I hate the hexcrawl in Tomb of Annihilation

I hate the Tomb of Annihilation hex crawl

I just listened to the gg no re podcast where they (try to) play Tomb of Annihilation. They have a bad time because they play it by the book, and by the book it sucks.

Exploration, raw

Before Tomb of Annihilation, there was the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The rules on exploration are spread across these two books in various chapters.


There’s a surprising amount of them (given 5e’s simplicity). Here’s a high-level overview:


  • Players choose a destination, marching order, time spent marching, speed, and roles (navigators, foragers, mappers)
  • DM calculates the distance traveled based on speed and terrain
  • Navigation check (modified for terrain, speed, map, visibility of sky). A fail represents 1d6 extra hours spent traveling
  • Constitution saves versus exhaustion for each hour of travel beyond 8
  • Forage check to gain food and water
  • Constitution check versus exhaustion if there’s no water, automatic exhaustion if there hasn’t been food for 3+ days
  • Random encounter roll, with surprise based on perception and travel speed


That’s the procedure, but to make it work you need an assortment of extra rules, also spread among these two tomes:


  • Encumbrance, weight, and size of supplies (food & water)
  • Mounts, their speed, food requirements, carrying capacity, and carts
  • Flying
  • Visibility range & elevation

Exploration, Chult

The Tomb of Annihilation module tells us how to apply the above to its jungle hex crawl:


  • Players decide the direction of travel and speed
  • Players choose navigator, DM makes navigation check vs getting lost
  • Move to the next hex (or a random hex if lost), and roll a 1d4 (based on speed) to determine if the travel distance is increased or reduced by 1 hex
  • Roll 3 (!) random encounter rolls on 16+ (not the usual 18+)
  • Dehydration – Constitution check versus exhaustion if there’s no water
  • Dinosaurs and creatures native to Chult can forage

Exploration, missing

Tomb sins against playability by including various travel-related elements that have no rules to back them up. As a result, they either play no part in the game, are shoehorned in by the DM, or require entire bespoke systems to be built.


  • Weather – the book gives rules for tropical storms but no way for the DM to determine when it’s actually raining (the ToA DMs screen does have a secret weather chart)
  • Guides – what do they add? Some don’t even have particularly high Survival bonuses
  • Trained dinosaurs – how do they change the jungle-trek? Are they just fanciful food-gobbling bag-carriers?
  • Insects – they cause shivering sickness, and you can buy repellent, but when do they appear? Every day? Dictated by the random encounter table?
  • Rain Catcher – requires a weather chart to function and knowledge of how much water falls.
  • Boiling Water – how does it work? What is the yield?

Exploration in practice

It’s 15 hexes from Port Nyanzaru to Camp Vengeance, and other distances are similar. Let’s assume this represents a typical journey.


During that journey, you will roll for encounters 45 times. You will roll a 16 or higher about 11 times. Some of the results will be passive herbivores or hidden Emerald Enclave camps, so you’ll have about 6 fights. We’ll get back to that.


You will drink 2 gallons (15 lbs) worth of water per day. For a typical four-person party, that’s 8 gallons or the capacity of a single rain catcher. That’s 120 gallons for the journey (1000 lb). A tank about the size of a dwarf. Food-wise, the party will consume 60 lbs for the journey.


Tomb’s second sin is that none of this matters.


  • Every day is bookended by long rests. This deflates all but the most lethal random encounters.


  • Create water (1st level), goodberry (1st level), rain catchers, and boiling water, and the outlander background, all reduce dehydration to a non-issue.


  • Rangers remove the need for navigation (and double the speed?).


The hex crawl procedure consists of rolling a lot of dice without any purpose or tension. Encounters become speedbumps, tracking supplies becomes busywork, getting lost just prolongs the inevitable. Rather than a harrowing trek through an inhospitable and alien jungle, the journey is reduced to a grind to get to the actual game.

So how do we fix it?

We have three objectives:

  • “Games are a series of interesting decisions” – Sid Meier.
  • We want the gameplay to emulate “man vs jungle”,
  • We want the new elements to be relevant.


The first objective filters into the others – players have to feel that their decisions matter. And for that to work, we need to get rid of the trivialization. The second objective is based on feeling. We want players to feel like they are on a slow and unstoppable decline as their resources dwindle. The third one we’ll fix on the way. Here goes!


Rule 1. No long rests during journeys. Treat an overnight rest as a short rest instead.


