Musings on Mapping

I am a recent convert to hex mapping. (Six mile hexes, to be specific.) It was not always so. In my earlier days of gaming, I would draw wilderness maps free-form on blank paper. I often included a scale, but rarely made much use of it.

However, there is another way to do it, which I have thought about off and on, and which has seen some interesting blog discussion recently. This alternate mapping technique employs locations and connections rather than literal space (for the mathematically inclined, this is basically a graph). For example, see this post over at Hill Cantons:

And this example by Chris Huth:

Doug over at Blue Boxer Rebellion has some useful techniques as well:

He color-codes his zones by danger level (green – yellow – orange – red) and connection type (blue for water, brown for land routes). I think this would actually be a great idea for a player handout rather than a referee map, though I would use more evocative markers (such as “here there be dragons”) rather than color-coding. Doug mentions that using hexes is more realistic, but I don’t actually see them that way. A hex is really a node with six connections (edges) that can be scaled up or down (by creating sub and super hexes) in a systematic fashion. Hexes quantify something that is otherwise less defined. Hexes also give you a simple and objective answer to the “what do I see?” question, as they allow the referee to easily derive the viewable horizon.

I think there are two dangers with using point-based mapping rather than literal mapping.

  1. Mechanics for getting lost are not as simple. In fact, other than rapidly improvising, I’m not sure how you can manage getting lost at all in a point crawl. Also, using hexes allows referee impartiality regarding location: you can just roll for it. In a point crawl, it seems like the referee needs to make value-laden (and potentially deadly) decisions. Compare that to the simple and objective rules from B/X (page X56):

    When travelling, a party can become lost. A party following a road, trail, or river, or led by a reliable guide, will not become lost. Otherwise, the DM checks each day, rolling a six-sided die (1d6) before the party begins movement. The DM then checks the chance of becoming lost of the appropriate terrain. If the number rolled is the same as those listed, the party is lost.

    If a party is lost, the DM may choose the direction the party moves in, or use a random die roll. The DM must keep track of the party’s actual position, as well as the direction the party believes it is moving.

  2. The video game trap. By this I mean the increased chance that PCs will come upon certain planned encounters. I mentioned this in my comment on Chris Huth’s blog. Chris has some interesting suggestions in his comment response, but I’m still not sure exactly how I would work this in terms of concrete techniques, especially if I want to remain narratively impartial. I feel like I would probably slip into referee illusionist techniques (quantum ogres, etc). Maybe adding new nodes and connections on the fly is a skill that can be cultivated, much like dramatizing and detailing random encounters.

Though I say above that I am a hex-convert, that is not entirely true. In many locations, I do maintain a list of “adjacent” areas; that is, a list of places that you can easily reach (along with method of transport). For example, there may be a frequent caravan between two towns that PCs can purchase passage with. Such transport is not guaranteed to be hassle-free, but the chances of random encounters or other problems are decreased (and speed may be increased, depending on the mode of transport).

    Also, if you haven’t seen Doug’s character creation as a dungeon, you are missing out. I am totally going to make one of these for my B/X house document.

    8 thoughts on “Musings on Mapping

    1. ckutalik

      “I’m not sure how you can manage getting lost at all in a point crawl.”

      It’s really not that hard. A couple ways I do it:
      1. Letting players get “organically” confused. Deviously I put contiguous points where landmarks are only subtly different, a tree that is covered in moss in one direction with the next point having one covered in the other.

      Plus I am often not at all specific about the cardinal directions when they have no reason to be sure about them. Without a compass, it’s very difficult to discern direction in the wilds when it’s not close to dawn or dusk. Tell them this path leads hard right, this path leads hard left, and the other blah, blah, blah and I guarantee you that a party not paying attention will get turned around.

      2. You can make the connectors the place where you have more gamey lost mechanics. I have some game paths, for instance, that are so vague and parallel to others (not depicted) that I assign a 1-2 out of d6 chance they’ll get confused while on it.

    2. ckutalik

      On point 2 I agree that’s a danger, but it’s no different than a hexcrawl in which it’s very rare to see a hex-stocking even in the best of sandboxes that had something other than one site/encounter/situation described.

    3. Peter

      You can let people get lost on a “pointcrawl” by time lost. Roll, get lost, and it takes extra time (and encounters) to find your way there.

    4. Brendan


      How many nodes in general do you use to represent a given region?

      I think I need to try this and see how it works in practice.


      I’m not sure I like that solution because it does away with the true danger (and interest) of becoming lost, which is ending up in a place other than intended. I suppose it does make sense though, if you assume that they realize they are lost at some point; the extra time spent would be the time taken to double back and relocate the original trail.

    5. Unknown

      To “get lost” in a point crawl, you make moving from place to place require a roll of some sort. Then you have a small table that shows the outcome for various rolls. ie:
      target -10: blunders into random landmark/area taking twice the usual time with no idea where they are.
      target -5: takes twice the listed time to get to their goal
      target: no incidents
      target +5: finds landmark to aid future navigation to their goal.
      target +10: finds another area of interest along the way if any are available

      etc… It can get more complex than that but it doesn’t need to. Check out Phil’s article on prep-lite maps on
      and my follow-up that details using it for overland and exploration style campaigns

    6. Brendan

      Thanks for those Gnome Stew links. Many ideas to consider. I am thoroughly dedicated to a prep-lite philosophy as well. One aspect that troubles me slightly is the preordained definition of some locations as interesting and other locations as unimportant. Obviously, we can’t map everything, and putting pencil to paper at all inherently stakes out a position of interest, but doing such in service of a particular planned scene takes it a bit too far for me. I guess my goal is neither to create a script nor to naturalistically model a location, but rather to create a collection of interesting elements (that relate to each other in an objective way) which players can interact with however they desire. This can’t require too much improvisation, because then I will get the details mixed up (and also be tempted to fudge something one way or the other), but it also can’t be too detailed, because that takes too much time. It’s a tough balance.


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