Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Faking a Hexcrawl, Part Two: Completely Cheating

Leave aside any thought of "the glorious purity of the old-school hexcrawl" if you intend to read further, because tonight's post is, as per the title, all about faking a hexcrawl.  If you have three different versions of the Wilderlands on your shelf, this right here is your trigger warning.

In a previous post I talked about a play-by-post experiment which involved an overland expedition, Oregon Trail style, and how it was ostensibly meant to be a hexcrawl.

It totally wasn't a hexcrawl.

Oh, sure, there was a map, and it had hexes.  The characters traveled across it, exploring.  But the focus of the game, despite being on exploration, was not on exploring hexes.  In the PbP format one thing I definitely didn't want was an entire campaign turn of "meh, you pretty much find grass and buffalo and stuff".  That's the kind of thing you'll get with a pure hexcrawl if you refuse to time-jump and hand-wave.

The first thing I did was exert control - over the initial direction of the expedition, over the time-jumps between campaign turns, and even over the expedition's priorities (via NPC).  Would I have done this in a face-to-face game?  Probably not.  But given the PbP nature of the whole thing, it was necessary - a play-by-post needs a strong and regular framework, or else it falls apart easily.  PbPs like to fall apart, it's their nature.  I wanted to fight that with a straitjacket from the beginning.

I ginned up a small hexmap in Hexographer, and didn't even bother filling every hex with a terrain type.  All I cared about were a) fixed points (like the starting hex, and a nonhuman settlement with a location I desired), and b) stuff visible from outside the current hex (in this case, a mountain peak that PCs should've been able to see from one or more hexes distant).  That was it.  The rest of the hexes were blank, because I was going to procedurally generate them as we went.

Each campaign turn, the Coalpepper expedition moved in a vaguely easterly direction, and I duly generated terrain to stay one hex ahead of them.  And what was in those hexes?  I didn't know that, either.  The usual procedure is to have a hexmap all populated, and then let the players run rampant over it; that was not my plan.

Before the PbP began I jotted down a whole mess of ideas for encounters, things to explore, weird flora and fauna.  Anything that felt right for the intended tone of the game; things like RUINED CITY or SAVAGES ATTACK or STRANGE MUSHROOMS.   There were entries for WILDERNESS ENCOUNTER as well, which would trigger a roll on the appropriate terrain-specific wandering monster table (this is how we ended up with a freaking roc in the game, by the way).   Given the Oregon Trail inspiration, there was also a DYSENTERY result, but it never came up.

When posting the start of a campaign turn, I rolled several times (usually three) on that table, and then interpreted those results as the two or three "exploration options" offered to the PCs.  Some of them were dangerous and exciting; others, more mundane.  None of them were "nothing happens this turn".

Further, I wanted to make sure that I wasn't bound by my own rules and could make decisions on the fly that made sense to me within the nature of the setting and the flow of the PbP.  For example, one turn the first thing I rolled was SAVAGES ATTACK.  I paused for a moment, and considered the trope.  Why not do the classic circle-the-wagons bit?  That sounded pretty satisfying, and could be a big setpiece thing involving all the PCs at once.  So that's what we did, although I did end up breaking it into three 'parts' by asking the PCs to assign themselves to defend different portions of the caravan - I wasn't looking forward to running a combat with 25 PCs and 40+ NPCs, so breaking it into chunks made sense at the time.

Here's the thing about "pure hexcrawl".  It's structured to maximize player choice, and that's great.  But there are some formats in which it just plain doesn't work.  Yes, I got rid of the 'sandbox' and instead presented a 'theme park' for this whole thing.  Yet the players still had choices that mattered within that theme park.  That's as player-agency as I can get in a 25-person PbP without everything crumbling into chaos.  The choices the players make do have consequences, and the "choices" the dice make have consequences as well (rolling a roc for an encounter is scary and great...and then the PCs want to track it back to its lair, so you have to come up with a roc lair...).

The point is, from a "proper" perspective, the entire hexcrawl was faked, because it was improvised on-the-fly for the most part.  That's a no-no in Sandbox Church, but as I've said before, I am not an old-school DM.  I'll do whatever seems to work that will keep things fun, fast, and fair (the Three Fs).

Questions are more than welcome below in the comments if I'm skipping over something.

Did I mention we staged the big fight using my son's 54mm plastic cowboys?
It was a ton of fun.


  1. My wholehearted thumbs-up to your "faux hexcrawl". The importance of player agency is in allowing players to interact with an encounter in the fashion they choose, not in ensuring that some large portion of the GM's prep time and imagination is wasted because the players decided to walk in a different direction.

  2. I would love to see those tables!

  3. So if you roll on the random tables an hour before, it's "real" but if you do it during the session it's "fake"? Kind of reminds me of the alternate-storyline Silver Age DC comics than trumpeted on the cover "AN IMAGINARY STORY." It's all imaginary!

    The only advantage of making it up beforehand is that you get to tweak details and install hints of a bigger picture as it emerges. But some of that can be done on the fly.

    "Faking" for me would be palette shifting - having pre-made encounters that the party runs into no matter which road they take.

  4. This is largely how I run the 1-on-1 with my spouse - even the "fixed encounters", except when truly location specific, are entries on a set of random tables. I've introduced major plotlines and NPCs this way. It's been highly successful.