5E D&D Exploration is All Around You — More Than You Think!
Recently I saw a poll online about the pillars of play for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons — combat, exploration and social interaction — introduced in the Player’s Handbook right in the Introduction. The poll refers to exploration as the forgotten third pillar and asks respondents what this part of 5E D&D means to them and why they love or hate it, with answer choices of More Exploration, Pointless or I’m Not Sure. The attached conversation delved deep and answers varied all over the place. Overwhelmingly the poll calls for more exploration (73%). If I’m honest this discussion always bewilders me. Two of the pillars — combat and social interaction (why isn’t it called communication by the way?) — seem clear to players. You’re fighting creatures or talking with them. It stands to reason the rest of the time you’re exploring. As the PHB states, character activities fall into one of the three pillars so when you’re not in combat or conversation it seems pretty obvious the rest of the time you’re exploring, right?
Exploration pillar in 5E D&D
We’ve explored the pillars of play for 5E D&D pretty extensively here on the site and over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel. In one of my very first posts here I explained my approach to encounter design and how I consider characters might engage a situation through each of the pillars of play. This approach reflects in the games we run, products we create and discussions we share, from that early post through our Out of the Box book and this very post you’re reading right now. When it comes to exploration, for me this is the connective tissue of any 5E D&D game. I believe players on both sides of the screen write, design for and play with this pillar perhaps more than any other.
“Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.” — from the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook Introduction — “The Three Pillars of Adventure”
Exploration for the Dungeon Master
One of the comments in the online conversation expands on the initial poll with a question from the writing and design perspective where a DM resides. They ask if exploration is fun from a game design standpoint, noting this places responsibility on the DM. During a game a DM might find their work handy for players who dive into such material or largely ignored from those with less interest.
To this I’d say, isn’t that the case with anything?
I’m currently running Ghosts of Saltmarsh with my home group, so I’ll use examples from this book to illustrate some points and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers. Let’s assume you’re running Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh without any pretense (the way I’m doing it). Your group skips all the pre-adventure material like establishing the characters in Saltmarsh, roleplaying through how the party meets and acquires the quest and the inevitable shopping and tavern shenanigans preceding an adventure. The party learned of a haunted house not far from Saltmarsh, there’s rumors of treasure and they set out to do the thing. You’ve narrated all this to the players and begin your campaign with the boxed text.
“The road to the house winds through the rocky coastal terrain, often offering a view of the sea below. Low clouds press upon you; occasional patches of sunlight appear out over the water. A stiff wind blows in off the waves, carrying the briny stink of churning salt water.”
What’s all this sound like to you? Is there a hint of danger and potential combat? Are there creatures to socially interact with? The very first piece of text players hear describes the surroundings as they travel to the adventure location. Why?
When I ran this adventure and read this part aloud to players, their reaction went straight to exploration. Do they see anything in the water below? Are they on an road with open terrain around? Can they hear anything unusual above the wind? I didn’t even get to the part where curious townsfolk followed along to ask about their intentions and discuss rumors and stories, a suggestion in the text.
Let’s move into the haunted house and see how else exploration permeates everything characters do. This next part is nothing secret and comes from very early in the adventure. Again, here’s the read aloud text from the book. Keep 5E D&D’s three pillars of play in mind as you read this:
“This room was once a library, with bookshelves around the walls. Most of the shelves are broken, and in many places they have come away from the wall. The few shelves still intact are empty, but a pile of books rests in the southwest corner.”
I don’t know about you but in my experience this represents a fantastic example of exploration in play. See any hint of danger from a creature there, seen or implied? Nothing to fight, nothing to engage in conversation. Maybe there is a hidden danger like a trap or a mimic. There’s definitely enticing details to explore. A pile of books resting in the corner must be mentioned for some reason. Time to explore. In fact if there is a trap to overcome or a hidden creature to fight or talk to, discovering those things again means (you guessed it) exploration.
