Into the Unknown – How to Include Exploration at the Table

originalzelda20This past Friday, Wizards of the Coast revealed the title for their next big adventure: Tomb of Annihilation. This adventure will still take place within the Forgotten Realms, but not the Sword Coast like the previous ones. Instead, Tomb of Annihilation will be set in Chult, a land dominated by uncharted jungles, the ruins of ancient civilizations, and filled to the brim with dangerous threats (whether they be living or not).

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Chult is easily one of my favorite areas of the Realms, mostly because I have an affinity for the Indiana Jones-style of pulp fiction with a heavy dose of dinosaur awesomeness.

The other aspect of this announcement that got me excited was the designers saying they wanted to focus upon one of the Three Pillars they’ve admittedly neglected recently: Exploration. On pg. 8 of the Player’s Handbook, the writers list what they consider to be the “Three Pillars of Adventure”: ExplorationSocial Interaction, & Combat. The latter two have definitely been in the spotlight in previous adventures, with Exploration taking something of a backseat. Don’t get me wrong, it has been there, but nowhere near as much as the other Pillars.

Because Wizards hopes to bring this neglected Pillar more to the forefront with Tomb of Annihilation, I thought I’d take some time to discuss ways one might foster more exploration within their campaigns, inspiring their players to gather their gear, open up their maps, and venture forth into the uncharted wilderness.

The first piece of advice will hearken back to my post on running sandbox campaigns, which this can be seen as a companion piece to this one. Seed your setting with legends or rumors that will inspire your players to investigate them. Sprinkle interesting locales throughout your setting, hidden away within the shadows of the natural world. There could be an abandoned dwarven fortress tucked away within the mountains to the north, rumored to be filled with mountains of treasure. These rumors will not, and probably should not, be 100% accurate. They’re rumors after all. They should be intriguing enough to hook a group of curious adventures, encouraging them to set out to figure the truth out for themselves.

Next, make sure the journey is just as interesting as the destination. The key to making exploration entertaining is the journey being an eventful one. Trips that are nothing more than a series of camping montages will be boring beyond belief. Make sure to spice up the trip. You can do this by including random encounters, or purposefully seeding encounters along the way. The journey is also how you can include the other two Pillars.

One day the players might be ambushed by a band of centaurs while taking a shortcut through a nearby forest, while the next day could have them negotiating with a reclusive hedge witch for some healing potions in exchange for clearing out a family of pesky mites that have infested her garden. Just make sure to make these encounters varied. Throwing combat encounter after combat encounter at your players will cause the journey to become monotonous.

Third, limit the character’s resources. I know this might be a hard sell for some people. Tracking resources can be a real pain, especially if you do it as written. That being said, making sure resources remain a limited element will add depth to the exploration process. Players will be forced to think about their actions when they realize they might be be low on rations or ammunition. It might also get them to do things they might not normally do when resource tracking isn’t a thing, such as hunting or fishing. These can also give you openings to include an encounter. For example, maybe the group’s ranger decides to do some early morning hunting to restock the party’s food supply, but happens to stumble upon a pair of goblins attempting to kill a unicorn. That could lead to an interesting side quest.

Finally, and most importantly, let your players get lost & be surprised. The true joy of exploration is the chance at discovery, finding something you didn’t expect along the way. Let your players venture off course, whether they realize it or not. Let them investigate the little points of intrigue you toss out. Let them feel like they’ve discovered something, as if they found a secret they were not supposed to see. Let them get in over their heads, and let them run away so they can survive to fight another day.

This can easily be done by having published material that you can readily drop into the environment to represent hidden locations. You can also print out a very simplistic version of the setting’s map, maybe one that only notes the most commonly known locations, letting the players add to it as the venture out, noting down new spots or paths, letting them make it their own. Like sandbox campaigns, exploration is all about the player’s agency, letting them make their own choices, and reacting to them.

Exploration has earned its place among the Three Pillars for a reason. It is one of the core foundations of Dungeons & Dragons, enriching almost any campaign. I hope this post has inspired you to include more of it in your campaigns.


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