Actually mapping out everything IS unmanageable, from my point of view. I am a moderately lazy DM - not quite lazy enough to just use someone else’s setting, but too lazy to do all the work suggested by the ACKS book. So I focus on ways to give the ILLUSION of having done all the work suggested therein (heh).
I use pages 2 and 4 of the ACKS Blank Hex Maps for almost everything, and my comments below assume you’re somewhat familiar with them.
Page 4 is the campaign map. Using it at a 24-mile scale for the smallest hexes, I sketched out the BORDERS for seven 60-90 hex kingdoms, which covered about 50% of the map, mostly in the upper half; a few major terrain features like the coastline, mountains, and large rivers; and a few terrain-scale points of interest like an abandoned dwarven highway.
Then I named and placed two Class I cities unaligned with any kingdom (Paris and Ziwa), and one class II city in each kingdom (since they’re small kingdoms). No more detail than that, though.
Then, for ONE of the kingdoms (Thervingi, where the PCs start), I also marked 2 Class III, 5 class IV, and 15 class V urban settlements: about one per three hexes, and I named the Class II city in that kingdom (Orléans).
Current State: At this point, what I have drawn on the map consists of, like, ten lines, a couple of mountain symbols, some Kingdom names, some stars to represent cities, the words Paris and Ziwa for Class I cities, and some scribbled notes. That leaves huge swaths of the map empty, but that’s okay. When I need to fill in a detail, I will. And honestly, the vast majority of that empty space has been unneeded - and my players are hitting around level 10.
Then I switched to page 2 for the regional map.
Here, I pretty much ignored the entire region map, and picked ONE 24-mile hex (p. 2’s map has large 24-mile hexes and small 6-mile hexes) to actually map out. On the campaign map, this hex had a Class V village, which I named (Châtel) and placed in a six-mile hex; then I added a Class VI village in an adjacent hex, and noted that Corbus du Châtel was a high-level wizard with a sanctum and dungeon in the same hex as Châtel; and filled in the river lines.
Current State: 96% of my regional map is completely blank. I’ve marked one 24-mile hex with two village stars and names, and some notes, and a river line showing a more precise path than the campaign map did.
Then I use page 2 for a local map. For a local map, I use the upper-left-most large hex (with sub-hexes 0102, 0103, 0201, 0202, etc.). The large hex represents the whole six-mile hex; each sub-hex is 1.5 miles across.
There are 16 of them, and this is the only map I put any real effort into. I picked one sub-hex for Châtel itself to go into, and wrote a key for each sub-hex, that looks something like these two sub-hex keys:
#0204: Hill. Mostly peasant families and farms.
#0403: Large Hill and Stream. Châtel. 250 families, Class V, 20 years old, river bank, forest, hilly). Economy -2 precious metals, textiles, furs, and wood; -1 tea and coffee; +1 pottery, spices, and silk; and +2 monster parts. Corbus du Châtel built a sanctum and dungeon here. Basina de Brienne founded a shop to feed adventurers. The village grew around both. Surrounding farms fill the sub-hex.
Current State: I have 16 entries, most short-and-sweet. I’ve also posted a more complete example of a key I did here - it takes some work to format that for this forum, and I am moderately lazy, so look at that one to see what I’m talking about.
When the adventurers are going to explore a 24-mile hex, I map out the 16 6-mile hexes inside that 24-mile hex.
When they are going to explore a 6-mile hex, I map out the 16 1.5-mile hexes inside that 6-mile hex.
Otherwise, I don’t bother. ACKS scales nicely enough that you can assign broad parameters to something (“the kingdom of Greuthungi has XX thousand gold in troops”) and only break it down more thoroughly later if you need to.
I also worked out some random generation steps for 24- and 6-mile hexes, for those times when I don’t have much warning:
For a 24-mile hex:
- Roll 1d3 for the number of non-lair points of interest.
- If this is inside a kingdom, and you DON'T have cities mapped for the kingdom, roll 1d100: 1-21 Class V settlement, 22-28 Class IV, 29-31 Class III. Class II and I should never be random. This counts as a point of interest.
- If this is inside a kingdom, there should be about one class VI per 24-mile hex, and since the PCs are in this hex, you might as well put it somewhere, but it doesn't count as a point of interest.
- For any remaining non-lair points of interest, roll 1d6: 1 fortress, 2 large dungeon, 3-6 medium dungeon. Put them each in their own six-mile hex within the 24-mile hex. Each of these counts as a point of interest.
- Generate the specific six-mile hex the PCs are in.
For a 6-mile hex:
- Determine the general type of terrain, and assign something in that vein to each of the 16 1.5-mile hexes. This can be as simple as alternating "hill" and "valley" with an occasional sprinkled "stream" or "rocky cliff face."
- If there is a point of interest already determined for this hex, put it in a 1.5-mile hex.
- Roll for the number of lairs according to this post by Alex.
- For each lair, roll on the Wandering Monster tables, re-rolling monsters with no chance of lair; if there is a chance of lair, it automatically succeeds in this case.
- Put each lair in its own 1.5-mile hex. I try to be sensible about this; humanoids tend to cluster into Chaotic domains, while dragons tend to pick the loneliest spot; and I try to put, for example, ankhegs in flat terrain, and white apes near a hill that could have a cave. And I usually roll all of them at once, and THEN place them, in case any synergies become obvious to me.
I also stick dwarven ruins as a “bonus” point of interest if there is a mountain, because in my setting, dwarves used to own all of the mountains, and you can’t find a mountain without an abandoned mine or temple or fortress.
And a brief example of my illusory improvisational techniques here.