Stop trying to outsmart the genius of Cook, D&D nerds! For the love of all that is Holy Gygaxian, hex crawls are not that hard. DMDavid now has a series of posts in which he tries to fix unbroken sandboxes and hexcrawls.
Since he started with sandboxes, we will take that one too. DMDavid misdiagnoses the problem. He doesn’t understand that sandboxes have edges and locations and information baked into the adventure-cake. Players have to get fed enough information to get started, just as they do in a railroad. Players have to be given options, but those options are merely the opening selections in an infinitely branching flowchart. A DM builds the mounds and the valleys in the sandbox and drops in a few rocks and plastic monsters and then sits back and lets the characters explore and interact with the thing.
That doesn’t mean staring across a DM screen and asking the players what they do first. You still have to establish that the sandbox consists of a desolate desert or a valley shot through with caves inhabited by a wide variety of monsters. You have to feed them some information about the lay of the land. Where are the blank spaces? Does anybody in Town want something done out there? What’s the difference between heading east and heading west?
As the players explore the sandbox, they will be presented with additional choices. Do they ally with the kobolds? Do they follow the map to the lost temple? Do they believe the priest who told them about the woman locked up somewhere in the caves?
Even the Caves of Chaos had too much box text and the all-important Rumors Table. Even if you started as suggested – at the mouth of Monster Valley – you had ten choices before you in the form of ten very different kinds of cave mouths.
Consider the sandbox of a simple, locked dungeon door. You tell the players the door is locked. They now have choices. They can do whatever they want, but first they probably need more information: How heavy is the door? Are the hinges on this side? Their choice to pick the lock leads to a new decision matrix that requires different choices. Is there a keyhole? Is there a padlock? Is it locked on the far side, by like, a bar or something?
That’s how a sandbox works! If your players stare at you gape-mouthed because you haven’t given them three clearly defined options for how to deal with the locked door, then you should get out of the retard factory and find better players.
As a player, if your DM kicks off a campaign with the words, “You are in town, what do you do first?” then it’s on your shoulders to ask for more information. You have to seek out the adventure. It’s out there, I guarantee it. And if it takes two hours of fumbling around before you finally stumble upon the one opening to the one adventure your DM expected you to find? Abort! Eject! He sucks, move on, find a new table.
Not rocket science, people.
When it comes to hexcrawls, the issue is much the same. The system of this downs is a constant info-decision feedback loop, and when you have a DM that doesn’t know how to dole out the info, the thing breaks down. Now, to be fair, some of these guys provide the right advice (“better info”) they also tend to give a lot of bad advice (“just give the players the adventure”) too.
“There is nothing interesting about yet another forest of hexes.”
If there’s nothing interesting about that hex, it takes all of two minutes to resolve it. Then it’s time for the next hex. The interesting hexes take a lot longer due to, you know, the interesting things in them. If you’re wasting time in an empty hex…don’t blame the system. YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!
“Picking one of the six surrounding blank hexes is not a choice with meaning.”
As the DM – part of your job is giving those six hexes meaning. At a minimum, one takes you farther from your safe haven, and one takes you closer. That’s a really important (and one would think really obvious) difference. In some cases you can see the surround hexes. In some cases you can see the features in hexes ten hexes away. Maybe you see a peak on the far side of a forest, so you mark it in pencil and blunder your way through. You got it a little wrong and come out of the forest a few hexes away, but now you’re closer. When you get to the mountain, you find a monster at the top, kill it, and now have a great view for ten hexes in every direction. Cool! More information – you fill in a big chunk of your map and spot three hexes with interesting things in them that you can look for later. Is that a crumbling tower over there? That lake in the woods has a strange red glow coming from it. Woah, did you see those trees wobble like something massive passed through? That really tall tree over there has a giant nest at the top – bet it has valuable eggs in it!
Also, the following is garbage advice:
Most sandbox campaigns fail. Why? Because of the lack of a good initial context. Many mock character histories and background but if you going to get a sandbox campaign you are going to need a least a half page of specifics for each players and a half page of general information for the group as a whole.
Nobody cares about that stuff. It’s doing the work backwards. It’s building the map and the destination and then hoping the game time can adhere to the architecture that you’ve designed. It completely negates the bulk of the fun of the game – there’s no mystery, no blank spaces, nothing to learn, and little to explore. Don’t do this. Instead, don’t allow any back stories from your players until they’ve learned enough about the world to make up a backstory that fits the sandbox.
Alternatively, make the backstory utterly irrelevent. In the majestic X1 the players crash on a lost island. What they did “Back There” matters not one jot when the only safe place is behind a thick wooden palisade with the jungle savages hiding from dinosaurs. Yeah, your character can be the king Back There, but out here? He’s just another piece of dino-chow with a pointy stick and a big, blank map.
Here’s the bottom stat-line. This is a game of exploration above all else. It’s a way to explore blank places on a map. That’s your hook. There’s your motivation. Go find the fun – if you’re DM is worth the pants he wears, he isn’t hiding from you, he has left a whole string of information out for you to follow to get there. And yeah, you might miss a few nuggets tucked away that can only be found by sheer dumb luck. That’s part of exploration, too.
As a DM, if you’ve got players that don’t want to perform the basic task of exploration, you’ve got bad players. They are doing it wrong. Get new ones.
p.s. That picture is an edible cake that some degenerates eat because “tee-hee, it looks like poo”. Probably the kind of degenerate that plays fourth edition.