Drawing maps is fun! Got some nice pens and spent a few hours on the back of an old character sheet making this a few months back:

For an upcoming project, I’m going to need a system for travel and exploration. Hex crawls are classic, but I tried again and again with hex crawls and the grid just ends up boggling my mind a little in play. I think my brain just doesn’t work well with it; I start to try to interpret the mapping too literally and rigidly.

I mean, it certainly has that old school look to it. But I start to go crazy trying to estimate how big each hex should be on the map and what that implies about travel speed. I can’t imagine myself being able to make good use of it at the table. I think I’d prefer something with a bit more of an abstract approach.

The “point crawl” is a cool idea, but I think this leans too far on the other end of the spectrum for my tastes. While the hex crawl feels too busy and subdivided, the point crawl feels way too abstracted and seems more fit for when you want to jump straight from set-piece to set-piece. It’s actually really cool, but for a West Marches style game, I’d prefer a more geographic approach based on the different regions of the map.

I know it looks ugly, but this is what I came up with.

I guess I would call it a “zone crawl” because I’ve colored in the map to highlight the geographic extents of each of the regions. In effect, each zone is a big amorphous hex. The colors don’t really mean anything; I just wanted to tell one zone apart from the next. Each region has its own zone, and big regions are subdivided into multiple zones. Mountain ranges are usually divided along their spine and regions with rough-terrain and therefore slow passage are also subdivided for travel time estimation.

When traveling from edge to edge, each zone takes roughly one day to trek through, unless otherwise noted. Characters can pretty much travel within the boundaries of a given zone as much as they like during a day; I’ll just estimate how long the trips are taking, keeping in mind it takes a full day to cross the entirety of the zone, while keeping track of what time of the day it is. I’ll eyeball where the characters are inside the given zone at any point in time. If they start traveling away from this part of the zone, I’ll estimate how far they can get through the next zone proportionally within a day given their chosen route. I’m not too worried about being super specific; tons of things happen while traveling so how far you can get will vary.

Some zones take more than a day to travel through. Like, when you’re traveling in a mountainous zone, if you’re traveling uphill to cross over the peaks, it takes two days to travel upwards, but one day to travel back down the other side. At least, that’s the idea anyway. Traveling laterally across the feet of the range would probably just require the single day.

Roads don’t necessarily make you faster, but they do make it much harder to get lost and, as long as you stick to them, keep you from getting exhausted just from the travel. When not traveling by road, characters must make a strength check to keep from becoming exhausted if trying to push at a quick pace (assumed for traveling through the zone in a single day). If they’re moving cautiously, stealthily, or at a leisurely pace, it takes roughly twice as long to cross a zone.

As characters travel through and near zones, I’ll describe the landscape appropriately. If they get lost, they may wander around inside the same zone, or find themselves in a different zone entirely by mistake. All of this is behind the GM’s screen, so they’ll just be traveling by description, question/answer, and drawing their own map.

Each zone will have a bunch of locations to explore and random encounters to interact with, all themed based on the region’s attributes. For example, The Sunken Fields will have a submerged Temple of Clorg and encounters with muck beasts, while the Briarpatches will have boney razorhounds and the lair of some territorial boarfolk. If they wander around a region searching long enough, they’ll find the locations there, encounter region-appropriate monsters, etc.

The assumed base of operations for the players is the city of Lanternlight.
Zones will start out fairly tame around Lanternshire and will become progressively more dangerous as the parties venture farther out into the wilderness. But with higher danger comes bigger rewards.

The west marches campaign is all about exploration, so I think this approach will lend itself well. The whole giant map is a lost frontier land, the forgotten territories of fallen empires from centuries ago. Now that I’ve got the map divided up, I need to start brainstorming what will be in each zone.

Update March 2020 - Ended up moving shortly after the creation of this and then got busy with other projects. I'm still planning on testing it out in future; will update with results yet.

To prove that I'm not actually terrible at coloring, here is an attempt at properly coloring the map: