The release of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set in 1987 marked a significant point in how wilderness maps were handled at TSR. Instead of providing a map overlaid with hexes, as had been the case in the World of Greyhawk sets, the poster maps of the new boxed sets were unadorned with any such marks. Instead, they just showed the land of the Realms.
Included in the set were two transparent overlays that had a hex-grid marked on them. The idea was that you could put them over the map so you could easily measure how far it was to travel to any location. At the time, I thought it was a great idea: something that was really innovative.
The lack of a printed hex-grid has a peculiar effect on the game, however: it removes the traditional method of doing exploration adventures.
The players are no longer able to map the wilderness with any degree of accuracy. To deal with this, either the DM describes what the players find as they wander around abstractly or – what is more likely – the map is known beforehand and the adventure becomes a journey narrative rather than an exploration narrative. The exploration of bounded areas of wilderness doesn’t really exist, especially when you’re talking about a huge area of forest or grasslands.
As a result, exploration of a hexless wilderness tends to be performed in an abstract “Theatre of the Mind”-style of play, where the exact details of where the players go is decided by the DM. It requires a different style of adventure writing. The idea of having a specific location within a forest holding a lair that the players don’t know about? If there there’s a path to it, it’s easy to handle. But if it doesn’t have a path, how will the players find it? It would only be because the DM determined they would.
This is as opposed to searching for a lair that the players know exists, if not its exact location. The traditional hex-based approach would be for them to explore each hex in turn, perhaps finding clues. Without hexes, it’s likely to be handled more abstractly. Skill checks are the most likely (modern) method, but just having a random, possibly cumulative, chance of finding each day exploring is also possible.
There is, of course, no difference in how you handle travel. When the players are just travelling from one location to another, you don’t need a hex-grid. You just need encounters that happen along the way.
(Getting lost? That’s a lot harder to adjudicate. Make Survival checks as they wander in circles until they find their way? Probably easier than plotting out their incorrect path).
If you’ve detected a particular bias about how I prefer to handle exploration scenarios, you’re correct: I much prefer to use a hex-grid in such circumstances. It allows players to make meaningful decisions about where they go, and to say “we’ve explored that area” and mark it as explored on their map. If you don’t use a grid, then there’s no such certainty, just the whim of the DM – and I’m not fond of that. That’s the reason that the Kingmaker series for Pathfinder uses a hex-grid; it needs the certainty.
Are there advantages to not using a grid? There are, and the biggest one is that it frees maps from the need to conform to the contours of the grid. I know – surely you could just draw the map and overlay the grid later? Well, that’s the best way of doing it. However, there are a lot of maps where the grid made a lot of impact on the final product. Perhaps the biggest example of such is the World of Greyhawk map from the 1980 and 1983 sets, where a couple of coastal cities ended up significantly inland, because otherwise they weren’t placed on the middle of the hex. Maps do look better without a grid!
The other advantage is that it does actually free you from the need to do exploration-based play of individual hexes (hex-bashing, sort of like pixel-bashing). There are times when such can be really dull, especially when the DM hasn’t stocked enough encounters in the map. (I’m thinking of the Isle of Dread, which can get very dull if you don’t have a goal and are just wandering aimlessly around looking for something interesting).
So, if you do want to run an exploration scenario without a hex-grid, what do you do? Here is one method:
- Make a list of all the encounter locations you want the players to be able to find
Work out which ones are linked – where discovering one reveals the path to the next location. Note those down.
- These links can be physical – such as a path – or from information like a map or information from a NPC
- Create a random table of the encounters; perhaps only have the initial encounters in the case of linked encounters unless you want them to encounter them in any order.
When the players explore the area, have them make Wisdom (Survival) checks each day or hour to find an area of interest. (Set the DC according to how quickly you want them found. DC 10 is very quickly, DC 20 is quite slowly). Randomly determine which encounter they find; then cross it off the list.
- For more nuanced exploration, set up the tables according to DC. Have a DC 10 table of locations that are easy to find, a DC 15 table of locations of moderate difficulty, and a DC 20 table of the hard ones. Then roll on the table according to the group’s Wisdom (Survival) check.
I’ll probably stay with my hex-grid, but even with a hex-grid, some of those suggestions can be of use. Good luck!