So from a design perspective Dungeon Masters and creators present content for the exploration pillar constantly. Even when I run a game on the fly or with very little preparation this is one of the easiest pillars to manage. At the most basic level you’re describing what’s around and players explore those things. If characters don’t show interest in them, how is it any different than preparing a dynamic combat encounter and the group instead devises an elaborate plan to talk their way out of trouble? Ever run a game for players who take this even further and seek to befriend all your nasty monsters? I don’t hear anyone saying combat needs a bump because of social interaction.
Exploration for the player
Another frequent criticism of 5E D&D posits it’s mostly about combat. Most of the rules deal with combat, character features relate to combat. Combat combat combat. Everyone likes pitting their heroes against dangerous monsters (except when they’re schmoozing them to make friends). Is this really true or is it a fallacy perpetuated by vocal people online?
I challenge you to look through your 5E D&D PHB and Dungeon Master’s Guide with a mind towards all three pillars of play. Certainly, there’s a lot of rules and mechanical content about combat. But even the Monster Manual itself points out “typically, XP is awarded for defeating the monster, although the DM may also award XP for neutralizing the threat posed by the monster in some other manner.” The basic fabric of the game — gaining XP and rising in power through overcoming challenges — is not tied to defeating monsters in combat.
In so many games I see players doing everything they can, sometimes going to outrageously ridiculous lengths, to avoid combat — the very thing posited as the biggest part of the game. Usually these plans begin with exploration. The characters seek ways to use their surroundings and the environment to their advantage, and if this doesn’t pan out they engage creatures socially. It’s why I’ve come to appreciate creatures like bestial monstrosities, brainless undead and mindless oozes when I run a game. Just fight the dang things already!
Aside from a character’s weapons, armor and other clearly combat related attributes, take a look at everything else on the character sheet. Tools, languages, skills and even many background features don’t have anything to do with combat. The PHB describes Acrobatics as your attempt to stay on your feet doing things like running across ice, balancing on a tightrope or remaining on your feet when a ship rocks in the ocean. Are those activities combat or communication?
Making an Arcana, History, Nature or Religion check to recall crucial information about the world, examining a corpse with a Medicine check to determine cause of death and the big kahuna of all exploration activities, the ubiquitous Perception check — all exploration.
Moving through a dungeon using Stealth? Exploration
Finding tracks of a creature (and finding food in the wilderness)? Exploration
Struggling to swim or stay afloat in treacherous currents with Athletics? Exploration
How many sessions of Critical Role found members of the Mighty Nein basically exploring for hours and hours at Cobalt Soul repositories? Research like this along with puzzles, mazes and mysteries become unraveled and solved using exploration. Using your skills and simply asking the DM about the world around your character makes a wonderful segue to exploration. This can become incredibly rewarding for everyone, because players might develop interest in something they find and lead the group and their adventures in fresh new directions.
I hope I’ve made a solid case for exploration. I could say my goal is to encourage more of this pillar in your 5E D&D games but as you can see, it’s already there! All the time adventurers spend outside of combat or communication with NPCs, they’re playing on the exploration pillar. Designing content to highlight this takes very little time and I suspect many DMs prepare this kind of material without even recognizing the activity. All the details about a room, a wilderness or the lore of your campaign setting awaits discovery through exploration. Sure, you might have to engage a terrible monster in combat along the way and communicate with NPCs and other creatures during the course of an adventure but the time between these activities — the connective tissue — is good old exploration.
Don’t let naysayers tell you to play another game or create elaborate hexcrawls to highlight this exciting pillar of play. Just play 5E D&D right out of the box and you’ll find your characters engaging in exploration much more than you think. In the meantime here’s a few other places to explore this exciting pillar of play:
- Top 10 5E D&D Homebrew Magic Items for Exploration by a Factor of Three
- Tackle D&D Exploration in Style with a Fantastical Mount — Abizders
- Dungeon Master’s Guide Appendix A Shows 5E D&D isn’t All About Combat
- D&D Ideas — Three Pillars of 5E D&D