Dynamic Hexcrawl Required Reading: Mentzer & Cook, Experts

A little while ago, I promised to start a series of posts on hexcrawl design the way I do it, which I call "dynamic hexcrawl design." Fancy name for "I make shit up as I go along, but here are the rules I use to make shit up with." It started with my "Let's Talk About Hexcrawl Design" post, where a conversation about the tools I use spiraled into me realizing I wasn't adequately describing how I go about doing stuff. And so, here we are, talking about hexcrawls once again, and probably for awhile. But before we get into my particular idiom of how to hexcrawl, I want to review some of the ideas on how to hexcrawl that have been around for awhile, because I draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of different places. Today, we'll be talking about the influene that both of the D&D Expert Sets have.

First, turn in your missal to the Second Book of BX, Revelations of St. Cook Unto the Experts, page X54. Read the whole thing. Every time I go back to the BX texts, I'm struck by how robust and really very poinient they are. I think the fact that I cut my gaming teeth on Mentzer (which back in the day did in fact have the stigma of "kiddie D&D" around it, that you'd graduate from Basic and go on to Advanced D&D, a misconception that was exacerbated by the advertising for both brands at the time) kept me from looking back in time at the previous edition of Expert, one that I was only vaguely aware of back in the day, until relatively recently.

Read page x54. All of it. Because I love you all so much, here's a link to that page.


This little page is chock full of wisdom and simple processes, but no explicit "this is how you do X, Y or Z." Dave Cook's general rule is to let common sense be your guide. This can be both a strength and a weakness; when I was 11, when I was in serious contemplation of these rules, common sense was in relatively short supply, but today, I don't want a mess of rules getting in the way of things that make sense. Here we see the first mention that I know of in a TSR product of the 6 mile/24 mile hex set up that seems to terribly common in modern OSR games (I'll go back and check OD&D, but I'm pretty sure it's not there since Gary seemed to like 5 mile hexes). What Cook provides us with are guidelines more than anything else, and no real procedure. That's fine. That's good. He shows us things we should be paying attention to and then encourages us to move on. Nice, solid little section.

Now we shall turn to the Second Book of BECMI, the Letter of St. Frank of Mentzer to the Experts, page 28.


You'll see that Uncle Frank doesn't change the text much from Cook's original. Definitely not in any substantive way. What Frank adds is some fine-tuning details, specifically more information about the non-human races that might be found in "the wilderness" that you're designing.

Which brings up a point that's worth paying attention to at this juncture. Neither Cook nor Uncle Frank call it a "hexcrawl," at least not in these texts. Instead, we have "wilderness regions." I mean, it makes sense, right? "Hexcrawl" is clearly a more recent innovation, derived from the term "dungeoncrawl." Today, these terms are used with a degree of love behind them, even if it's a nostalgiac or ironic form of love; it feels, though, as if we were to send these terms back in time to 1980 or '83, they would have seemed terms of derision. After all, adventuring should never feel like it's a crawl, right?

The Cook/Mentzer approach seems to rely closely on defining the entirety of the wilderness and everything within in. Clearly, that's not something I'm interested in. I know that some folks will think I'm interpreting too much out of my reading of these rules, but my personal linguistic impression of these texts isn't quite something I can be wrong about. Incorrigibility, suckers, learn about it. However, both Cook and Mentzer include lots of qualifying language: "could," "maybe," "can be," etc. There aren't any "you must"-s, which is good. It's just there's more of a "put everything you're going to need in now" sort of perspective implied that I'm not too keen on. Honestly, there's a bunch of stuff that I'm not going to remember to include until I need it. Mentzer and Cook don't say I can't do that, they just imply that I want to make sure I had that stuff there in the first place.

I mentioned that there's no method of generating things suggested by Mentzer or Cook and that means no random tables or the like. While I don't feel like I NEED random tables, they are good for jogging the mind, giving me ideas, and keeping my brain moving when I'm designing things. Since I generate my hexcrawls dynamically (more on that coming soon), I might rely on these mind-joggers more than other DMs, but my prep time is crazy low, so there's a bit of a tradeoff.

In short, the Cook & Mentzer methods are great reads and excellent jumping off points for me, even if they don't have everything I need.