The Ineffable Grandeur of 30-mile Hexes

Rob Conley, purveyor of the Bat in the Attic blog and designer of numerous excellent old-school RPG products, recently reminded us on the RPG Circus podcast of a flaw he found in the World of Greyhawk, as originally presented in a humble 32 page booklet written by Gary Gygax and two enormous and gorgeous poster maps penned by Darlene. It’s a theme he’s mentioned before; specifically, he makes mention of “the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hex”.

While I generally like Rob’s stuff, and especially (from what I’ve heard of it– I’ve not yet purchased it myself) his take on the Wilderlands campaign, I must take this opportunity to humbly disagree with him on this particular issue. Specifically, he has written:

By the time they reached 10th level or so I was growing dissatsified with running Greyhawk. The howling emptiness of the 30 mile hexes were tedious to fill. The various realms were too grand. Their scale was beyond what I felt even 10th level characters could measurably effect.

In my own campaigns, I’ve done wilderness maps at a quarter mile per hex, 100, and everything in between. Since I’ve settled on Greyhawk as my campaign setting of choice, I’ve come to the conclusion that large scale maps are not at all inimical to the sandbox style of campaign. All it means is that you have a larger sandbox.

Taking the World of Greyhawk as my specific example, the question becomes, “do you really need to have an encounter with a monster every day?” Does every hex have to have a creature, or a dungeon, or an ancient monolith, or whatever? Why can’t there just be hexes where there’s nothing but plains of wheat, with a handful of farmsteads around a small village?

Personally, I think it speaks to the scale and breadth of the campaign that a party traveling from Greyhawk to Highfolk (perhaps in pursuit of some lead or having a treasure map or somesuch come into their possession) would have the journey be described thusly:

“You begin your journey on the fourth day of Flocktime. and four days later find yourselves in the free city of Dyvers. [Stuff then happens to them in Dyvers, or maybe doesn’t, depending on the actions of the PCs and the wishes of the DM] Traveling on the High Road, you reach Verbobonc eight days later [Ditto]. Once you leave Verbobonc, after eight days you come to a small village where there’s a ford that allows you to cross the river Velverdyva [Ditto]. A week and a half after that, you see the walls of Highfolk finally greeting you after your journey.”

Now, that is assuming the DM doesn’t roll for any random wilderness encounters during the trip; over the course of 30 days of travel, there is room for all sorts of random encounters (and, looking at the WoG encounter tables, the preponderance of encounters will be with merchants, pilgrims, patrols, and so forth). But I think that speaks not to the deficiency of the setting, but rather to the nature of play within it.

In some sandbox-type settings, the idea is to explore a wilderness and “clear it out”, much like some players are inclined to “clean out” a dungeon or dungeon level before moving on. But the World of Greyhawk fantasy setting, much like the concept of the megadungeon itself (which largely had its genesis in Greyhawk) works a little bit differently. Those “empty” hexes are only empty in the context of adventurers looking for stuff to explore and things to kill. Simply put, in the civilized lands of Greyhawk (and even in the barbarian lands in the northern belt of the map) you’re not supposed to go into a given hex with the idea that it is a new realm to be tamed, its inhabitants slain and its lands brought into the sphere of civilization. In many respects, it’s just another part of the montage of travel, flyover country where you must travel by necessity in order to get to your ultimate destination.

Does it really hurt anything to hand-wave five day’s travel in lands that are fairly civilized, in order to get the PCs to the city? By all means, I think the DM should roll for random encounters, and hopefully have a few set-pieces and ready-to-roll encounters with merchant caravans, troupes of actors, and the ubiquitous peasants set upon by goblin raiders to drop in should the action lag. But in a setting such as Greyhawk, the theme is not “exploring the wilderness, taming it, and bringing it to the realm of civilization”. It’s “there are elder places of deep and abiding mystery, which we reach by passing through relatively mundane spaces.”

Why does the DM need to “fill” all the hexes? What is wrong with having some stretches of geography just be that safe place where the inns aren’t run by secret vampire cults, the fields are tended by honest, hard-working folk who don’t happen to also be werewolves in thrall to the local lich, and there aren’t tribes of goblins in the hills waiting to launch a raid?

Sure, the scale of Greyhawk’s maps are large, but that just means the action takes place on a larger tableau. Think of those scenes in Conan the Barbarian, where he is running or riding over hundreds of miles of terrain. The movement takes only a minute on screen, but it gets him to where the action is. It gives the thing depth and scale. Enormous scale.

How is that it different if the characters travel 3 miles to find the next dungeon, monster, or secret cult, or 60? It’s just a question of scale, and I happen to think it works in Greyhawk’s favor that the scale is so large. There’s only one dungeon in any given 90 mile area? So what? There are so many 90 mile areas, all it means is that you’ve got a little farther to travel to get to the next one. And getting there can be half the fun.

Dare to let the mundane be mundane! It will make the extraordinary seem all the more special.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

17 thoughts on “The Ineffable Grandeur of 30-mile Hexes

  1. I've always liked a bit of extra room in my sandbox, so 30 mile hexes work well. I don't have a problem with glossing over the 'boring' parts of travel or using them for more socially oriented encounters.

  2. I thoroughly agree that any scale of hex can be made to work wonderfully. The hexes in Empire of the Petal Throne are 83 miles across. Or consider Traveller star charts. A hex must be about 6,000,000,000,000 miles across!

  3. While I've lately been particularly enamored of smaller scale hexes, I never had a problem with Greyhawk's 30-mile ones. They seemed to suit the world very well, which, in the end, is what's important. There's no one-size-fits-all approach.

  4. 30 miles? Nay, 10 LEAGUES, sir!

    Been hangin' about Rel Mord, eh?

    Oh, we don't half talk posh, don't we? I suppose you say 'ehnvelope' and 'larngerie' and 'sarndwiches on the settee' with our new fancy 'miles'!


  5. And in any case, one type of hex does not preclude others. Certainly, a hex within Furiondy is going to be different from one in the Wild Coast. When I played Greyhawk, it was clear that some areas required "fleshing out" by the DM, while others didn't. A trip from Dyvers to Chendl is easily abstracted into a few minutes of game time, a trip from Greyhawk to the southern areas of the Wild Coast could be filled with encounters.

  6. Speaking of RPG Circus, Joseph, I’d love to have you on the show soon, to discuss CotMA and Greyhawk in general! Let me know if that’s something you’d be interested in.

    I’m actually torn on this issue, because I understand where people would want more detail. My own sandbox game is in a pretty severe wilderness, so it’s encounter rolls for every 10-mile hex traversed. The encounter tables are more forgiving in civilized lands, though.

    Really, this is almost a discussion of scale, not unlike model railroading. Some people are HO-scale fans, some prefer O, N, or Z. And judging from the model railroad forums, they will defend their preference to the death. 😉

  7. I find thirty mile hexes to be ideal for a world or "realm" level map. It works well for several reasons. First, a league (the distance one can walk in an hour) is about 3 miles, so a 30 mile hex is 10 leagues, which means it's a rough representation of a day's hike. Second, the default size for a barony or domain in OD&D/AD&D is 20 or 30 miles. Lastly, it "breaks down" well.

    By "breaking down," I mean you can zoom in on it. In OD&D, Gary talks about using a "referee's map" with a scale of 5 miles per hex (and movement rates are given in terms of 5 mile hexes). In the AD&D DMG, Gary talks about a world map scale of 20 to 40 miles per hex, which is then divided up into region maps by dividing each large hex by 5 (either across the middle or across each face). For a 30 mile hex, that means the region maps would have 6 mile (2 league) hexes, which is pretty darn close to OD&D's 5 mile per hex "referee map."

    Since I started with an OD&D-style "referee map" at 5 miles per hex, I went with 25 miles per hex for my world map, and I redefined the league as 2.5 miles (there's precedent for that in "real world" leagues, in any case). However, 30/6/3-mile-league or 25/5/2.5-mile-league both work great, and both fall right in line with EGG's advice in the 1e DMG (pg 47).

  8. I agree with everything in your post. My most rabid player (my cousin Brandon), whom I taught in late '97 when he was about 12 and far surpassed me in both gaming ability and enthusiasm, loved conventional interactions in the vilages along the road. Don't get me wrong, he loves monster slaying and loot-grabbing as well, but he also ran me ragged trying to flesh out NPCs for him to get to know. When I was able to keep up, we had great gaming sessions based around shopping for supplies ;-).

    I am curious about one thing though: apart from the traditional roots of the hobby being in wargaming, is there any practical reason for hexes? I was always uncomfortable with hex maps (probably my overly linear nature 😉 ) and used squares for everything without running into any problems.

    I'm not trying to start a hex people vs square people flame war here, so please don't take offense, but I am genuinely curious.

  9. Mark: The reason for hexes is simple; it's always the same distance from the center of one hex to the center of another. When you use squares, the distances get messed up if someone decides to go in a diagonal direction.

  10. Joseph: Thanks…that certianly makes sense. I always just used a measuring strip in the same scale as the grid, but I can see where people wouldn't want to deal with that.

    Just like I don't like to deal with sub-hexes that are split between two larger ones ;-).

  11. Good post indeed. The comment on downtime in 'uneventful hexes' is very good, and echoes the apporach in my campaign. The downtime is a great opportunity for role-playing as the PCs/NPCs can meet other travelers, or simply converse as they cook supper around the camp fire as night falls. In that exchange they may even learn a thing or two about the quest or facts of the setting.

  12. Great post, I know that I have populated my maps a bit too densely. There really doesn't have to be something interesting everywhere you go.

  13. continuing my effort to post only on old posts and thus consign my comments to oblivion:

    I started playing around with scale over the past week, and I can definitely see the 'howling emptiness' 30-mile-hex argument.

    I've always had this issue with mapmaking, even when I was a kid: my maps always feel like a lot of empty. Then I look at a real-world map, and it seems so full!

    I started with the idea that I'd make just a single valley, and I'd shoot for realistic village densities. I started looking for example valleys, using Google Earth to find likely candidates and get a sense of their scale.

    Now, the largest reasonable valley I'm aware of is California's Central Valley. It's huge, runs most of the length of the state. You could fit several medieval states into it, no problem.

    It's about 60 miles across, and 500 miles long. At a 30mi/hex scale, that's only 2 hexes across and 17 hexes long. You get just 34 total hexes to describe the terrain of a massive region with hundreds and hundreds of towns, villages, castles, battlefields, forests, rivers, and so forth.

    At the 30mi/hex scale, all of modern Switzerland fits in just 6×4 hexes or so. Drop down in Google Maps to street view level and take a look around some of the winding Alpine roads… that's a whole lot of terrain, and could easily hold a pretty epic campaign all by itself.

    I think the problem with a 30 mile hex with nothing in it but a farming village is that, by a reasonable population density, you're actually looking at 50+ villages in that hex, probably with a town at their center. At that scale, a medieval princedom in the style of Germany might count itself lucky to have 9 whole hexes to itself, and it would still be packed to overflowing with different features, terrain types, and so forth.

    I'm happy to build maps for whole worlds at that scale, but I rarely consult them for adventuring purposes. There's just too much lost detail at that level of granularity. If the players are going to Location X, I want a map of Location X to be around 6mi/hex or smaller. At 30/hex, I feel like a whole host of Location Xes could get lost in one hex.

    To finish my story about creating a realistic valley: I ended up modeling my map on the area around Medford, OR (in scale, not in content). That gives me a lot of room to maneuver, has 3 days of travel to cross the whole valley, and is a substantial chunk of a fairly large state. It's teeming with caves, ruins, villages, interesting features, and lairs. Now, it's not intended to be 'epic', and I'll probably go quite a bit bigger if the players end up doing kingdom-sized adventures, but for levels 1-8 or so I expect to have no trouble with scale.

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