Re-associating exploration speed

Many rules in OD&D and B/X look very weird on paper, when you approach them as “new rules” that are added to what you consider a typical Dungeons & Dragons system. Giving XP for picking up treasure instead of fighting enemies is perhaps the most famous of them, but there are plenty others, like encumbrance, random encounters, or reaction rolls. But I think the purpose of all of these in a greater exploration system has become fairly well reestablished, and I believe I’ve written quite a bit about all of that already.

But one of the things that to me still stands out among these is the unexpected way in which movement outside of combat is handled. In Basic/Expert, the default movement rate for characters exploring a dungeon is 120 feet per 10 minutes. That’s 12 feet per minute, or about one step every 8 seconds. The rules explain that this doesn’t actually mean characters are moving that slowly. What happens is that the characters are carefully searching their environment and drawing reasonably precise maps. Dungeon has become a fairly generic term for any complex of passages, but I think the original idea of what a dungeon is like was less strolling through a castle and more exploring a cave. While very few dungeons are actually natural caves and most have long been used as regular passages by humanoid inhabitants, cave explorers often only manage to progress 300 to 500 meters per day, or say 1,200 feet. If they are at it for 10 hours per day, that’s 120 feet per hour. Even if the PCs are heavily encumbered and have their speed reduced to a quarter, that’s still faster than cave explorers. So maybe not actually a ridiculously low speed.

But where things start feeling strange is when encumbrance comes into the picture. In B/X, encumbrance reduces your encounter speed from 40 feet per round to 30, 20, and eventually 10 feet. And the same modification is also applied to exploration speed. When you take, on average, one step forward every 8 second, you spend almost the entire time of exploration not actually moving forward at all. Heavy loads slowing your movement to half or even a quarter is somewhat believable (maybe the characters are literally dragging heavy bags of loot behind them). But that also reducing the speed at which you can look and poke at things the same way is a cognitive disconnect. It’s a dissociated mechanic. A party with more heavy gear making slower progress makes sense, but representing this through reduced movement speed doesn’t feel very plausible.

However, B/X already has a small, seemingly mostly forgotten rule, that can be adapted for the purpose. Part of the rules for exploration movement is that after every 5 turns of exploration, the party must rest for 1 turn or the characters suffer a -1 penalty to hit and damage from exhaustion. Of the eight retroclones I have, only one carried over this rule. It just seems pretty pointless when you can assume characters are already getting sufficient rest for their legs during the regular exploration turn. And maybe people are right to throw this one out, but I think it’s a great place to apply penalties for encumbrance during exploration instead of reducing speed.

Instead of reducing the movement rate during an exploration turnĀ  to 90 or 60 feet, you can instead increase the rate for required rest to resting for one turn after every 3 turns or every 1 turn of exploration. This seems like a huge decrease of time actually spend on making progress, but because of how the math works out, this system actually makes parties progress somewhat faster than under the default rules. Which is fine with me. Numbers in D&D have never been an exact science anyway and are always simplified approximation. Being 10% faster than by the book isn’t going to break anything. But I feel that this change makes it much easier for players to intuitively grasp why their characters are making slower progress with heavy loads and don’t have to accept it as something that just is because the rules say so.

7 thoughts on “Re-associating exploration speed”

  1. Much better! I’d go even further:
    Assume the characters have time to rest during the “1 step every 8 seconds”, which gives the gm freedom to not count turns constantly; then apply the 1 rest in three/six turns whenever the characters are encumbered.

    It makes the difference between no load/with load much different mechanically and removes hassle when not encumbered.

    It might end up being too beneficial for the players? Maybe. I dont really care too much, and I normally increase the rate of wandering monster anyways.

    1. Tracking turns is actually a greatly beneficial method. This is how you track the duration of light sources, active spells and potions, and the intervals for wandering monster checks.

      1. I use a different method: instead of giving wandering monsters a 1 in 6 chance every 3 turns, i give them a 1 in 12 every turn. That way I increase the rate a little, and also I havent got to know if this is turn 1, turn 2 or turn 3

        I must admit that with the other things you mention, I’m more permissive and just let them go on until the “scene” is over or until something messes with the light.

        1. Yes. I’m a big fan of the “Something always happens on a 1” method. If I want to change the odds of something happening, I change the size of the die, not the interval between checks. Or I change the size of the die instead of making the odds something like 2 in 6 or 3 in 10.
          I find this approach extremely helpful to reduce the mental workload on me as my ADHD really struggles with overload about these things in the heat of the action, but I think this is a useful simplification for everyone.

  2. If we’re making the comparison to cave exploration, encumbrance slowing you down that much might be plausible. I don’t know about dungeons with 10 foot wide hallways but backpacks make crawling through tight spaces much harder. Let alone plate armor or Monopoly man bags of gold. Extra bulk that might tear on sharp stones? Yeah I’d slow down.

  3. I think your observation on the exhaustion rate is sounds, and your hack makes sense. Very different then my own solutions, but I hate bookkeeping more I guess?

    The interesting thing for me about dungeon Turns, rate of movement and time tracking is that, as you hint at, there’s an enormous amount of specificity that’s never really used.

    For me a Turn is a Turn. It is distinctly NOT 10 minutes. Time in the dungeon is tricky, stress is high and premodern adventurers live in a world when time is defined by the sun, or the bells and calls of authority. It is not a thing one can carry into the mythic underworld.

    All that is to say a Turn for me is an abstract, gameified period defined only as a time for player action. It takes one Turn to take a significant action and every turn the referee rolls an exploration/overloaded encounter die.

    With time abstracted I reserve movement rates for escape from combat or chases. Otherwise it just takes a Turn and a roll to move through all but the largest spaces. Encumbrance is penalties and two Turns to move through each a space with corresponding danger.

    Gygax may have felt compelled to transport his movement rates and ranges in to D&D, but we aren’t wargamers, primed to think in those terms. Personally I prefer abstraction – anything to save soace in my head while I am running.

    1. Yes. A turn isn’t 10 minutes, nor is it 60 rounds. Neither is a round 10 seconds. Measuring turns by rooms is absolutely a working solution.
      But I still like the idea that being overburdened with supplies and treasure increases the danger on the adventurers. I think even the prospect of maybe having to leave things behind to keep a decent pace and possibly later regretting it adds something valuable to the game. And the method of requiring more frequent rest turns between movement or scene turns works just as well with room based turns. After every X rooms, you have to take a turn resting, and deal with the wandering monsters check.
      Since I want to try out 10 foot grid based mapping, I’ll already have the means to measure the distance that the party covers, so I’ll plan to see for myself how things play with a fixed progress speed of 120 feet per turn. Not sure how much that’ really going to add compared to progressing one area per turn, but I always find it useful to just do what the rules are saying and then judge if it’s something I want to change. Throwing things out because you don’t understand their purpose on paper is what got us in this place to begin with.

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