This is our key change. It gives the players a dwindling currency that represents them losing to the jungle: their hit points. As they go down, narrate how the characters become haggard, worn, soiled, and blistered.


The best part is – we saw earlier that the expected number of fights to a journey is 6, which is exactly what the game suggests between long rests, so we don’t need to rebalance anything!


It also fixes the problems of trivializing spells, as these are now another finite resource.


Rule 2. Use random weather tables.


We need random weather to know if our rain catchers work. Plus they bring the “tropical storm” rules into play. We’ll need another rule to make traveling during storms worthwhile.


Rule 2a. Travel during storms requires only a single random encounter roll.


If you take the risk to travel during “the cover of” storm, you should get rewarded for it.


Rule 3. Boiling water is limited. You have to be near a river (or lake) to do so. You need to bring an iron pot, which takes about 20 minutes to boil (1 gallon of water). Boiling enough water for a full day (8 gallons) therefore takes about 3 hours.


We will also need extra rules to make not following the river attractive, otherwise, it’s just free water.


Rule 3a. Boiling the water means camping near a body of water and regular trips. Roll an extra encounter roll if this method is used.


Boiled water is no longer free, but paid for in random encounters.


Rule 4. Outlanders find twice the amount of food and water when foraging. Rangers get advantage on their navigation check (instead of always succeeding). Rangers can stealth when moving at a normal pace, and do not suffer penalties when moving at a fast pace.


Outlanders and Rangers will have to take a hit. It’s the only way to make the other mechanics meaningful.


Rule 5. Track encumbrance.


Without encumbrance, a party can just bring a few of those 1000 lb tanks of water along.


Let’s use a simple encumbrance system. Nobody uses the full rules, so we’ll heavily abstract. We assume each character is lightly encumbered by their normal gear (weapons, armor, bedroll, etc.). That allows them to carry an additional number of 5-lb slots equal to their Strength score. Each slot can hold:

  • ½ a gallon of water
  • 2 days worth of rations
  • 100 days worth of insect repellent (but see below- we’ll change this)
  • Carrying a canoe overland requires 20 slots among carriers.


If you want a more detailed but still abstracted version of the above, check out my post on encumbrance.


Rule 6. Dinosaurs have downsides.


An ankylosaurus makes the random encounters (our main form of currency) a lot easier, not to mention its ability to carry food and equipment. We need to balance that a bit.


  • As an herbivore, it needs no additional food
  • It does need water, however, although this does not need to be purified
  • When used as a pack animal, it has disadvantage on attack rolls
  • It forces a slow movement speed, although the party can stealth as normal
  • It can carry 1000 lbs (200 slots!)


Rule 7. Change insect repellent.


Right now 100 days worth of salve costs and weighs nothing. That sucks. Let’s say you have to liberally re-apply during the day so a single slot is actually just enough for one day. And insects are rife whenever a “light rain” day happens.


Rule 8. Multiple characters can contribute to a navigation check. Guides get advantage on their check when traveling to a location they know.


This makes guides useful and an additive value, plus it gives a bit more weight to which one is chosen.


Bonus Rule. Rolling a d4 to see if you actually move to the next hex sucks, so we’ll tweak the rules for pace by tweaking the number of encounters rolled. Two for a fast pace, three for normal, and four for a slow pace. This ties the pace decision directly back to our main currency: hit points (expended through random encounters).

Boiling it down

Forgive the pun. This is a lot of stuff, and an unwritten fourth objective is to make it smooth to play at the table.

0. Encumbrance

Players decide in town what equipment they want to bring. Each character can carry a number of slots equal to their Str score. A slot represents 5 pounds and can hold:

  • ½ a gallon of water
  • 2 days worth of rations
  • 1 day worth of insect repellent (this contradicts the module)

Carrying a canoe overland requires 20 slots among carriers.


An ankylosaurus can carry 1000 pounds (200 slots).

1. Day Starts

Roll on the following table to determine precipitation:







Light rain (1d4 “slots” of water from rain catcher overnight). Insects abound! Use repellent or suffer the consequences.


Heavy rain (3d4 “slots” of water from rain catcher overnight)


Storm – see “Welcome to Chult” for full effects. Reduce daily encounter checks to 0, even when traveling.


2. Choose Roles

Each character can do one of the following:

  • Stay alert
  • Navigate
  • Forage
  • Draw a map


Characters who do not choose “stay alert” suffer a Disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) rolls and a -5 penalty to their passive Perception.

