Monday, September 18, 2023

Maps And Distance

Driving home from Montana this weekend...a return trip I was making for the third time in the year 2023...I was again struck with wonder by the majestic landscape that stretches along Interstate 90, from the Gem State of Idaho to the Cascade Mountain range. Just incredible vistas of rolling hills and rocky cliffs, forests and mountains, the Gorge, the mighty Columbia, and miles and miles of nothing between the small towns and communities.

Per my Google Maps, the total distance between Missoula and my home in Seattle is approximately 484 miles, in a (more-or-less) straight line, along a well-maintained highway. About 24 days of hiking, if one considers a 20 mile per day march of the typical D&D party. That's a long, long distance.

I use the Pacific Northwest as the setting for AD&D campaign these days. While I've probably mentioned (many times) that I'm rather terrible at drawing maps...especially wilderness or "outdoor" maps...what I probably have not mentioned is that since switching over to actual (real world) geography, I don't even bother trying to do "hex maps." Never was much good at them anyway, and thanks to Ye Old Google Earth, I can chart distances just fine with the laptop and an internet connection. And with those distances (and being able to zoom in on the terrain) I can calculate travel times, resource depletion, wandering encounter rolls, etc.

Who needs hexes?

But here's the thing...the real thing: I know "hex crawling" is a thing: so many internet videos and blog posts discussing it, talking about best practices, extolling the virtues of using hexes to have "true" "sandbox" (i.e. open world) play. People love their hex crawling wilderness adventures...people want those hexes for the play it facilitates. Huge, multi-hundred page supplements/adventures have been published adding "interesting encounters" to each hexagonal shape on the hex map. What a fun, what a useful resource to have at one's fingertips, right?

Thing is: those hexes are too big. Too big to have "one interesting thing" in each one. I don't even care what scale you're using...six mile or twenty or 24 (B/X suggests 6 mile for small scale maps and 24 mile hexes for large). Folks need an idea of just how much space fits into an area this size.

We're all relatively familiar with the Keep on the Borderlands, right? Has a wilderness map in it, remember? One of the complaints I've read about B2 over the years is the tiny size of the outdoor area: 5200 yards by 4000 yards (that's about 3 miles by 2.25 miles). Even following the meandering road, the titular Keep is roughly two-and-a-half miles away from the Caves of Chaos...that's right next door! Heck you could fit multiple B2 wilderness pages inside a single 6-mile hex; there's too much crammed into that tiny, tiny space to be "reasonable" is the protest.

Okay, here's a screen shot from Google Earth of a portion of King County, Washington, including much of Seattle. The gold box on the screen is roughly the same size as the wilderness map in module B2. The northern border lines up with the northern city limits of Seattle proper (at 145th street); the southern border lines up with North 85th Street, two blocks from my home in the Greenwood neighborhood of north Seattle.  You could fit something like 9-10 "B2s" within the city limits of Seattle.

Now, I'll give you a close up of the area:

I'm sorry I can't provide more detail, but this area is huge: absolutely enormous. Hills and buildings (not to mention forested parks) block line of sight more than a few blocks in any direction. The area contains multiple schools, libraries, churches, a large hospital campus, movie theater, numerous "big box" stores, supermarkets, parking lots, large cemeteries, the largest shopping mall in north Seattle ( the Seattle Kraken Ice Complex), several lakes, and numerous parks, motels, businesses, strip malls, and TWO 18 hole golf courses. Two major arterials (Highway 99 and Interstate 5) divide the area into three vertical strips, each one with distinctly different character. And it's mostly residential: thousands of people live in this area, in houses with yards, duplexes, condos, and apartment buildings (in addition to at least half a dozen retirement/assisted living complexes), as well as homeless tent encampments and RVs parked under bridges and overpasses.

I am intimately familiar with this region of Seattle...I've spent most of my daily life within it and, perhaps, an additional mile radius for the bulk of the last 26 years. And even so there are giant swaths of the area that I don't know, have never visited, and have no clue about. I walk my neighborhood a lot, but I don't usually go more than 15 blocks in any particular direction without a car. And many areas are simply inaccessible by foot. 

It would be easy to drop SEVERAL dragon dens in an area this size...assuming enough food to sustain such alpha predators. Which shouldn't be too tough: the 1910 census showed Seattle to have more than 237 thousand people living within the city limits, and that was long before modern refrigeration technology. The entire population of B2, humanoid monsters included, amounts to only a few hundred...and it's not like the area around the Keep is portrayed as some sterile, desert region.

I will reiterate: this is an area three miles long from north to south. The Isle of Dread (module X1) is 144 miles long across its north-south axis. That's the same, straight-line distance as from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. That's a ridiculously huge amount of wilderness. Only an idiot would attempt to walk through the forests and mountains between those two cities (I-5 actually takes a longer, more circuitous route bending towards the coast). And yet a party of six to eight adventurers are going to try exploring the interior of a dinosaur-infested island with thick jungle and active volcanoes? Really?

