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Pointcrawls for Cities and Overland Travel in D&D

by Mike on 18 January 2021

Pointcrawls provide a valuable model for overland travel focusing on fantastic locations and the in-world paths connecting them.

A pointcrawl is a DM tool for handling overland travel in D&D. Much like building a dungeon from rooms and hallways, pointcrawls are built from meaningful locations connected by in-world pathways. Since they're built like dungeons, we can use good dungeon design characteristics (see the Alexandrian's Jaquaying the Dungeon) to make our pointcrawls interesting and give players meaningful options while traveling. These characteristics include multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths. Pointcrawls offer a flexible structure for overland, wilderness, and city-based adventures.

For a video on this topic, you can watch my Pointcrawls for Overland Travel in D&D Youtube video.

Here's an example of a pointcrawl for the Glass Plateau in Eberron.

Pointcrawl of the Glass Plateau in Eberron

Pointcrawls from the Dungeon Master's Guide

The Dungeon Master's Guide describes pointcrawls without actually defining them as such. Here's a quote from chapter 5 of the DMG when discussing overland travel:

One solution is to think of an outdoor setting in the same way you think about a dungeon. Even the most wide-open terrain presents clear pathways. Roads seldom run straight
 because they follow the contours of the land, finding
 the most level or otherwise easiest routes across uneven ground. Valleys and ridges channel travel in 
certain directions. Mountain ranges present forbidding barriers traversed only by remote passes. Even the most trackless desert reveals favored routes, where explorers and caravan drivers have discovered areas of wind-blasted rock that are easier to traverse than shifting sand.

Thinking about building overland travel the same way we build dungeons is a helpful model. It gives us a usable but flexible structure when thinking about above-ground areas.

The idea of pointcrawls grew from hexcrawls, the typical way D&D has handled overland travel for the past 40 years. Chris Kutalik described the original concept of pointcrawls in the article Crawling Without Hexes: the Pointcrawl back in 2012.

Quick Pointcrawl Construction

Here's one way to build a pointcrawl intended to support both improvisational play and lazy dungeon mastering.

  1. Write down ten interesting locations and landmarks the characters might visit while traveling through the area.
  2. Connect these locations with in-game routes such as rivers, paths, game trails, roads, portals, mountain passes or any other in-world pathway between two locations.
  3. Build in multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths between locations.

Our goal is to make overland travel interesting, fun to explore, and offer meaningful choices to the characters along the way. We can drop encounters in at locations, the paths between locations, or both. Such encounters might involve meeting NPCs, exploring strange signs, learning something of the history of the area, getting into a fight, or all of the above.

Tools for Building Pointcrawl Charts

The easiest tools for documenting a pointcrawl are likely a pencil and a piece of paper. We can easily draw out a pointcrawl in a few minutes, take a picture with our phone, and we can take it wherever we need. Sticky notes might be a good way to document locations and reorganize them depending on the path. Mind mapping software can also do the trick if it's something you already use.

There's a digital solution I stumbled across called GraphViz.it. It takes in a particular text-based format for the pointcrawl (actually a network) and renders that network out.

Example: The City of Making

Here's another example pointcrawl using GraphViz.it for the city of Making in Eberron.

Pointcrawl of the city of Making in Eberron

and here's the input generating this pointcrawl:

# http://graphviz.it/#/new
graph{
"Entry - Gates of Making" -- "The Impaled" [label="Road of Triumph"]
"The Impaled" -- "Fallen Colossus" [label="Massive Footsteps"]
"Fallen Colossus" -- "Fortress of Blades" [label="Road of Fallen Blades"]
"Fortress of Blades" -- "Skydancer Wreck" [label="Scorched Trench"]
"Skydancer Wreck" -- "Entry - The Runoff" [label="Blackwater Way"]
"Fortress of Blades" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Dead Machines"]
"The Impaled" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Triumph"]
"The Impaled" -- "Daughters' Earthmote" [label="The Slaughterfield"]
"Silver Flame Spire" -- "Clawrift" [label="Cracked Road"]
"Silver Flame Spire" -- "Shattered Laboratory" [label="Old Tunnel"]
"Shattered Laboratory" -- "Clawrift" [label="Teleporter"]
"The Impaled" -- "Living Weird" [label="Dreamwalk"]
"Living Weird" -- "Silver Flame Spire" [label="Twisting Black Thread"]
"Daughters' Earthmote" -- "Clawrift" [label="Trollhaunt Road"]
}

I tried to add some Jaquay-style designs to the map including multiple entrances, loops, and secret paths (like the path between the Shattered Laboratory and Clawrift). I also labeled the paths here to identify what connects these locations. The evocative names help me improvise what the characters might run into while going along that path.

This is an extensive pointcrawl for a big city, not exactly what one might call lazy, but it didn't take terribly long and it may be useful for many sessions so I don't see the effort wasted. Many of these locations may end up as their own dungeons to crawl, such as the Shattered Laboratory, the Daughters' Earthmote, the Fallen Colossus, the Skydancer Wreck, the Fortress of Blades, and, of course, Clawrift itself which ends up as a multi-level dungeon all on its own.

Another Tool for Lazy Dungeon Masters

Pointcrawls aren't the end-all-be-all of our D&D games but they're a good structure when planning out overland travel, one backed by decades of use. Build pointcrawls by outlining interesting locations, the paths between them, ad interesting encounters they might engage with while there. Such pointcrawls give us a nice model and yet help us build a world that feels open and exciting to the players.

Further Reading

In researching this topic, I found numerous helpful articles on the topic pointcrawls and their parent hex crawls. Here's a list of the ones I found most useful:

Related Articles

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Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Lairs, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.