After social interaction and combat, the third and final pillar of play in the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game is exploration! Think about Indiana Jones navigating a treacherous tomb, detecting and defeating traps and solving puzzles to find a prize. Or what about Frodo and Sam surviving the trek out to Mordor, carefully rationing lambas bread and enduring extreme environments. These examples highlight the potential in exploration.
In spite of what it could be, the exploration pillar has become somewhat of a meme in some online D&D circles. I have seen several posts charging that exploration in D&D is under-supported or underwhelming. In my experience, this pillar can cause a lot of frustration and confusion for DMs. But it doesn’t have to!
With these 5 tips, you’ll be running exploration in Dungeons and Dragons with confidence.
Make sure that you have a good answer for what purpose the exploration that you are setting up for your player has in your game. How is the exploration furthering the narrative or enhancing the fun?
Exploration can simply be a means of getting a player from point A to point B, but we can aim loftier than that. Maybe in addition to changing the setting, the space through which we are exploring could reveal some lore about the world? Perhaps the space is dangerous and taxes the player’s resources. Exciting games of Dungeons and Dragons comes down to offering your player compelling and consequential decisions!
While prepping, you might consider what the length of your exploration sequence means for your party. This could have a short-term payoff in making a combat, say at the end of a dungeon, more difficult. Or you could work it into the long term by not allowing the party much of a break.
Out of the Abyss uses this long term strategy to reinforce the feeling of exhaustion and despair that the party endures as they try to to find their way out of the Underdark. It is very effectively done, and creates a real sense of dread!
Lean Into the Fantastic
In the question of fantasy environments and backdrops for your player’s epic deeds, it‘s much easier to aim too low than it is to shoot too high and end up in the absurd and immersion-breaking. As you are describing a setting consider scale, environmental interactions, and how you can play with (or subvert) you player’s expectations.
One of the quickest ways to make your games feel more epic and more intense is to make the environments through which your player is exploring BIG. You aren’t limited in tabletop roleplaying games by rendering and processing power, or film budgets. Since we are creating worlds with our words, and words don’t usually cost us anything, why not build a grand stage for your players to explore? Doing so will make your world seem more involved, complicated, or developed. And who knows, maybe you’ll describe an interesting detail that your player wants to go investigate. Improv exploration time! Unplanned detours are where some of my favorite DnD moments have happened, and I’d be willing to bet the same is true for many experienced gamers.
Another cool way you can make your exploration more fantastical is by incorporating interactions in the environment into the scenario. Think about how natural phenomena like sinkholes, geysers, glaciers, steam vents, volcanoes, and many more might add an element of exciting change or variety in your setting. You could even have these forces intersecting with one another. Perhaps a glacier is falling into a lava pool from a recent volcano and causing steam to rise that obscures the entrance to a cave? Sounds awesome and fantastical!
Finally, I really enjoy playing with my player’s expectations from time to time. Perhaps you describe something that the player is going to think is a mimic or a rope trap or something, and then the actual trap is embedded in the obvious trap? Or in the middle of a swamp filled with grotesque bone chimes, you meet the nicest little fairy colony that is just trying to scare away predators? Look for ways to keep things fresh. Try to notice patterns that you tend to lean on, and shake them up from time to time.
*Note: it’s not a good idea to do this all the time. If you keep playing the same trick, your player is going to get wise and it won’t be exciting anymore.
Cater to Player Preference
We’ve talked about this before, and we’ll do it again because it one of the very best benefits of playing one-on-one! Pick the mode of exploration that works best for you and your player(s)! Some tables love the challenge of detailed resource management and rationing. Others would find it tedious and stressful. Some players love puzzles and find them stimulating. Others can’t stand them. I don’t think that Beth would mind if she never ever saw a puzzle in a creepy dungeon ever again. But since I know that is her preference, we don’t have any wizards in our games leaving behind puzzle challenges to keep out interlopers! Do what is right for your party. Give the people what they want!
You will most likely find out what kind of exploration your players like organically by trying different things out. Try to pay attention to when they are engaged and when things start to feel slow. Try out some post-game reflection, including jotting down some notes. And heck, you can even just ask your players what they are into!
I think a lot of people (many of whom are DMs) struggle with relinquishing control. As DMs, we spend a lot of time carefully crafting scenarios for our players! We get invested. And then we have to share control of our lovely exploration scenario. It can be tough, but whenever possible it is best to let the players add in what their characters expect in an area.
Don’t be afraid to ask the player what they are seeing! Live by the rule of “yes, and” whenever you can! If your player asks you if a given feature exists, unless it destroys important aspects of your scenario (and even then I could see it going either way) then let them have it and provide some of your own details, flavor or explanation.
For example, suppose I have a player creeping through a dungeon and they end up in a room where there seems to be no way forward. I know there is a secret door there. My player asks if there are any signs of rodents in the room and they succeed on an Investigation check. I didn’t plan on it, but sure, yes, there are rodents and there is a little rat’s nest in the corner. Boom, now my player is ready to talk to the rat that can tell them about the door and nary a Perception check was rolled!
Someone famous probably said that good artists find inspiration while great artists steal. Most likely, you’re not even worried about all that and are just trying to be an awesome DM that facilitates a super fun game for your players. Turn to the movies, books, TV shows or video games that you enjoy and don’t be afraid to through a little rouge on them and present them as something totally uniquely yours at your table.
In the unlikely event that one of your players recognizes a setting or sequence, they will probably think it is an awesome homage to something memorable! I used to think that my players would think I was being lazy if I brought in elements of other cool stories and media into our Dungeons and Dragons session, but it’s quite the contrary! It has made my experience as the DM, and theirs as player, even more enjoyable.
And, if you are referencing or drawing a heavy dose of inspiration from something that you know that your players would likely recognize, don’t be afraid to explain that element of the setting or exploration scenario directly so as to eliminate confusion. If both of you know the battle for Helm’s Deep and you wan to talk about an overwhelming enemy in a terrible onslaught, then describe the scene and scenario… and then say, “very Helm’s Deep over here,” and your player will have a much clearer picture of what you are going for.
Thank you for checking out this final post about the three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons! If you want to see a great example of how exploration can work in your 1-1 game, make sure to check out our shop where we have A Spring Court Quest! This super fun adventure tasks the player with getting to the Fae Brightlands and embarking on a hunt for the mystical psuedocorn. There are tons of opportunities for exploration, as well as social interaction and combat!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan