Level Up (A5E) Reflections on Exploration rules in play

ForceUser

Explorer
Hello,

Before I begin, here is the TL;DR:
  • We have played 9 sessions with the A5E exploration rules (regions, journeys, challenges) fully implemented.
  • Regions add shape & character to exploration, inspire meaningful player choices. A+.
  • Journey rules have proven awkward to implement thus far and have only occasionally added interesting value to gameplay. B-.
  • Exploration challenges award full encounter XP for a handful of die rolls that, in the best case scenario, lead to nothing happening, which seems wrong. C.
  • Managing supply, fatigue, and strife add value to emergent gameplay, but sometimes may feel like bookkeeping for bookkeeping's sake. B+.
Context
I have DMed every edition of D&D starting with AD&D 2E in 1989. I'm always learning, but I feel confident as a game master. My players are likewise older and experienced, and we have played a wide variety of games & styles. We play a 3-hour session each week using Fantasy Grounds Unity and Discord video.

I chose for my new campaign to adopt some of A5E, specifically the equipment rules and the exploration rules. We are still using 5E races, classes, & subclasses. The setting is a homebrew inspired by Al Qadim. We began at level 2 and the group is currently level 3.

My goal for this game was to use A5E to lean into OSR-style play, with a campaign focused on exploration, emergent play via player choices and random encounters, and character death as an ever-present threat. There is a campaign storyline but players can choose to interact with it as they wish. I use a hex map for outdoor exploration, with multi-hex regions that escalate in tier the farther the group gets from the safety of town. Using A5E terminology, the area immediately near town is Tier 0, Tier 1 beyond that, Tier 2 beyond that, and so on.

Regions (A+)
The notion of creating bounded regions with discrete and actionable traits is very useful to me as a DM. Regions are my favorite innovation from A5E, and have helped me sketch the shape of the entire campaign. Even better, regional traits have led to meaningful moments of emergent play, including
  • Players choosing to purchase two mules to carry their supply, one of whom overpaid by 20 gp in a failed attempt to haggle, leading to several amusing and ongoing exchanges with the town provisioner.
  • Players failing to purchase enough supply for their first journey despite the mules, which resulted in several tense game-days of worrying about having enough food & water to get back to town. Eating the mules became a consideration, but the math of spending a day butchering a mule and curing its meat vs. moving on ended up being unfavorable.
  • Players fiercely defending their supply from a random encounter with a band of aarakocra who demanded they be allowed to purchase it.
  • Players choosing the Hunt and Gather journey activity to try to stave off starvation long enough to make it back to town.
  • The party choosing not to bring the mules on their next outing because they slow them down too much in the mountains.
  • The party artificer giving up his magical armor infusion in exchange for a bag of holding infusion to carry more supply on their next outing, instead of the mules.
All in all, the region rules have been crucial in helping set the tone, shape the setting, and have led to memorable choices & outcomes.

Journeys (B minus)
I have, thus far, not been able to implement the journey rules in a way that feels natural, fluid, or satisfactory, nor in a way that has led to great moments of roleplay. For the most part, they are a choice (pick your activity) and a check (okay, now roll), and three journeys in, resolving these activities has begun to border on tedious box-checking. I should note that I am uncertain if the issue is my inexperience in using these rules, the rules themselves, or a combination of these and other factors.

The first journey, I ended up spending about an hour and a half describing and resolving the activities of each of the five players one at a time, and for at least one of the players, this experience dragged. On the second journey, I resolved all the journey activities first, and then co-narrated their resolutions with the relevant players. This sped things up a bit, and led to a memorable moment when the party cook narrated his critical success. On the third journey, the tracker lost the trail of the kobolds they were tracking, resulting in half the party gaining a level of fatigue thanks to the high altitude of the mountain they trekked across.

The latter two events were both substantive moments of emergent play, but there is something of a disconnect for us between action resolution and feeling as though we are interacting with events in a substantive way. We're not sure why. Perhaps because resolving a journey activity lacks the immediacy of resolving other ability checks, which usually occurs in the game present, vs. at an indistinct time at the end of a journey. I do feel as though our overall unfamiliarity with this subsystem contributes--we're just not sure the most impactful way to narrate & resolve activities, and declaring & resolving them have begun to feel a bit like a chore. For my part, I would like to find some way to give this aspect of A5E's exploration rules a bit more texture.

Exploration Challenges (C)
Let me first say that I thought it was clever and logical to take the basic structure of traps, infuse them with an element of group ability checks, add an XP award, and broaden them to include all sorts of environmental challenges. I love the idea. In practice and as written, however, exploration challenges are sometimes rather odd. In some cases, if players succeed on a single ability check (either an individual or as a group), nothing of substance happens, and then they earn CR-appropriate XP. In other instances, events that are quite deadly in the real world, such as landslides and cave-ins, result in -- at worst -- a minor loss of supply and some involuntary movement, or a little damage, if the challenge is failed.

