Someone recently linked me to an /r/rpg essay that was so completely wrong I felt like I had to tell the world about it. Particularly, if people are still linking this essay two years later, this feels like something I might want a response essay to link to rather than explaining fresh why the essay is wrong every time it comes up. Feel free to use this blog post likewise.
Building Sphere of Influence Campaigns
A sphere of influence is a form of empire-building used in ancient Greece and the modern day whereby the imperial capital uses economic dependence, military alliance, and/or influence over the leadership of outlying territories to exert control without directly administering those territories. For example, Daggerford’s entire economy is based on trade with Waterdeep. If Waterdeep cuts that trade off, Daggerford will collapse. Waterdeep would lose the valuable link to Baldur’s Gate and Cormyr, but would be able to keep itself afloat off its trade with Neverwinter, Luruar, across Anauroch to the Moonsea and Cormanthor, and all along the Sword Coast using its port. This economic asymmetry means that Waterdeep has a lot of influence over Daggerford, and can make Daggerford do almost anything. Daggerford will do whatever Waterdeep says unless their relationship gets so bad that Daggerford would rather be destroyed if it meant they could spite Waterdeep on the way out.
Daggerford isn’t the only town in this position with Waterdeep. The Dessarin Valley, Triboar, Secomber, and others besides are similarly dependent. On top of that, all the Lord’s Alliance, covering the bulk of the Sword Coast and a few places beyond, have a military alliance with Waterdeep, which means they’d all like to keep Waterdeep happy enough with them to continue that alliance. Waterdeep doesn’t have nearly as much influence over them as it does over Daggerford, but it has some influence. Luruar has much stronger military ties between its cities, with Silverymoon effectively governing the other cities by virtue of the others being dependent upon Luruar for military support, even though their economy is independent by way of trade with the nearby dwarven strongholds of Felbarr, Adbar, and Mithral Hall. Zhentarim Keep, back before the Netherese razed it, controlled many Moonsea cities via planting infiltrators throughout the government such that the leaders answered to their hidden conspiracy even though the cities were all nominally independent. Economic dependence, military dependence, personal loyalty of the leadership, these are what make a sphere of influence.
Alright, so poli-sci 101 aside, why do we care? We care because a sphere of influence campaign allows for players to take over the world without doing an awful lot of mass battles. In a sphere of influence, players are more concerned with things like clearing ancient mines overrun by monsters that contain valuable treasures (the mines, not the monsters) in order to secure an economic treaty with towns in the area, winning the personal loyalty of the king of the next kingdom over by saving his kidnapped daughter from a dragon, and killing the champions of a rival power so that they can no longer guarantee the safety of an important border town, thus forcing the government of that town to turn to you for help or else be overrun by a horde of orcs headed their way (and also subsequently defeating that horde of orcs).
With the exception of the parenthetical, none of these are major battles, but all of them expand the section of the map that players control, and that’s a sphere of influence campaign in a nutshell. It has the advantage of being extremely flexible. Since you’re not occupying any territory, you don’t need an unbroken supply line to your territory which means you can jump all over the map as the mood suits you. Standalone adventures, whether published adventures or ones you made for earlier campaigns, can be slotted in wherever, and so long as the plot has serious implications for the military, economic, or political landscape of the area it takes place in (very likely), you can come up with a sphere of influence-related plot hook and you’re golden.
Building Military Campaigns
As you might expect, a military campaign involves a lot of mass combats. Although mysteries, dungeon crawls, and wilderness adventures all come up occasionally, mass combats will be the plurality, if not the majority, of a military campaign. As such, this is a campaign type for people who like to fight major wars and build large empires almost exclusively. For those who like world domination but also want to be closer to the action and/or roleplay more often (not to say that military campaigns are devoid of roleplay, but it does become more rare as the amount of combat skyrockets), a sphere of influence campaign might work better.
A mass combat game divides the world up into a few dozen territories. Each territory has an army attached to it, which is usually at least six or seven individual units. Big enough that you could fight a mass combat with it if you had to, but small enough that you’d rather not. Some territories, densely populated and wealthy ones, might support a much bigger number of units in their army. For example, Waterdeep has a huge population and plenty of money, so their army holds something like twenty units. On the other hand, some territories are sparsely populated and contain relatively few units in their army. Icewind Dale, for example, might have as few as four units in their army. Each army can do basically two things: It can move, or it can replenish itself.
