D&D General Why Exploration Is the Worst Pillar


So the three pillars of play are combat, role-playing, and exploration. Combat we discuss a lot and have many rules to make dynamic and exciting, hordes of monsters, reams of magical spells, and numerous tomes of battle equipment. Role-playing is theatric, and we have seen it done with character arcs, accents, and know how it has been long elevated as the height of good Game-Mastering ("Role-play" NOT "ROLL-play.")
But exploration? It's the neglected middle child of the pillars. Why? I think because it's the in-between of interesting things.
It's the trek through the wilderness listening to the DM trying to use purple prose to describe the forest that exists to waste your time between getting the quest from the haughty noble (role-playing) to the bandit hideout (combat). It's the long, featureless corridors that may contain a ho-hum trap (which is likely going to be less dangerous than a single monster of your party's level), but that trap will be avoided with a Passive Perception check you don't even have to roll. That hallway may connect two exciting combat encounters, but the hallway itself is just a line on a flowchart.
Exploration is the session that you're buying supplies for your journey and making preparations, which can be easily avoided with a die roll. ("Did we bring enough food? Here, let me roll randomly. Good, you have enough food.")
How much game time is wasted on exploration? Would the experience be better by simply asking the players: "Do you want to go to Fight A with the troll barbarian or Fight B in the vampire's crypt?" We could speed through literal sessions of actual games that require wilderness travel from the starting town to the dungeon.
But the only advice I've ever seen for improving exploration mode is to use better descriptive phrases, wandering monsters, or have a few skill checks that are going to ultimately have no impact on the game (maybe you lose some hit dice, maybe have to spend a few spell slots, etc.). But even with most of that advice, it's telling you to make exploration mode better by adding combat (wandering monsters).
So what do you think? Am I wrong on this?

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I disagree with essentially everything in the OP but I want to address the idea that "exploration is shopping."

No, it's not.

The degree to which resource management is important during any aspect of play is totally dependent on the preferences of the group. Counting arrows or healing kits is no different than counting rations or rope.

You can totally have an enjoyable exploration pillar without resource management. Exploration is crawling through the dungeon and traveling through the wilds, but it's also learning the layout of the city and finding hidden alcoves in the library and talking to contacts seeking the next adventure.


Heretic of The Seventh Circle
This is why I use journey rules, with prep rolls, rolls to avoid hazards and keep the path, and rolls behind the screen to determine difficulty and complications.

Complications can be a traveling peddler or bard or troupe of entertainers, an attempted ambush, an opportunity for especially good hunting or foraging, a natural wonder, a lost ruin, or anything else we can think of.

in a journey, each PC has a Role. If the complication that arises relates to their Role, they are basically Team Captain for the scene where we resolve that complication. The lead character of that scene.

Exploration is the interesting part of being in a dungeon. It's deciding which corridors to go down, and which doors to not open. It's deciding whether or not to risk carrying a torch into a room, based on what you think might be in there.

It's also the most difficult pillar to design for, since it's so easy to go overboard one way or the other. If everything is too straightforward, then it's boring, and players are just going to sprint around while looking for whatever jumps out at them. If it's too obtuse, then players feel paralyzed for fear of making a wrong decision, and nothing ever gets done. You really have to know what you're doing, to design a dungeon where exploration feels satisfying.


D&D is a role playing game. Characters play a role in a story. The combat pillar, generally, is the action scene of the story. The social interaction is the dialogue. Exploration is EVERYTHING ELSE.

Essentially, the premise here is that only the dialogue and action matter in a book. However, novels are mostly the other stuff - and for a good reason. They are the skeleton of the story.

If you only have the dialogue and combat, there is no story, no setting, and no context - just minigames of combat. It is the difference between playing a skirmish game and role playing a campaign, essentially.

If you find the exploration pillar to be lackluster, I suggest looking at ways to make it more exciting. There is a lot of guidance out there.

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
I personally like the ''Montage'' technique of the 13th Age, and I use it at my table when I want to avoid reducing journeying to a series of rolls.

Each player describes a segment of the journey, and a simple complication. I roll a single d20 and compare it to the challenge/danger rating of the terrain (lets say 4 in this case).

-If I roll over 4, the player to the right of the scene-describing player describes how she resolves the complication in narrative, no rolls.
-If I roll 4 or less on the d20, the complication requires a skill challenge (party requires X success before failing Y times). All players roll a pertinent check or expend resources as necessary. Players can expend HD to reroll a check. If the skill challenge is a success, the party continue and the next player start again with another segment description. On a failed skill challenge, all characters lose an HD or the equivalent in HP.

The journey ends when all players have described a segment. This means that players will generally encounter or face things they are interested in, since they are the one deciding it and give them a little narrative control that removes the workload of the DM.

As for shopping, unless its for a rare or magic item, I just ask the players to tell me what they bring, I tell them the total price and they pay it. Done.


I think it's because it's the hardest of the pillars for a DM to do well. You have to build a world full of interesting things for players to discover, and they have to be things your particular players actually want to discover.
To be fair, we are given very few tools to make exploration an interesting segment of the game. AiME has more however.

Also, exploration is the pillar most affected by spells, and become easier and easier as the game progresses and spellcasters gain new spells (to the point of being negligible relatively fast). The range of exploration "encounters" is also pretty narrow atm, and with very little CR amplitude.

I long for an official exploration "module" that can be grafted to D&D.


A suffusion of yellow
One of the best games I played and a defining moment for Orbril the
Gnome was a series of ‘encounters’ on the way to the planned adventure.

