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Blog (A5E) Level Up: Exploration Challenges, Boons, & Monster Signs

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We looked at exploration in Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition in a previous article about how we’re expanding the exploration pillar of the game. In that article we talked about Supplies, Safe Havens, and we introduced the concept of Exploration Challenges. This article talks about three of the tools that GMs have available to create a rich and vibrant environment:
  • Exploration Challenges
  • Boons & Discoveries
  • Monster Signs
Exploration as a ‘pillar’ of the game includes underground as well as the wilderness. When you’re searching a dungeon, you’re exploring. When you’re trekking across hill and shire, you’re exploring. When you’re navigating a dense fantasy city, you’re exploring. When you’re flying through an elemental plane of air, you’re exploring.

 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

EthanSental

Adventurer
I’m enjoying the updates and look forward as it gets ready for print. What kind of timeframe (rough estimate) before we could get this book in our hands/table?
 

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tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
It’s also an area of design space that we imagine fans and third party publishers might enjoy expanding. You can never have too many Exploration Challenges to choose (or roll) from!
An area that looks a little unrepresented in the challenges are manifest zones or to put it in terms of anime/urban fiction/maybe even myth "areas where the border between this world/plane & another world/plane are weak & bleeding through." They make for good excuses to introduce elements of other planes without needing to actually go planehopping
 

maceochaid

Explorer
Looks great, can't wait!

In the Tornado example I like having the guide to "automatic success" spells. But some guidance for lower level spells would be helpful too. For Instance "Spells might help the characters, although the howling winds scatter material components and stagger spellcasters making ritual casting impossible. At your discretion, another appropriate spell of 2-4 level (like Gust of Wind) might give advantage on the Athletics check to one party member per level of spell slot spent. Similarly appropriate spells of 5th level or above may halve the damage of a failed Strength save" (I have no idea of the balance I'm just trying to think of ways to help inspire DMs on how to adjudicate corner cases and reward clever spell use that still reminds DMs it is up to them)
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Looks great, can't wait!

In the Tornado example I like having the guide to "automatic success" spells. But some guidance for lower level spells would be helpful too. For Instance "Spells might help the characters, although the howling winds scatter material components and stagger spellcasters making ritual casting impossible. At your discretion, another appropriate spell of 2-4 level (like Gust of Wind) might give advantage on the Athletics check to one party member per level of spell slot spent. Similarly appropriate spells of 5th level or above may halve the damage of a failed Strength save" (I have no idea of the balance I'm just trying to think of ways to help inspire DMs on how to adjudicate corner cases and reward clever spell use that still reminds DMs it is up to them)
So the entire concept of Exploration Challenges is introduced with (paraphrased) -- 'this is freeform. do what you want. if your players come up with a cool idea that's the thing you should do. all we're doing is giving some suggestions, but we can't suggest everything.'
 

maceochaid

Explorer
So the entire concept of Exploration Challenges is introduced with (paraphrased) -- 'this is freeform. do what you want. if your players come up with a cool idea that's the thing you should do. all we're doing is giving some suggestions, but we can't suggest everything.'
Totally got that! But I saved myself a ton of headache when one day I sketched out what level spells would roughly correspond to what kind of effects in exploration mode. It wasn't perfect (and there is a reason I don't want to suggest I belong on the team) but giving myself an idea of what level of resource needs to be expended for what kind of effect on the game helped me and my players feel like there was at least some kind of baseline understanding of how to spend resources to see effects.

I think that is what I feel most uncomfortable about DMing exploration. It just comes down to me saying "yes" or "no" to player ideas and can get really unfun when a player feels that Gust of Wind should have had some effect on the Tornado, but in the moment I can only say "tornado is too strong you waste your spell slot" because I don't feel a 2nd level spell should totally erase the threat altogether.

I guess maybe a bank of "great but half-baked" idea boons to help a DM out (especially us better at fluff but lousy at crunch Dms). It's just an idea, I'll quiet if I'm being a jerk.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Totally got that! But I saved myself a ton of headache when one day I sketched out what level spells would roughly correspond to what kind of effects in exploration mode. It wasn't perfect (and there is a reason I don't want to suggest I belong on the team) but giving myself an idea of what level of resource needs to be expended for what kind of effect on the game helped me and my players feel like there was at least some kind of baseline understanding of how to spend resources to see effects.

I think that is what I feel most uncomfortable about DMing exploration. It just comes down to me saying "yes" or "no" to player ideas and can get really unfun when a player feels that Gust of Wind should have had some effect on the Tornado, but in the moment I can only say "tornado is too strong you waste your spell slot" because I don't feel a 2nd level spell should totally erase the threat altogether.