An intrigue campaign revolves around a web of relationships within a council (which can be a king’s court, or a senate, or a college of cardinals, or any other group of a relatively small number of very powerful people). This council has de facto (if not de jure) control over an organization much too powerful for the party to influence directly, the generic example being a king and his council having control over a kingdom that commands armies and resources much greater than the party could possibly contend with. The king technically has final say over everything, but he doesn’t want to upset his powerful dukes or alienate his vital ministers, or he might find himself the target of a coup or even just commanding a lame duck court that performs all tasks ineptly because they despise the person they work for and cannot be fired. As such, even though the king has de jure power to do anything he wants, he is de facto more like the head of an aristocratic legislature than an undisputed monarch. He probably has veto and tie-breaking authority, but he isn’t all-powerful.
In order to control the kingdom (whether there are specific policies they want implemented or they just want to force the king to abdicate the throne to them or what) the party must control the council, and to do that, they must master both the favor economy and the relationships the councillors have to one another and their courtiers.
A hex crawl can be split into three main features. Most of the map is covered in hexes that contain quick encounters or short adventures. A few places on the maps contain complex, multi-level, multi-faction dungeons. Then there are the cities where the party can go to rest and recuperate between excursions. Cities are hardly a stranger to adventure and danger, though. In fact, cities usually concentrate crime and corruption just like they concentrate everything else. Put a hundred thousand people in close proximity to one another and the absolute number of thieves, assassins, vampires, and changelings will get high enough for each of them to have their own guild even if the overall density doesn’t budge.
So you’d expect cities to contain some adventure just like the wilderness and the dungeons, and the structure for that adventure is the urbancrawl. Just like hex crawling and dungeon crawling allow a party to explore wilderness and fortresses according to their own curiosity and courage (or foolishness, as you prefer), an urbancrawl lets them explore a city.
So, you’ve got a bunch of encounters and adventures out there in the big, unexplored wilderness, you’ve set your party down in their starting hex, and now they would like to go to an adjacent hex. How do?
Traveling from one hex to another is a ten step process, although many of the steps are just “check to see if X is happening,” where the answer will usually be no. The checklist is below, and it’s recommended that you print it out and use it as an actual checklist. If you have a DM’s screen and any part of that screen is not already occupied with information you actually use regularly, tape the hex crawl checklist over that part of the DM’s screen for as long as you’re running a hex crawl. Otherwise, just make sure it’s as handy as your monster stats or your adventure outlines. This checklist is optimized for speedy resolution, trying to remember all ten steps off the top of your head will slow things down and often doing them out of order will require redoing steps you did earlier than you were supposed to. The process of traveling from one hex to another is meant to be the first stage of building tension towards the climax of whatever encounter is found in the next hex, but doing it from memory can often be frustrating instead.
- Assign roles
- Choose bearing and pace.
- Record speed loss from travel.
- Roll Constitution saves.
- The party guide makes a navigation check.
- Mark off supplies and/or hunter rolls Survival.
- Enter the new hex (if the party has enough speed to make it today).
- The guide rolls Stealth (if sneaking).
- Roll for random encounter.
- The spotter rolls Perception to find the hex encounter.
Building a Hex Crawl
One of humanity’s defining impulses is exploration and discovery, and hex crawls primarily cater to that. Hex crawls are about going to new places and finding new things until you have explored and documented a previously undiscovered wilderness like you were Lewis and Clark but with manticores, and then broken into the homes of and subsequently massacred any native populations you find to be inconvenient like you were Andrew Jackson but with goblins. The difference between a hex crawl and a wilderness campaign is that a wilderness campaign places the emphasis firmly on lurking evils threatening to overwhelm civilization. If the status of other regions is unknown at all, this is mainly an issue of reconnaissance, with potential dangers lurking underneath a fog of war, dangers that can be assumed to eventually come to your house and eat your lunch.
