Saturday, December 10, 2022

Mazes in the Mountains: Hex Exploration as a Dungeon

Americae Septentrionalio; Justus Danckerts

Map campaigns.

Anyone who is familiar with war-band level skirmish gaming (Mordheim, Frostgrave, ...), legion level tactical campaigning (Risk, Small World, ...), or even some board gaming as familiar as Catan or Archipelago will be familiar with the movement of resources around a map. Dungeons & Dragons, in modern iterations, has left this concept largely behind - and even in OSR circles, sometimes map campaigns fall victim to the predations of "point-crawling" - the abstraction of travel and exploration to simple "point A to point B" such that the game focuses on the destination over the journey.

Why is that?

Dungeons - viewed as maps - are mazes. Challenges. They invite the players to draw maps of their own to see how well they are able to navigate the hazards and labyrinthine corridors within. It's focused, enticing: an open solicitation for players to find secrets, to chart looping routes to destinations within, and to claim the underground as their own.

But isn't this the point behind the wilderness? To explore, to discover, and to claim?

The problem - then - may be rooted in the perceived purpose of the map in a map-driven RPG campaign: a mechanism to separate singular points of interest. When wargaming, the map is essential: terrain determines speeds of movement and changes the dynamic of armies interactions based on composition of force. But for an adventuring party - one which can be as small as 4 to 8 characters, including retainers, at lower level - this concern is ... not.

Why not, then, treat the wilderness as a dungeon? That all - treasures, traps, deadfalls, locations, factions, everything - that all the elements making a dungeon fun to explore should also be included in the wilderness: including map considerations - jaquaysing, alternate entrances and exits, secrets and "specials"? By bringing the elements of the dungeon - within the realm of believably - into the map campaign, could the attention of those players, the interest of habitual dungeon crawlers, be piqued?

So here's what I did.

The above is a region in a part of my home setting labeled in my map folder as "The Land Beyond the Sunset." In an older incarnation of the world map, it was a place far to the west, where the sun literally set by sinking into a massive caldera near the center of a mountain range - the land beyond which never saw sunlight - except in dim twilight for the minutes of the day wherein the sun completed its daily round and went to rest in the center of the earth. Since then, the map has changed - but the concept, I kept, because the wonder and weirdness was too fun for me in contemplation to truly discard - so I kept this map too. I'd been spending some time - here and there - detailing the map of this sunset continent just for fun: and styling the geography as a challenge for the player party.

For this section - a north-west portion of the map, there is a rugged, wooded area modeled in part off of Zhangjiajie Forest in south-central China. Jagged, vertical pillars and ridges rise from the floor, creating a maze of nigh-impassable climbs. Between these ridges are gentle lowlands, forested heavily (in the Land Beyond the Sunset, to clarify) with great aged conifers. Everything is green - as everything is trees - however the demarcations as "broken ground" represent these crags; and the areas marked as forest show flatlands between.

Mountainous, Rocky

Wooded, Flat

But how does this translate into a maze akin to a dungeon layout? Well. Consider - a party can only move so many hexes in a day (in the original LBBs, this was three five mile hexes on foot) though I tend to base it, personally, on a more generous B/X interpretation - where your capacity is based on your movement speed, as modified by armor and encumbrance. Then - as we further recall from both original and basic editions - movement is slowed based on the nature of terrain encountered. Thus, one could incur a "miles per mile" rate, moving through different types of terrain. In addition, you could then incur different hazards - diseases in swamps, vehicular limitations in rocky ground, water concerns in deserts, and so on - to taste: each challenge posing a different choice for the players and each solution offering a different cost. Regarding B/X:

A party's daily mileage, as assumed from the movement rate of the slowest member, is as follows (abridged for brevity):

Then, accounting for terrain type, guidance is given to reduce that rate by a fraction.
Movement Mileage   Plains, Trails Forests, Hills Mountains Roads
60' 12 miles
  12 miles
8 miles 6 miles 18 miles
90' 18 miles   18 miles 12 miles 9 miles 27 miles
120' 24 miles   24 miles 16 miles 12 miles 36 miles
240' 48 miles   48 miles 32 miles 24 miles 72 miles

The general guidance is that - if you have sufficient miles remaining to enter a hex, you may. Otherwise, you end your adventuring day in the hex you're in. This is well and good when moving through homogeneous terrain, but breaks down a tad when considering different terrains. That said - you can infer the mileage cost to enter a hex based on the assumed number of hexes you'd go through in that terrain, which - assuming a six mile hex - breaks down somewhat simply as follows:

Mile Cost to Enter
Plains, Trails Forests, Hills Mountains Roads
6 9 12 4

So, a party with a movement rate of 18 miles per day would be able to move into three six-mile hexes of plains, two hexes of forests, four hexes of roads, or one hex of mountains over the course of a single normal travel day.

