Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Retrospective: Hexagonal Mapping Booklet

"The past is a foreign country" is a saying of which I am fond. I am reminded of it often as I look back on my early experiences in the hobby, which are replete with things that scarcely make sense from the vantage point of the present. Living as we do in a world relatively inexpensive personal computers and desktop printers, as well as Internet connectivity, the idea that anyone would pay for something like character sheets (or non-player character sheets) probably seems a little bizarre and understandably so. Yet, I can say, with complete sincerity, that products such as those were much appreciated, even coveted, though we nevertheless balked at their price – not to mention complained that they were difficult to photocopy, thanks to the colored paper on which they were printed.

When I think back to this time, I am also reminded of the 128-page Hexagonal Mapping Booklet that was originally released in 1981, with a cover illustration by Bill Willingham. This is a book I desperately wanted, since, unlike graph paper, which was readily available from any office supply store, hex paper was hard to come by. I had up until that time been making do with hex pages photocopied from a sheet included at the back of Gamma World, which were merely adequate to the task. It always frustrated me that the D&D Expert Set, which includes a section on designing a wilderness for use with one's campaign, did not include a sample hex sheet (nor did The Isle of Dread, a module whose impact on my sense of what a hexcrawl is cannot be overstated). 

It's funny: I consider hex paper to be as much a marker of roleplaying games as polyhedral dice. Since I was never a wargamer, RPGs were the first place I encountered the idea of hex maps and their oddity left a strong impression on me. I was already familiar with graph paper from school, so that, when I first picked up Dungeons & Dragons, there was nothing the slightest bit strange about it. As I recall, I already had graph paper in my home when I cracked open my copy of the Holmes Basic Set on that fateful day in December 1979. But hex paper? I'd never seen it before and I was thoroughly enthralled by it. Being able to own an entire book filled with it was a proud moment and I treasured that book for years afterward.

My original Hexagonal Mapping Booklet is long gone and it's now easier than ever to find hex sheets of any size without incredible ease. Nevertheless, I can't help but look back fondly on those early days, when I would spend untold hours mapping out enchanted forests, perilous mountains, and pestiferous swamps for the players in my games to explore. I eventually graduated to even bigger and more ambitious maps (though, oddly, I used graph paper for my Emaindor setting) and remain, like most gamers in my experience, a devoted fan of maps of all types. The Hexagonal Mapping Booklet wasn't the source of my devotion, but it certainly encouraged it and for that I'll always be grateful.


  1. Speaking as the owner of a game store, I think you might be startled by how many oacks of character sheets I sell.

  2. I drew my own hex paper as a teenager in the early 80s, then made photocopies. Drawing your own hexgrid is easier than most ppl think it is. Simply draw a triangular grid first (but you need to measure one 60 degree line in advance to set up the tick marks), then pencil in the hexes.

    I kept that original sheet for a long time, but it disappeared at some point. Probably when I could buy proper hexpaper ;-)

    1. Did that, Phil! But I didn’t have a compass to measure the angle, and lots of other things went wrong. It was less than successful.

  3. Photocopies were not a cheap and readily available thing back in the day. The majority of people had to rely on a local library or university center copier that often made dodgy quality copies with almost no chance of double sided available. My local library was $0.20 per copy and it often had scuzzy black extra crap on the output for whatever reason. The sort of crap "retro" designers add to look "retro".

    Even the local copy/print place was $0.10 but only in quantities over 100 and when the couple of employees who thought anything ever printed was illegal to copy even if it said permission on it were not working.

    Heck, even today a character sheet pad or booklet is often cheap if all you have access to easily is an ink jet printer.

  4. This product says its for "TSR roleplaying games" no mention of D&D at all on the front cover.

    Anyone know if anybother products were released with such a generic focus?

  5. I got the hex booklet at my local craft shop. I adored the cover image. What will these explorers discover beyond the horizon? And the fighter’s gloves hooked over his belt—The idea that fighters wore gloves in combat seemed to me terribly professional. Before I was half way through the booklet, I found access to a photo copier and never used another page from it.

  6. I wanted this book so very badly back in the day. I never saw it at my FLGS, and they claimed to be unable to order it for some reason. I eventually got a copy direct from the TSR Mail Order Hobby Shop. Unfortunately I was ultimately disappointed with it. Or more accurately: disappointed with my ability to draw decent terrain icons in the tiny hexes (probably being a little harsh on myself, but I wanted my maps to look as good as TSR's...)

    On a related hex note:
    Back in the G+ days blogger "Huge Ruined Scott" turned me on to a source for the old Judges Guild blank hex maps and I have a stack of them I'm miserly hoarding for future projects. I think the last one I used was to map out a custom deck of the Warden for an MA game that unfortunately never got off the ground.

  7. I had this, and still have it somewhere. It was a booklet, not a pad, so unless you made an effort to cut pages out they remained bound together, Therefore, my book is sort of a time capsule of my early years - lots of Star Frontiers and Gamma World maps, maps meticulously redrawn maps from modules (not sure why I did this), draft maps for various adventures that never got finished or played, lots of maps with very dubious geography and scales, etc. Loose hex-sheets printed out from websites lose some of that magic.

  8. Also, re the old goldenrod AD&D character sheets, those things were so precious in our group that when characters would die (especially thieves, since there were only 2 thief sheets included per pack) we would erase their info and re-use the sheet. Some sheets got re-used 3 or 4 times and became almost impossible to read with all the overlapping layers of writing. When I first got back into D&D in the early 00s one of the first things I did was go to Kinko's and make like 100 copies of each of those sheets on goldenrod paper, which I'm still working my way through all these years later. The paper isn't as thick as the originals, but it still feels like an almost unbelievable luxury.

  9. Basic hex grids are good and worthwhile, but I've found multiple-layered hex sheets to be more-helpful when building out regional and local maps from larger-scale campaign maps (as with Darlene's World of Greyhawk map). See for some examples of how I put them to use :D