Dungeons & Dragons: Building Exploration Roles For Your Campaign

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(Photo: Wizards of the Coast)

Exploration roles can add both flavor and excitement to in-game travels in Dungeons & Dragons by handing agency back to the players when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons. The current Fifth Edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons has earned praise for its streamlined system that cuts out many of the game's traditionally complicated rules to provide for a better player experience. While this has encouraged the rise of story-driven campaigns that are big on player choices and light on dice rolls, it has also led to some imbalance between the three traditional pillars of D&D - combat, roleplaying, and exploration. Combat and roleplaying thrive in Fifth Edition, but exploration is often seen as forgettable at best and tedious at worst.

This was illustrated best by a Reddit post that went viral a few weeks ago for showing off the "depth" of Dungeons & Dragons' exploration rules. The post explained how the DM could craft an entirely random experience for players by chucking a dozen D20s and using those results to determine everything from the weather to random encounters to what the players found when they got lost. The major issue with that Reddit post was that it showed just how little agency the players have when using Dungeons & Dragons "official" exploration rules, as the example given only gave the players the chance to affect how their day went twice, one of which was solely to determine if the players were ambushed. What was meant to show off the game's versatility instead showed off some of the major flaws in D&D's exploration systems.

I saw those flaws firsthand when I started crafting an exploration-heavy campaign in the spring, centered around the players discovering secret locations and learning lost history in an ancient land untouched by adventurers. While I originally wanted to use random encounter tables and the game's traditional exploration rules to add flavor to the various regions of my campaign setting, I quickly realized that those felt unfulfilling to both me and my players. When trying to determine my next steps, I discovered my answers in the last Dungeons & Dragons book I expected - the Acquisitions Incorporated sourcebook released in 2019 by Penny Arcade and Wizards of the Coast.

Acquisitions Incorporated provided rules for how to start an adventuring franchise, complete with players building up the franchise's renown. The Acquisitions Incorporated rulebook included several Company Positions, roles that characters filled in order to help their franchise succeed. Players could choose to become a Cartographer to map out important locations to plunder or a hoardsperson that manages the party's inventory. I realized that providing players with a level of specialization would help turn exploration into an exciting and foundational part of the campaign that would help it organically grow every session.

I came up with seven different "Exploration Roles," each of which has a different purpose during travel. There is some overlap in flexibility in what each position does, and each role comes with a mechanical benefit for the full party that is triggered with a specific Skill check. Some of the roles are very focused on a specific task - the Cartographer is in charge of mapping out an area, and the Forager collects food for the party - while others are a bit more broad and flexible. For instance, the Navigator occasionally chooses between multiple routes to a location that affects what the party might encounter on the way, while both the Scout and Lookout provide chances to keep the players from being ambushed, or discovering a friendly NPC in the woods. The main point of these exploration roles is to make the players feel like they're doing something besides constantly making Perception rolls.

Here are the exploration roles I use in my campaign, along with their associated Skill checks:

  • Navigator - Wisdom (Survival): Determines the route to a chosen location, provides all players with a +2 bonus on their respective exploration role checks on a successful Skill check.
  • Scout - Dexterity (Stealth) and/or Wisdom (Perception): Moves ahead of the party, acting as a first line of defense for potential hostile encounters. Allows the party to avoid encounters on successful Skill check.
  • Lookout - Wisdom (Perception): Prevents ambushes, spots potential clues or areas of interest when party reaches their destination. Party gets advantage on Initiative rolls on a successful Skill check.
  • Forager - Intelligence (Nature): Gathers food for the party. Players gain 2 GP per day of travel on a successful Skill check, players lose 2 GP per day of travel on a failed Skill check.
  • Tracker - Wisdom (Survival): Identifies tracks to determine what creatures dwells in a certain areas. Party learns of any remarkable creatures that may be nearby on a successful Skill check, providing insight as to what they might face.
  • Cartographer - Dexterity (Slight of Hand) and/or Wisdom (Nature): Maps the area for the party, discovering points of interest. Players gain advantage on their exploration role checks if traveling through an area the Cartographer has previously mapped.
  • Lore Gatherer - Intelligence (History) and/or Intelligence (Nature) and/or Intelligence (Arcana): Gains insight on the area that the party is exploring. Learns lore-based information of the DM's choosing on a successful skill check.

As I noted earlier, there is some overlap in these roles due to the number of players in my sessions and they can be used by the DM in different ways. For example, I'll occasionally toss in choices for one of my players to make within the context of their role. For example, the Forager might find a bush of berries in the woods, but will only know whether those berries have positive or negative effects if they make a successful Skill check. Otherwise, the Forager will need to decide whether to risk picking the berries or to pass up the possible opportunity due to the risk that the berries are poisonous. Each skill check can also be used in different ways - during one session, the Scout may find a place of interest with a successful Skill check, and another time they might discover a non-hostile NPC to interact with.

Building exploration roles into your campaign can help turn traveling within your D&D campaign into something excited and unexpected as opposed to something that you want to hand-wave away. To maximize the effectiveness of exploration roles, ask what the players want their characters would be looking for as they travel, and build your campaign accordingly.

Let us know how you make exploration more exciting in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCBus to chat all things D&D.

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