Pillars of D&D (Part 4 – Exploration)
About a week ago, I started on a series talking about the three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons, Combat, Social Encounters and Exploration. I’ve talked about the first two, Combat and Social Encounters already and we’re onto the Pillar of Exploration
Exploration might be considered the forgotten pillar of Dungeons and Dragons. While the first, Combat, really uses the character sheet and Social Encounters are all about the role play. Exploration is the one that is supposed to give you a sweeping sense of adventure which can be a harder thing to do. What makes exploration hard is that it relies a lot more on the dungeon master than either of the other two do. There’s give and take in combat as the players narrate their attacks, social encounters are back and forth as player characters interact with the non-player characters. Exploration can just be much more stagnant describing.
So how do you spice up your exploration so it doesn’t just feel like a description of the mountains in New Zealand but actually feels like you’re watching Lord of the Rings?
I’ll get into a list coming up here, but I would say that the first thing is, don’t let it just be a few rolls of the dice for navigation or not getting lost in the wilderness. It’s easy to do a survival or nature check and have them navigate and narrate off of that, but that’s going to end up being a little bit of the dungeon master talking. Unless it matters during those times just let them get where they need to go. So how can you spice it up?
- Unique Locations
- Unique Challenges
- Story Driven Locations
- Explore Non-Nature Locations
1 – Unique Locations
When we think of Lord of the Rings, to go back to that example, places like Helms Deep are interesting to describe, same with the Mirkwood. Describing a generic fantasy setting or a forest or a mountain or some caves, those are fairly dull. Be creative with your locations, if it’s worth describing, it should have some interesting elements. Instead of being in a a forest, make it so that the undersides of the leaves give off a faint glow, so even though it might be night time, the forest floor is never dark. The mountains instead of being jagged peaks off in the distance capped with snow, the lower sections of the mountains are all cliffs, no winding paths leading up them so steep that not even mountain goats would be able to climb them. Or the cave, instead of being black with stalactites and stalagmites in it, the walls are smooth and appear to be polished, you can look into it and see your reflection and things that seem to be moving behind the surface. If you’re going to spend time describing it, make it something memorable.
2 – Unique Challenges
This one is one that I’m not great at yet. When I’m talking about unique challenges, I’m not talking about random encounters, now some of those could be part of the exploration piece, but in the examples above for the unique locations, how can you turn the fact the forest floor is never dark into a challenge? Well, how can the player characters fall asleep? Or to get to the tops of the mountains, you clearly have a some rolls for climbing the cliffs, and do the players even have what they need to do that? Or in the cave, what sort of rolls can the players do, arcana, nature, religion, animal handling, history, to figure out what is going on with the shapes moving behind the surface of the wall? Give them rolls and challenges that are related to the uniqueness of the location that they won’t have to worry about or overcome anywhere else, but they matter here. A great example of that is previous editions, not so much fifth, of the Mournland in Eberron. That was an area of land decimated by some cataclysm. There are living spells roaming that area and healing doesn’t work as effectively as it should. Those are two highly unique things to that area that can create all sorts of challenges, especially the healing one.
3 – Make It About The Story
Really, this could have been rule #1 every time, to make anything more interesting in the game, make it about the story. If the location that they are in isn’t important to the story, don’t spend that much time on it, unless it’s meant to be a challenge for them to get to the proper location for the story, and then the survival itself is part of their story and the story of the place they are going. But if they are wandering through the desert because they happened to take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, that won’t be that exciting exploration as they try and get unlost. Again, there are types of games that this works with, if it is very strong survival, counting everything, and that’s the point of the game and the type of game you want to play, then it is part of the story, but everything is about the exploration and survival. In a lot of games, though, that’s not the case, so when you’re going to spend time on exploration, make it about the story.
