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Friday, November 21, 2014

Random Hexless Terrain Tables

A post at the Hill Cantons blog raises the question “are there any random terrain generation methods useful for visually-impaired GMs who are not using hexes, or possibly even a map?” It’s not just of interest to the visually-impaired. What if you want to run a game in a situation where maps would be inconvenient, such as while on the road, or walking?

You could do it with a list of locations connected by routes – roads, rivers, or whatever. The problem is: there are few tools available for random terrain generation without hexes. They are all hex-focused. And most of those make no attempt at sensible geography: no gradual transitions from low swamps to arid highlands.

I’ve been thrashing around for a couple days, designing and re-designing a system for this, but it keeps getting too comlex. It should probably be reserved for a PDF, but in the meantime, I’ll split what I have into a couple posts and try to keep it simple.

It all starts with a re-design of some tables I’ve done before.

(Edit: Some minor corrections, based on later posts. For example, see the notes on the condensed random wilderness rules.)

Territory Table

Scale Climate Elevation Biome
7-9 Arctic Treeline V. Arid
6 Subarctic 5k feet Arid
5 Cool 2.5k ft Thin/Scrub
4 Temperate 1.2k ft Prairie
3 Warm 600 feet Lt. Woods
2 Subtropic Low Forest
0-1 Tropic Sealevel Jungle

The first column is Latitude/10 and is also used for die rolls for the last two columns, which can be read together or used to cross-reference changes. Wetness tends to increase as you move downhill. Above the treeline, vegetation will be in the Very Arid to Thin range, never thicker.

Locale Table

d10 Terrain Type Landmark Type
0 Rocky Rubble
1 Cliff/Canyon Boulders
2 Wetter Dome
3 Thicker Plants Tunnel
4 Flat Face/Mural
5 Lower Ground Lone Hut
6 Sandy Settlement
7 Mountain Pit
8 Higher Ground Keep
9 Rolling Hills Graveyard
  • Higher/Lower Ground shifts elevation up or down on the Climate and Terrain Table
  • Wetter shifts biome one row down and adds a spring, stream, or pond
  • Thicker Vegetation also shifts biome one row down, but water source is ground water/rain
  • Mountain adds a small mountain, 2d6 x 100 feet. Terrain at base remains the same.
(Edit: Changed "Chasm" to "Canyon", although chasm is still an acceptable alternative for this result. Also changed the height of mountains to 2d6 x 100 feet, so some "mountains" will  just be large hills. At high elevations, these will be mountain peaks in a mountain range.)

Landmarks are mostly self-explanatory, but:
  • roll a d6 for the number of boulders or pits,
  • roll 1d6-2 each for statues and pillars in rubble (zero or less means that item is not present,)
  • roll 1d6-2 for the occupants of a hut, or inhabitants for a settlement (zero or less means abandoned.)

Settlement Table

1d6 Roll Settlement Pop. Modifier
0 or less Outpost double
1-3 Hamlet x10
4-5 Village x100
6-7 Town x1000
8+ City x5000
  • Subtract 1 from the roll for Sparse populations, 2 for Wilderness.
  • Add 1 to the roll for Dense populations, 2 for Very Dense.
(Edit: I changed the numbers to make hamlets more common than villages. Also made the population density ajustments clearer.)

For the starting location only, if the settlement population indicates an abandoned settlement, there is an additional settlement one size smaller with d6/2 x the population modifier for inhabitants. The first, abandoned settlement will likely have some kind of curse or monster keeping it from being re-occupied.


  1. Roll 1d6 and read result off Territory Table. Use entire line, don’t roll individual columns. This is your Homebase.
  2. You can roll 1d6 on the Settlement Table for the size of your Homebase, or just pick what you want.
  3. You can also roll 1d10 for each column on the Locale Table, if desired, to further describe Homebase.
  4. Roll 1d10 on the Territory Table for distant terrain in each of the four major compass directions. Only use the last two columns, but read them together. This is the land features that are very far away (“The sea is to the east, and there’s a mountain range that way.”) You don’t need to set distances unless needed.
  5. Any time players ask what is nearby in a given compass direction, roll 1d10 for each column on the Locale Table to find out what’s there, then roll 2d6 for the number of days travel to reach it.
  6. Population density starts as Normal. When you roll 2d6 for the distance to a settlement, population density decreases to Sparse or Wilderness on a 2, increases to Dense or Very Dense on a 12.
There will be a second post about optional details.

(See, for example, the walkthrough and elaboration in this post.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. Very interesting. This could be used for a one-shot or beginnings of a sandbox, or a new area in an existing campaign, and works with or without hexes.
    Looking forward to the rest of it.

  2. Can you link to the hex versions of these tables? Though it would be pretty easy to use these in a hexful situation.

    1. These are going to be the replacement tables for the hexcrawl rules, too, when I redo them. There's not much difference, just some clean-up and replacing Statue with Settlement.

      Last-Minute Hexcrawl tables

      It's mostly the rules around the tables that are different. I'm still planning to edit and arrange a better presentation of the hexcrawl rules, but you can try going to either the lmgm or wilderness tags and reading through posts that are still on the blog...

  3. These are so great.

    I do not intuitively grasp what you are doing with population density. It seems to show up unexplained yet hold an important role.

    Why do things that are closer get sparser, while things further away get denser? Are we assuming that we are starting in the middle of a wilderness? It would seem to be opposite if we were starting in the middle of a kingdom, say.

    And why only on the greatest extremes of rolls, and, therefore, the very least likely?

    I think the density is important, but I'm still having trouble figuring that aspect of your generator out.


    1. Density only changes on the extremes (2 and 12) precisely *because* they are the least likely. It keeps them from changing too much.

      As for why 2 = density diminishes, 12 = density increases, it's because I'm also treating the 2d6 roll as a reaction roll: a 2 is a Very Bad reaction, so the journey gets worse (wilder wilderness, fewer signs of civilization.)

      Also, a streak of low rolls will eventually lead to lots of outposts and hamlets close together, while a streak of high rolls will tend towards towns spaced farther apart, which is as it should be (the larger the settlement, the more land and smaller settlements needed to support it.)

      You could always swap them, though/

    2. Okay, I read you. I suppose I would want the probability of density changing to be a bit more likely. And it seems to me that vaster tracks of unpopulated space with scattered villages seems more wilderness-y while lots of close towns and cities seems more civilization-y -- but that is just me and I also totally get your logic. Thanks for the explanation!

  4. Hi there :)

    I'm the visually impaired fellow who was asking the original question on HC's blog. Somehow this slipped under my radar until now—fortuitous random Google searches are wonderful.

    At any rate, thank you for such an extensive system. I look forward to trying it out. :)

    1. Thanks for the interest!

      You might want to check the "wilderness" tag on this post or in the sidebar. There were a couple other related posts and that's the quickest way to find them. The most important is specifically about using these tables for solo wilderness exploration, which I believe was your main goal.