The Third Pillar – Fixing Exploration

In this previous post, I talked about the first two “pillars” of D&D – and by association TTRPGs generally – combat and roleplaying. I’ve put a whole post into the third one, exploration, for a simple reason – I don’t think that we do exploration very well. That is, I don’t think TTRPGs do it very well, and I think there’s a lack of clarity about what it actually is.

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I’m going to describe why exploration is tricky, then try to suggest some ways to make it better. 

Why is exploration hard?

  • It’s not explained well. Looking at the Exploration section of the 5e DMG, there’s two pages covering travel time outdoors, tracking (mainly DCs), visibility, noticing other creatures, and a bit about “special travel pace” to calculate daily travel times if your movement rate gets adjusted (by a spell, for instance). Setting to one side that these are all ‘wilderness adventures’ things, there’s not a lot of rules to sit alongside this. These don’t seem to be rules for exploration – more rules for travelling a long way.
  • It’s not supported by rules. Exploring a dungeon involves crawling from room to room and having encounters. Exploring wilderness (once you’ve worked out your special travel pace) involves walking across a map – and maybe encountering monsters or NPCs. Exploring a new city involves walking around talking to NPCs. All of the excitement in these situations comes from the other two pillars – combat or roleplay. Generally (and there are a few notable exceptions), exploration in itself isn’t rules-supported.
  • It’s not clear what it is. The player’s handbook gives some examples about Exploration being “the give and take of the players describing what they want to do, and the Dungeon Master telling them what happens as a result.” (PHB, p8) – this sounds an awful lot like the entire gaming experience – or Apocalypse Worlds’ roleplay as a conversation – do these things not happen during combat or roleplay?
  • It relies on a traditional GM vs. players model of narrative control. This control has since been shifted in so many games, and in so many play cultures, that the “wander around and find out” type of exploration now feels dull and lifeless to many of us. If I’m planning a wilderness expedition, I’m much more likely to use a 13th Age-style montage or ask my players for descriptive details with Paint The Scene questions than I am to feed information myself.
Dark forests should be scary by themselves, without needing combat or roleplaying as well

Categorizing exploration

Word lovers, look away now. I’m going to posit that exploration is too generic a term, so I’m going to create some portmanteau’s to split it into useful categories. I’m going to argue that exploration is primarily about transfer of information – that is, finding stuff out. This can happen in a few ways.

  • Placeploration is background learning. This can be utterly rubbish, learning what happened 200 years ago (the “Adventure Background” bit we all used to skip over before the actual adventure) – or it can be a brilliant piece of versimilitude. It can foreshadow future events, or provide details of what’s going on in the world’s metaplot. Basically, learning anything that isn’t usable this session falls into this category.
    • It takes a few days to cross the forest, and you find the lumber camps abandoned and empty. Make me an Intuition check (succeeds) – looks like they packed up in a hurry, and there are indistinct boots and tracks that look like goblins around here. After you’ve recovered the crown, you could come back here and look into that.
  • Plotsploration is directly relevant secrets and clues for the current plot. By exploring the dungeon, the city or the world you uncover secrets and clues that either bring you closer to the confrontation, or provide an advantage in it. This works best as a drip-drip of information, and can happen during, as well as in between, combat and roleplaying scenes.
    • This room is clearly a prison. There’s chains and manacles on the walls where prisoners must have been held, but no sign of the Prince. Closer inspection of the manacles reveals they’ve been unlocked, and there are a couple of broken lockpicks on the floor nearby – a picklock did this, and not a particularly good one at that.
  • Perilsploration is less about information transfer and more about crossing a barrier. You’ve got to walk across Mirkwood to get to tell the elves, and it’s going to be dangerous. These places should be dangerous even if they didn’t have combat or roleplaying in, so sometimes you might have to create a skill challenge in order to model it. Games that do this well already, saving you this time, are The One Ring, Trophy, 13th Age (montages can be switched to any system, the rules are so straightforward), Ironsworn, Mouse Guard, and a lot of the PBTA games. These are good frameworks to get some placesploration in as well, as your players try to overcome the barrier.
    • The signal tower is three days away, and you’ve only got two. We’ve got a skill check each – probably at DC 15 unless you try something exceptional – to try and get there in time, and you’ll need at least 3 successes to get there in time. What  are you rolling?

Once you’ve got exploration split into these categories, it’s easier to incorporate it into your game – think about each instance you have in your prep, and whether its a barrier, current info, or future info – and spread out your clues appropriately. I’ll pull together some examples in a future post – in the meantime, what other fixes do you have for exploration? Or are you happy with it as it’s presented in TTRPGs generally? Let me know in the comments.

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