Hexcrawl compatibility

We are often told that the great thing about OSR is that all of the materials are mutually compatible. The idea is that it doesn’t matter if it says D&D, AD&D, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardy, or Old School Essentials on the cover of the module — regardless you can run it with any of the above with minimal conversion. This makes sense as these editions all have similar rules for a) combat and b) dungeon exploration and most modules are mostly about a) combat and b) dungeon exploration. However what about other play styles? The hexcrawl dates back at least to X1 Isle of Dread published in 1981, but it is increasingly popular now with OSR hexcrawls like Hot Springs Island, Hideous Daylight, and Dolmenwood being esteemed for their creativity and design. Likewise hexcrawl theory is an active topic on the OSR blogs (e.g., the October 2022 Glatisant has four links to hexcrawl theory posts). So the question is, can OSR hexcrawls boast the same mutual compatibility as OSR dungeons? If I buy a hexcrawl that says OSE on the cover, can I trust that it will run OK using Swords & Wizardry? If I write a hexcrawl, is the decision of which edition to identify it with as incidental as it would be for a dungeon?

A hexcrawl is about exploration and resource management relevant to wilderness travel. In many editions, you face random encounters as a function of time, and these random encounters can be brutal. This makes travel time a key issue since the slower you travel, the more danger you face and more resources you consume per unit of distance. Moreover, encumbrance also plays a role since if you’re carrying a lot of gear or treasure, this slows you down. And finally, a good hexcrawl should encourage travel through favorable terrain by giving differential penalties in terms of speed and getting lost by terrain types. There are other mechanics that could be relevant to hexcrawls (e.g., resource management magic like goodberry), but the big one is how fast can you travel, through what terrain, and will you get lost. And it turns out these vary a lot between editions, as shown in the following tables. Note that I ordered these by “family” of rules, with all the B/X varieties together, all the AD&D varieties together, etc. “Miles/day” is for an unencumbered human on easy terrain. I include road travel time as a special case given that systems inspired by B/X tend to have a 1.5x rule for roads. I describe terrain and lost rules as “vague” if it’s a blink and you miss it “DM may adjust” in the middle of a paragraph type rule.

cross country
Castles & Crusades2mph 2mphvagueno
Five Torches Deep10 + STR mod10 + STR modyesno
Basic Fantasy RPG2432yesyes
Labyrinth Lord2436yesyes
Lamentations of the
Flame Princess
Old School Essentials2436yesyes
Worlds Without Number3060yesno
Crypts & Things1212nono
Swords & Wizardry1212vehiclesyes
White Box FMAG1212vagueyes

It turns out that a simple question like “how far can you walk in a day under ideal conditions” varies from about 10 miles to 60 miles! The 60 miles figure for Worlds Without Number is an outlier, but B/X-inspired games in general include a generous road modifier, and so games based on B/X tend to have maximum distances per day more suited to a bicyclist than a pedestrian. If the characters are traveling cross-country, it’s not as bad, but even for cross-country travel B/X, AD&D, and d20 style games still tend to let you travel twice as fast as do OD&D style games. One implication of this is that Swords & Wizardry may be similar enough to Worlds Without Number that you can run a dungeon written for one using the other, but for hexcrawl purposes, you’ll need to rescale the map.

Now there’s the question of what rules should you use. The simulationist answer is to use the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules. In real life, the average human walking speed is 3mph and a healthy adult can walk about 20 miles a day under ideal conditions. This matches pretty well with Lamentations’ rule that you can go a bit more than that on a road and a bit less cross country. Plus Lamentations has sensible, well-presented, and generally easy to use rules for terrain, encumbrance, and getting lost.

The gamist answer might well be different. Dolmenwood is written with OSE‘s canonical B/X assumptions in mind and so however unrealistic it might be to expect that you could walk from Sacramento to within site of San Francisco Bay in a weekend, those are the assumptions that campaign setting was written with and if you make characters go slower than that you’re throwing off game balance elements like “are these locations within one day’s travel of each other.” In addition there’s always a compromise between what would the ancient or medieval world really be like and what do players from modern cultures expect. Just as we give D&D a capitalist economy rather than simulating some type of gift exchange or palace economy, there’s a certain appeal if not logic to playing to the intuitions of people who regularly commute in cars or on trains and so think of ten miles as a quarter hour, not all day or half a day. In addition, having a road multiplier is a great incentive to funnel characters along set routes.

If you’re writing a hexcrawl for publication, my suggestion is to either a) include the hexcrawling rules in the hexcrawl itself or b) give the hex scale in terms relative to the system’s speed. For instance, “the scale of 6 miles per hex is based on the expectation that, given favorable terrain and light encumbrance, characters can travel up to 24 miles or 4 hexes a day. If you are using a game like Swords & Wizardry with a slower movement rate, you might want to use a scale of 3 miles per hex.” There’s also the radical option of not writing a hexcrawl at all but instead writing a pathcrawl, which effectively replaces the system rules with ones specific to the locations.

Some additional notes.

Several games allow a forced march for more distance. Swords & Wizardry and Crypts & Things both let you “force march” to double your distance by a strength check. White Box FMAG (which shares a genealogy with these games) allows a force march but doesn’t give any downsides to doing so.

Some games, e.g., Swords and Wizardry, gives terrain modifiers for vehicle speed but not pedestrians.

Filling out the table and searching through all the, often poorly organized, rules made me appreciate modern design and organization exemplified by OSE all the more.

Beyond the Wall and Through Sunken Lands (which are mechanically the same game) don’t have hexcrawl rules at all in the core books, though Through Sunken Lands says to read the supplement Further Afield for hexcrawls. I don’t own this supplement, but from reviews I gather it gives a movement rate of 20 miles / day.

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  1. John

    That table is great – I didn’t appreciate how different the wilderness travel mechanics are between systems whose combat mechanics can generally be converted at the table in real time.

    I suppose the encumbrance rules, which vary across these rulesets too, could affect it similarly, and since they are more plugged into other parts of the game they may be more resistant to system-neutral type fixes (e.g., like giving scale in travel time rather than miles as you do in your recommended option b).

    One nit: it looks like your table has both OSE and Old School Essentials – not sure if that’s intentional.


    1. gabrielrossman

      Thanks for catching the OSE thing, I just fixed it.
      Yeah, I didn’t discuss encumbrance as the rules get very complicated but it’s kind of an equalizer as in Swords & Wizardry and its derivatives there’s no effect on movement until 75 lbs but in B/X type games it kicks in at much lower levels, even just wearing light armor.


      1. John

        Encumbrance is a tricky thing, because it is critical for driving a lot of interesting tradeoffs in both dungeon and wilderness, but the systems in B/X, AD&D etc. demand so much accounting that only committed old school players are on board (e.g., the kind of people who are fine tracking what their character is holding in a spreadsheet).

        I think the Lamentations system is a good one to use in practice, and the Carcass Crawler zine has a slot-based system for OSE that I haven’t tried but is being used by 3d6 Down the Line for their OSE Arden Vul actual play, and it seems pretty low-impact at the table.

        I guess if there’s space, providing adapted encumbrance, travel distance and “getting lost” rules in the module would be nice, especially because – as you mentioned in the post – many systems between which people regularly convert don’t have great options (due to vague specification or difficulty in referencing).

        Liked by 1 person

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