Home > Campaign Development, Mapping, Worldbuilding > Hex-based Campaign Design (Part 2)

Hex-based Campaign Design (Part 2)

Populating your Hexes

deutsche Übersetzung

The idea of developing your campaign through small, but ever-expanding, hex maps, was inspired by Greywulf's Six sided gaming: Hex magic article. With Greywulf's permission, I've expanded the concept a bit. Part 1 described how to size your beginning map and determine terrain. In this post, I'll provide some guidelines for populating your hexes with encounters and lay the groundwork for adventure.

The Hex Map

Bloristone Lands (Terrain only)

Bloristone Lands (Terrain only)

As a refresher, the hex map I started in the previous post is shown at right, though I've gone ahead and filled out the remaining terrain as outlined in Part 1. Please note the hex numbers shown, as I'll use them to identify the locations of the encounters.

As a reminder, each individual hex is 5 miles across; the large hex—called an atlas hex—is 25 miles across and matches the scale of the Atlas template (q.v., Hex Templates).


For our purposes, an encounter is any feature that has the potential to challenge the PCs or serve as the basis for adventure. There are two types of encounters:

  • Major - large or multi-layered encounters, often the focus of the region; for the PCs, interactions with these require careful thought and planning
  • Minor - small or fairly straight-forward encounters; these represent diversionary challenges for the PCs or opportunities to detail the campaign for the GM

For each atlas hex, there is a chance of a single major encounter and a variable number of minor encounters. The frequency of major and minor encounters varies according to the atlas hex's primary terrain type and climate, as shown below:

Primary Terrain
Major Encounter [1]
Minor Encounter [2]
Water 10% 1
Swamp 20% 2
Desert 20% 2
Plains 60% 6
Forest 40% 4
Hills 40% 4
Mountain 20% 2
Modifiers (apply to chance of Major encounters)

  • Arctic: -10%
  • Sub-arctic: -5%
  • Temperate: +0%
  • Sub-tropical: +5%
  • Tropical: +10%


  1. Roll once for each atlas hex
  2. Roll this many d6's; each result of "1" indicates a minor encounter

Major Encounters

When a major encounter is indicated, roll 1d6 to determine its identity. Place the encounter in any whole sub-hex within the atlas hex and note the hex number to record its location. Recall that there is never more than one major encounter in a single atlas hex.

  1. Settlement - a town or city that supports a significant population
  2. Fortress - a large, fortified holding owned by a noble or self-styled lord, always with an armed garrison and (usually) a small population of civilians
  3. Religious order - a temple, monastery, or non-secular fighting order (Alignment (d6): 1-2 Lawful, 3-5 Neutral, 6 Chaotic)
  4. Ruin - the remains of an entire settlement or population complex, abandoned by original occupants because of (d6: 1 disease, 2-4 attack, or 5-6 migration)
  5. Monster - the lair of a rare or very rare creature
  6. Natural Phenomenon - an unusual natural feature (d6: 1 unseasonal or intense weather, 2-3 geothermal activity, 4-5 peculiar growth or blight, 6 oasis or grove)

Minor Encounters

Roll 1d20 on the following list for each minor encounter indicated. Distribute minor encounters throughout the hex as you see fit. As with major encounters, note the hex number of each to record its location.

  1. Settlement - a village or hamlet with a small to moderate population
  2. Fort - a small fortified holding owned by a noble, military leader, fighting order, or adventurer
  3. Ruin - the remains of a single structure whose original purpose was (d6: 1-2 tomb, 3 holding, 4-5 other structure, 6 dwelling; 60% chance it's a shipwreck if located in a water hex)
  4. Monster - the lair of a common or uncommon creature
  5. Wandering Monster - creature type based on current habitat; creature is (d6: 1-2 establishing a lair, 3-5 scouting/foraging, 6 lost)
  6. Camp, industrial - production facility for some natural resource, based on terrain (Water/fishery, Swamp/peat, Desert/oasis, Plains/farming/ranching, Forest/logging, Hills or Mountain/mining)
  7. Camp, semi-permanent - a way-station for (d6: 1-2 trappers, 3-4 hunters, 5 drovers, 6 messengers)
  8. Beacon - a long-range signalling/communication device (lighthouse if on/near water; 20% chance of being magical) operated by (d6: 1-2 guild, 3 local lord, 4-6 council of nearest settlement)
  9. Construction Site - a structure is being erected here (d6: 1 fortification, 2-3 infrastructure, 4-5 homestead, 6 religious centre)
  10. Battlefield - the site of a major battle (20% chance of containing salvageable gear; 10% chance that the area is haunted by the spirits of the slain)
  11. Isolated - the dwelling of some outsider (d6: 1 hermit, 2 mad hermit, 3 oracle, 4 retired adventurer, 5 outlaw, 6 homestead; 40% chance dwelling is fortified)
  12. Sacred Ground - a protected area, designated as a (d6: 1-3 burial grounds, 4-5 consecrated area, 6 hunting range)
  13. Crossing - a bridge, ford, or pass (20% chance that it's in disrepair; if serviceable, 60% chance that a toll is charged)
  14. Ancient Structure - a construction of antiquity (d6: 1-3 grave marker, 4 astrological construction, 5-6 pagan shrine; 10% chance that is possesses magical properties)
  15. Special Hazard - an environmental danger exists here (d6: 1-2 poison, 3, disease, 4 unstable ground, 5 strong electromagnetic field, 6 radiation)
  16. Treasure - a cache of valuables is rumoured to lie hidden here (40% chance of actually existing; 20% chance that it's unguarded, but certainly not easy to obtain)
  17. Contested - the area is fought over by 2 or more factions because of (d6: 1-2 valuable resources, 3 abundant food, 4-5 strategic location, 6 religious significance)
  18. Natural Resource - a valuable commodity is located here (d6: 1-2 rare herbs, 3-4 rare mineral (lodestone, quicksilver), 5 meteoric steel, 6 heavy water)
  19. Supernatural Feature - an unexplained effect or object exists here (d6: 1-2 teleportation portal, 3 dimensional gate, 4 anti-magic field, 5-6 wild-magic field)
  20. Gathering Place - a meeting place, relatively free from outside influence (d6: 1-3 tribal moot, 4-5 free trading post, 6 hospitaliers)

Encounter Tips

Once placed, encounters are yours to detail, based on the flavour of your campaign, the challenge you want to provide, the ability of the characters, and the game system you're playing. That said, there are two cardinal rules to placing encounters: First, encounters will co-mingle with other encounters in the same or nearby hexes. Nothing in your setting exists in a vacuum, so where possible (and sensible), populations will interact, cooperating with or opposing each other as resources and alignment dictate. Settlements will practice trade, monsters will prey on the weak, local people will know about local ruins, and adventuring spots will possess a history that intersects with other encounters. As you place encounters, then, be mindful of potential connections between them, and don't be shy about exploiting associations that fit well together.

Second, to extract maximum creativity, make it a policy to modify any encounter to suit the terrain, not the other way round. For example, a monastery located on the plains or in a forest might be fairly typical, but a monastery in the mountains might be occupied by highly private monks with a strange obsession with (or sinister reason for) seclusion. A swamp monastery might be populated by a sect of degenerate cenobites who worship a slimy, evil frog god, whereas a monastery in a water hex might be a old ship run aground, and the monks' mission is to keep eternal guard over whatever cargo is still in the hold. Be creative—almost any idea outside the norm becomes plausible if given some considered background.

Finally, there's an unwritten rule (which, oddly, I feel the need to write down): don't let the dice dictate your design. This exercise is designed to make campaign design easier, not foolproof. You still need to decide if what the dice are telling you makes sense. If they're not, use their results as suggestions and tweak what you need to tell the story you want.

Encounter Example

Completed Atlas hex

Completed Atlas hex

To keep things quick, I'll determine encounters for just the single, central atlas hex on my map. The hex's primary terrain is "Plains," for a 60% chance of a major encounter and I roll 6d6 for minor encounters (because the map depicts a temperate zone (determined in Part 1), there is no climate adjustment). I roll 42 on the percentile die (for 1 major encounter) and let's say I come up 5 minor encounters:

  • Major encounter: Fortress [05.04] - Fort Torin, a keep ruled by Lord Dordi Nonahi (AL Lawful), and the attached village of Looma (pop. 344 + 18 in garrison)
  • Minor encounter: Isolated [04.06] - the outlaw, Usufo Hilden (AL Neutral), has a treehouse hideout, which he shares with 3 other bandits
  • Minor encounter: Contested [05.02] - Lord Nonahi's plan to revive an abandoned silver mine is contested by a local dwarf clan declaring that it cannot be reopened (but will not say why)
  • Minor encounter: Wandering Monster [03.03] - goblin patrols have been sighted here, more frequently in recent weeks; they represent scouting parties from a tribe in the next hex
  • Minor encounter: Gathering Place [07.03] - West Hailford, a walled trading post, is a safe haven for travellers; visitors of all sorts obey the local law forbidding violence within the post's walls
  • Minor encounter: Ancient Structure [06.06] - a stone table of pagan origin stands here; during the new moon, the moss that covers it gives off a shimmering verdant glow

I made some liberal interpretations of the results from the tables above, but that's the point—these are just idea-starters to get you thinking about who and what exist in the hex and, more importantly, how they might interact with each other.

Finishing Touches

You may wish to devise random encounter tables specific to your map, using whatever guidelines are pertinent to your game system and campaign. Include wandering monsters particular to the area (based on climate and terrain); patrols from nearby settlements, garrisons, or outposts; and events that may be related to certain encounters (e.g., a freak storm caused by a special hazard, supernatural feature, or natural phenomenon in a nearby hex). I suggest you create a single table for the entire map.

