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Including D&D's Three Pillars Anywhere

by Mike on 16 May 2022

The D&D Player's Handbook describes three pillars of gameplay: exploration, social interaction, and combat. We can think of these pillars as things to discover, people to talk to, and monsters to fight.

When we're doing our prep, we can build opportunities for all three pillars regardless of the circumstances. It doesn't mean all three always come into play, but the opportunities are there if the players want to grab them.

We can make a quick checklist of these opportunities while we prep. For any given adventure do we have the options for:

Exploration is Discovery

Exploration is the least well-defined pillar in D&D. We know what social interaction is — roleplaying between characters and NPCs. We know what combat is. But what is exploration?

For me, exploration is about discovery. It's about learning things. It's about moving through old dungeons and uncovering of its history or examining piece of art and learning of an old empire.

Exploration is often built around ability checks but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes characters just learn stuff. The concept of preparing ten secrets and clues in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master directly supports exploration. These secrets are what characters learn while exploring.

Pillars for Every Situation

Some situations seem like they don't support all three pillars. What opportunities are there for combat at a fancy dinner party? What opportunities are there for social interaction in the dungeon lost and sealed up for a thousand years? We need some creative thinking to drop in these less obvious pillars.

Combat at the Dinner Party

A fancy dinner party obviously has great opportunities for social interaction and roleplaying. There's also good opportunities for exploration and discovery as the characters listen to other guests and examine the location. But what about combat?

Here are a few ways to offer the option for combat at a fancy dinner party:

These are just a few ideas. Figuring out how to offer options for combat in a dinner party isn't as easy as figuring out opportunities for roleplaying but it can be done.

Roleplaying in the Lost Dungeon

What about opportunities for social interaction in a dungeon sealed up for a thousand years? The big key here is that NPCs don't have to be people, or creatures at all! Here are some potential NPCs for roleplaying in a sealed-up dungeon:

There are lots of things to talk to in every part of the world.

Injecting Options, Not Planning Scenes

When we talk about dropping in the three pillars, this doesn't mean building scenes around each pillar. It means having the options available if the situation arises. Instead of planning a combat scene, a roleplaying scene, and an exploration scene; build situations and let the pillars flow from the characters' choices and the evolving situation.

Preparing to Improvise

Thinking of the three pillars while setting up situations is a great form of "preparing to improvise". We don't know what the characters are going to do but we've set up our situations and found ways to include all of the pillars so our players can choose the approach they want to take. Set up the situation, drop in hooks for the three pillars, sit back, and see what happens.

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