Hexcrawls are having a huge comeback now-a-days, thanks to the OSR movement, and 5e’s general embrace of editions older than 3e (something WoTC had not previously done). When people talk about fantasy epics, the journey into the unknown is one of the biggest drivers there is. People like the idea of being frontier folk, out to carve their own life on the land, and explore the unknown.
Unfortunately, D&D has never really had good mechanics on this style of gameplay. 5e’s are the best I’ve seen, but there are still some serious gaps. Folks running these games raw 5e, or worse yet, raw other editions, often leave describing the experience as tedious, boring, or a chore. That doesn’t mean they have to be though.
The rules below will outline a method to run the expedition portion, or overland trek, of a hexcrawl in a way that keeps the out of game pace from bogging down, while still allowing the party to track resources and specific hexes explored at the granular level folks seeking to run these games want.
To travel across distances, a party of adventurers may choose to launch an Expedition. An Expedition is a trip, and the concept is used for travel that takes more than a single day. Travel distance in a single day varies based on overland speed, flight, teleportation, mounts, or even simply difficult terrain. Regardless, any travel of less than 1 day is not an Expedition and can simply be done by normal means, and any travel over one day is an Expedition. Yes, this means the Dwarven Expedition in which they dragged their naval ships across the snowy mountains for a dozen miles did take 6 days, while the Pegasus Knights flew patrols up to 25 miles away from their citadel as part of normal daily operation.
To launch an Expedition, the party first delegates roles. Each party member can take on no more than one role but is not required to take any role. Sometimes a traveler is simply a passenger in a covered wagon, resting while others navigate the route. An Expedition does not need all roles assigned to launch but assigning roles does nothing except make the journey easier. So, you may as well take one.
Once roles are assigned, the party outlines their intended path. Typically, this is done on a hex map, at the Kingdom scale (see the DMG) of 6-mile diameter hexes. The party should outline which specific hexes they intend to travel through to get to their destination. Potentially, by literally drawing a route on a map. The DM should record this information and use it to narratively describe the party’s trek when the time comes. At this point, the party should also outline intended travel methods. EX: On horseback, aboard a ship, or simply walking. The DM can then give rough estimates for how many days this Expedition should take (things may change however, depending on the events of the journey). This is particularly relevant if the party is doing a forced march or things of that nature.
Next, as part of a long rest, each player rolls the check associated with their role (see roles below). This represents the physical act of ensuring all supplies are gathered, maps and charts oriented, and arrangements made. The results of these checks last for the duration of the expedition and should be recorded at the start. An Expedition can be abandoned at any time, and a new Expedition launched, provided the long rest is performed at the start.
Note, if you use the one week long rest house rule, you may want to reduce the time requirement to a single 24-hour period, as opposed to a full week. I recommend a mixture of the two. Create safe places, for example a friendly tavern, which allow the party to take a long rest in a single day, while still requiring a week if the rest is spent in “The Wild.” I also wish 5e had a third resting interval, but that's off topic.
Finally, the DM rolls an Expedition die in secret, and notes the result for later. That Expedition die is based on the amounts of threats in the region. The smaller the die, the more threatening the region. A typical region has a die of D6 unless otherwise specified. This is the day for the first random encounter of the journey IE a 3 indicates an event on the 3rd day of travel. The DM then describes the journey narratively focusing on landmarks, interesting features, or encouraging inter-party roleplay. Assuming no random or fixed encounters, the DM narrates the journey through to completion. More likely than not, there will be a random or fixed encounter.
When a random encounter occurs, the DM checks for party awareness, and then describes the random encounter as appropriate. After the conclusion of the random encounter, the DM rolls the Expedition die once again and records the result. For long journeys, multiple random encounters are fairly common.
A fixed encounter is an encounter that always happens the first (or second, or third, etc.) time the party enters a hex. These are typically location-based events that are unavoidable and there is no chance to miss or bypass them, for example bandits setting up a forced toll for travelers across the road. These do not interact with random encounters, or the Expedition die, but do interrupt overland travel narration by the DM.
The fixed encounter should occur before a random encounter, if they are scheduled the same day. Players may learn about a bandit bridge toll for example and devise a way to bypass it without defeating the bandits. The next time they traverse this hex, they are expecting bandits, and will probably expect to bypass in the same way (spending the same resources). The tension of a random encounter comes in that it’s a surprise. By placing it after a fixed encounter, players may not want risk their normal bypass, if it’s costly, knowing that they could still be ambushed by unknown danger later.
- Guide: At the start of the Expedition, roll a survival or vehicle (if appropriate) check. There is a target DC of 10. For every 5 you exceed the target DC, you gain an additional success. For each success, you increase the Expedition die by one size, as you help your team navigate the wilderness in a safe manner. IE: if you roll a 17, and your Expedition die would be D6, you can increase it twice, to D10. An expedition die can never be greater than 1d20.
- Mapping: At the start of the Expedition, roll a cartographer’s tools, or navigator’s tools (depending on which is appropriate) check. You gain insight into fixed encounters along your designated route, once declared, and are able to advise your group about what to expect along your journey (since the route has been declared, you cannot change it, but you can prepare for it). Replanning the expedition is an option but will take you another long rest to plot the course. You gain a high-level summary of the contents of a single Fixed Encounter along your path at DC 10, +1 summary per every 5 you score above 10.
- Supplies: At the start of the expedition, you roll a Nature or Cook’s Utensils check to represent your ability to prepare rations, and forage for supplementary supplies, for the journey. In addition to whatever personal rations a character brings with them, you can provide food and water for an additional person with a DC 10 check, +1 person for every 5 you beat the DC.
- Scout: A scout rolls uses their passive perception to identify threats, and ensure the party is not ambushed. This applies to all fixed or random encounters during the expedition (the DM should not call for perception checks at the start of encounters, simply using the Scouts score).
- Care: At the start of the Expedition, the care provider gathers medical supplies that will be used to help the party recover from injury. They make medicine or herbalism kit check with a DC of 10. If successful, and for each 5 they beat the DC, characters regain an additional point of HP, per HD spent, when resting.
- Morale: At the start of the Expedition, the morale officer takes charge of keeping spirits high. They make a brewer’s kit, musical instrument, or gaming set check to provide entertainment on the trip with a DC of 10. If successful, and for each 5 they beat the DC, characters gain a +1 bonus on checks vs exhaustion from forced marches, lack of food, lack of water, lack of sleep, or sleeping in armor.