Thoughts on Exploration

by Mike Shea on 15 May 2017

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons describes three main types of gameplay in the game: exploration, roleplaying, and combat.

Combat is probably the most well refined part of the game. We generally know how it is going to work, whether we run combat on a grid or using theater of the mind. Turn order is solid, there are lots of known mechanics at play. When a battle start in D&D, most DMs and players know what they're supposed to do.

Roleplaying is also relatively well understood, though not as refined as combat. Roleplaying tends to either focus on our ability to roleplay at the table or by rolling persuasion, deception, performance, or intimidation checks. Usually it's a mix of the two. DMs can probably figure out how to run a roleplay scene without much trouble. They might have a flowchart of possible outcomes or they might step inside of the character and play from their motivations and knowledge—an approach we prefer here at Sly Flourish.

Exploration, however, feels like the least well defined portion of our game and, potentially, also the largest part of the game. Exploration might be everything from describing a month-long journey on the high seas, a ten-week travel along the High Road, or a minute-by-minute journey exploring the ruins of Tamoachan.

How exactly does exploration work? What should DMs do when running scenes of exploration? What system surrounds it? These are all hard questions we're going to dig into today.

It's All About Discovery

The key to exploration is the word "discovery". Exploration is all about the characters discovering things. This might be learning the layout of a dungeon. It might be uncovering the secret to defeating the stone giant lich. It might be learning the 30,000 year history of the war between dragons and giants (and why they should care about it). Exploration is about learning things and uncovering things. It's about seeing things that haven't been seen before.

Dungeons make great environments for discovery because every room is a new opportunity. This is why a 50 foot empty room is so terrible; it was a chance at discovery and ended up being a room full of nothing. Just like in White Plume Mountain, every room should have its own story to tell and hide its own clues to discover.

When we're thinking about how to fill in our exploration scenes, we can start by asking ourselves a simple question: what might the characters discover?

Examples from Film

We need look no further than some of our favorite movies to fire up ideas for exploration. Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the best example, along with being one of the best (maybe the best?) movies of all time. I sent out a query to Twitter asking for movies that exemplify the exploration and discovery of D&D. Here were some repeated answers and how often they were mentioned:

Not all of these movies are obvious exploration movies and not all of them are actually good movies, but they all do their part to show people exploring things.

Fantastic Locations, Secrets, and Clues

We've talked at length about the value of fantastic locations. We even wrote a book with twenty fantastic locations you can drop into your game. Exploration and discovery requires interesting places. These are hard to improvise so it's worth spending time to either steal locations from published adventures or jot down our own fantastic features. Need a quick Dragonspear Castle for your characters to explore? What about grabbing the map and general features of the Keep on the Shadowfell. Are the players about to head to Cromm's Hold on the Lizard Marsh only there is no such place? How about stealing the map of Floshin's Manor from Scourge of the Sword Coast?

Our ideas for secrets and clues also fit perfectly with the concept of discovery. When we ask ourselves that key question of "what can the characters discover?" we can jot down ten answers to this question every time we're preparing a session. This is a quick way to ensure we have something to fill those scenes of discovery without writing a Robert-Jordan-novel's worth of material that might never get used.

We can also keep all of this abstract from one another. We don't have to tie our secrets and clues to the fantastic locations we have on hand. We don't have to fill every room of a dungeon with monsters. We can just keep our lists of locations, secrets, monsters, and NPCs available and see how they come together at the table.

Twenty Things That Might Get Discovered

If we keep going with our concept that exploration is about discovery, we can take a look at twenty examples of the sorts of things that might be discovered while exploring. Let's take a look.

A Part of the Game Worth Preparing

We often talk about which parts of the game we should focus our attention on and which parts we can safely let go of and still have a good game. Understanding what locations our characters will explore and what discoveries they might find are areas worth preparing. By keeping a balance on building useful details and keeping them abstract enough to aid in our ever-flowing game, we can build rich worlds with little effort and watch them evolve as our game runs at the table. Keep your torches lit and a keen eye for what lurks below.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.

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Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.