I will be reviewing two books written by Todd Leback, published by Third Kingdom Games, and written for the Old School Essentials system, but easily usable for any older edition of D&D or their retroclones. The first, which I'll talk about today, is Filling in the Blanks: A Guide to Populating Hexcrawls. In the next installment of Ludic Dreams I'll delve into Into the Wild: A High-Level Resource for OSR Games. The first presents a technique for randomly generating the keys for wilderness maps. The second presents rules for wilderness travel and exploration, a system of random weather generation, rules for establishing and ruling a domain, techniques for handling trade, and even a system for creating new B/X classes. Together they present a unified system for handling what happens outside a dungeon. Indeed, taken together they are impressive in scope, depth, and detail.
Filling in the Blanks is illustrated by Jen Drummond, who did the covers, and Adrian Barber, Chad Dickhaut, and Dan Smith who did the internal illustrations. The maps are made by Todd Leback and Aaron Schmidt using hexographer. Art and cartography is crucial in conveying a setting, giving flavor or visual details of adventure locales, and igniting the imagination so that a DM can inhabit the mental space of the adventure or world. It is much less important for a generic presentation of rules. The inoffensive B/X feeling art in Filling in the Blanks fits the generic character of the system, breaking up the page layout, without distracting from the rules presentation.
What is a hex? Historically speaking, hexes derive from hex and chit wargames, where troops represented on little cardboard squares (chits) moved across a board divided into hexagons representing a battlefield of different terrain types. In this sense, they represented abstract boardgame spaces that tracked troop movements in six directions (N, NW, SW, S SE, NE), while accounting for the effects of terrain on movement and battle.
Early ttrpg players, many of whom were wargamers, general employed graph paper maps for dungeon crawls and hex maps for wilderness travel and adventuring. Indeed, in Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, when the players moved from the graph paper squares of the dungeon into the wilderness, Gygax employed a hexmap borrowed directly from the boardgame Outdoor Survival. He used it for a phase of the campaign that came to be called domain play, where the game swayed towards its wargaming roots, as players were expected to “clear” a wilderness area of monsters and claim it as a domain, building military outpost (castles, monasteries, etc), “civilizing” and ruling it, while perhaps engaging in warfare and diplomacy.
In contemporary play, hexmaps are used in a variety of ways in classic or old school play. We might distinguish the following six functions of a hex—no doubt there are others we might think up.
- Smallest Map Unit: In this function, the hex is the smallest unit of the map. There is no map inside a hex, rather the map is composed of hexes.
- Measure of Movement: In this function, the hex is used as a measure of movement, which proceeds from one hex into another hex in one of the six directions of the hex facings. As pieces move across a certain number of spaces across a board, so too in hexes, PCs move a certain number of hexes in one of the six directions.
- Terrain Bearer: In this function, the hex is coded with a certain terrain type. This type comes with both mechanical and narrative effects, including affecting movement rates and encounters. We operate here at the level of a uniform type “hills”, “swamp”, “forest”, “jungle”, and so on.
- Keyed Unit: In this function, the hex is the unit of the map which is “keyed”. It thus plays the same role in wilderness maps that rooms play in dungeon maps. Hexes are “stocked” with notable features, including possibly adventure locales, natural formations, lairs, settlements and the like.
- Encounter Space: In this function, hexes are the spaces in wilderness exploration where random encounters happen. Different encounter tables may be tied to different hexes, regions, or terrain types.
- Political or Economic Unit: In this function, hexes bear a political status, showing them under the sway of certain factions with mechanical or narrative effects, or they function as an economic unit with the capacity to produce wealth or different goods.
As we’ll see, these functions can be separated from one another. One can use hexes without hexes playing all these roles. For example, this glorious illustrated hex by Tom Fitzgerald is not the smallest map unit (1), since it has a map drawn within it. It might otherwise function as a hex in the other senses.