A hex crawl places the emphasis on exploration. The wilderness may well be full of dangerous things, but those things aren’t particularly imperialistic and probably won’t become a problem for your homeland in the foreseeable future. You don’t explore to reveal threats, you explore because you like exploring. There might be some other quest involved – maybe you’re trying to recover artifacts stolen from your kingdom and scattered through the wilderness, or maybe you’re mapping the area for future settlement, or maybe you’re exploring a newly discovered wilderness to try and make allies amongst the locals and convince them to join your fantasy federation. Ultimately, though, players are exploring, and whatever the main plot is, it shouldn’t make them feel bad about sticking their nose into every hex on the map just to see what’s in there. In other words, that thing open world games do sometimes, where they set up the main plot as being a countdown to Armageddon and then set you loose in the map and you chase collectibles and unrelated side quests for five hours before you remember that whole “demonic invasion” thing? Don’t do that.
The Scope of a Hex Crawl
The process of traveling from one hex to another is a process. It can take 5-10 minutes, and it’s a lot of die rolling and assigning of roles and taking notes and may include a random encounter that will take up another fifteen or twenty minutes on top of that. You can cut down a lot on this by drastically oversimplifying the process, but you shouldn’t, partly because each step involved adds important options to travel that at some point your PCs will want to take advantage of (i.e. you can limit all hex travel to fixed speeds, but at some point PCs will want to get on a horse and ride through the night and there is no particularly good reason they shouldn’t be able to do that), but mostly because this process makes for some good winding down time between hex encounters/adventures.
The important corollary to this is that most hexes the party enters should have enough stuff in them to justify a 5-10 minute simmering down period afterwards. At least 70% of all hexes should contain, at minimum, a significant encounter that will hopefully take at least half an hour to resolve. The remainder should have at least some kind of feature or landmark to them just so that each hex has something to discover, even if it’s just an ancient wizard’s tower that is now completely, genuinely empty. And again: These kinds of things shouldn’t be more than 30% of the hex crawl maximum and preferably less than that. The party shouldn’t be spending more than a quarter of the session just walking places, even in a hex crawl where walking places is the selling point, so they should have a high probability that after going through the process of traveling from one hex to another, there will be something in that next hex.
This means that when you make a hexcrawl, you are committing yourself to creating quite a few encounters and adventures. A 6×6 hex crawl, about the minimum size before it starts to feel like exploring a prison cell, has 36 hexes. That means you need at least 26 encounters or adventures to shove into them, and you’ll probably want at least one urbancrawl town somewhere to use as home base. That urbancrawl is going to probably be at least two or three adventures (or adventures’ worth of material, depending on how you distribute it) of material. The average published adventure has an average of about three main encounters in it, which means that a 6×6 hexcrawl has approximately (counting three urbancrawl adventures) a dozen adventures’ worth of material. That’s a full campaign, and it’s also the minimum size of a hex crawl, so definitely think carefully before making your hex crawl any bigger. If you use 30 mile hexes (which can definitely seem like an odd size at first glance, but we recommend it for reasons we’ll get into later), a 6×6 hex crawl is about the size of the entire island of Ireland, the modern nation of Austria, the state of South Carolina, or the Japanese island of Hokkaido. In other words, it’s the size of a respectable medieval kingdom and thus perfectly suited for a complete D&D campaign from low to mid levels (high levels usually go to some lower plane to stab Satan in the face, or you go underwater to fight the sahuagin queen, or something).
You can get larger than 6×6, much larger if you’re particularly ambitious. A 6×6 hex crawl is large enough for the average published campaign, but the average published campaign lasts less than a year in play (5e releases them about as fast as the average group can complete them, and their release schedule is twice annually). An 8×8 hex crawl is about the size of Greece, the nations of England and Wales combined, the state of Illinois, or the Liaoning province of China. This will require at least 15 adventures’ worth of content in the hexes, and if you still have only one major city, close to 20 adventures’ worth total, which is close to a year’s worth of play. Not-England is the setting for quite a few medieval fantasy stories, so this is also a pretty defensible size, though not recommended for new players.
