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D&D Exploration Pillar: How To Get It Right

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

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D&D 5E was designed with three pillars of the game experience in mind: 

  • Combat: the most systematized of all, which the community has gotten down to a science. Most of the rules are about this.
  • Social Interaction: more freeform with some rules governing encounter outcomes, the domain of roleplay and social skills.
  • Exploration: the one that sounds self-explanatory but isn’t. Much maligned as an afterthought with scarce official support, but actually one of the biggest joys in the game. I’ll explain:

Exploration is often understood as moving across space and getting information about it. Thus the misleading conclusion that it means travel, outdoors activities, and dungeon-crawling. It can be these things, but not necessarily. The secret ingredients are player-driven action and curiosity.

Following a linear path to get plot coupons is not exploring, regardless of the environment. Players might be required to ford a river or bypass a collapsed tunnel, but these things aren’t inherently exploratory. If they do them only because they are the obvious ways to get to the stated objective, it’s not exploring.

Sounds tricky? A bit, yeah, but we’ll break it all down and throw open the doors of your perception like internet mescaline. As usual, you can go straight to the dope via our handy table of contents:

How to Foster Exploration: Taking Cues from Video Games

Exploring is about getting off the beaten path and into uncharted territory, which can be taken literally as well as narratively. Moreover, the three pillars terminology undercuts the fact that exploration includes fighting and social interaction. 

Sometimes the thing that tickled the players’ curiosity requires them to do some talking and fighting to satiate it, along with tasks more usually understood as exploring. It begins with you presenting a hook or intriguing bit of information that gets the players’ gears turning, and then they take the initiative to go for it. 

Those threads you scatter for them to maybe follow are like the markers on an open-world videogame’s map, the incomplete pieces of the map in a Metroidvania, or the myriad paths and environmental storytelling that people play immersive sims for. 

These videogame styles all have player freedom at their core but distinguish themselves in how it’s presented. 

  • Open-world is the sandbox, a word that can strike terror in many DM’s hearts. Boundless possibility, go anywhere, talk to anyone. 
  • A Metroidvania presents challenges that unlock more of the world and can be approached at any given time but only beaten after acquiring the proper tools. The end result is the open (mastered, charted) world. 
  • An Immersive Sim deals with a more curated, smaller-scale experience that’s extremely dense with options, often segmented in levels.

Exploration emerges when player curiosity leads them to move around and investigate a location. Traveling an established path isn’t it, but you can add exploration to travel by offering interesting things to take Player Characters (PCs) off the path.

Of course, sometimes the players come up with their own threads to follow based on what they already know of the world, or when you say something as an afterthought, but they don’t take it as such—then you can either improvise something to reward their investment in the story or leave them hanging.

This can be mitigated if, instead of going for it right away, the player just made a note to get back to it in the future. It pays off to ask them between sessions about what they intend to do when you next play. This prevents wasted prep and cuts down on unexpected improvisation. 

Let’s go to a couple of practical examples.


Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;

Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.


Examples from my Campaigns

In my Curse of Strahd campaign, the blood hunter, Jacqueline “The Jackal”, has to forage for components with which to level up by imbibing terrible brews when the party hits a milestone.

Her player comes up with lists of things that we refine together, and it’s up to me to place them in the world while she has to actively look for them. Sometimes the foraging becomes a miniquest: dire wolf bile, salamander neurotoxin (Surprise! salamanders are guarded by my homebrew grindylows!), funky bioluminescent cave mushrooms, etc. 

Hitting the books for a Barovian substitute of some component from Jackie’s homeland is the start of exploration, sometimes. Going to a library or listening for gossip are wonderful ways to get your PCs following their own personal goals across the land.

In another campaign of mine, Ólafur the paladin and Logarius the warlock decided to stroll across Llowaya’s forest park at night, motivated by rumors they heard of a powerful, whimsical presence there. They stopped to listen to the strange, sourceless music that they found, and a whispered voice entwined with the music told them to “come back with gifts,” at which point their mouths tasted mysteriously of apricot.

And come back with gifts they did, fresh apricots and apricot wine bought in Eastgate Bazaar (an opportunity Ólafur seized to buy a gift for someone else). It earned them an audience with the mad fey spirit Yaunnos after chasing one of his loyal beasts into the autumnal demiplane he inhabits. There they wagered favors and knowledge on riddles. Logarius also got a wand that makes this happen as an AoE. 