4 – Explore Non-Natural Locations
The ruins of an ancient city that was thought long lost, that’s exploring. A mad wizards tower that no one has gone into and ever returned from because it’s so dangerous, that’s exploring. The dungeon under the a castle where there is allegedly great treasure, that is also exploring. All of these were made by someone, in Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Rings, they go through the Mines of Moria. There’s exploration in that as Gandalf tries to remember the way, and there are unique things about it, mainly a Balrog, but also just the drums in the deep, something that’s constantly there and very unique to the location. Yes, there was a cave location to it, but it was mainly dug out and turned into the city that it had been previously by dwarves, and that’s an easy one to steal and drop into your game. The advantage of Non-Natural locations is that nature tends to be big and sweeping, these locations are smaller, they can have a lot more challenges that can’t just be avoided by walking a mile to the west, and you can do a lot to make them very unique. The fact that it is more constricted also makes it easier to tell part of the story in it, because the players won’t have to search for the plot point or accidentally miss it.
So, what are some interesting ways that you can use exploration? Or I think better, what are some interesting locations that you can drop into your game to make for some interesting exploration no matter where you use them.
Swamps of Death
The swamps of death are aptly named because it’s easy to become turned around and lost in them. In fact, there seems to be no real path through them and with a strong stench and a constant haze, it can be quite disorienting. The biggest concern, though, is that if you step off of one of many crossing paths and into the muck itself, it has a glue like tendency that seems to grab you and hold you there. Unless you’re lucky, you’ll get sucked down and under and join the dead below.
An interesting thing for the DM to know but not for the players, is that the players will always have a swarm of crows around them during the day, up in the sky. And it should be fairly obvious as the crows will rest upon dead trees near the players. But the crows, at night, will always fly off towards the nearest edge of the swamp as to not sleep in the swamp. So if the players can manage to survive for several days, they’ll be able to use the crows to navigate out whatever side they want to leave from.
Artmis Cole was the original owner of the mines. It was said that he was a shrewd business man. He would push everyone hard to get the most out of his mines and for his money. Two hundred years ago, however, there was a collapse in the mines and Cole and twenty of his miners were lost down there with the minerals. It was rumored that Cole had a map on him for another mine, possibly, that would be worth a fortune.
The wall of the mine glow faintly and the PC’s can feel a tingling on their skin when they enter the mine. The mine actually was for a raw material that can more easily be enchanted and turned into magical items, such as weapons, armor, lamps, whatever it might be. However, in the raw for it’s unstable and long exposure to it can be dangerous.
For this, I’d have the player have to figure out where the collapse was, probably fight some twisted versions of Kolbolds, something easy to get down to it, and then they’ll need to excavate to get to Cole. Cole should be dead, but I’d have down with him some twisted version of elves, it’s only been 200 years, but they’ve been exposed to their radiation for a long time and living off of lichen and bugs that can thrive, so something has changed about them.
House on the Hill
I’m stealing this straight from the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill. There is some malevolent spirit that has created a house of horrors that the players can go through and explore. As they explore, they don’t know what room will be next because others who have explored it, the layout is different, just like in the game the layout can change every time. That means that there might be rooms that no one has ever seen that the players will see, but there also might be rooms that someone has explored before and written about that the players would know about.
I think what would be interesting about this location is the blend of rooms that the players know what they need to do to get through it, the question is can they and rooms that the players don’t know what they are and can they figure them out. At some point in time, maybe with something like a bedroom, I’d create one that looks similar to one that they know about so they can assume it’s that, but there’ll be something slightly different that they might not notice and they could try and do the wrong thing in it.
This one, I’d say, would be a little bit more challenging to pull off, I’d personally lean towards writing up some brief notes on the rooms the players know about, a little description, what the challenge is and how to overcome it. Let the players be able to look through that and figure out what rooms they think they are in when you describe the room to them, don’t point them in a direction, that would give the players more of a sense of exploration and discovery.
Now, these are just some ways that I think that exploration could be more interestingly done in Dungeons and Dragons or ways to make it feel special like combat or social interactions often can. What are some memorable moments of exploration that you’ve had in your games?
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