How big are your hexes, anyway?

I thought I’d take a break from world-building this week to share a little post about hex mapping.

Hexes are useful in roleplaying games because they allow you to travel equidistantly in more than four directions. This is not true of a traditional square grid, where diagonal movement is considerably farther than orthogonal movement.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has guidance on three mapping scales:

  • province scale (1 hex = 1 mile)
  • kingdom scale (1 hex = 6 miles)
  • continent scale (1 hex = 60 miles)

But how far is this exactly?

The DMG recommends using hex paper with 5 hexes to the inch (approximately 2 hexes per centimetre). Assuming a piece of A4 sized paper, this is what you would be able to cover on a province scale map.

As the DMG states, ‘a settled region mapped at this scale might have one town and eight to twelve villages or farming hamlets’, whereas a wilder region ‘might have only a single keep, or no settlements at all.’    

What about kingdom scale? These are the same locations, zoomed out:

The DMG states that a map at this scale covers a large region, ‘about the size of Great Britain’ (eh, not quite, but kudos for not calling it ‘England’) ‘or half the size of the state of California’ (can’t comment). A settled region of this size ‘might easily have eight to twelve cities or towns to put on the map.’

What about continent scale?

As you can see, this scale is best for showing how multiple kingdoms fit together. You wouldn’t want to use it for overland travel unless your characters had a really fast mode of transport. Incidentally, this map is considerably bigger than the Sword Coast North.

Here’s a tip: these three scales correspond roughly to the first three tiers of play (see DMG pp 36–37).

  • Tier 1 (Levels 1–4) happens at province scale. Characters are largely earthbound and may not even have the money for horses. They travel on foot and rest often as they are fragile. (You can even zoom in further than this. The poster map of Barovia in Curse of Strahd uses 1 hex per quarter-mile!)
  • Kingdom scale is better for Tier 2 adventurers (Levels 5–10). The players are starting to learn more about the world, and they are no longer ‘local heroes’. Again, however, this is no hard-and-fast rule. The poster map for Lost Mine of Phandelver is 1 hex = 5 miles, and the poster map for Chult in Tomb of Annihilation is 1 hex = 10 miles.
  • At Tier 3 (Levels 11–16), players are ‘masters of the realm’. They have access to spells like teleport and word of recall. Perhaps their adventures are better suited to a continent scale map at this stage. The map of Khorvaire included in Eberron: Rising from the Last War is not a hex map, but the bar scale uses divisions of 100 miles.
  • What about Tier 4? Having now DMed 5e from 1st to 20th level, I now think of Tier 4 as the ‘victory lap’: the tier when the players can really break the game. Even continent scale may be insufficient for adventures at this level, and cosmologies (planar maps) may be more useful than any traditional cartography. (I highly recommend point crawls at this level, too, as traditional hex crawls and dungeon crawls break down completely.)

A final thought, inspired by a tweet from Justin Alexander (whose handle, fittingly, is @hexcrawl).

(The maths checks out.)

When you use kingdom scale, you are effectively saying ‘this is the most important thing in 30 square miles.’ Similarly, if you use a scale of 1 hex = 10 miles’ (like Tomb of Annihilation), you are effectively saying ‘this is the most important thing in 90 square miles.’ And if 100-mile hexes sound big, bear in the mind that few European countries would be more than ten hexes large at this scale.

Hex wisely.

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