The adventure officially was a hunt for a griffon who had been terrorising travellers on the north road, but we never actually go to the griffon (so technically failed, though I suspect it may have been pretence).

However on the first night of the trek our camp was targetted by a herd of carnivorous hamsters searching for a meal. We had to get rid of them and Orbril decided he wanted to capture and tame a couple of them - after getting nets and sleeping gas (Orbrils an alchemist) we succeeded in that and Orbril eventuallyused the hamsters to create his Travelling Circus.

A couple of days afterwards, on that same adventure (with the Hamsters tied to wagon) we got lost and heard cries for help. That lead to another adventure where we went into a lost crypt and were chased by serpent headed mummies. We susrvived and headed back to the town to report that to the authorities.

Anyway my advice is to treat the Wilderness as a Dungeon made up of open spaces and linking paths AND make the exploration part of the Adventures.

1 You should be able to use the approach to the crypt/caves/castle as an interesting part of the story where you can find information about your goal, find useful resources/tools and explore options.

2 Describe the big landmarks (Mountains, River, Town) to give the Players map references, but

3 PC should be using navigation and survival skills and the Players should draw their own map (keep the players active so they’re not just responding to the4 DM)

4 Have a safe path and an open sandbox created entirely by a List- if the PCs use the safe path they get to the encounter quickly, if they go off path they might get lost

5 Get lost = Have an Encounter but Don’t use Random Encounters - encounters should be flexible and varied but they should offer the PCs something more than just gold and XP farming.

6 Remember that Random encounters dont have to be monsters - seeing smoke in the distance, or cut marks on a tree trunk are encounters too. (Remember to explore in 3 dimensions and if your in the right place spot things in the distance (smoke, circling vultures), weird noises)

7 encounters with useful resources, unusual flora and sites of interest are good especially if those resources can be used in later encounters.

8 Make PCs keep track of supplies and encumbrance (as this also keeps PC active). They may have to gather food, water and other supplies as part of their exploration now


I think it's a matter of taste and style. I'm old school, so for me Exploration is the primary pillar. I've worked out an exploration turn system for exploring dungeons, small site, settlements, and even overland travel. By adding in random encounters and/or time based events (the encounters are not necessarily combat), it makes the amount of time the players spend exploring matter, while also giving them player agency to decide what is and is not important. For a group of players like the OP, they could easily jump between points of interest quickly, at the risk of missing something important. Conversely, a group of players like myself could spend a lot of time in and out of character checking out everything, at the risk of extra hazards.

For a short concept of it, I break down exploration time into turns that represent an amount of time based on where things are taking place. Dungeons are 1 minute, small sites are 10 minutes, settlements are 1 hour, while overland travel is set into times of day (dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night). The players set their standard activities, similar to the standard travel rules, but I break things up a bit (searching for enemies, searching for traps/secrets, searching an area/large object). If the party comes across something different the players want/must interact with, it starts a new turn (with new activities based on what appeared).


Well, that was fun
Staff member
I'm not gonna lie. I've honestly felt like one can hi-jack the Journey rules from Adventures in Middle Earth and use em for regular 5E as well. Heck I feel like the Audience rule can also be jacked and added in as well.
Of course. AiME is a 5E game. The rules are designed to be used with 5E, and they’re great.

The One Ring rules which inspired them are better though.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
For me exploration IS the game. You could just replace "adventurers" with "explorers."

I think it was easier in more old-school dungeon crawling. Especially the fun-house style dungeons that seemed more common in the 80s. They were full of traps, hidden areas, puzzles, and other exploration-based challenges. Also, when XP was earned for gold, combat was not the reason and goal, it was challenge and obstacle to maybe be defeated, but often to be avoided through sneaking or role play.

Outside the dungeon it is more challenging. In one sense, the whole world is a dungeon in D&D, but you generally are not going to be able to have a wilderness area or city as detailed out as a dungeon.

What has helped me is to realize that travelling =/= exploration. Just because the party is going from A to B doesn't mean that I have to shoe horn exploration. I use montage scenes, sometime using 4e-style skill challenges (based on Matt Coleville's advice) to make the "getting there" more interesting. Sometimes I just handwave it and you are there.

I think of it like the old Indiana Jones movies. The dotted line moving across the world map is not exploration, that's just travel. But when you get to exotic, foreign location, the exploration starts. The exploration will lead to encounters and those encounters may be social encounters or combat encounters. Between those encounters there is research to do, sneaking around, staking out an antagonists lair, traps to avoid, and so forth.

Even the most rail-roady campaigns need the illusion of exploration to stitch encounters together, but the best games have at least portions that are sandboxes. Exploration is where players have the most agency. Where players decide to go and what they decide to do during their explorations is what makes running games fun for me. I very much am along for the ride.


I disagree with the OP, the problem is that modern rpgs don't have rules for journeys, and those who have them are not very well known like the official D&D 5E.

Exploration was much more fun when D&D used hexcrawl, that made exploration interesting and dangerous, now modern D&D is mostly about skipping the journey so that the players can get into the game, without realizing that journeys and explorations are part of the game, and with good rules and a good DM, they become essential parts.


I'm not gonna lie. I've honestly felt like one can hi-jack the Journey rules from Adventures in Middle Earth and use em for regular 5E as well. Heck I feel like the Audience rule can also be jacked and added in as well.
It shouldn't be so hard I think: you can use History instead then Traditions, then according to the lore of the setting you're using decide the initial attitude of the person in charge towards the spokeperson of the party, you don't need a whole tab for your world, you can just decide one Audience at a time.

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