Hexes and Subhexes
In Filling in the Blanks, Leback uses hexes to help organize the keying of subhexes. For reach hex, he has us roll for 1d6 features. For each feature we roll to see what category it belongs to. The categories include geological features, structures, resources, hazards, bodies of water, dungeons, settlements, magical effects, and so on. Once we have the category, we then turn to subtables that give us more details to work with.
We next roll 1d6 to see how many lairs are placed in the hex. For each of the lairs, we use some set of wilderness encounter tables, drawn perhaps from whatever your favorite other monster books are, to decide what monster’s lair it is. (These encounter tables set the baseline of how closely the hexmap will hew to vernacular fantasy tropes. For less vanilla settings, use weirder encounter tables.)
This is where things get interesting. We then use the map of the hex and the features we've rolled to place the monster lairs in locales that are interesting, using the random combination of these three things (map, features, lairs) as a spur to our imagination. For example, if there is an abandoned monastery or sinkhole, perhaps we place monster lairs in it—and what we place in it will also give us ideas for fleshing out the locale. The weaving together of random features and lairs in a hex presents opportunities to imaginatively inhabit and elaborate the space of the hex by focusing on the interrelation of different, randomly generated elements.
The Stocking System in Action
Hex 1I started with hex 1. Let's zoom in on the image:
- A 4-room dungeon of 3rd level
- A keep, worth 100,000 GP (!). It was built 20 years ago. It is inhabited by its original builders. It is in immaculate shape. (All these results came from rolling on subtables.)
- Resource: Parrots
- Giant Rats
- Crab Spider
The emergent possibilities here were fascinating. The burning question, looking at this set of results, is who the builders and current occupants are of this 100,000 GP keep. From this list, the only intelligent creature is the goblins. But with an immaculate keep worth 100,000 GP, this must be a wealthy and powerful faction in the jungle. This means these must be some remarkable goblins! I asked myself where all their wealth could come from. Since the hex also has the resource of parrots, I decided their wealth must come from the parrots. Brainstorming, I thought perhaps these goblins are merchants of trained parrots. Even better, I thought, perhaps they are traders of whispers and secrets, with parrot spies spread throughout the jungle! Now we’re cooking with gas!
Looking at the OSE entry on goblins, I see that Goblin Kings have 3 HD and their bodyguards have 2 HD. I liked the idea of a goblin king with a crown of gorgeous parrot feathers, surrounded by gilded bird cages in which his favorite birds are pampered after returning to him with news from far and wide. Stat-wise goblins seem awfully weak to hold a stronghold of that value, so I thought that they must be intelligence brokers among jungle factions, conveying crucial information to opposing groups, and perhaps blackmailing others. So there would likely some other higher HD beings on loan to the Goblin King from his customers. We'll have to wait to see how the rest of the map unfolds to decide who these borrowed guards might be.
Last we need to construct our encounter table for the hex from these materials. That’s easy enough to do. Here's a rough encounter table without stats:
Hex 1: Encounter table (1d6)
- Parrot Spy: Befriends the party only to deliver info to the goblin king about their actions and movements. Subsequent ambush or offer to trade, depending on information conveyed.
- Goblin Patrol on Jaguars
- Goblins going about business (1=gathering fruit, 2=trapping parrots, 3=harvesting timber, 4=hunting giant rats)
- Giant rats
- Crab Spiders
- Encounter from surrounding hexes (trading partners? To be filled in later)
Praise & Critique
I'm sure it would have gotten a bit faster as I got the hang of finding things in the book. But there's no two ways about it: it’s going to take a very long time to populate even a small hexmap like the one I made above using this book. My guess would be maybe 6-8 hours of prep? One frustrating thing is that it needn’t take so long. The text is its own worst enemy. Leback never bundles rolls, opting instead to send you to further subtables or even scurrying to a new section with its own host of tables, when it would be easy to combine them all into a single roll. Worse still, the paragraphs leading up to each subtable often have 3 or even 4 inconspicuous pre-rolls buried in the text. Meaning that you have to scan paragraphs to extract hidden rolls or crucial information before you even get to the tables. This is not great information design.