To expand, let's apply this (with some embellishment) to our Zhangjiajie homage region:

Flat Lands
Entry Cost: 9
Chance of getting lost: 2-in-6
Vehicles slowed.
Wooded Mountains
Entry Cost: 16
Chance of getting lost: 3-in-6
Cavalry, vehicles, and beasts of burden slowed.
Wooded High Mountains
Entry Cost as Wooded Mountains along the ridge (moving from one high mountains into another high mountains); Entry Cost 24 to cross (moving into high mountains from another terrain).
Chance of getting lost: 2-in-6
Cavalry, vehicles, and beasts of burden may not enter.
Wooded Crags
Entry Cost: 12
Chance of Getting Lost: 3-in-6
Vehicles slowed.
Hilly Grassland Entry Cost: 6
Chance of getting lost: 1-in-6
Wooded Grassland Entry Cost: 12
Chance of getting lost: 1-in-6
Open Water Entry Cost: 6
Chance of getting lost: 2-in-6
Requires watercraft.

Parties moving more slowly than the cost of entry would, of course, simply enter the hex on a subsequent day - so, a hex requiring 24 miles of movement to enter (a large hex, or particularly inhospitable) would - for a party moving at a 90' or 60' clip - permit entry on the second day of movement rather than the first.

Now, zooming in on the region, consider the cost of moving across the peninsula. Perhaps a town on the northern side is booming, but slowly starving and in need of reliable contact with agriculturalists who set up shop on the interior. Or - more akin to our Sword & Sorcery theme: perhaps hidden gemstones of impressive value can be found along the crags of the inner bay - but savage ape men guard the woods, heaving boulders from the mountaintops, and hungry squid capable of capsizing a schooner prowl the waters just as they gain depth, rounding the horn. Hundreds of avenues appear, moving between one side of the map and the other - but which one is the best one, minimizing costs and risks during the voyage?

A major difference - immediately evident - is that there are few "walls" in the wilderness. In a dungeon, you have defined rooms and corridors - where in the wild, perhaps a crag or body of deep water will hem you in, but those are few and far between: granting a larger sense of freedom on the over-map. How is mapping different - how is exploration different - when the players have the ability to climb over the "walls"? It adds an automatic degree of verticality - it adds another layer of consideration for resources to manage in terms of how long it takes to get where. It makes a game of exploration into a game of trailblazing.

This is something the players will discover - and, if they don't know what's on the interior, it's something they will have to map along the way! Mapping as they explore, creating a representation of the wilderness, and then poring over their own creations to weigh the distances, terrain, and hazards in order to capitalize on that information.

Domain players? They may seek to become cartels themselves, owning the routes directly, keeping the darkness at bay, and holding a toll.

Explorers and delvers who prefer to retire at name level? They can sell the maps they make to the highest bidder!

Mount Hekla; Unknown

Them's My Two Coppers

So that's what I've been thinking about these last couple weeks - and something I'm fiddling with in terms of fleshing out the larger hex map of the Ash Coast region: so the players have something waiting once they get to the point where they are more able to foray into the interior. Seems like a curious idea - and I'll be curious to run it.

Have you done this kind of thing before? Have you thought about it and needed a nudge to attempt the execution? Would you be interested to play in something like this? Let me know! I have a dozen ways to hit me up - and I'm keen to hear your story.

Thanks - in the meantime - for reading, everyone: and delve on!

Public domain art retrieved from and the National Gallery of Art and adapted for thematic use.

Hex map and hex tiles derived using Worldographer Pro.

Thoul Tunnels

Scale: 10 ft. Click HERE for a PDF ve...