Rumours are also important, as they frequently serve as the basis for adventure hooks. Create a single table of tales and rumours for the entire map, obviously using the encounters you've placed, but also (more importantly) the connections between those encounters, as these are usually easier for you to fabricate and more tantalising to the PCs. You probably don't need to be reminded of this, but make sure you sprinkle a few false rumours in the mix, as well a few half-truths.

Final Words

The end result of this exercise is a fledging campaign setting that will keep your players busy for some time. The format lends itself easily to the Busy GM's creed: Don't do more work than necessary. And, as a bonus, it's very simple to expand the campaign as you need to using the Hex Template system outlined elsewhere on this site.

(Visited 1,144 times, 1 visits today)

  1. October 28th, 2009 at 14:28 | #1

    That looks really good! I’m impressed that you managed to take one of my silly ideas and run with it :D

    Thank you!

  2. October 28th, 2009 at 14:44 | #2

    Thanks much, Greywulf – I hope I’ve done justice to your excellent idea!

  3. Flynn
    October 29th, 2009 at 22:26 | #3

    I’m very tempted to take this approach and blend it with Rob Conley’s excellent outline for creating a Fantasy Sandbox, as detailed here:

    I’ve been building a new world as the mood hits me, and recent blog posts like this one are inspiring me to put more effort in that direction. Thanks, guys!

    With Regards,

  4. October 30th, 2009 at 08:04 | #4

    Flynn – I urge you to succumb to temptation. Rob’s outline provides good detail and methodology, whereas this is perhaps more quick-and-dirty. A blend would be cool – maybe the basic approach above with Rob’s material to fill in some detail. Post a link to your results here – I’d love to see what you come up with.

  5. November 1st, 2009 at 18:38 | #5

    UPDATE – 1 Nov 2009

    Fixed some pesky typos. Damn proofing elves.

  6. November 4th, 2009 at 22:23 | #6

    Erin, how did you get that legend on your map? I know how to labels things in hexographer, but the hexes are not within the grid.

  7. November 4th, 2009 at 22:44 | #7

    Darthmike – I used the Pro version of Hexographer, which has a Map Key command (Options -> Configure Map Key). I don’t think this feature is available in the online version – are you using Pro? If not, I recommend it – the Map Key feature alone is worth laying down the scratch.

  8. November 5th, 2009 at 07:55 | #8

    Ahh, bingo. I’ve only used the Free version so far, but it does look like I’m going to be ponying up very soon.

  9. November 5th, 2009 at 09:27 | #9

    It’s well worth the lifetime license, as Joe makes frequent updates. And tell him I sent you ;)

  10. March 9th, 2012 at 18:07 | #10

    Hello Erin, I am trying to translate your Minor Encounter determination method (Roll 1D6 at 1 roll for an encounter) into Inspiration Pad Pro. Maybe I am over-thinking it but so far I can not come up with a good way of doing it.

  11. March 10th, 2012 at 09:50 | #11

    @Chaosmeister Yeah, it’s not straight-forward like other table lookups. I have a prototype, but it’s not ready for prime time. Drop me a line at erin DOT smale AT gmail, if you want a look.

  12. August 10th, 2012 at 19:40 | #12
  13. Jeff Miller
    March 10th, 2013 at 20:06 | #13

    Greywulf’s “Hex Magic” wasn’t at the link, but is apparently still available as a PDF on the Microlite20 site: http://microlite20.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/M20-campaigns.pdf

  14. March 11th, 2013 at 23:37 | #14

    @Jeff Miller : Link is fixed – thanks for the heads up.

  15. May 15th, 2013 at 14:17 | #15

    Erin, thanks a lot for the amazing articles in hex-campaigning!

    I developed some interest in the OSR lately and your postings played a vital part in convincing myself to go and start preparing a game of hexcrawling. I am still experimenting, but chances are I might use your system verbatim, most likely with Swords & Wizardry.

  16. May 15th, 2013 at 21:17 | #16

    @Arne : Glad you find them useful, and flattered that they have a role in your pending hexcrawl. To that end, I’m (slowly) writing an expansion on the topic, fleshing out the major and minor encounters (check the Minocra tag for preliminary work on the major encounters).

    I struggled with the OSR for a long time, but eventually came to really like S&W Core. It’s a good balance of rules and flexibility between White Box and S&W Complete. YMMV, but I think the way it handles random encounters and treasure lends itself really well to hex crawling.

  1. October 3rd, 2011 at 01:55 | #1
  2. March 12th, 2012 at 14:44 | #2
  3. May 7th, 2012 at 00:15 | #3
  4. August 10th, 2013 at 04:05 | #4
  5. March 12th, 2014 at 00:53 | #5