I guess maybe a bank of "great but half-baked" idea boons to help a DM out. It's just an idea, I'll quiet if I'm being a jerk.
The tiers will help with that (a tier 2 spell won't help with a tier 3 challenge, and a tier 4 party can ignore a tier 2 challenge). You can assume that a spell-caster will know that.
 

maceochaid

Explorer
The tiers will help with that (a tier 2 spell won't help with a tier 3 challenge, and a tier 4 party can ignore a tier 2 challenge). You can assume that a spell-caster will know that.
Got it! I think I'm the only DM on the boards who frets that I have too much power, and that my God like the ability to decide whether that spell would break down a door, or if it would be believable for a creature of that size to jump this or that chasm makes me break into a nervous sweat and ruins my fun time telling a fun story with friends
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Got it! I think I'm the only DM on the boards who frets that I have too much power, and that my God like the ability to decide whether that spell would break down a door, or if it would be believable for a creature of that size to jump this or that chasm makes me break into a nervous sweat and ruins my fun time telling a fun story with friends
The answer to those questions is usually answered by asking yourself what would be more fun right now (for your group).In my experience? Usually just say yes unless there’s a really important compelling plot reason to be unfun.
 

The tiers will help with that (a tier 2 spell won't help with a tier 3 challenge, and a tier 4 party can ignore a tier 2 challenge). You can assume that a spell-caster will know that.
I like this use of tiers, and would suggest a consolidation around them for followers and strongholds. MCDM invented new tiers which increases confusion.
 

maceochaid

Explorer
The answer to those questions is usually answered by asking yourself what would be more fun right now (for your group).In my experience? Usually just say yes unless there’s a really important compelling plot reason to be unfun.
Haha, yeah . . . I mean this is like the advice that you see everywhere on every message board over and over. I’m pretty sure it’s in the DMs Guide somewhere but I couldn’t find it just now. It is the kind of advice that I’ve been very frustrated with in the official WotC books. Like the Parleying “rules” in Tasha’s Cauldron, that as someone who has been playing DnD for a little under 30 years, I feel like is talking down to me. I would say that this generic advice is more for beginner DMs rather than “level up” DMs. But telling a Dm new or experienced “just do what’s fun!” Doesn’t seem to really actually help either, because I would argue it is actually really complicated to figure out what would be “most fun.” Let’s take this case, a player saying “I cast Gust of Wind at the Tornado to blow it away.” Is it more fun if I just say yes: “it blows away the tornado there is no threat.” I’ve found that even if the Player thinks it’s fun in that moment, after awhile it’s going to get boring, and the fighter who didn’t take any spells is going to feel REALLY worthless if every challenge in an exploration session the wizard can avoid with a single spell. So my other simple option is to say “that spell doesn’t work you waste a spell slot, only Control Weather works according to the spell description,” isn’t fun either.

So the DM knows that the most fun thing will be to reward the wizard for casting the spell, without such a low level spell just canceling the challenge altogether. But this is where it gets complicated, how to properly balance this. This is merely where I, in my very humble opinion, would find value in paying for rules written by a team of game designers to help me out and give me guidance on a balanced way to reward my player’s creative thinking so I can focus on telling stories, amusing players, and improving with my friends. So it would be interesting to me for Level Up to help me improv quick on my feet, provide good ideas for rewarding creative player thinking, while still creating a sense of dangerous world or risk and reward.

I think I misunderstood this as a preview material for feedback, and you have been always very good at being communicative. I am sure you probably have a document outlining the things feedback should stick to and “what customers would like” is not in it. I’m just good on fluff, telling stories, figuring out monsters motivations, and actually very very good at making my players have a good time (they come back to my table after all!). I rarely purchase products that seem to just be a collection of ideas, or overly simplistic advice like “just do what’s fun.” Maybe I’m just more of a leveled up DM than I give myself credit for! Thanks Morrus for all the great work.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I would say that this generic advice is more for beginner DMs rather than “level up” DMs. But telling a Dm new or experienced “just do what’s fun!” Doesn’t seem to really actually help either, because I would argue it is actually really complicated to figure out what would be “most fun.”
I mean, it was just a two-line comment on a message board, not a chapter of GM advice. But that particular bit of advice did help me immensely back when I started in this hobby.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Haha, yeah . . . I mean this is like the advice that you see everywhere on every message board over and over. I’m pretty sure it’s in the DMs Guide somewhere but I couldn’t find it just now. It is the kind of advice that I’ve been very frustrated with in the official WotC books. Like the Parleying “rules” in Tasha’s Cauldron, that as someone who has been playing DnD for a little under 30 years, I feel like is talking down to me. I would say that this generic advice is more for beginner DMs rather than “level up” DMs. But telling a Dm new or experienced “just do what’s fun!” Doesn’t seem to really actually help either, because I would argue it is actually really complicated to figure out what would be “most fun.” Let’s take this case, a player saying “I cast Gust of Wind at the Tornado to blow it away.” Is it more fun if I just say yes: “it blows away the tornado there is no threat.” I’ve found that even if the Player thinks it’s fun in that moment, after awhile it’s going to get boring, and the fighter who didn’t take any spells is going to feel REALLY worthless if every challenge in an exploration session the wizard can avoid with a single spell. So my other simple option is to say “that spell doesn’t work you waste a spell slot, only Control Weather works according to the spell description,” isn’t fun either.