On another occasion, the party had made a deal with an antiquarian: He’d give them the location of a drow ruin in exchange for them fetching him items of ritualistic importance therein. They could keep whatever loot they got that didn’t belong in his Museum of Ritual Curiosities

They could have left after their first few finds, but it became clear that the kobolds inhabiting the ruins had been sacrificing people to a pale dragon deeper inside. A strange dragon with the ability to petrify—evidenced by the kobold’s traps, like the swinging petrified-dwarf-pendulums. The party didn’t leave because they were curious and expected more loot (plenty in a dragon’s hoard, even a shriveled, blind, cave-dwelling one). This is what good exploration incentives can lead to.


Looking to challenge your players?

Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?

Well, our friends over at Dungeon Vault have an assortment of puzzles, riddles, and tokens to enhance your gaming experience. They even have a murder mystery and a political intrigue system!

For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!


Official Support for Exploration in the D&D 5E Books

Turns out there’s plenty! If you’re putting cool stuff in your world, rewarding your player’s investment in it, and not railroading the hell out of them, most of the game is exploration

Below, I’ve grouped by official rulebook the rules that can be immediately understood as pertinent to exploration, as well as listed our articles that can help in this regard: 

Dungeon Master’s Guide

  • Want to explore planes other than the material? The 2nd chapter has you covered, with summaries of all and a ton of optional rules for planar effects.
  • The entire 5th chapter concerns itself with environments to traverse, investigate, and master: dungeons, forests, cities, and more unusual ones. There are also rules for wilderness survival (pgs 109 to 112) in it.
    • Wilderness survival is a style of play that can be entirely trivialized by spells like Goodberry and Create Food and Water. This can be avoided by banning such spells if survival is a focal element of the campaign or making spell slots scarcer or more necessary elsewhere. How? Variant rules:
      • Slow Natural Healing: Instead of regaining all hit points at the end of a long rest, a character can spend Hit Dice to heal at the end of a long rest, just as with a short rest (pg 267).
      • Gritty Realism: short rests of eight hours and long rests of seven days (pg 267). 
  • As for your traveling needs, you’ll find rules concerned with the pace of travel, visibility and stealth, as well as tracking, on pages 242-244 (in a section titled Exploration)

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE) 


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!


Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

Most of this book has an exploration emphasis from page 148 (where the section about parleying with monsters is) onward. They are categorized as follows:

  • Supernatural Regions
    • Blessed radiance (pg 150)
    • Far Realm (pg 152)
    • Haunted (pg 154)
    • Infested (pg 156)
    • Mirror Zone (pg 158)
    • Psychic Resonance (pg 160)
    • Unraveling Magic (pg 161)
  • Magical Phenomena
    • Eldritch Storms (pg 163)
    • Emotional Echoes (pg 164)
    • Enchanted Springs (pg 165)
    • Magic Mushrooms (pg 166)
    • Mimic Colonies (pg 167)
    • Primal Fruit (168)
    • Unearthly Roads (pg 169)
  • Natural Hazards
    • Avalanches (pg 169)
    • Falling into Water (pg 170) 
    • Falling onto a Creature (pg 170; my post on this topic)
    • Spell Equivalents of Natural Hazards (pg 170)
  • Puzzles (pgs 170 to 192)

Our articles

Summary

  • Exploration, as we have seen, is the joining of the satisfaction of player curiosity by their own initiative & activities that require interacting with the environment.
  • It happens whenever players decide by themselves to go into uncharted (literally and narratively) territory. This can be almost anything, but some examples are:
    • A column of smoke they saw from the road.
    • An intriguing festival they heard will take place in an isolated village.
    • Perhaps a masquerade ball where they hope to meet local movers and shakers.
    • The woods where the components they need to make a potion are.
    • A forbidden stretch of library packed with occult tomes.
  • The territory is not only its natural features but also its history (like in a city), the creatures it contains, and how all these relate to each other. 
  • If you give your players freedom and an engaging world peppered with secrets and plot hooks, exploration happens naturally
  • There is, in fact, a lot of official D&D 5e material to help DMs with the exploration aspect of their games. The environment is exceedingly important, and, as such, you can find a plethora of information & rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

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