D&D 5E [+]Exploration Falls Short For Many Groups, Let’s Talk About It

Quickleaf

Legend
No, I'm totally with you on this. But, that's the problem. 4e balanced on the encounter. So, that meant that every encounter actually mattered. 5e balances on the adventuring day, which means the first three or four encounters shouldn't actually matter that much, unless you blow your daily budget in the first two or three encounters.
Look, it’s not like I didn’t try cautioning that maybe it was a bad idea provoking the frost giant jarl in his throne room while the rogue tried to pick a trapped vault door and the fighter was wrestling with a cursed sword… ;)
 

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I want to talk about exploration as a pillar of the game, what that means, how it falls short for each of us, how it can be expanded on while staying within 5e design aesthetics, and what we hope to see in revised core books.

  1. Exploration isthe part of the game where you are being physically challenged, and challenged in terms of problem solving and related stuff, that isn’t combat. It includes travel and wilderness survival, but it is also a lot more than that.
    1. I think it’s important to separate action-by-action exploration challenges like finding and disabling traps or parkouring around some temple ruins to solve a 3d puzzle, from wilderness survival and travel, because I think they have different needs
    2. It’s also import IMO to note that all of point 1 is what the designers meant early on when talking about 3 pillars, and this is part of why these discussions often end with ppl talking past eachother.
    3. I propose Survival and Exploration for the purposes on this discussion.
  2. Exploration fails (for me)to lead to interesting challenges IME because there just aren’t that many things for the PCs to leverage to create chaos, like there is with NPCs, and D&D style Travel and survival have always been very boring to me. A game that gets Survival in travel right, for me, is The One Ring. Rest structures don’t help, with it feeling like harsh adverserialism to make up new rules like having to make checks to be able to get good rest, and ending journeys with hit dice and other resources spent.
    1. Exploration (parkour and traps and investigation) fall short less for me, but I do find that in some campaigns I’d like to have more structure (although I usually prefer just action resolution and the DM and Player conversation as what drives the action)
  3. Exploration could be very interesting and engaging in more cases. For survival, it could be done with better travel rules that cause you to use resources (more later) and end the journey with those resources spent, making resting in the wild/on the road less restorative than resting in comfort and safety, and handing narrative reins to the players at intervals amidst the journey or other survival challenge. For Parkour and Traps, I think that something like a skill challenge but with a success ladder does the trick.
  4. Exploration in the revised core has me very curious to see what they do. I think Bastions give a sort of “vibe” they might be aiming for, but I think they are very aware of how lacking many groups find exploration in 5e. I think that the UA thing of giving skills a little more specificity might help (if they keep it lite), I think we will see travel rules that speak to what they’ve learned but that aren’t going to be ambitious, and I think we might see some optional rules out front and center and expanded on, along the lines of a normal short rest on the road gets you less than the default, along with benefits to sleeping in safe places, or the Ranger making a well hidden and cozy bivouac to rest in, or spending healing resources at the end of a rest (meaning they aren’t regained by that rest), stuff like that.

So, what do you think? Do you have wildly different answers from me?
Exploration is travel, traps & puzzles, searches, and sometimes skill checks. For example, I have always liked this description of travel:

"Travelling adventurers need not always face the hardships of the land. After all, walking or riding down a well-traveled road for the day, stopping at an inn, having a hot meal, and getting a sound sleep is no more taxing than a day training. But there are not always roads nor trails, not always a nice campsite, and not always a restful sleep. Sometimes the cold creeps in, the heat and sand become unrelenting, the mountain’s too steep, or mysterious forces threaten adventurers – even in their dreams."

Exploration is tied to the other pillars. To me, it is the glue in between roleplaying and combat.

Exploration fails for me mostly when the gamemaster fails to communicate properly. It happens to the best of us, but that is when I see it failing the most. For example, the small pile of rags that takes a group ten minutes to go through because they were not described as they should be is an example. If the rags are harmless, and the players investigate them, tell them they are rags and harmless. There is no suspense in making a player think they are something that they are not. This is especially true for mundane items: beds, clothes, desks, etc.

The opposite holds true as well. If the players are entering the feywild for the first time, take time to describe it. Let them explore and be consistent in the contrasts of the feywild versus the material plane. (For me, contrasts seem to work well.) This also includes detailing things like weather, terrain, and unique locales with clear and concise details. Some people have an issue with telling a player how their character feels, but I believe in many exploration cases, it is perfectly valid. Sit out on the deck of a ship going through a rough arctic storm, tell them they are wet and freezing. Tell them their fingers barely work. Tell them they keep shivering even when they try not to. This makes exploration real and palpable. It also opens the door for when they leave deck and go warm themselves with dry clothes and hot soup to a more descriptive narrative.

Note: If any of the description telling how a PC feels affects their skill checks, then there needs to be a way for the PC to circumvent this, either through rolling or clever play.

Exploration could be grander. In D&D, there are so many ways around this, that much of the travel, traps, and skill checks become trivial. A bard disarming a trap, a wizard reading an arcane rune, a barbarian jumping a pit, etc. are almost gimmes at higher levels. That is something that is accepted in the D&D verse.

