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I am preparing to run Tomb of Annihilation for my players shortly, and a big part of the campaign is a hexcrawl over a huge map of Chult.

The way this campaign works is that players start with a rudimentary map, with most of the area (around 80%) unknown and unexplored, and then gradually uncover the map hex by hex as they travel. There’s a couple of locations for them to find out about and possibly visit but there’s not too many of those and the campaign can involve long stretches of just travel and random encounters.

To put it in perspective, it takes the party a full day to travel over 1 hex and there are ~10 hexes of travel between locations related to the story. Every day, you roll 3 times for random encounters, for weather, and for way-finding; if the roll is low, the party becomes lost, travelling in a random direction, which makes travel times even longer (+ any optional activities PCs want, e.g. finding water, food, scouting etc.).

As a result of this, the campaign very quickly stops being fun and just turns into a boring slog of travelling, making camp, and random encounters that’s not fun for either the players or the DM.

Is there a way to present this hexcrawl to the players while not letting it become repetitive and tedious?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I added the 5e tag since ToA is a 5e module, let us know if you happen to be playing something else. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 14, 2022 at 21:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ How are random encounters not fun in a varied environment? \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Nov 18, 2022 at 8:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @András it's not just encounters, it's the entire process of travelling one hex at a time intertwined with fighting random filler things and taking hours and hours of just doing the same thing over and over again before you get to any story-relevant bits - that has been my experience with ToA and the other players felt the same way \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 18, 2022 at 9:46

7 Answers 7

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Preroll a lot of stuff

I haven't run this particular module, but I have used hexcrawl and pointcrawl style play in my home campaign.

Even if I don't know exactly which way the party is going to go at any given time, I find it often useful to preroll things that I'm pretty sure are going to need to be randomly generated. I can sit at my desk during prep time and roll up 60 days of weather in advance. I'll generate 60 days worth of random encounters (and if there's different encounter tables for different hexes or times of day, I'll roll up 20 or so encounters for each environment and just pull the next one off the appropriate list when they hit the next encounter), and so on.

And then I nudge it to make little stories or conceptual plots. Random generation often comes up with just a lot of stuff-that-happens with no real coherent order to it, but with a few nudges you can turn it into something meaningful. For example, if I roll two rain days, then a sunny day, then rain, then partial rain, I'll rework it to give them three days of torrential rains, then the next day the rain breaks and it's sunny afterward. I'll often reshuffle or outright reroll random encounters when they don't seem quite thematic enough -- a series of clashes with a specific group suggests that the party is traveling through that group's land (wherever it happens to be on the map!) and that makes a better story than just running into yuan-ti four times across five weeks or something.

Skip over the boring bits

Once you know when the next random encounter is "scheduled" for and don't have to roll a bunch of dice every thirty seconds, you can move a lot faster on the day to day travel. Let the players pick a few hexes and roll their navigation without pausing too much, just give them some setting descriptions as they move along, then at the appropriate time you say "On the fourth night, as you're setting up camp, you hear a sound in the bushes--" and move along.

But remember that the journey is the story

Remember that these encounters aren't there just to be a source of XP. Emphasize how each encounter reveals the land they're traveling through. (This becomes much easier when you pre-roll your encounters and can spend time ahead to think about how they might function to show off Chult!) Consider the environment each encounter happens in and how it shows off the land -- an ancient ruin infested by a troop of aggressive baboons or a dry river bed where a massive snake sleeps say something about the territory and the kinds of people who live there (or don't).

If you look at a hexcrawl as a slow, complicated way to get from A to B to C, then yes, it's going to suck. It isn't the Indiana Jones Red Line to Adventure.

A hexcrawl has more in common with the Lord of the Rings; the land is a character in its own right, and the hexcrawl is a series of conversations with that character. As you roll up the hexcrawl, you are asking Chult, "What do you want to show me today? What are you trying to tell me?"

If you ignore the answers, it's going to feel pretty pointless.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You could also skip the randomness in favor of some actual mini-story bits. If the party is moving towards something, have them have fitting encounters. Maybe scouts of a faction active at their target (doesn't have to be a fight, maybe just a talk with sharing some info), or refugees coming from the calamity that awaits them there. Maybe they notice something different with the animals they hunt (getting worse the closer they get, aka a throwaway sentence at first and then more and more detailed descriptions as they close in) \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 22, 2022 at 9:45
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Having run Tomb of Annihilation a few times, I'll say:

1. Share the load.

Each time I ran ToA I had one player make the navigation rolls, one player roll for random encounters, one player describe the weather for the in-game day, one player plot the party's route on the player-facing map. Uneventful in-game days--which was the majority of them, IIRC--take only a couple of minutes. The plotter enjoyed shading in new hexes with their terrain, the whole table had a bit of a puzzle to solve when it became clear they'd lost their way some days back, and nobody complained about travel times.

2. Random encounters have a purpose.

The random encounter tables in ToA aren't just filler: they're the majority of how the players learn about the land of Chult. I strongly suggest you think of them as "stochastic exposition," not as a hurdle to clear for XP purposes. Especially if you can tie the encounters together, they create their own little narrative as you make your way to Omu.

(And you should totally check out and upvote Groody's excellent answer if you want a better explanation of this point!)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it possible to expand on "stochastic exposition"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Nov 15, 2022 at 3:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, "stochastic" is a term for a process that's randomly determined. So the game of plinko is a stochastic descent, while using well-designed random encounter tables gives you stochastic exposition that emerges from play rather than from box-text =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Nov 15, 2022 at 4:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Where "well-designed" <--> encounters that convey information useful later on or that naturally hook together to make it easy for the attentive GM to weave them into a coherent story.) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Nov 15, 2022 at 4:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ That sounds easier said than done, but that's approximately what I thought you meant. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Nov 16, 2022 at 5:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for both the kind words and the generous bounty, I’m super grateful for both. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2022 at 20:24
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Think of random encounters as prompts for worldbuilding

Random encounters are a great tool to surprise not only your players but also yourself and create a unique story. They can be much more than combats to overcome. As others have already said, they are a way to get to know Chult, and can serve as the grain around which your improvisation (or preparation, if you roll them in advance) creates a rich story.

  • Ask yourself: why are these creatures here, what are they doing, what are their goals, and what would they know? How do they fit with other recent encounters we had? Intelligent creatures may be willing to parlay, or share information about the environment, instead of just attacking a large and well-armed expedition. Others that would be tough encounters like a cyclops may be willing to avoid risky combat in exchange for a pack animal for food as toll. Either one may have quarrels with the last group the party met, may have their own problems with the undead or controlling territory and so on, and these can help you to establish what the real map of Chult looks like.

  • Use encounters to reveal the larger story. Many of the encounters, such as the Frost Giants, Aarakocra, Yuan-ti, Goblins, Flaming Fist, Scouts, etc. are based out of, or allied with one of the special locations on the map and may help guide the characters there, or share a sliver of additional information of what is going on in the jungle (such as their special objectives).

  • Not every encounter needs to result in combat. If you feel an encounter you roll would just hold up play, don't run it as combat. Run it in a way that can be avoided. Wild animals can be seen grazing in a clearing or flying overhead, enlivening the monotony of the jungle. A group of Zombies or a carnivorous dinosaur may be ripping apart the cadaver of an unlucky creature and the party can sneak past. Many of the encounters are already written that way; for example, you see the red dragon circling overhead, and may learn where he could live from observing where he is going.

  • Don't be afraid to ignore a result if it does not fit. Sometimes you get a roll and just cannot think of anything to make it interesting, fit in or tell a story, or you really want the party to move on because an exiting and unique feature is nearby. If you can see no good way to work the encounter in, you can ignore it.

  • Accumulate encounters: if it is hard to make an encounter work usefully right then, you can note it down, and see if you can work it in later. Maybe the group encounters both the previous and the next encounter in battle with each other. Maybe the monster found the party's tracks, and is following their trail to burst onto the scene when they are in combat later on, or to ambush them later when they rest. Or you combine it with another random encounter later into a larger group and a more challenging battle -- like goblins riding dinosaurs.

Also, note that there are really a lot of different, and well described random encounters here. The main jungle alone has over 30 diffrent outcomes for each class of area. That is a lot to explore and discover, so it is unlikely to become boring and repetitive, even if traveling through the jungle for weeks.

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Having endured a hex crawl or two as a player:

Be Excited About Everything!

IME, nothing sucks the fun out of a session of D&D quite like the GM not being engaged with the narrative.

The party didn't <rolls dice> find another <yawn> kobold warren. Rather: the scout noticed a concealed tunnel in the side of that hill! Or: the kobold tribe noticed the scout clanging through the countryside and got the drop on the party!

Narrate with exclamations points! Especially the breaks from routine! Yay: no walking for a minute!

And Assume Nothing

Do the players want to bash in the front door? Do they want to stealth past the encounter? Do they want to sneak in and attack from behind? Even if this is the 40th time the party's found a kobold warren and they've chosen "bash in the front door" all 39 times before, make sure they want to do the same this time. Maybe they feel like their resources are a little low for bashing; maybe the rogue just got a cool new stealth-ey ability and wants to try it out; maybe the wizard just wants to teleport everybody home.