If you want to add in Scotland for the entire island of Great Britain, you will need a 10×10, or 21 adventures in the hexes, and you’re also probably going to want at least two cities at this point, probably three, which means you’re looking at over 30 adventures, which is definitely going to take at least a year to play, and we haven’t even added in Ireland yet. We’re far behind the size of Germany or Japan, both in the neighborhood of 13×13, or 119 encounters plus multiple urbancrawls for a total of 50+ adventures, which can take the better part of two years. It’s even further behind France, a 16×16, 54 adventures and you’ll probably want a minimum of four major cities for 70+ adventures’ worth of material, putting us in the neighborhood of three years of content for a weekly group that moves fairly quick. So, we’re starting to see the limits of a hex crawl here.
Taking this to a crazy extreme just for fun, covering all of China would be a 64×64, and while modern China is much larger than the ground covered by Romance of the Three Kingdoms, if you wanted to add in the ground covered by Journey to the West (and the other two of the Four Classics while you’re at it, but those both take place in the same area as RotTK) that would actually be slightly larger than what the PRC covers and would take about 30 years to clear if you played 45 times per year (i.e. a weekly game with occasional canceled games). Want Europe and the Middle-East to play fantasy Crusader Kings? You’re now at the unimaginably large 100×100 hex crawl, and clearing a hex crawl of that size properly packed with encounters would take actual centuries. Just creating such a crawl would require either tons of crowdsourcing or else would have to be a generational project, and that’s with us using larger than normal hexes. If you decide to convert to six-mile hexes, the number of encounters needed to fill in a hex crawl the size of [region] is even bigger (which is not why we recommend thirty-mile hexes, but it is a nice bonus).
Going larger than 10×10 is generally not advised and even a 6×6 is plenty big for most purposes. It is theoretically plausible to go as large as 16×16 but it will be monumental both in creating and running it, so it is recommended only for dedicated groups who want to play very long term exploration campaigns. Remember, there’s nothing stopping you from stringing different campaign types together if you’d like to keep playing the same characters, so even if you do want a very long term campaign, it still might be wiser to run an 8×8 hex crawl and then have the characters move to a different location where they have a wilderness campaign or an intrigue campaign or whatever. If you really want to explore a France’s worth of hexes, though, 16×16 is the upper limit of reasonable doability, but it is reasonably doable if you’re committed.
What kind of encounters or adventures do you put in a hex crawl? Hexes can obviously contain complete adventures and you should have at least a few of those lying around. Multi-level dungeons and mysteries are by far the most obvious and easiest to do, while wilderness journeys are generally speaking incongruous with the hex crawl, but not always. While a multi-day journey makes little sense in the confines of a single hex, the wilderness journey mechanics work just as well for a short journey through an area densely packed with danger, for example, if there’s a hidden temple in a forest thick with dark fey, you could use a wilderness journey adventure for getting through the forest to the temple. Mass combats are also a strange sort of adventure to have in a hex crawl because the party might discover the adventure, walk away from it for weeks or months, then come back, and it’s odd that the military situation hasn’t shifted at all. Some hexes might indeed be home to some kind of military stalemate or cold war that won’t change until the players arrive to tip the balance one way or the other, and others might simply be home to a large army of enemy monsters, such that clearing the hex requires players to gather up an army of their own and drive them off.
Complete adventures are big and take a lot of time both to design and play, though, and there’s no reason to make all 70% (or preferably more) of your significant hex encounters include them. All that a hex encounter absolutely needs is a hook, a bit of build up, and then an encounter for pay-off. As such, it’s acceptable for a hex encounter to be a simple two-scene mystery, in which you have a hook that immediately draws the players’ attention (the burned out remains of a caravan, for example), three clues that all point towards the same scene, and then in that scene there is a confrontation with whoever sacked the caravan, some goblins in a cave or whatever. One-page dungeons with just four or five encounters make for good hex fodder (Matt Colville has a few videos on how to make a one-page dungeon, and that general formula can be repeated a couple of times without getting old so long as you don’t put any two of them immediately adjacent to one another, so players don’t get them one right after another).
