In the most recent Deconstructing Dungeons post, I talked about my adventure Beneath the Sands. As I mentioned in the post, a large portion of the adventure is dedicated to a Tomb of Annihilation style hexcrawl, because I wanted to give my players a chance to experience a small portion of that campaign, and because I wanted to push the adventure into a more exploratory direction. The first half of the adventure was very combat/trap heavy, and I felt that a freer, almost open-world section would be a welcome break.
My biggest inspirations for how to run a hexcrawl come from Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation, and I can never really decide which of he two I prefer. In this discussion I’m going to juxtapose both systems, and talk about the pros and cons of each.
Out of the Abyss
“Underdark Travel” can be found on page 18 if you want to read along.
OotA handles travelling through the underdark in a series of stages, which help a DM guide their players through the process. Firstly, the part elect a pace at which to travel, which alters their speed and ability to do auxiliary activities. These rules are written out here, but can also be found in the Player’s Handbook. In the underdark, movement is limited to a max of 8 miles per day which, considering the hexmap uses 24 mile hexes, isn’t overly helpful. Travelling at a normal pace, the characters move 6 miles a day, one quarter of a hex. Rather than assuming that players and DMs will measure the movement in hexes, they provide a helpful table detailing how long it will take to get from location to location.
After sorting pace, we quickly resolve the width of passageways and illumination by rolling a couple of d6, and asking the characters to come up with a marching order. We then have a brief note about who can be surprised and how.
The next few sections are standard travel fare; how to navigate, map, forage and keep time. These are relatively standard across all WotC book as far as I can tell. Wisdom (Survival) checks abound. We also have some adventure specific sections one about Faerzess, another about Madness, Drow Pursuit etc. These are all relatively useful, especially the one about tackling character death during underdark encounters.
We then move onto the real meat of travel, the random encounters. OotA recommends checking twice per day for random encounters, which has the potential to make you roll on up to 6 different tables. 6! Although I love randomly generating pretty much everything, I can see how this might be a little unwieldy at the table. Firstly, you roll to see if an encounter occurs, there’s a 35% chance of some kind of encounter, but OotA splits them into Terrain and Creature encounters, something I’m rather fond of.
Terrain Encounters include mundane things like gorges and high ledges, more fantastic locations like crystal clusters and lava swells, and also includes hazards that aren’t exactly terrain, but definitely aren’t creatures, like sinkholes and steam vents. Some of these encounters have their own mini-tables within them, such as what fungi are present in a fungus cavern. There’s also a chance of having a Creature Encounter in one of the Terrain Encounters. It’s the (probably) hundreds of combinations here which really excites me, because there’s a good likelihood that each encounter will differ from the last.
The Creature Encounters too are varied. Some are obvious hack and slash situations, such as being attacked by an ambusher or giant rocktopus, but others provide roleplay and social interaction opportunity; traders, scouts and the much loved Society of Brilliance. More than this, some might come with moral quandaries, such as escape slaves in need of help, or mad creatures lashing out without awareness. Again, there is such a wealth of diversity here that repeat encounters seem highly unlikely. Each encounter gets its own paragraph of mechanical and inspirational material.
Finally, we tie the section up with some Set Encounters that are pretty much side-quests without hooks. These encounters are designed to give your characters that extra XP boost when necessary, or break up an otherwise long and tedious journey. Although there are only four examples within the book, the DMsGuild is filled with other examples, such as Journey Through the Center of the Underdark by Tony Petrecca.
So that’s what OotA has to offer. A robust system for how to handle travel, and what might occur along the way.
- Consistent with other published material in the PHB and DMG
- Huge variety of possible encounters, which are unlikely to be repeated
- Thematically strong due to extra sections such as Drow Pursuit
- Low variance of CR, the highest being the CR 5 barlgura
- Although I love the sheer number of tables, having to roll on these twice a ‘day’ along with extra dice for various things can be time-intensive. Rolling in advance is a reasonable solution.
- Using miles and days of travel rather than hexes bugs me. Just make the hexes smaller. ToA tackles this issue better in my opinion.
Tomb of Annihilation
For those reading along, the travel in ToA is split. Travel itself is on page 37, random encounters are confined to Appendix B (page 193).
Much like OotA, ToA starts with the usual Travel section, which helps DMs run travel through the jungles of Chult. Something done well here that OotA didn’t quite pull of is the checklist of steps that a DM should go through:
- identify where characters are
- ask where characters want to go and set a pace
- see if they can navigate and respond accordingly
- check for random encounters
- dehydration (adventure specific-ish)
I can tell that this checklist will not only be helpful for newcomers to the hobby who just need to know succinctly what to do, but also for more experienced DMs who might want to double check they’ve got everything covered.
We then head into the usual sections of travel. Unlike OotA, we are sticking to hexes here, albeit ones that are 10 miles across rather than the traditional 24. This is because the terrain impedes movement, and so we shift from thinking about measurable distances (there’s no Omu is X miles from Port Nyanzaru and it will take Y days to get there table) to a proper hexcrawl, where characters advance from one ‘area’ to the next. Having said that, there is a small section for Tracking Miles if you prefer. We then have a section about navigation, which is adapted in a similar fashion to the travel distances piece.
What we’re missing here that we got in OotA are the rules for mapping, foraging and the like. So far as I can tell, there isn’t even a reference to the rules for these activites in the PHB or DMG. Maybe they assume that DMs will already know this information?
Next we address the adventure-specific sections like Dehydration and Diseases, a brief sidebar about Artus Cimber and how to deal with death, and then a redirect section pointing us to Appendix B where the random encounters are found. We’re also given the DM map of Chult, which is beautiful, and FAR more useful than the map in OotA.
I’ll mention here that a serious difference between the two adventures is that in ToA, there are dozens of individual locations mapped out and detailed like their own small adventures. Many of these have their own battlemaps (5-10 feet squares) with smaller sub-locations within, which have a mix of combat, exploration, social interaction, roleplaying and puzzle-solving encounter mixed in. ToA is a far less linear adventure than OotA, although neither are particularly railroaded in my opinion. This section basically contains around a fifth of the adventure, as each of the locations provides opportunities to forward the main story line.
Now I’ll jump into the Random Encounters found in Appendix B. The big differences here between the two adventures are the ToA calls for three potential encounters per day, and has only one table for the encounters, rather than splitting them into terrain and creature. Encounters occur on a d20 roll of 16 or higher, but it gives options to change this as the DM sees fit. We then get the kind of table that makes my heart explode with joy. It cannot even be contained on 1 page, the sucker takes up a full double page spread. Down your vertical you’ve got all the potential encounters, then along the horizontal you have the kind of terrain your characters are in. You find your terrain, roll a d100, then check for the encounter. It’s simple, space efficient and looks beautiful.
Because there’s no differentiation between terrain and creature encounters, you might think that we’d be seeing a fairly even split of the two across the d100, but in fact, there are essentially no terrain encounters. Instead, it’s assumed that the DM makes the location up on the fly, and sticks the encounters in an appropriate location. While I think this gives DMs a little more freedom, it’s also less likely to produce an encounter where orc raiders are fleeing from rolling lava whilst simultaneously trying to steal the homemade equipment from the characters, and more likely to result in a dinosaur bursting out of the undergrowth. While some DMs (I’m thinking specifically of Sly Flourish here) have a great imagination for making random encounters interesting, others might fall into the same ruts over and over.
Either way, each individual encounter has a short paragraph describing what it is, with perhaps a sentence of inspirational description. Once again there’s a huge range of potential encounters, though far less chance for recombination of different ones. It also includes a good mix of combat and social encounters, and throws a bone here and there regarding alternative objectives, such as taking dino babies for the race-trade or trading gemstones to eblis for guidance.
- Hex-based approach to travel is far easier to keep track of, and results in better navigation rules for both the DM and players
- Lovely little checklist to keep DMs on track
- HUGE range of ‘set encounters’ in the form of locations truly denotes the hexcrawl theme of the adventure
- Large range of encounters, including higher CR creatures (young red dragon CR 10, tyrannosaurus rex CR 8, cyclops CR 6 to name a few)
- Easy rolling – around 3 rolls max
- Missing rules for (or even reference to) extra-traversal activities such as foraging and mapping
- No terrain encounters may leave DMs grasping for setting ideas, and provides less chance for interesting creature/terrain combinations
In truth, I like the way travel is covered in both adventures. If I had to pick a winner, it would probably be Tomb of Annihilation, because of the straightforward manner in which it handles the hexcrawl. That said, I think it could do with a little more information for players about what can be done whilst you’re walking. I also lament the loss of the creature/terrain encounter table from OotA, I’m not sure it’s appeared in any other WotC adventure, although the ToA style table has definitely appeared in Storm King’s Thunder. I see the advantage in terms of saving table time, as the large handful of dice required for underdark encounters is pretty daunting, but even a few small location/terrain ideas in a table would have been a nice addition.
In my own adventures, I’ve used a bit of both of the methods above. Serpent Isle uses a style very similar to OotA, whereas Beneath the Sands is a much closer match to ToA. Future products I’ve been working on for Poison Potion Press and LoreSmyth involve hybrids of the two, with new quirks based on the style of adventure that I’m excited to see responses too.
Let me know which you prefer in the comments below!