Discussion on Chgowiz's blog, plus this post from Bat in the Attic has encouraged me to write about wilderness hexes, and about filling wilderness hexes. It is the most somnambulant aspect about outdoor design - it puts me to sleep to work on any system, random or otherwise, for the placement of things in a hex. I never seem to spend more than a few hours at a time working on it.
To begin, however, with the size of the hex. Five miles is a popular size, and I note that most DM's prefer hexes no larger than 12 miles. I use 20. I assure you, this is through no great love of the 20 mile hex, or because it makes life easier for me. I am pressed into a larger hex by the task at hand. Early on, in attempting to map Earth with hexes, I experimented first with five-mile hexes, and later with ten-miles. The planet is just too big. Dividing the world into maps which measure 30 inches on a side, I estimate the land area of the Earth will make it necessary for me to produce something like 259 maps, each with 1,050 hexes; actual land area, ignoring hexes covered by seas or lakes, should amount to 162,940 hexes. At present, I have something like 15% of this completed. It is a labor of love.
So, most of what is 'inside' a hex on any map of my world is invisible. I don't try to show every village, hamlet or nomadic camp, even when a camp might number hundreds of people. Most inhabited hexes in my world have anywhere from 70 to more than 1,000 persons ... including hexes which do not show a 'town.' It just isn't possible for me to micro-map trails, roads and so on.
I would like to say that Google Maps does the job for me, but sadly, in many cases my mapmaking skills don't match with the detail of Google. I've left off any number of lakes, rivers, salt pans, alluvial fans and so on for the sake of simplification, and to give me a certain amount of flexibility in describing my world to players. True, I might occasionally describe a small lake where no such lake exists, but after all, this is my D&D world, and not the actual planet. The planet is just a guideline for me.
Having said that, let's get down to business. In having tried to create a random system for filling hexes with junk, I have created lists ... things which fall into four basic categories: occupants, features, topography and events.
Events may occur at any time, repetitiously, and have no influence on the hex at all. Distilling out events which depend on biological incidents, such as the 17-year cycle of the cicada, a great many examples are inextricably connected to the weather: thunder storms, 'dry lightning' (thunderstorms which produce no precipitation but which produce lightning), heat waves, heat 'storms' (excessive heat waves which last extensive periods), droughts, fog, mist, drizzle, rain, blizzards, ice storms, hail, drifting snow, sleet, ice melt and accumulated rime or black ice. Other events, some related to the effect of weather, might include forest fires, wild fires, 'bog fires' (spontaneous igniting of escaping gases), firestorms and fire 'whirls' (vertically oriented rotating columns of air, potentially containing draft winds of over 100 mph), pyrocumulus clouds (clouds often associated with volcanic eruptions, causing turbulence and potentially producing lightning), gaseous emissions from active volcations, full volcanic eruptions, mudslides, flash floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, meteor strikes and so on. Then of course there are magical phenomena which might account for raining frogs, St. Elmo's fire, 'foo fighters' (glowing globes of greenish light often reported by pilots), spontaneous appearances or disappearances, shifts in reality, etcetera, etcetera.
Topography is a little more down to earth, but includes more than merely the lay of the land - flora, drainage and geology are equally as important at the geography of a hex. What are 'hills/ - are they gently sloping downs, such as southern England or Ohio, or do they display exposed rock, such as the Ozarks? Are the ponds sink-holes, or are they fed by small streams or natural springs? Is the forest made of hawthorne trees, with thick briars as undergrowth, or easily marched through aspen woods? Either might occur at the same latitude.
Features may be man-made, or natural, even impermanent. An odd-shaped mountain, a pillar of rock, an ancient crater, peculiar gnarled trees, a dungeon entrance, trails, a burned out area, stone statues left over from an ancient race ...
All right, I'm bored.
Even as I sit down to write a post about the features inside hexes, I get exhausted with the process of even listing off these things. I have tried I don't know how many times to gather a massive collection of these things together ... I have about ten files with general stuff listed, just like the three paragraphs above - not to mention reams on the category I didn't go into: Occupants. The last, is of course, the largest.
Mostly, however, it has all come to naught. While the idea of producing a massive encounter table (or discovery table, regarding the features a party might find) seems like a good one, and like one that many DMs would love and appreciate, efforts to produce one just puts me to sleep. I find myself anxiously wanting to put down such a table and get back to making maps, designing combat systems, rewriting the monster tables ... in short, anything else.
Someday, I might actually overcome my sleepiness and produce an extensive, detailed table for such things. In the meantime, it is easier to just invent events and encounters as they occur to me. After so many years of trying, however, I`m not sure I ever will. It seems better, for the present, to ditch the die and focus on making a great adventure.