Designer: Crumbling Keep (@CrumblingJames)
Where to Buy: https://crumblingkeep.itch.io/deep-dark-woods
My biggest complaint about hex crawls? Too many hexes. It’s like…we get it. Enough with the hexes already. You know? Sheesh.
Luckily, the good folks over at Crumbling Keep understand my aversion to too many polygons and created the weird and wonderful Deep Dark Wood: A Tiny Hex Crawl. Deep Dark Wood is a fantastic example of efficient design. In just seven hexes, the designer managed to create a wicked little fairytale adventure that can be dropped in just about any fantasy TTRPG.
The adventure site revolves around a hag and her wereboar husband. He stalks the woods, killing and eating interlopers and she…well, she is actually pretty charming (aside from the eating human meat stuff but hey, no one’s perfect). Of the seven hexes, five relate to this pair at least tangentially, either providing more information about the couple or allowing players to meet them face to face. The other two hexes don’t tie into the overarching story, however they still do a beautiful job of reinforcing the sinister folktale theme found throughout the rest of the booklet. One talks about the world’s first owl that carries a curse for whoever kills it and the other about a mysterious antler-wearing woman with gifts of golden chains for those who sleep in her domain.
Though most of the hexes are linked, players do not need to experience them in any particular order. For that matter, they don’t even need to experience all of them to “enjoy” their visit to the Deep Dark Wood. That each hex is distinct enough to stand on its own merits while at the same time linking to a greater story/theme is a testament to clever design and to the fact that the author fully understands how sandbox adventures are supposed to work. That may sound obvious and not worth noting, but there are many, many sandbox adventures/hex crawls out there that don’t uphold that design ethos.
Speaking of design, I don’t usually mention art and layout in my reviews but I need to make an exception here. This book is an artpunky mix of public domain etchings and manipulated images, all tied up with a grim, brooding color palette. These disparate elements should not work well together, and yet they perfectly add to the unsettling nature of the adventure site. I mean…look at this and tell me you’re not unsettled.
Deep Dark Wood is excellent as both an adventure site and as a proof of concept. I hope other designers look at how successful this product is in terms of achieving its design goals and use it to bring their own tiny settings to life. Imagine picking a few thematically-linked tiny hex crawls, shuffling them together, and creating a semi-random sandbox adventure setting on the fly! Crumbling Keep, if you’re reading this, please don’t let Deep Dark Wood be the last tiny hex crawl that you release.
DISCLAIMER: I do not know anyone involved with this game, nor did I receive anything for free in exchange for this review. Also, you can absolutely buy this game in print on Crumbling Keep’s website: https://crumblingkeep.com/
And while you’re there, check out their game Marching Order!