Why exploration works as a game

Numerous keyboards have been worn out on ENWorld over the last month with endless discussions about why exploration in D&D is so bad, why it doesn’t work, how it could be made to work, and that it would work if people just were to actually use the rules that are already there. Obviously, the vast majority of people are arguing from the perspective of 5th edition, which is why that discussion never seems to go anywhere. My conclusion after having run a 5th edition campaign for half a year was that this game doesn’t actually know what it wants to be, or to be more precise, the writers of the Dungeon Master’s Guide don’t understand how RPGs work in the first place. Lots of 5th edition players in the discussion keep repeating the point that exploration is one of the three main aspects of the game. Because the books say it is. But it’s not. It hasn’t been part of the rules since 3rd edition came out over 20 years ago, and it wasn’t included in the rules because D&D as a brand had lost interest in by the mid 80s. I believe what people want is something that resembles the vague stories they’ve heard about the games played by earlier generations that preceded them, but 5th edition just isn’t made for that. Contrary to the designers’ insistence.

One opinion I came across yesterday was something along the line that random encounters are not viable stakes for exploration challenges, because when you have a fight it’s switching to combat and is no longer exploration. And that exposes a fundamental flaw in the underlying assumptions that all these discussions build on. Exploration and combat are not two separate game modes, and neither are social interactions. Or at least, they must not be separate game modes for exploration to work. You can have a pure combat RPG. D&D has proven that for the last 20 years. You also can have a pure social RPG. There are plenty of those around. But exploration just by itself does not work as an RPG. Or at least, I’ve never hear of any such a thing existing.

Exploration, combat, and social interactions are not three game modes that come packaged in a bundle. In a good roleplaying game with an exploration focus, they are components in a unified system, and so entangled that you can’t look at them separately to understand how they work. I would say that the threat of combat is not just a viable component to have stakes in exploration, but a necessary requirement. At least when you’re envisioning a game with warriors and wizards descending into the lairs of monsters and get into lethal fights.

Now here’s the actual point I want to get to: Somewhere else in the several discussions someone talked about how characters exploring a dungeon can simply use some spells to check everything for possible traps before getting close to them and that the game (5th edition) gives players all the tools to do just just, and how that’s why exploration doesn’t have any meaningful threats like combat does. (Might actually have been the same person who said combat can’t be a threat of exploration because then it’s no longer exploration.)

This had me realize why exploration in D&D from the first 10 years is exciting and works as a primary gameplay loop that get people to come back forever. When exploring a dungeon, one option you have is to do everything extremely carefully. Always check everything for traps, never step on anything without poking it with a 10 foot pole, use magic to always scout ahead, always have everyone healed to full hit points, and rest as often as it takes to always have your spells ready. But if you try that, you’ll inevitably get killed by the 5,000 wandering monster checks you have to make. This is not a viable approach. The other option is to just be quick. Kick open every door and charge straight in and attack everything that moves. This approach simply gets you just as dead, only much faster. It’s not a viable approach either. And that’s the main tension that makes classic dungeon crawling work. You have to be both swift and careful, two needs that directly oppose each other. This is a problem with no optimal solution. And that means every single turn is a challenge and a gamble.

That’s how exploration works as an exciting game.

3 thoughts on “Why exploration works as a game”

  1. Very, very interesting to put this into words. I’d like to add that Wandering Monsters and combat are great “clocks” to push you forward, but they should not be the only ones. Taking ideas from real life, exploration can have many other countdown clocks like hunger (running out of rations), running out of any other important resource; plot related devices (the NPC will die in X days if you dont return with the magical cure) etc.

    I took the liberty to add this to the LinksToWisdom, if only to check it out myself later when I need it. (https://campaignwiki.org/wiki/LinksToWisdom/All_In_One)

    1. Oh yeah, countdown clocks from Apocalypse World are based on the same game principle, just differently implemented as a mechanic.
      A random encounter roll does basically the same thing as a countdown clock for “guards arrive to investigate the noise”. You track it differently, but I think the results are basically the same. At least as it plays into players’ perception of pressure.

  2. I think this is a great point. However, while saying that, I would love to hear how you’d suggest DMs find that balance in creating worthwhile exploration gameplay for players. Its one thing to say, “find what challenges players to be swift and careful” and another thing to show examples we can use to improve our games. Definitely deserves a part 2!

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