Improving the Hex Key Format

I’m nearly finished keying the hex version of my Thild map.  However looking over the key again I find I’m not satisfied with it.  I’m more or less happy with the content, it’s just I’m not confident how accessible that content is in its current form.  It seems to me that the conventional Hex Key format that I’ve adopted has some shortcomings in this regard.

To illustrate, let’s consider two different representatives of this format.  Here is a typical hex key entry for the original 1977 Judges Guild Wilderlands of High Fantasy (WHF):

0731  The Sunkin City of Amphoriantis: 112 buildings surrounded by a crumbling wall and a central temple which is frequented by sharks.  The moss covered streets contain pits every 100′ which are activated by counterweights. 

And here is a typical entry from John Stater’s more recent Hex Crawl Chronicles 1 Valley of the Hawks (HCC) Swords and Wizardry version (spoiler alert!):

1414  An ancient hospice stands in the woods here, surrounded by overgrown medicinal gardens. The hospice looks run down and at first abandoned, but it is inhabited by a small band of monks. The building is constructed atop a grotto containing medicinal springs, the water being bottled and sold as a cure-all (30 gp for a bottle, no medicinal value at all). The hospice was dedicated to Almerla, the goddess of healing. Unfortunately, the hospice and its shrine were desiccated years ago when the entire population of priests was murdered by a band of assassins. The assassins took over running the place, selling the useless elixirs of spring water and using the fortified abbey as a base of operations for assassinations throughout the Valley of the Hawks. Tarset, Lord Mayor of Swiftwater uses them extensively to maintain his control over the city. The “abbot” is a man called Lachris, and he has under his command a dozen assassins. Almerla’s idol still rests in the abandoned chapel. She appears as an inhumanly tall woman with an hour-glass build, unclothed with china-white skin and purple eyes. An alligator curls around the goddess’ feet.

Treasure: 3,700 gp and an aventurine worth 9,000 gp. The aventurine is held by the idol of Almerla, and has not been removed for fear of unleashing her fury.

Lachris: HD 6 (30 hp); AC 4 [15]; Atk 1 weapon (1d8 + poison); Move 12; Save 11; CL/XP 7/600; Special: Poisoned weapon, surprise on 1-3 on 1d6, triple damage on surprise. Chainmail, shield, sword and 2 poisoned daggers. He wears a brass toe ring worth 10 gp.

Assassin: HD 3; AC 6 [13]; Atk 1 weapon (1d8 + poison); Move 12; Save 14; CL/XP 4/120; Special: Poisoned weapon, surprise on 1-3 on 1d6, double damage on surprise.

Each entry shares essentially the same format, though the HCC entry is clearly much more expansive, and partitions information on treasure and NPCs/monsters from the body of the entry.  But, as I’ve discussed in relation to dungeon keys, these differences indicate importantly different schools of thought about what makes for a useful encounter format.

The WHF entry exemplifies a minimalist approach to designing encounters.  Erin Smale provides the rationale for this approach in his post on Hexcrawl Encounters:

The first rule of writing an encounter description is to keep it short. Short is always (and I mean every time always) better. There are about 800 reasons for this, chief among which are avoiding unnecessary work and thus reducing prep time.

Other reasons for keeping things short according to Smale are that this allows for more flexibility and customization at the table, that long entries contain too many details that are irrelevant during play and that whatever missing details are needed can easily be spontaneously generated at the table.  The description thus serves as a quick-reference “prompt”, rather than a fully fleshed out encounter.

By contrast the HCC entry operates on more of a maximalist model.  The descriptions are much more robust and require less spontaneity from the GM.  The details given suffice to run the encounter all by themselves.  Further, there is enough genuinely interesting content in this and related entries to potentially generate entire sets of adventures.  The attention to detail also gives Stater’s setting a much more “lived in” feel.

I think both approaches have something to recommend them, and each comes with some drawbacks.  My own approach was to try to split the difference.  Some of the entries I created were quite short.  Others were a few sentences long.  Only one entry came close to the size of the HCC example.  The issue I’m having with my key is that while the longer entries offer more in the way of creative potential, they are not nearly as accessible during game play.  Anything more detailed than a couple of sentences proves difficult to reference at the table.  Dungeon key entries suffer from a similar problem and I’ve adapted a version of Courtney Campbell’s method for my own dungeon format to deal with this issue.  However I think dungeon encounters and hex encounters are somewhat different animals, so I thought I’d try a different solution to the hex format.  Have a look:

My goal was to create a format that allowed for some of the advantages of both the minimalist and the maximalist approaches.  I wanted to be able to flesh out certain entries in more detail in order to get my creative juices going and provide interesting content. However I wanted to be able to refer back to these without having to read the entire entry in order to find out what it was about.

The first thing I did was add a title to each entry.  Not exactly revolutionary, but surprisingly none of the other hex keys I’ve seen do this.  Next I added a couple of icons that would allow me to quickly identify where the encounter occurred (in this example, grassland) and what type of encounter it was (in this case, a ruin).  Below this I wrote a short italicized 1 sentence description of the encounter for easy reference, followed by the main body of the entry.  Finally, like stater I have divided information related to any creatures or treasures in the encounter from the main body, and used bold-face fonts to further demarcate this information.  Anyway, this is my first pass at a new format.  Could be after using it for a while I add or subtract items from it, but for now I think this will prove much more useful to me than the standard block format.

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