Whether you’re a little boy or girl exploring a cave with a flashlight, or a member of the Fellowship of the Ring exploring the Mines of Moria, every adventurer is going to confront an area they’ve never been to before. Exploration forms a key pillar of adventure gaming, and i would suggest that it is the third primary struggle for adventurers. Struggling against the environment has been a storytelling tool since we started telling stories, and as a Game Master, you can use exploration to create wonderful encounters and stories for your players. Let’s take a look at some of the tools you can use for exploration.
First and foremost, exploration encounters directly engage the scenery in a meaningful way. Escaping a rolling boulder trap, navigating your way through a haunted graveyard, or surviving the wrecking of your ship all require your players to interact with their environment. Making best usage of this storytelling tool means that you should focus on setting up your exploration encounter to reveal whatever you intend for the characters to gain from the encounter, and then build the set for them.
LIke we’ve said with other articles in this series, when you build an encounter for your players, you have to decide what you expect them to take away from the encounter (positive or negative, not every encounter is full of treasure). Once you have this in mind, you can build your encounter around it. If the players are searching for the entrance to an ancient city or lost tomb, where is it, is it hidden, is it guarded or trapped? Finding the goal of an encounter gives you an excellent place to work back from when designing the rest of the encounter.
Quick Note1: Exploration encounters can feature monsters or things that can hurt or injure the party. It’s possible, but if you are focusing on a strict exploration/interaction encounter, skip the monsters. They can be featured in their own encounters either before or after the interaction. Some of you might be thinking “But i want to put my players in a room that changes dimensions and shapes every couple of rounds while a Dragon tries to murder them.” First, that sounds like a fun encounter, but it has a lot of moving parts. If you’re going to build that room, make it the set piece finale of your adventure, and spend a lot of time making sure you know exactly how all the changes occur, drawing maps that have the different room shapes, and thinking your way through it. You don’t want your super awesome encounter to fizzle because it’s too hard for you to manage.
There are two primary outcomes you’ll find with exploration/interaction encounters. Either the players are supposed to survive the environmental hazards, or they are expected to find something that furthers the larger story you’re telling. This means that your players will find a map to a lost city, the missing treasure, the person they’ve been sent to rescue, or something as simple as finding a lost doorway.
Survival can be tricky to figure out, but the first step is identifying what the hazard is. Radiation? A Killing Frost? Water filling the room at a scarily high rate? A plethora of traps? What’s going to cause the characters injury? What is the lethality of the hazard? How long does it last? How do the characters escape it?
What is the Lethality of the Hazard? If the condition is serious enough that it has a better than average chance of outright killing the characters, that should help you as a story crafter find the right environment to set the hazard. Lethal doses of poison/radiation/necromantic energy can be extremely fatal, as can pits full of spikes, sudden drops, and exposure. If you’ve decided this is a lethal hazard, then plan around it by making sure that there are at least two different ways of avoiding the hazard.
If the Hazard is more of an inconvenience than dangerous, then it’s perfectly reasonable to expect your party to encounter it head on. Sometimes they’re going to have to traverse rickety bridges over chasms, or slog through an ancient jungle full of heat and humidity. Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition has the exhaustion rules that you can use to simulate the stress of these hazards, and a plethora of status effects you can work with to represent other tribulations. Remember, they get saving throws to resist them, and try not to stack more than two of them together. Nobody wants to be blinded, poisoned and sickened while trying to open the doors to a lost temple.
Environmental Hazard Ideas
Disease (airborne/waterborne/hey it’s magic and i don’t have to explain jack)
Suffocation (Take your pic, there are a lot of ways to secretly replace usable air with bad gasses)
Dead Magic Fields
If you’re building a lethal hazard, you should include ways to either navigate around it, or provide options for clever players to get through it. Finding a bridge over an impossibly deep chasm, a cave to wait out a storm, vents you can open to shunt radiation or toxic gasses, or any of a number of potential solutions for the hazards you’ve created. You don’t have to assemble a linear chain between encounters, and i always expect players to come up with at least two solutions i didn’t think of. Two ways around a lethal hazard is probably enough for you to come up with, and expect player creativity to find at least one way across.
Non-lethal Hazards are another matter entirely. If the hazard is designed to incapacitate or injure the players but shouldn’t be fatal, let them take their lumps, or exercise their creativity to get out of the way of the hazard. I personally look at this sort of hazard as the lumps and bumps adventurers get rewarded greatly for taking.
Exploring an area is a slightly different sort of encounter than a hazard because it doesn’t necessarily have the danger elements that a hazard or monster has, it has a different problem. Frustration.
I’ve played several adventures where we’ve been cruising along towards our goal and then the party just seems to fall off the track. Either we missed a clue, or a secret door, or we’ve wandered into a puzzle we can’t quite seem to figure out, but we’re well and truly stuck without a direction to go. Now we start wracking our brains, backtracking and trying to figure out what we missed. Irritation sets in and then there’s yelling and screaming and miniatures being thrown across the room and “I didn’t want to play in your stupid campaign anyway you dumb sack of Dragon Excrement!”
No one wants that, do they?
When you’re building an exploration encounter (and i’m defining that as any encounter is one where the primary outcome desired is the discovery of a person, place, or thing that continues the story) is that you need to have a very concrete map of the encounter area. Having a physical map of the area to show your players (minus the secrets of course) lets them explore it (especially if its big enough to put minis down on top of to scale). If you can show them physically the location they exist in, you’re going to cut out a lot of potential frustrations. This is one area of gaming that i encourage maps even if you are a theater of the mind type of player. A single omission can cause loads of trouble.
For Example, we were playing through Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (original 3rd edition version) and we get to the water damaged town where the bad people used to operate as a base of operations. We get the idea in our heads that there is treasure inside the old inn, and a few of our party members decided to investigate. Over the course of the next three sessions, we lose 7 party members to the Ghost Assassin who is stuck inside the inn, (creative use of grappling hooks returned the loot our dead friends had left inside).
When asked a month later about how we were supposed to deal with said ghostly assassin, our DM’s response almost got him punched in the face by one of my more emotionally challenged companions.
“You should have just burned the inn down.”
“The inn that was soaked to the point where we were told that nothing in the town would burn?”
“Well all of the buildings but that one.”
“We asked you about that, specifically.”
“Oops, I forgot, better luck next time.”
Exploration encounters require you as a story teller to concretely define places and locations for your players to interact with. Make sure you have a written script for what the interaction piece is and don’t deviate from it. Mistakes can happen, but you want to have a written explanation in case someone asks. This is doubly true for puzzles. I’ll cover puzzles in another article, but my short answer is to follow these three steps.
Always have a redirect or workaround if the puzzle isn’t solved in the first few minutes (Most players don’t want to spend three hours wracking their brains to try and solve a puzzle when they came in for some dungeons and dragons).
Don’t build puzzles that rely on the Characters’ knowledge of the world and then expect the Players to be able to solve it without a lot of clues and some handouts.
Never assume a puzzle is easy to solve just because you can do it. You designed the puzzle, of course you can solve it.
I think we’re going to take a break here for the day, and we’ll dig into puzzle city next time. Hope this helps you design new and interesting encounters for your game.
Game on, Game Fans