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Understanding the Exploration Pillar of D&D

by Mike on 28 April 2022

D&D is built around three pillars of gameplay: combat, roleplaying, and exploration. Of these three, exploration is the least well understood. I struggled to understand it myself early on in 5th edition's release and that led me to the value of secrets and clues as aids for exploration.

Part of the problem is that exploration is the largest pillar in the game. Combat is well-refined and well-understood. Roleplaying isn't that hard to understand either. We know what both of those look like.

But exploration? It can be everything from watching your step in a dank dungeon to going on a ten week journey along the High Road to Waterdeep.

Complaints abound about the lack of solid tools and frameworks for exploration. The Dungeon Master's Guide offers suggestions for dungeon and overland travel but most of it is loose at best.

So how do we deal with this huge open pillar of gameplay?

Let Go of the Label

One way is to worry less about defining it as a pillar of gameplay. Different circumstances require different approaches. Running a dungeon crawl is different than running a long overland journey and any one journey is different than the next.

Sometimes digging into the details of a situation is better than worrying about what pillar it's in.

The Core Mechanic and Ability Checks

D&D's core mechanic follows three steps:

This core mechanic fills out much of the exploration pillar. If the intended actions of the character are difficult or uncertain, we call for an ability check. The attributes and skills of a character are their interface to the world. Those actions the characters take and the checks they make when they can't simply do a thing are the way they engage with the exploration pillar.

Thinking About Discovery

Discovery is the key to exploration. All throughout the game the characters learn things. They discover things. This might be the layout of a dungeon or the secret to defeating a 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.

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?

Fantastic Locations, Secrets, and Clues

Exploration and discovery requires interesting places. Fantastic locations are hard to improvise (it's why I wrote a book about it) so it's worth spending time to either steal locations from published adventures or jot down fantastic features.

Whenever I need a map for such a location, I head to Dysonlogos and find the first one that fits my need. With over 1,000 maps online, it's a hard source to beat.

Secrets and clues, a core step from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master also drives the concept of discovery. When we ask ourselves "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 novel.

Twenty Discoveries

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 characters might discover while exploring. Let's take a look.

Understanding the Wide Nature of Exploration

Unlike combat and roleplaying, exploration is a wide open field of possibility. With the core mechanic in mind and armed with fantastic locations, secrets, and clues, we can work with our players as their characters explore the world around them. Keep on hand the tools that best help you improvise and let the characters discover the world around them.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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