Delving Dave’s Dungeon
From Ted’s Head
From the Nerditor’s Desk
I’ve heard many times that fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a combat game. Most of the rules address combat situations, for example. And perhaps more illustrative of this point is there’s not many rules per se governing the other two pillars of 5E D&D play — social situations and exploration.
There’s plenty of guidelines for social and environmental interactions in 5E D&D. And while Nerdarchists Dave and Ted tackle the fighty stuff and the talky stuff, I quickly called dibs on the looky stuff, my favorite aspect of D&D — exploration.
Whenever adventurers aren’t locked in mortal combat with a fearsome foe, or jawing with an NPC or among themselves, guess what? They’re exploring. Think about the last time you played D&D, from either side of the DM screen. A good chunk of your game session likely involved trying to defeat creatures in combat, and there was probably a fair amount of chatting with NPCs. What about all the time between?
The party scout looking for traps. The wilderness expert guiding the group safely through the wilds. A character with knowledge of arcane things studying the strange obelisk deep in the dungeon. All of these things are exploration.
I will admit, while there are many, many class abilities, spells, tools and more related to exploration, there isn’t as robust content on what to do when these traits are employed. So this can get a bit tricky for a DM.
Here’s an example: in the Player’s Handbook, the Religion skill is described like this: “Your Intelligence (Religion) check measures your ability to recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults.”
But what happens when the skill is used? In my second favorite edition of D&D (4E fight me), skill checks were often accompanied by a tiered list of what success meant. The Nerdarchy crew liked this kind of material, and you’ll find similar tables in some of our own products.
When players express a desire to use skills and abilities to interact with the adventure or campaign setting in ways that don’t involve violence or interpersonal communication, they’re essentially telling you they want to know more about the world around them.
Now’s your chance!
I like to think of exploration as a great opportunity for “stuff that happens.” You stick your hand in the pool of glowing liquid, pull a lever on a dungeon wall, creep ahead to see what lies beyond the next rise, look for signs of the Xanathar Guild scrawled around Waterdeep, try to decipher an ancient tablet, whatever. Welcome to exploration.
Like social interaction, it’s true there isn’t as extensive rules of guidelines to it… at least not explicitly. Chapter 8 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide does include sections on resolving some things mechanically for these two pillars of play and this is a great place to start.
My biggest tip for making exploration more vibrant in your D&D games is to start a collection of random charts and tables. Whenever characters are exploring, you’ll have a wealth of storytelling options to reward players for interacting with the environment. I recommend asking the players to make dice rolls on your tables, rather than you the DM. First off it’s fun to roll dice and players will be excited because they surely found something important! Second, if the results are unfortunate, hey, they rolled it not you.
To get you started, back again to the DMG where chapter 3 covers random encounters — “obstacles and events that advance the plot, foreshadow important elements or themes of the adventure, and provide fun distractions.”
Please note: just because a creature is on a stuff the happens table doesn’t make it a combat! In my experience it’s very likely players will approach creatures on the social pillar. I know a lot of players who love befriending monsters. On the Sylvan Forest Encounters table in the DMG, one of the results is 1 owl bear. Scary. Or maybe an opportunity to explore and witness the majestic wonder of the owl bear in its natural habitat.
Another entry on that table: “A magical plant with 2d4 glowing berries. A creature that ingests a berry becomes invisible for 1 hour, or until it attacks or casts a spell. Once picked, a berry loses its magic after 12 hours. Berries regrow at midnight, but if all its berries are picked, the plant becomes nonmagical and grows no more berries.”
I’m willing to bet a good chunk of your game session from there on out would involve that magical plant. A random exploration that players used to build a uniquely D&D part of their characters’ story.
Next time the adventurers in your party don’t feel like talking to strangers (or strange creatures), and no one is rolling for initiative, pull out your random charts and tables and discover right alongside the players what exactly happens when their character reads the ancient text aloud.
“Chain: A 200-foot long chain appears on the ground for a few seconds before it blinks out of existence.” — No. 242 from a table of 1d1000 totally random magical effects.
Of course, the best resource to have on hand for dynamic exploration encounters, you should totally check out Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition — Nerdarchy’s own Kickstarter! It’s our first one ever and it funded in less than 30 hours. The 55 encounters included are primed for any pillar of play with everything you need to create memorable experiences and stories that will last a lifetime with your friends.
Until next time, stay nerdy!