Driving back along I-90 Sunday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to try traversing such a distance without the aid of the beautiful highway I was zipping along on at 80ish miles per hour. Insanity, I concluded. Miles and miles of wilderness...probably extremely hostile wilderness, especially in the heart of summer and the dead of winter. We don't account for SEASONS in our overland exploration...mountain passes are simply impossible with heavy snow (and spring rains cause avalanches and rock falls). But long before reaching the mountains, all but the most prepared (or fortunate) groups trying to cross the state would probably perish from starvation in the dry landscape.  Lewis & Clark certainly never tried it...they crossed into Oregon from Idaho and travelled down the Columbia River to the coast.


We should not underestimate the distance of distance. I'm sure that sounds silly, but when you're talking about a lost temple, a ruined fortress, or a monster lair (the usual "dungeon" sites)...such places can hide very easily within a landscape. Ye Old Internet tells me most medieval cities took up less than one square mile in area..,though I'd guess that's just the walled perimeter and that the surrounding farms extended much farther. But so long as your local dungeon isn't spewing forth hostile predators looking for townfolk prey on a regular basis, there's no reason such a place couldn't be relatively close to the PCs' "home" community.  

Just my thoughts of the last few days; thanks for reading.
; )


  1. I think that the use of hexes is popular because it gives people nodes that have a game function (encounter chance), and agree completely that the scales are all wrong, having made a similar comment on Dragonsfoot recently.

    The area of a hex is 0.866 * (width)² so a 3mi wide hex has an area of 7.8 sq miles. The trigonometry buffs amongst your readers will spot that 0.866 is half of the square root of 3.

    7.8 square miles is a lot area and from the town where I grew up there are several ruined castles, caves and other adventure sites within 3mi of my childhood home.

    The chances of finding a site without magic, following a map or asking an inhabitant is very low. Even if you know the rough locale of an adventure site it might take many hours to find it.

    While the game has rules for locating secret doors, there's no algorithm for finding a specific adventure site within a hex or how long it takes. This is something I've given a bit of thought to but I've not come up with a solution that I'm entirely satisfied with.

    Another point is population density. If the game takes its cue from a fantasy early medieval NW Europe then rural areas are very sparsely populated. I used to wonder at how empty Middle Earth seemed but now I think that it is quite suitable for adventuring with its background of fallen kingdoms and empires.

  2. I've always found that great and vast empty spaces are a good thing in outdoor games, as well as empty rooms in a dungeon. On one hand it lets you add anything that you want in that space. On the other hand, it's a good place for random encounters, or for PC's to rest, or simply for 'wasting time', days of travel or turns in the dungeon... If everything is too crowded, it's pretty easy to choke on content.

    But I'm also bound to say that in nearly all my settings the game is placed in a somewhat post-apocalyptic state that justifies the ruins, the sparse settlements and the empty spaces... Because in reality, everything tends to be more crowded!

    1. Even areas of "nothing" can be choked with's just content we tend to ignore. Most of us don't look at and examine every tree when strolling through a forest. Most of us ignore most of the buildings and citizens we pass on the streets of our neighborhood. We have destinations in mind...we have "things to do."

      But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot there that we're missing.

  3. Although one *could* argue that comparing a dense modern metropolitan neighborhood to B2's 'borderland' involves apples and oranges, I generally agree with you, absolutely!
    I remember reading, years ago, about a team of survey archaeologists who were specifically looking for ancient remains in a thickly-forested, narrow mountain valley in Turkey...and they didn't notice the ruined fortress on the opposite side of the valley, since the woods were too obscuring.
    In general, having one hex-system try to fit both travel AND exploration is probably not a great idea, unless we want to roll 3% discovery chances for sites in a 6-mi hex. :-)

    1. And even if they don't find the ruined fortress they'll probably fine SOMEthing...part of my point is that there's a lot out there to find.

  4. Not to fault the post, but i take umbrage at the argument that "Only an idiot ..."

    Much of human exploration, from South America to Africa to Australia, consists of "idiots" crossing areas ten times the length of your Isle of Dread, having to use machetes over long stretches just to carve a distance. The journeys of Walter Moberly, A.L. Rogers and Sandford Fleming through the very country you use for your world, though north of it because these were Brits in Canada, not only pursued their steps through dense brush, fields of deadfall, jagged mountains and death-dealing river courses, they hauled surveying and other scientific equipment so they could identify the best routes upon which to lay roads and railroads. They weren't idiots. They were dedicated. They had a vision. It didn't matter that they didn't see every inch of the country, or every possible nook or cranny; they cut a path for others to follow.

