the risk of loss once per hex.

Choose Monuments

If you want to fill in the hex with something interesting, you can drop in a monument flavored with lore from your campaign or world. Monuments are fantastic vehicles for secrets and clues and create a backdrop for any potential encounter the characters run into.

Select monuments once per hex.

Roll or Drop In Random Encounters

For Shadowdark you roll random encounters based on the danger of the situation and the time taken for travel. On a 1 on a 1d6, the characters face an encounter. You might instead determine that an encounter fits well for the pacing of the game and drop it in. You'd want to roll for or determine the distance, potential detection of the characters, and behavior as well. An easy table-less way to do this is to roll for distance (the lower the roll, the closer they are) and motivation (the higher the roll, the more hostile they are).

Even if the characters don't run into a random encounter, they might find indications of one – either one that already passed by or one coming soon. You can roll for two encounters and find the remains of the situation in which those two encounters clashed. Combining two encounters is a fun way to give the characters something to investigate without running an entire encounter.

Shadowdark has random encounters right in the book. If you want some excellent 5e random encounters, check out A5e's Trials and Treasure.

Determine random encounters once per hex. The more dangerous the terrain, the greater the chance based on your roll (1 on 1d6, 1-2 on 1d6, or 1-3 on 1d6).

Expend Resources

If you're tracking rations and other consumables, track expended resources daily. How many torches did it take to start a fire? How many rations did the characters need to eat to get a full rest? If you're looking to add resource management to your 5e games, Level Up Advanced 5e has a "supply" system for doing so.

If your game is more heroic, high-fantasy with all your goodberries and create foods and drinks, you may not need to worry about it.

Determine resources expended daily.

Summarizing the Steps

Here's a checklist for running our simplified hex crawl:

  1. Each journey – determine the destination, direction, distance, speed, and terrain.
  2. Each journey – have players select roles – pathfinder, scout, or quartermaster.
  3. Each journey or change in terrain – determine the overall danger level.
  4. Each day – determine weather.
  5. Each hex – determine the risk of getting lost.
  6. Each hex – choose or roll for a monument if desired.
  7. Each dangerous period – roll for or select a random encounter, signs of previous activity, or signs of activity yet to come.
  8. Each day – expend resources.

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Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Reach and Run Awesome Campaign Conclusions and Vault of Memnon – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 32 Lazy GM Prep.

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