D&D 101: Exploring Exploration in Dungeons & Dragons

Exploration in D&D doesn't need to be a tedious experience. Welcome to D&D 101, a column that answers reader questions about Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop games.) We'll cover everything from game management skills, character builds, and creating memorable campaigns to some of the trickier "social" aspects of the game. If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in a future column, leave us a comment or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus and ask me on there!

A Dungeons & Dragons campaign is supposed to be built around three pillars of adventuring - combat, social interactions, and exploration. Planning combat encounters and social interactions are easy to do once you've had some practice. Every NPC has motivations that inform their actions, either inside or outside of the initiative order. Once a DM has a good understanding of what those motivations are, both combat and social interactions become much easier to manage. And while DMs will have to tweak combat encounters to properly challenge a party, or manage a party's expectations when they're trying to schmooze their way through a delicate social encounter, understanding why your NPCs are doing what they're doing makes crafting a session a whole lot easier.

However, exploration in Dungeons & Dragons is an entirely different beast from combat encounters or social encounters. An experienced DM can craft a challenging combat encounter or social interaction in a manner of minutes, but building an engaging session around exploration usually takes time and preparation. When done poorly, exploration in Dungeons & Dragons can be slog and a hindrance to both the players and the DM. However, when approached from the right mindset, it can be just as rewarding of an experience as an epic boss fight or a tense bit of roleplaying.

The first thing to understand about the concept of "exploration" in Dungeons & Dragons is that it isn't necessarily refer to big hex crawls or epic dungeon delves. Breaking into an enemy's mansion to look for incriminating evidence uses the same fundamental rules as the classic D&D hex crawl, in which a party explores a landmass searching for lost ruins and treasures. Tracking a lost dog uses the same kinds of skill checks and rules as following an enemy raiding party who has captured a prince and is taking them back to their base. Whether big or small, all types of exploration-style encounters and scenarios can be built around the same general principles.

There are two keys to making exploration fun in Dungeons & Dragons - motivation and discovery. While a jungle might not have a "motivation" in the same sense as an NPC, a DM does need to motivate their players into wanting to explore it and learn its secrets. Some players can be motivated by god and treasure, while others are motivated by an intriguing mystery or a tie-in to their backstory. Understanding what motivates your players will make it easier for you to lay bread crumbs within a D&D session, pushing them to explore a certain part of the world further. Once a player is motivated to explore, it's then becomes the DM's job to give them things to discover, whether it's treasure, information, traps or secrets.

I think that a lot of DMs (and players) avoid really digging into exploration in Dungeons & Dragons because it has the tendency to devolve into a series of skill checks and either rewards for successes or punishment for failures. When a player walks into a room, they might immediately ask to make a Wisdom (Perception) check in an attempt to quickly clear it for traps. Or when a party is trying to track an enemy, the DM will simply call for a Wisdom (Survival) check and then either put them on the trail with a success or say that they can't find tracks on a failure. This approach to exploration is both tedious and repetitive and takes away any sense of surprise or wonderment from a D&D session.

One way to get around this is to approach exploration as a puzzle that players have to solve instead of "blunt forcing" their way through it by calling for skill check after skill check. For instance, an NPC is hiding a necklace within a hollowed out religious book in their bedroom. A DM could reward the players with finding the stolen necklace if they make a successful Wisdom (Perception) check. However, it becomes a lot more rewarding if that Wisdom (Perception) check causes the players to notice that the rest of the house is free from religious iconography, which draws attention to the book as out of place. Or maybe the players only notice the book if the players had learned that the NPC is a non-believer or worships a different deity from an earlier interaction or investigation. When players are rewarded for using their heads instead of rolling the dice, it makes them feel a lot more accomplished.

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Another approach to making exploration more interesting is to use exploration to lay the groundwork for future plot lines or to motivate them to dig deeper. Using the example above, the players walk into the bedroom and find the necklace by making a basic Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) check. However, the DM notes that there's also a jewelry box containing more expensive-looking jewelry out in the open. Instead of exploration involving the actual search for the necklace, the question becomes why did the NPC hide that particular necklace. Is it stolen? Is it magical? Or is there some other secret related to the necklace that the NPC is hiding? The hidden necklace becomes the catalyst for exploration instead of simply the end result.

There are lots of ways to make exploration the highlight of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign instead of an afterthought. In the coming weeks, we'll explore other ways to build a D&D campaign around exploration and make it a core part of your D&D experience. Let us know how you make exploration fun in the comments or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCBus to chat all things D&D!