    Your perspective is so narrow sometimes, JB. Okay, so the players don't find everything there is to find. The players don't exist in a vacuum. If they can kill one tenth of one percent of what's there, and come back alive, it encourages NPCs to do the same ... and one day the Isle of Dread is the Isle of Pretty Flowers.

    You argue pretty well that we need to lift our vision and see D&D in grander terms ... but you're still short of doing that yourself.

    1. @ Alexis:

      "Idiot" was the wrong word. "Crazy" is probably closer to what I meant. Certainly there are visionaries and pioneers with brains, courage, zeal, and (hopefully) proper preparation that undertake such expeditions...I'm not talking about those folks.

      Rather, I'm talking about your usual D&D party: usually a laissez-faire group who are more concerned with whether they brought an extra dagger or quiver of arrows then, say, sufficient rations or an extra horse to replace the one that steps in a hole and breaks its leg. All they see is "Five hexes? We'll be there in a week, even if we get 'lost' once or twice."

      And the DMs are just as laissez-faire about it.

      I probably wasn't as clear as I intended...I was a little rushed getting the post up. The woods of the Pacific Northwest are littered with the ghosts of people who thought they could just "hike off the trail" on a lark and thought they'd be fine...and we don't even have dragons and bugbears here. The flatlands of eastern Washington have hundreds of miles of NOTHING, tiny communities connected by railways and a highway system that didn't exist 150 years ago. Exposure, starvation, and death is probably in store for any group of three-to-five adventurers who set out on horses from Spokane with the idea of making Moses Lake in a few days...hey, it's only 95 miles!

      Yes, an unexplored wilderness like the Isle of Dread presents a tremendous the right group of individuals. It's a death trap to most anyone else, even a large group of PCs level 4th to 7th who go in thinking, hey, we got this, we have a wand of lightning bolts and a fly spell. Sure, your +3 mail is good armor, but can you eat it? Can it protect you from malaria?

      As for the "one tenth of one percent" of things to find: that actually was my other point. There's a lot out there, not just ONE lair or ONE town. A single 6-mile hex can house MANY adventuring opportunities. DMs (and publishers) lay out these nice little hex maps for exploration and place one, maybe two, "places of interest" in each. That's playing too small with the world. There's a lot of potential danger in every square mile.

      It's not like the PCs are zipping along in their mini-van.

    2. It's probably me. As a player, I see myself as kind of a Sandford Fleming (inventor of many things, including standard time). I want my characters to identify with the fictional Lazarus Long, for whom proper preparedness was a biblical concept.

      I'll grant you that most players are Lewis and Clark (lucky morons who nearly died a lot of the time) ... but are we really designing the game for these people?

    3. We're not...or we shouldn't be. That's kind of my point.
      ; )

  5. Just for interest, just north of New York City on the west side of the Hudson River, there is Harriman State Park. It is 47527 acres, which is very crudely 2 6 mile map hexes. Therein, there are over 300 miles of trails, 31 lakes, mountains, streams, gorges, and much more. People routinely go off the trails and get horribly lost, and it takes days to weeks for emergency services to find them, and occasionally they aren't found. This is in 2 hexes, 30 miles from a major city. 1 encounter/point of interest in the hex is WAY too small.

  6. Cool post JB!

    I am intensely interested in the idea of scale, and it's delightful to see you bring it up. You hint around but never come quite around to saying something that I think is important for these discussions-- energy density, where magic functions as a sort of high-density energy in an otherwise low-energy assumed landscape.

    If we use technology today as a proxy for understanding the practical effects of "magic" (and we often do, without really saying it), then the miles and miles of distance between Seattle and Portland would be as inconsequential to a magic-user in a fantasy context as it us with our cars and access to mass transit (a one-way STP bus ticket via Greyhound costs $25 which is about 1.5 times the minimum wage; so not really a serious cost to the average modern person).

    In an imagined world where magic functions as a proxy for technology, a "lost temple, a ruined fortress, or a monster lair" would not be hidden within the landscape, but easily visible with a minimum of magical means, and would stand out like a golden spruce.

    1. Mm. I don't really treat magic as a "proxy for technology" in my campaign; that to me is the most banal and trite way to look at magic (see the Harry Potter franchise as an example); apologies if this gives offense.

      Magic in AD&D is complicated, inconvenient, and often unreliable: the fly spell has a variable duration, teleport might kill you, contacting other planes can drive you insane, etc. It is is incredibly finite and temperamental compared to our modern technology...or even to the technology of the pseudo-medieval setting used by D&D. It causes aging and system shock rolls, it requires expenditure of precious resources for a single one-off effect, and the casting of spells is easily disrupted.

      What's more, the prevalence of cursed magic items speaks to the trickiness of creating any sort of permanent enchantments.