On balance, the idea is great but the implementation seems as though it could use further iteration. I'm not certain how, exactly, but my sense is that the consequences of failure & success could use a "column shift," to use an old Marvel FASERIP term. Perhaps the consequence for critical failure should be the consequence for failure, the consequence for failure, success. I don't know. But in play I felt like I spent half an hour resolving a terrifying landslide down a canyon wall that resulted in the loss of 1d4 supply from one character, everyone being slid a few dozen feet, and not much else. And then I awarded XP. The players leaned in, because they are great, but I got the sense at the end of it that they thought, "Oh. That's it? Okay."

So far, we've resolved two exploration challenges, both Tier 0. Perhaps our perception will change as risks increase.

Supply, Fatigue, and Strife (B+)
I really like that these work, in practice, like exploration "hit points". My players are keen to track & calculate supply after their first near-disastrous journey, and they are mindful of fatigue and strife, particularly now that on the current journey, several of them have picked up 2 levels of fatigue and are beginning to worry about staying up on the mountain too long. My only concern is whether tracking supply is fun. It is, of course, crucial to the style of play I've chosen for the campaign, but at what point will it no longer be anything but a bookkeeping concern? I'm uncertain. I do like that rather than range far away from town willy-nilly, their first question is always, "Do we have enough supply to make that trip?" I like that they make decisions based upon that question. I like that the artificer has traded some of his personal power to ensure that they won't die of starvation in the wilderness. I like that they are now worried about finding a haven to recover from their fatigue. I guess we'll see how long it remains enjoyable to play the survival game.

Conclusion
All in all, I'm quite happy with the rules from A5E that I've implemented (at some point, I'll talk about what I like about the new equipment rules). I hope that even the ones that I feel work less well for us can be improved, through some combination of GM experience and rules modification. I have never run an OSR-style campaign before, and I find that I am enjoying it, and my players keep coming back to play, so that is a good sign.
 

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Waller

Hero
  • Exploration challenges award full encounter XP for a handful of die rolls that, in the best case scenario, lead to nothing happening, which seems wrong. C.
It's buried in a sidebar, but you only get full XP on a critical success. Not that that substantively changes the point, but it took me a while to notice that.

xp.png


I agree that the challenges tend to be smoothed out so the efefcts aren't too severe, and that the success and failure results should be more extreme than those in the book. It looks like they played it safe, but those rewards and penalties are all just suggestions, so it's up to you what feels right for your group. I like to make the failure inflict fatigue at a minimum, along with Supply, and the success get a boon or discovery. The crits are just more extreme versions of those.

What would be really handy is a table of suggested penalties/rewards per CR, maybe with a 'standard' version and a more 'extreme' version. I suspect a lot of Narrators would use the more extreme one.

I also think the XP rewards should be less as unlike combat, death is not a possible outcome. There isn't a comparable risk.

CR 1
Crit Failure
2 fatigue, 2d6 Supply each, 2 hit dice - no XP
Failure 1 fatigue, 1d6 Supply each, 1 hit die - no XP
Success boon/discovery - quarter XP
Crit boon/discovery - half XP

That's all RAW, as the book says -- the Narrator decides on the outcome and rewards.

out.png
 
Last edited:

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I definitely encourage people to come up with consequences and reward scales which suit them! The ones we put in the book were very much 'average', and we know that some people would prefer greater or lesser effects. I side towards the greater consequences too, for what it's worth!
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I definitely encourage people to come up with consequences and reward scales which suit them! The ones we put in the book were very much 'average', and we know that some people would prefer greater or lesser effects. I side towards the greater consequences too, for what it's worth!
I seem to recall Morrus's variant being something like:

Critical Failure - you owe the DM £100
Failure - you must wash the DM's car
Success - you must give the DM a really nice compliment
Critical Success - reroll with Disadvantage

Those are pretty harsh consequences! 😉
 

ForceUser

Explorer
It's buried in a sidebar, but you only get full XP on a critical success. Not that that substantively changes the point, but it took me a while to notice that.

View attachment 152578

I agree that the challenges tend to be smoothed out so the efefcts aren't too severe, and that the success and failure results should be more extreme than those in the book. It looks like they played it safe, but those rewards and penalties are all just suggestions, so it's up to you what feels right for your group. I like to make the failure inflict fatigue at a minimum, along with Supply, and the success get a boon or discovery. The crits are just more extreme versions of those.

What would be really handy is a table of suggested penalties/rewards per CR, maybe with a 'standard' version and a more 'extreme' version. I suspect a lot of Narrators would use the more extreme one.

I also think the XP rewards should be less as unlike combat, death is not a possible outcome. There isn't a comparable risk.

CR 1
Crit Failure
2 fatigue, 2d6 Supply each, 2 hit dice - no XP
Failure 1 fatigue, 1d6 Supply each, 1 hit die - no XP
Success boon/discovery - quarter XP
Crit boon/discovery - half XP

That's all RAW, as the book says -- the Narrator decides on the outcome and rewards.

View attachment 152579
Oh, I missed that sidebar. Thanks!
 

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