Designing Content with a Hierarchical Graph in Sandbox/Hexcrawls

Mountain Pass by LF OSR. Please check out his amazing artwork (no affiliation, I just love his stuff). 


This is a short one, and I don't intend to reinvent the wheels. Loads of people must be doing something similar, and it will maybe sound obvious. But since some people might not think of those things, I wanted to share this procedure that I use to create and maintain content within a sandbox setting. 

The assumption here is that if you have a huge sandbox/hexcrawl, you won't literally write down everything up to the smallest detail in advance. This is especially true of locales, dungeons levels, etc. Therefore, this procedure is to show how I craft my content through an iterative loop as player explore and do stuff to maximize my time and content. 


Overview: the goal is to create only what you need in the near future by determining through possible interaction what is attainable by the players. 

For example, let's say the players are in an hexcrawl with 10 hexes available. In one of those hexes, there are ruins. Those ruins contain a dungeon. That dungeon has three levels. Each of those levels have 25 rooms with various content where the player needs to always at least go through 15 rooms before getting to the next level. In another hex, you have a tower with an NPC wizard. 

If you map this in a graph, where every interaction (generally, adventuring and doing stuff) is one level of the graph, it could look something like this: 

Just in case it wasn't clear, the graph is just a representation for this blogpost, I do not actually do graphs, and so shouldn't you. 

Players are, in the beginning, at level 0 of your diagram, at the root. From there, they can go everywhere. If you have all the time in the world, doing all content for all hex for all level is "probably" the best thing. But we rarely have that time. 

My own personal method instead, is to design my content with a hierarchy. For every level distant from where the player are, consider this a "distance of X". For example, if the player are in the region deciding their next step, they are within a "distance of 3" (D3) from level 1 of the dungeon, or "distance of 1" (D1) from hex 10. This is also true of "cousin" nodes. For example, if they are starting the region exploration at hex 10 from whence they'll discover the village that will open up the whole region (level 0), they are D1 from the region, D2 from any other hex, and so on. 
  • D0 content is 100% ready and on the table
  • D1 content is 95% ready and what is missing is dice roll at the most (treasure generation, monster HP generation, maybe monster choices but I have at the least my themes/monster type, reaction rolls for less important NPCs, etc.)
  • D2 content is 75% ready. I have names, rooms, maybe some info, but I need to still decided what goes where, what are the entry in each key, etc. 
  • D3 content have a solid concept and a sketch/plan. For dungeons, I might or might have not done the whole dungeon plan, but at the very least I know where the main rooms are and the stairs to go up or down. 
  • D4 content is designed conceptually and I know how it fits the D3 and below.
  • D5 is an idea, a vague concept, probably linked with D1 to 4 content I already sketched out. 
And that's it. You design following this. In the example I gave up there, I would therefore have done:
  • Region "background" and general knowledge at 100%
  • Content for hex 1 to 10 at 90%
  • The ruins will have been prepped with rooms, what they are supposed to find, monsters placement
    • The dungeon level 1 will have been sketched, and I will probably have done the first few rooms in case they get in
    • The dungeon level 2 will have a concept and I'll know where it connects to level 1
    • The dungeon level 3 won't have anything if not the idea behind how the dungeon itself could end
  • The wizard tower will be placed with all that can be interacted from without, including the guardians of the tower and so on
    • The wizard will have been thought about, maybe fleshed out a bit (motivation and so on), but a big piece will be decided later or on the fly
    • The tower room itself will probably be sketched out, but without much details
Most likely, since I play short West Marches style play session, this is enough for me. I can therefore have a full campaign that looks like this (if you check my other blogpost on starting a campaign fast). Then, at the end of every game, I know where my players are in the graph and I know what distance they are from each content and what I need to prepare. 

My goal here is to prepare situations, not "quests". And it's to prepare them as quick and painless as possible. 


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