      No, I honestly don't see magic as a proxy for technology. AD&D wizards aren't mechanical and electrical engineers...they're more like Professor Brown from the film "Back to the Future." That's not something you can rely on. It's not something the average peasant is going to trust in.

      As such, NO, I do not think hidden dungeons will be particularly visible...certainly not to the average person in the setting.

  7. Yeah, I'm with you on that for most gaming purposes. But, I'd add that the larger hexes are useful for what a lot of D&D/AD&D gamers today call the "endgame" and AD&D's DMG called "Territory Development" (pp. 93-94 et passim). They're also sometimes useful for long-distance travel, such as by ship. Anyway, here's a thread with a couple of maps of North America with 12 mile hexes.

    1. Ha! That map's pretty cool. I wish there was a way to overlay a hex grid on Google Earth. ; )

      For long-distance (ocean) travel by ship, I can see hexes being very useful.For my own campaign setting, water travel is accomplished over fairly short distances, so this is less important. But I can see how other settings would beg to differ.

      You know, it's been a loooong time since I've read the "territory development" section of the's been literal decades since I had PCs of sufficient level and resources to actually develop their fiefdoms. I'm going to have to examine this further, and see how I can adapt my "non-hex" campaign to the system given. Thanks for pointing it out!

    2. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on adapting Territorial Development to a non-hex mapping system.

  8. Any DM running a wilderness area should be familiar with what such areas look like in person. A square mile of forest is not that much in the grand scheme of things, but you can hide a lot of stuff in a square mile, and it behooves us to wander the woods a while and get that experience directly.

  9. I have wanted to try my hand at hex-crawling for a while but what I really don't like is the large scale. Even a one mile hex is so so big. Dyson has an excellent set of maps (Baraloba and Environs) where each map is one six mile hex. Each one has a HUGE amount of content and lots of places ripe for adventure. Even though each sub hex is like, a quarter mile I think that could be a lot of fun to "crawl".

  10. Something else to consider, using panthers and bears as examples, as these are among the largest predators in the Pacific northwest.

    In general, a male panther's territory can range from 50 to 150 square miles (from one 6-mile hex to as many as six), while a female's territory is usually smaller, between 20 and 60 miles. Territories overlap to some extent, especially in higher population areas, but panthers will actively defend their territories against other males. They use scent marking, vocalisations and physical confrontations to do so. During the breeding season, male and female panthers may come together temporarily for mating, but they disperse afterwards.

    Grizzly bears are also territorial, and will also defend their home range, with the size of that range (like the panther) dependent on food availability and habitat quality. Some individual bears tolerate other bears. A typical home range for a grizzly is 20 to 115 square miles, though a male bear may have a range of 300 to 580 square miles or even larger. That's quite a lot of 6-mile hexes.

    My point is that while yes, we could fit several dragon's dens into the area you specify, the dragons themselves probably wouldn't like it. It may be hard for the players to find a bear or a panther, or a dragon, but these creatures have ways of identifying when one of their own kind is in the neighbourhood ... and since this may represent a danger to the animal's food supply, the amount of toleration shown depends on how much food there is.

    So consider that a given dragon, or other monster, is particular about adventure character flesh, and would rather not share. True enough, there's a great deal of area within that 6-mile hex, but if the monster can count on getting all of its desired food that enters that hex, then it's going to bully other monsters out of the area.

    THEREFORE ... hex crawling is not the irrationality this discussion has proposed. Actual space is irrelevant. It's food supply that matters, and how much mass of food the particular monster requires. It's quite reasonable for DMs to use a six mile hex, and to place one large monster or monster lair per hex, despite how much "empty space" this allows.

    1. Your reasoning is sound and I will not quibble except to say that I prefer the term "cougars" (mountain lions), rather than "panthers," as the latter tends to bring to mind the melanin variant big cat associated with leopards and jaguars...neither of which are native to the area.

      Also, they are the mascot of WSU (let's go Pac-2!).
      ; )

  11. Distance on the ground is not really the point. Distance as time is the point. The further the party is from help/refuge the more they have to depend on themselves and planning because they can't wait for summoned help. That's a good thing and one reason teleport always has a chance to kill you. Once distance is not important, the party is never truly alone. As the levels rise, the party can risk going further and the DM can in many ways treat distance from civilization like dungeon levels for danger rating, if s/he likes.

    And, you don't have to show hexes to players. I know many do, but for me the hex grid is mostly for regulating my notes.

  12. I was always under the impression that the whole point of hexes was to enable procedural generation (like a random dungeon). Generating, for example, 6 miles of wilderness at a time permits DMs to randomly generate large portions of wilderness quickly. But much like random dungeon generation, these were not meant to actually model anything realistic, or even necessarily gameable without tweaking.

    1. That could very well be. I’m just not generating random wildernesses these days.