Big old empty wilderness hexes or how is it PC's find the features in a wilderness hex while playing an RPG?
I've notice a bit of discussion of late in blog land where folks discuss just how are the players supposed to have their characters find the special features in an outdoor hex crawl. If yuo stop to think of how big the hex actually is you may quickly realize locating many a feature is not dissimilar to finding needles in hay stacks.
I'm going to seemingly digress a wee bit here and ask a question: Have you ever seen a film take place in a famous city or a city yuo have a great deal of personal experience with? Ever notice how often films set in Paris tend to draw near to the Eiffel Tower? When I watch crime films set in Boston I always find it amusing how they stretch microscopic neighborhoods or frequent parks most locals generally ignore, and how the ridiculous maze of roads never interferes with characters getting from one neighborhood to another in instants. Films focus on points that define the setting and set the mood and don't tend sweat minor realities as miles of road or huge cities that get in the way of location shots.
RPGs are about having a game and a diversion that is supposed to be fun and entertaining. Wandering about ill-defined and empty hexes being unable to locate the encounters or "location shots" simply isn't much fun. But effectively teleporting from feature to feature in the outdoors flies in the face of established game logic where folks explore indoor environments by the foot and have to meticulously search or miss features.
What the fix: Make new rules? Play up related rules? Drop in sign-posts? Make the features obvious? Just put them on the map?
Lets start at the end, put special features on the map. Will it really disrupt play if the players have access to a fairly accurate map of the wilderness and can see point A and point B in front of them as in boardgames? Will being able to see alternate routes and the dangers that may lie between point A and point B really damage game play, will it be so awful if the party takes a side trip to point C becasue they see it on the map? The DM has an advantage here as a lot can go on the map, the names of places and features, routes can be drawn, all the stuff the player characters should likely know is simply right there on the map and the style the map is drawn in can also add flavor to the game. Want to have mysterious unknown features? Scribble them on the map without labels, they will eventually catch on these spots are something interesting and be drawn to them.
Make the features obvious, really how secret should the lair of the Great Fire Worm be? Wouldn't it be noticeable for miles around: split hills, scorched woods, incinerated corpses should all draw PC attention. The orc citadel would be somewhere useful to allow the orcs to spy on the terrain all about them and a such be visible. The magical statue of the last king isn't sitting all by itself in a field it's sitting among ruins of a great fortress or city.
Drop in sign posts. Really, why not? Beware dragon, this way to the Happy Harpy Hall, Buckley by the mire-4 miles all make it pretty clear something may be nearby.
Play up related rules. Pay attention to the actual exploration and social rules of the game. Have locals that know what's going on be present to draw info and rumors from. PC's bump into some villagers in a field and the reaction roll is really bad it's much safer for the villagers to send the PCs to the suspected den of an owl bear than to get on a fight in a field. Wandering encounters don't' have to always be drawn from a list of level or terrain appropriate villains but can be occupants of the bandit out post or haunted barrow located in the hex.
Making your own rules and ruling based on specific situations. Part of making a campaign unique is the DM's own rules and rulings. Set chances of discovery based on type of feature, local terrain, character capacities and player skill. Let's say: Hidden dens are only found by chance 1 in 6, 2 in 6 if there's a ranger in the party. Horse will become uneasy the closer a party wanders to the nest of the snarklebeast with a 3 in 6 chance of throwing riders and bolting if lead nearer. A bit of that here and there in feature descriptions and player actions and choices matter.
An outdoor or wilderness hex is a big place and finding the needle in the hay stack should be more than a quick leap from point of interest to point of interest simply to keep the fun train rolling. Give the players means to make choices and relate to the campaign environment and the fun will build for everyone.