Friday, 7 January 2011

The Exploration Game

One type of adventure that role playing games don't really do well - in my opinion - is straight-up exploration. In my experience players are too goal-oriented (naturally enough); they want to acquire stuff and glory, they want to complete missions/quests (self-set or given by outsiders) and they want to win battles. They don't just want to head out into the great beyond and see what's out there.

Possibly this is because, let's be frank, many campaign settings just aren't that unique, interesting or detailed. For exploration to be fun and rewarding there has to be a complex, enthralling and entertaining world out there to explore. Yet for every DM willing to put the huge amount of hours necessary in, there are twenty dozen who lack the imagination, time or both.

But also, it has to be said that many of the tasks which one must assume most explorers have to deal with the majority of the time (finding food, keeping warm, staving off disease) are pretty boring and almost entirely unrewarding. (There's only so many times you can roll a dice to see if you caught malaria before it gets old.)

The obvious way around this as far as I can see it is: random encounter tables. And not just of the "3d6 orcs" variety. A genuine random encounter table is more a grab-bag of events, happenings, rumours, vignettes and meetings than it is simple crossings-of-paths with monsters. In an exploration game I see the DM's role as primarily the creative force coming up with list after list after list of amusing and dangerous and interesting episodes, only some of which will ever be used and in entirely unexpected order.

Anyway, to get yourself in the mood for an exploration campaign, you can do worse than reading Hendrik Coetzee's blog. It's a beautifully written manifesto for the adventuring lifestyle - given extreme poignancy by the fact that the poor guy died only a few weeks after writing in his final entry that he'd "never lived a better day".


  1. My big back-and-forth on exploration is how (and whether) to make the process predictable enough that PCs can make rational decisions that would affect what happens to them (for example "If we try to snag this Dust Of Tracelessness, we'll be less likely to be attacked by bears and marauding gnolls") while making it varied enough that no matter which way they go it's new and different (for example: you NEVER get attacked by the same monster twice).

    It's not impossible, but exploration itself doesn't seem to be as difficult to engineer as the feeling on PCs' part that their decision interact with and affect how the exploration goes, rather than triggering a chain of scenarios that are just waiting for them.

  2. Perhaps another problem with pure exploration games is that the true payoff of exploration - encountering sights and vistas no one has ever seen before - can be kind of hard to capture at a table.

    I mean, you'd have to be a pretty sharp word-evoker to capture the majesty of seeing, say, the Grand Canyon for the first time, or reaching the summit of a mountain just as the sun peaks over the horizon. Those are experiences that don't really lend themselves to being put into words, much less extemporaneous words.

    It can be done, of course. But it would take a supremely talented GM, thus creating the limited number of exploration games we see.

  3. I can back up sirlarkins on this. One of the things that makes it difficult to do exploration games in 2010 because of how jaded we are as people these days. We understand (or think we understand) so much more than we did thirty years ago (let alone what a D&D-analogue character would understand) that we often take exploration for granted.

  4. I don't think straight up exploration games are my style. Maybe if there was a good story to go with it I would give it a go, but I think I would end up getting bored pretty quickly by the way you describe it.

  5. Telecanter (?) set up a series of tables for terrain features and other strange things that aren't monsters.

  6. I'm not sure I get it. I'm having trouble understanding since this is a large portion of what we do in most of my campaigns.

    I run a lot of Space Opera/Sci-Fi exploration games and even my D&D-ish games feature exploration quite a bit.

    Why don't your players want to head into the great unknown? Is it simply not something that interests them (or you)? Is there nothing driving them to do so (political or social problems in their homeland, lack of food or resources, etc.)?

    Why is there no reward? I could kill some Orcs and maybe get 20 gp and a +1 dagger or be the guy who found the lost ruins of the Golden Moon Elves and be the only one who knows how to get there. Give me 500 gold and I'll draw you a map.

    And that's just for those who don't find it rewarding in and of itself. What's info on a new land worth to Sailors, Merchants and Sages?

    If the PCs are exploring a new area I detail the area on a map only I can see. If they want to make a map noting what monsters are there let'em look around and draw one.

    Lists are definitely one way to go. I'd advise looking at books on travel or the production notes from a movie so you can find a nifty way to word a description of what the PC's are seeing. Then I'd put down some general notes on what makes the area special, difficult to transverse, desirable, etc.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

  7. Thinking about it, I'd imagine that the best way to run an 'exploration' game is as a randomised series of Star Trek, maybe with a few fixed, keyed encounters. A series of (relatively) self contained 'encounters' with people, monsters, communities, objects, etc.

    While there might be degree of player character impotence between encounters, unless they are following a map, a guide, or some other set of clues, they genuinely would be stumbling from one thing to the next.

  8. Zak: That triggering-a-chain-of-scenarios feeling is the hardest one to shake; though truly random event and encounter tables do mitigate it I suppose.

    Sirlarkins and Higgipedia: Very good point. Artwork and photos might help with that actually.

    C'nor: Who is this "telecanter"?

    Barking Alien: I guess what you're talking mostly about is more mission-oriented exploration. Which is a fun way to play, and what most games probably are in one respect or other. I'm more talking about a general "see what's on the other side of the Mountains of Doom" sort of game. What's on the other side of the mountains of doom might be very fun and interesting but it's the getting there that possibly isn't.