So the DM knows that the most fun thing will be to reward the wizard for casting the spell, without such a low level spell just canceling the challenge altogether. But this is where it gets complicated, how to properly balance this. This is merely where I, in my very humble opinion, would find value in paying for rules written by a team of game designers to help me out and give me guidance on a balanced way to reward my player’s creative thinking so I can focus on telling stories, amusing players, and improving with my friends. So it would be interesting to me for Level Up to help me improv quick on my feet, provide good ideas for rewarding creative player thinking, while still creating a sense of dangerous world or risk and reward.

I think I misunderstood this as a preview material for feedback, and you have been always very good at being communicative. I am sure you probably have a document outlining the things feedback should stick to and “what customers would like” is not in it. I’m just good on fluff, telling stories, figuring out monsters motivations, and actually very very good at making my players have a good time (they come back to my table after all!). I rarely purchase products that seem to just be a collection of ideas, or overly simplistic advice like “just do what’s fun.” Maybe I’m just more of a leveled up DM than I give myself credit for! Thanks Morrus for all the great work.
Going by comments made when these were hinted & teased previously, I think they are intended to be handled much more "organically" where the players are given a problem they need to figure out a way to solve or move past. If that solution includes the use of fitting low level spells powers & abilities then great, if not then great. The important point is that they spent what you as a gm feels is a reasonable period of time effort & resources solving a problem in a plausibly interesting manner
 

Faolyn

Hero
Haha, yeah . . . I mean this is like the advice that you see everywhere on every message board over and over. I’m pretty sure it’s in the DMs Guide somewhere but I couldn’t find it just now. It is the kind of advice that I’ve been very frustrated with in the official WotC books. Like the Parleying “rules” in Tasha’s Cauldron, that as someone who has been playing DnD for a little under 30 years, I feel like is talking down to me.
I guess they are assuming that there are always going to be new DMs looking for advice, but anyone who's DMed for more than a few years is probably only going to need the occasional reminder.

Let’s take this case, a player saying “I cast Gust of Wind at the Tornado to blow it away.” Is it more fun if I just say yes: “it blows away the tornado there is no threat.” I’ve found that even if the Player thinks it’s fun in that moment, after awhile it’s going to get boring, and the fighter who didn’t take any spells is going to feel REALLY worthless if every challenge in an exploration session the wizard can avoid with a single spell. So my other simple option is to say “that spell doesn’t work you waste a spell slot, only Control Weather works according to the spell description,” isn’t fun either.
This is when you look at the suggestion they make and extrapolate.

Situation: a tornado.
Book solution: the control weather spell, an 8th-level spell.
Player solution: the gust of wind spell, a 2nd-level spell.

The control weather spell treats Storm winds as stronger than Gale winds which are stronger than Strong winds. A tornado is presumably a Storm wind. A gust of wind creates a Strong wind for concentration, up to 1 minute.

My take: Casting control weather when you see the tornados start to appear allows you to control the weather enough to completely dissipate the entire storm. It's not an insta-fix, since it takes 10-40 minutes for the magic to take hold and change the wearther (@Morrus, did y'all take that into consideration when the tornadoes entry was rewritten, or is this a special case, or did you rewrite control weather?) but as I said, you're presumably casting when you first see the bad weather arise, not when there's a twister right in front of you.

Logically, a strong wind created by gust of wind isn't going to do diddly against a Storm-force tornado. For the sake of player agency and fun, I would say that as long as you maintain concentration on gust of wind, you (and people within 5 feet of you) get a bonus, or maybe advantage, on their Athletics rolls against it. I'd allow the same bonus for people protected by warding wind or wind wall, let control winds or whirlwind unravel tornadoes one by one, and let anyone affected by wind walk or investiture of wind be unscathed by the tornado. But only control weather could actually end the storm.
 

Bolongo

Herr Doktor
I like it.
Signs is something I started adding to my random encounter tables years ago, but the hard part is racking my brain trying to come up with lots of different signs for each monster. So more suggestions are always welcome.
And boons are something I've thought of before, but never had the energy to implement. As in, I've thought "to make hex-crawling really interesting, there needs to be useful stuff to find, not just dangers."
 

Stalker0

Legend
For the sake of player agency and fun, I would say that as long as you maintain concentration on gust of wind, you (and people within 5 feet of you) get a bonus, or maybe advantage, on their Athletics rolls against it.
Yep, I find players really really love when these kind of "low effectiveness" spells get a chance to shine bright. For example, I've allowed players to use control water to slow or stun water elementals, and the player (who had control water mainly for flavor) was thrilled.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
=
Yep, I find players really really love when these kind of "low effectiveness" spells get a chance to shine bright. For example, I've allowed players to use control water to slow or stun water elementals, and the player (who had control water mainly for flavor) was thrilled.
Indeed, I usually go out of my way to give those kinds of reciprocity a chance to really shine whenever player A does or casts something interesting to make player B awesome since now there are at least two players involved inbeing awesome in ways that might border on or march straight into competence porn
 

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