Once you get used to designing these relatively brief encounters, it becomes easy. Then the trick is to come up with enough new ideas that it doesn’t become stale. Any adventures you’ve had fun running or playing can probably be converted to work as a hex encounter. Adventure paths can often be chopped up and have their pieces planted into a hex crawl like a macabre garden. Generic dungeons like the Temple of Elemental Evil or the Keep on the Borderlands can be dropped in practically any setting. Material from entirely different genres, like the Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy RPGs, the Star Wars RPGs, or Call of Cthulhu can often be adapted.
Material from totally different media can provide the ideas needed to create encounters or adventures from scratch. Mine books, movies, and games for plothooks or setting ideas. Bioshock is about an underwater society gone mad due to the corrosive psychological effects of superpower granting drugs, which is easily fodder for a D&D dungeon crawl. The Terminator is about a nigh-invincible assassin sent to kill a hapless victim, one so powerful that he most be evaded and worn down over multiple encounters rather than simply confronted and killed. Alien is about being stalked by a monster that will 100% kill you if it catches you alone and unawares, but will be more vulnerable if confronted by a large, prepared group, making it a game of trying to find the monster without being separated and picked off. The sequel Aliens is about those same monsters forgoing the whole “hidden stalker” thing and just Zerg rushing the party through the air ducts.
And when you inevitably run out of ideas or energy for the project, just give it a few weeks to simmer and then come back to it. Hex crawls of any appreciable size will take a long time to complete, so don’t expect to get it all done in a week between session zero and the start of the campaign. It’s surely possible to hammer out three shoddy encounters a day and jam them all into a 6×6 hex crawl, but it won’t be any fun.
The hex crawl is also going to require a random encounter table. This table should be a d100, but you’re going to roll it on each and every hex the party enters, so don’t be afraid to stock large parts of it with “nothing happens.” Each major region of the hexcrawl should have its own random encounter table, with each random encounter table covering no more than about 40 hexes. This means that it’s fine if your 6×6 hexcrawl has only a single encounter table, but an 8×8 should have at least two and a 10×10 should have at least three. “Regions” don’t necessarily have to be contiguous. You might have a plains table, a hills table, and a forests table for something resembling medieval Britain or France, and none of those regions would be particularly contiguous. Splitting things up by terrain often makes more sense than splitting them up by political boundaries, but sometimes it makes a big difference whether it’s the Knights of Solamnia or the Knights of Neraka who are patrolling the region. Pick whichever is more appropriate for the hex crawl you’re running.
Quests are the beating heart of a wilderness campaign. Each quest is an adventure of some kind (and see the Art of Adventures for advice on how to make those). One might be a mystery to track down a killer monster lurking the wilderness, another might be a dungeon crawl to root out goblin raiders hiding out in an abandoned dwarven mine, a third might be a wilderness journey through dangerous lands to reach the lair of a young dragon menacing the area. In addition to being written up as regular adventures such as you might find in any campaign structure, each quest also has a type relevant to its use on the campaign map.
Building a Wilderness Campaign
A wilderness campaign is about steadily decreasing the danger of regions by completing quests in them. As the total number of available quests in a region goes down, the region becomes safer to travel through. This not only helps the party get around with less hassle, it also helps anyone trying to maintain law and order out because they send patrols out without getting them eaten by trolls. A wilderness campaign is primarily intended for clearing out a wilderness full of manticores and hydras and so forth and establishing a prosperous kingdom instead, but it can also be used for wars or warring states periods, where instead of making the land safer to travel through because there are fewer monsters in the wilderness, they instead become safer because there are fewer enemy armies stabbing your peasants for wearing the wrong color of hat.
Wilderness campaigns are about constantly pushing back against forces that want to swallow up what the characters hold dear. The wilderness contains quests that spawn other quests, making their home regions more and more dangerous, until eventually they fill up and the danger spills over into neighboring regions, and then the regions that neighbor the neighboring regions, and then the regions neighboring those regions, until eventually the entire map, including the characters’ homes, will be overrun. The party, for reasons base or noble, will push back against this overflow and eventually reach the sources and close them off, one by one. Wilderness campaigns are great not only for holding off the forces of a chaotic (and/or Chaotic) wilderness as well as extraplanar invasions. They also work reasonably well for war stories.