3. Choose Destination and Pace

Choose a neighboring hex. After a day’s travel, the party arrives and sets up camp. Moving fast reduces the chance of running into enemies along the way while moving slowly allows the party to avoid enemies before being spotted.


  • Fast pace: roll 1 encounter during the day, but any Wisdom checks suffer Disadvantage or -5 to passive Perception.
  • Normal pace: roll 2 encounters during the day.
  • Slow pace: roll 3 encounters during the day but allow a (group) Dexterity (Stealth) check to avoid being seen.


Rangers are allowed to ignore the penalties of a fast pace, and use Stealth to gain surprise when moving at a normal pace.


An ankylosaurus forces the party to use a slow pace.

4. Navigate and Forage

Any navigators roll a Wisdom (Survival) check with DC 15. If the party is headed towards a location known by a guide or has a map, the checks are made with Advantage. If all navigators fail the roll, the party is lost and ends up in a random hex determined by the DM.


Any foragers roll a Wisdom (Survival) check with DC 10. Each character who succeeds finds 1d12 “slots” of water and 1d3 “slots” of food.

5. Roll Day Encounters

Roll 0, 1, 2, or 3 encounter rolls based on weather conditions and travel speed. Apply bonuses/penalties for pace and chosen activity.


An ankylosaurus that is carrying load makes attack rolls with Disadvantage.

6. Camp

Characters can choose to boil water (yield: 8 gallons). If so, roll 1 random encounter that occurs at the river or lake.


Add 1d4 or 3d4 (based on weather) “slots” of water if a rain catcher is present and it is raining.


Finally, roll 1 last random encounter that occurs during the night.

7. Bookkeeping & Restart

Reduce rations by 1 (half a “slot”). Reduce water by 2 gallons (4 “slots”). Gain exhaustion if you haven’t eaten for 3 days. Roll a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or gain exhaustion if you have not drunk this day.


Reduce repellent by 1 slot if insects were present (light rain). DC 11 Con save if no repellent is available, and the effects last for the next day, after which another save is allowed.


Any ankylosauruses require 16 gallons of water (32 “slots”) unless nearby water is present (no need to boil).


Each character gains the effect of a short rest. Continue with the next day.

Final words

There’s a lot here but in play, given that the party doesn’t change their roles and pace every day, the actual steps are:


  • DM rolls d20 on weather table
  • Players roll navigation and foraging
  • DM rolls 0-3 random encounter rolls (day)
  • Players roll to add water for rain catcher and/or boiled water
  • DM rolls 1-2 random encounter rolls (evening/night)
  • Players reduce inventory
  • Players roll for short rest benefits if desired


This shouldn’t be too obtrusive at the table and, once players start getting low on resources, should add a level of tension and drama that are the opposite of boring.




6 thoughts on “I hate the hexcrawl in Tomb of Annihilation

  • Hello!

    I’m doing a ToA re-skin in some Atlantis, Hollow Earth type homebrew for some friends, and I’m going to use these changes to the hex crawl. I have a few questions about the proposed changes.

    1.) Are slots equal to their strength SCORE or BONUS?
    For instance.. Do they get 5 or 20 slots with a strength score of 20 and a bonus of 5?

    2.) Do we add water from rain catchers every morning AND night?

    For instance..
    Go to sleep with 2 slots of water after bookkeeping..
    Wake up, roll precipitation, it’s light rain – add 1d4 (3) slots of water right then (5 total now)
    Roll for foraging, add 8 slots of water (13 total now)
    Set up camp w/o boiling water, add 1d4 (2) slots of water from the day’s light rain (15 total now)
    Do bookkeeping, drink water, (11 total now)

    • Strength score for the number of slots, and for the rain catchers that’s a good question. The system is of course a massive simplification of real life but the idea is to roll only once. My head-canon is that you’d empty the raincatchers in the morning and use the last day’s weather to determine how much they’ve filled up overnight!

    • Not sure! It would still just count as a short rest, so the main benefit is that if there is a night time encounter the party might avoid it. If that’s too strong you can remove the spell’s ritual tag.

      It’s also 3rd level which is when you’re supposed to be pretty much done with the jungle crawl ;⁠)

  • Hi,

    Thank you for this. I’m about to run a homebrew hexcrawl and these are really helpful ideas. One thing that puzzles me, though: how do you “procedurally generate” the random terrain players move through? I can’t find anything in TOA or any guides like this that helps you determine the terrain type of a blank hex when the party enters it. What am I missing? 🙂

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