Why so Meta?: Fixing the Cruel Crawl

In ToA a large portion of the adventure is happening through the famous hex-crawl. This is basically the players running around the jungle and uncovering interesting places. We've had some issues with the way it's done and came up with some solutions!

Why so Meta?: Fixing the Cruel Crawl
This is part of the META series of posts. It discusses (mostly from a DM point of view) some issues with running ToA we've run into, as well as technicalities, concepts and so on.

First of all, I'm very sorry for the bad puns. I just can't help it.

In ToA there's a large portion (level 1-6) of the adventure that's happening through the famous hex-crawl. This is basically the players running around the jungle and uncovering interesting places.
Every day would go something like this:

  • Decide which direction you want to go,
    Check if you succeed or get lost along the way
  • Forage for food and water
  • Lookout for potential enemies, points of interest or loot

At a first glance this didn't exactly seem too bothersome. There's like five rolls behind the screen (on the DM side 😉) to determine everything from the weather to the taste of the flora around and a few for the players, but all things considered we decided we would give it a try.

After a first exploration of the jungle we quickly realized how wrong we were.

With every single one of the five players rolling at least one die to determine their success hunting/gathering or watching and then verifying every roll against different thresholds, we quickly realized that the technicalities were severly disrupting the flow. They were basically forcing everyone out of their character at least once per in-game day. While the traveling days themselves played out fine, the householding brought the game to a crawl ( see what I did there? ).

The Solution: Just give up (the crawl)

We discussed a couple of options after our session, ranking from having a single player in charge of doing all the heavy lifting to abandoning it completely. We didn't want to give up on the exploration part, but also really wanted everything to happen mostly in character. Here's what we came up with in the end:

Use the group-averaged Survival to check resource usage

For every traveling day, ahead of actually playing it out, roll 1d20. Add the average group survival (I prefer to do that hidden) and record the value. Then, as the day occurs, the hex determines the difficulty to find resources. Based on terrain I range them from 5-20, with some interesting 'rules' for the players to figure out. E.g. the rivers are very risky area, with plenty of dinosaurs around and little options to forage properly. In contrast, in some of the undead infested areas, it is really easy to find food, as most of the inhabitants are not too keen on eating their veggies.
If the threshold is not met, the party needs to spend some rations to keep alive or do additional survival checks to maybe find something to eat and drink, but at this point it can reasonably turn into some kind of encounter most of the time. An example would be some fruits that attract predators or our all-time favorite: Throat Leeches. You get the gist.

Prerolled Encounters and taking the train

Ahead of the session all encounters are determined and prepared. This requires the route that the group will take to be at least roughly known beforehand and inevitably requires some railroading. We found that this approach was a good tradeoff between ensuring a smooth flow of the game and having the ability to determine the direction at every step. This, of course, also implies that having the party get lost - which is a quite significant part of the original hexcrawl - is now nuisance to both the player and the DM. At least when being lost is about the groups location on the map and not their wherebouts in the jungle. While we did not encounter the situation yet, I think it's a interesting proposition.

Our Experiences (so far)

In direct comparison our changes worked out very well. On the one hand the interruptions were limited, while on the other hand I, as a DM, was able to glue together the encounters so much better, having all of them laid out before me. I still needed to shuffle around quite a bit during gameplay, with the traveling speed of one hex per day being way too slow for my findings.

We also changed the short and long rest rules to better fit the jungle exploration by having long rests only removing exhaustion in the jungle, unless a safe environment for resting is reached. This makes for a much better pacing and the jungle feeling a lot more dangerous.