There's a temptation to fall into "fast-food worker" mode as a GM, assuming that the next encounter - especially random(-ish) encounters - will play out in the standard way (okay, one "bash in the door" with a side of "mid-level spell slots", got it; that'll be 15 HP and 2 HD at the first window). The insidious parts are that (a) they often do, and (b) assuming that they will encourages them to do so). So: start the encounter just a beat or two before the approach is inevitable. Compare

you find a kobold warren; here's the map, with your tokens in the entryway; roll initiative.

vs.

as you're scouting, you hear the tell-tale sound of a twig snapping underfoot and notice some movement from next to that tree over there. The rest of the party is about 30 feet behind you, being none too stealthy. What do you do?

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Outsource

Yes, the joy of creation and the thrill of making something with your own hands but, frankly, who has the time?

I used Encounters in the Jungles of Chult for $3.99 written by people better at it than I am but there are a huge number of resources out there for very little investment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 many times: this answer reminded me to poke around and I have both Encounters in the Jungle and Encounters in Port Nyanzaru which I made liberal use of. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Nov 16, 2022 at 1:01
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Play up the horror of exhaustion.

In D&D 5e, there are only a few VERY expensive options for curing exhaustion without a long rest. The simplest of these is the Greater Restoration spell, a 5th level spell. Yet it's so simple to get exhausted.

  • The barbarian frenzied when that ogre attacked. He got a nice full cup of blood wine out of the deal, but now he's cranky and needs a nap. Exhaustion +1.
  • The wizard drank a crazy bubbling potion (Tenser's Transformation), and hulked out. Now they're cranky and need a nap. Exhaustion +1.
  • The weather is too cold and wet, and a fire wouldn't start.
  • The weather is too hot, and you don't have enough water.
  • Running out of food!
  • You're harassed by kobolds at night. Kobolds! The barbarian could eat a kobold whole. You could kill one in your sleep. But the ruckus is terrible, and they keep starting fires with flaming guano. So you haven't managed to complete a long rest in more than 24*n hours, and failed a few escalating Constitution checks, DC 10+5n, where n is the number of times you've succeeded on the check before. You're growing more and more exhausted. The wizard with Medicine proficiency says you can't survive 11 days of this...
  • The suns won't set on this accursed land! And there's no water for miles at a time. Ferocious creatures guard every watering hole. Vampire sloths occupy the maple trees. And the gnats! The gnats are everywhere, in every pot and waterskin, every wound and in the horse's eyes.
  • After a week of the kobolds, the savannah has gone quiet. Deadly quiet. Now the party is hounded by a pursuit predator. Run as they might, it will always catch up. Always. In the night, it skulks just outside the firelight. It fears no sword, only fire. You keep watch in pairs, to keep from being picked off, to no avail. The firewood is wet. The forage is thin. It begins to snow.
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    \$\begingroup\$ The weather being too cold will not be an issue the characters face in the sweltering jungles of Chult. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 18, 2022 at 23:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ paulkirtley.co.uk/2010/hypothermia When the ambient temperature is less than 28 C (82 F), unless your body is protected, you will lose heat to the environment around you. This means hypothermia can occur in deserts or jungles, not just in arctic or mountain environments. In fact hypothermia can occur at pretty much any latitude. I once got hypothermia just by being wet without clothes in a 65 degree house, running around getting ready for a date. \$\endgroup\$
    – Feygon
    Nov 19, 2022 at 0:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Freygon: I stand corrected and learned something new, thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 19, 2022 at 6:51
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You can make more with what you've got.

By skipping past boring encounters/travel, creating effectively a homebrew emergent story campaign out of the locations they are traveling through/the random encounters, or spicing up the encounters to make them cooler/more noteworthy.

But this is kind of what hexcrawl is.

A slog through lots of combat encounters with some logistics'n'dragons on the side. The classic dungeon adventure with less roleplaying and story and more stabbing ghouls in the face to steal their golden bangles. If you aren't enjoying this, if your party isn't enjoying this.. play a different campaign?

Or re-purpose Chult into a non-hexcrawl adventure. Add a plot, more memorable villains, meaningful encounters rather than randomly rolled ones etc. Like hanging a plot off [whatever you roll], but without the [whatever you roll] part. Turns out there's a cult in Chult or whatever and there's people you need to variously talk to and steal from and so on to get the 8 Azure Diamonds and whatever.

But like, if you take the basically random combat out of a basically random combat simulator, you are not left with very much.

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