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Maps for Play 2 – The Ring Map Layout

November 27, 2022

Shout out to HexKit which is the software I used to make these examples and one of the easiest mapping software to use. I used a mix of tilesets though you can do a ton with the default set or just one or two sets. The Heightened Sensory Input tiles, Little Classic Hex set, Ordinal Simple Set, Duvelman’s Hex Map Set were used for this.

I was intending to write up the Threat & Structure after Maps for Play 1, but this happened to be easier to jam out for me, and I think highlights some key ideas that will show up for the next in the series.

Intro

This is a simple structure you can use to layout a map for a hexcrawl. It uses some tricks from videogame level design, and allows you to take the structural aspects and dress them up in a way that is “naturalistic” for your setting.

Some assumptions to the type of game that makes sense for this:

  • The players can mostly choose where they want to go
  • There are costs in time and resources and risk to travelling
  • The campaign will involve tackling multiple dungeons/adventure locations
  • Regularly returning to a safe haven, or a town, is a key part of your game.
  • You plan on having at least 6 (preferably 9 or more) dungeons or adventure locales available in this campaign

I’ll use three towns for the example here, but of course, you can add additional towns and alternate paths every which way as you like, while following the general structure of easy to hard while softly setting up difficulty in a way that fits the pattern. I highly recommend Game Makers Toolkit videos on level design for Zelda and Metroidvania games or the video on Dark Souls.

Funny enough, the game logic to the map structure is just an evolution from the earliest dungeoncrawlers – “Worst monsters are deeper in the dungeon”, but applied to your larger map.

The Starting Points

On your map, place three towns in a ring formation (well, a triangle anyway). It can be a rather acute triangle if you wish. These towns will be connected to each other by road, river, tunnel or perhaps something more exotic or magical means of travel. From each town, 2-4 dungeons or locations of adventure will be attached. The locations may or may not have easy connections to the town they are ‘attached’ to.

This is the basic skeleton which your map will rest on.

Can you add more towns? Yes! And the “ring” might look more like the Monaco Race Track than a ring proper, but it’s a good conceptual starting point. You could even set up these Towns to be within some large megadungeon as safe communities where the party can rest.

Here is a cut down version of the map I’m playing with. Triangles are dungeons/adventure locations, the big blocky icons are my three towns. I’m just using roads to connect them because I don’t feel like adding more complications for this.

Towns are Hubs, Dungeons are Spokes

For this example, we’ll label the three towns Town A, Town B, Town C. Town A is the starting town and is connected to dungeons that are the least dangerous. Town B will be intermediate, and Town C will be the most difficult.

You don’t need to have all of these dungeons ready to run; you only need to worry about the ones attached to Town A to start, and you can even use pregenerated adventures or maps. If you already have some you want to run, you can simply make your map fit the terrain needed – if it’s a cave adventure, have some caves built into your map so you can just plug it in.

I’ve labeled the map with green connections for the least dangerous attached connections, orange for the intermediate, and red for most dangerous.

The Optional Superdungeon
Well, one exception. The blue line would be to the “final dungeon” of the area, but kept inaccessible until you’ve gotten whatever “key” is necessary to open it, probably sitting in the dangerous red dungeons connected to Town C. JRPGs use this trick a lot – putting the greatest danger near the starting town, because it gives you an excuse to go back to the starting point and see old NPCs, adds a little chill down your spine to realize DOOM was around the corner or even in town, and finally if they highlight it in some way (“Here’s this old temple but it’s locked up tight”) it works as a mystery to return to. Anyway, this is completely optional to put on the map.

Roads – safer, but not safe

Ok, now let’s talk about the roads and areas between the towns. The roads should have some hazard attached to them, so that if players want to travel between towns, there’s a bit of risk or effort involved.

From Town A to Town B, the road should have risk equal to the upper end of the easy dungeons around Town A. It softly encourages them to spend a little time getting stronger before going to Town B, but isn’t so tough that they don’t have choice about going earlier if they prefer.

On the other hand, Town A to Town C should be rather difficult. Maybe only a little safer than the dungeons attached to Town C. This could be really nasty monsters, a route that’s just naturally dangerous (river rapids, a snowy mountain pass, etc.). This definitely presents itself as “harder” lock but also sets up a preview for the more daring parties; “past this point, things are really bad”. Local characters should know all about how bad this is, and NPCs should also remark on it – unlike a videogame, you don’t simply reload after you find out the hard way.

Town B to Town C should be only as dangerous as middle-high threats attached to Town B. It gives them a little bit of a break before they face the worst stuff in the region, but also if they find out how dangerous the area around Town C is and want to go back to B, they’re not trapped there.

Rest points and resources

Everything I said about Loot, Sustainment, and Harvesting points applies equally to this kind of map. Depending on your game system, you may need more Sustainment and rest points, or Harvesting points in order to make some trips worthwhile. Most games that worry about this sort of stuff also worry about encumbrance which also means thinking about how much (treasure, resources) the party can bring with them to make a trip worthwhile. Having nearby safe zones allows them to stash some stuff and find means to get it all back to a larger town on their own.

The Big Picture

I’m always a fan of thinking of how much play I get for the prep I do – mostly because life happens and too many people never reach a good “stopping point” for a campaign, it just falls apart when life happens or people get tired of it. Plan ahead for how long you expect it to go and you can filter a bit more from your friends who might be interested in a game given the duration.

If you just do a simple default of 3 Towns, each with 3 Dungeons attached, you have 9 Dungeons. Depending on the dungeons you use, the system you’re using, and the players you have, they might be knocking out one a session or taking a dozen sessions per dungeon. Multiple that by 9 and now you have a ballpark figure; and that doesn’t count if a whole session is spent in a town or in the wilderness getting there. As you can see, just one of these maps built this way is easily months to years of gameplay on a simple structure, even if your players miss or opt to skip some of the locations.

If you’re one of those groups that alternates GMing, you can let each person be in charge of a subset of the dungeons and the area around it, splitting up the work even more.

Next time: Ok, I’ll try to do Threat and Broad Structure for real.

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