Exploration in the revised core will still be lacking - no matter what they do. There are two issues: power creep (including a plethora and almost unlimited spell casting) and the gamemaster. They will not take out the power creep, nor will they eliminate the problem spells. And it is very difficult to teach DMs how to do this. This is especially true if they don't bother to read the rulebooks, don't plan and write things out from a thoughtful perspective, and/or have little life experience "exploring."
 

The Idea that every kind of healing uses up HD is actually a good one. Because right now, HD are mostly ignored in my games, because the most limiting factor for most players are spellslots and not HP in my experience so they push for a long rest to get those back instead of short rests to regain HP.
That is my experience so far, that PCs use up spellslots way faster than they loose HP.
I have played in a campaign where any healing used HD. The DM even rewrote spells, potions, etc. to use HD, as opposed to a standard 2d4+2 or whatever. It did two things: work hard to find safe long rest locations and have fewer encounters per day.
 

ECMO3

Hero
When it comes to Wilderness survival, I don't think there is a big appetite for that. I have played a couple adventures where that was important to the story - Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation, and in both of them the party ended up getting a shortcut "easy" button. In TOA I actually multiclasses my Rogue into one level of Ranger (he was the only character in the party with the prereqs) just to stop rolling on getting lost every day. In OOTA we had similar where a Druid solved all our food problems.

Gritty real Survival also impacts character builds. Saying your character suffers a level of exhaustion every hour while tromping around the desert in heavy armor sounds like it makes sense and would be fun, yet at the table it affects the guy whose build relies on heavy armor, and while it does challange the party it focuses that on one guy.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
When it comes to Wilderness survival, I don't think there is a big appetite for that. I have played a couple adventures where that was important to the story - Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation, and in both of them the party ended up getting a shortcut "easy" button. In TOA I actually multiclasses my Rogue into one level of Ranger (he was the only character in the party with the prereqs) just to stop rolling on getting lost every day. In OOTA we had similar where a Druid solved all our food problems.

Gritty real Survival also impacts character builds. Saying your character suffers a level of exhaustion every hour while tromping around the desert in heavy armor sounds like it makes sense and would be fun, yet at the table it affects the guy whose build relies on heavy armor, and while it does challange the party it focuses that on one guy.
And the player, assuming the fairness of knowing that going in, chose to make life harder on their PC. Them's the breaks.
 

Starfox

Adventurer
For example, the small pile of rags that takes a group ten minutes to go through because they were not described as they should be is an example. If the rags are harmless, and the players investigate them, tell them they are rags and harmless.
Makes me think of the parrot scene from Knight of the Dinner Table where the players spend their time investigating this mysterious bird, sure that is must hold some secret. :D
 


Bluenose

Adventurer
Exploration is travel, traps & puzzles, searches, and sometimes skill checks.

Most of that amounts to an obstacle to getting to the parts of the game that are engaging for more of the players because their characters are involved. I.E. Combat. When you run into a trap, the Fighter doesn't block an approach, the Wizard doesn't drop a fireball into the middle of the enemies, the cleric isn't casting spirit guardians - you get the rogue to disarm it and carry on (unless their dies roll is poor).

And if anyone think most combats would be made better by letting one person at a time roll to see if their PC succeeds, then I think there is a game for you but it's not modern D&D.

And the other part is that the reward for success isn't as interesting as winning a fight when you get to loot the bodies of your enemies and see what you've got. Whereas overcoming a trop means you aren't harmed when you could have been. Meh.

And unfortunately it's rather hard given the extent to which D&D classes are written then it's moderately hard to make situations where all the characters can be involved and not look contrived. It would be really hard to import something like the Star Trek Adventures rules on solving scientific/medical/technological problems in D&D, not because there's anything wrong with how the rules would work but because many PCs would be in classes which simply don't have anything to contribute a lot of the time - which is quite unlike the game the rules come from where any character is going to have many things they're quite capable of making a useful contribution to so the player feels they're being useful even if it's not what they're best at. Maybe GMs should be encouraged to allow wider skill alternative use or to create more open-ended situations where multiple skills not only could be used but need to be used to complete a task. But that's not the way D&D has been going for decades.
 

Undrave

Legend
The HD mechanic and short rests allows spells to be used for things other than healing. Great for bards, clerics, and druids as long as their chosen role was not to be a healer.

Which would work a lot better if you didn't have a measly one per level to spend, as a level where your HP is the lower it'll ever be. You'll be lucky to have more than two or three fights and your Cleric might spend one of their precious spells on healing anyway. Then, at later level, a single HD is too small a portion of your HP to have an impact so you end up using up more of them.
 

Undrave

Legend
I have played in a campaign where any healing used HD. The DM even rewrote spells, potions, etc. to use HD, as opposed to a standard 2d4+2 or whatever. It did two things: work hard to find safe long rest locations and have fewer encounters per day.
Yeah gotta adjust the number of HD as well.
 

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