Urban exploration

As per the Player’s Handbook, a D&D game is set upon the three pillars of adventures:

  • combat, well ruled and covered in detail
  • social interaction, described with less depth
  • exploration, which is, in my humble opinion, not very detailed

Reading the various requests across all D&D communities I follow, there is a perceivable difference between combat-related questions, involving details and rulings for narrow border-line situations, and social-related or exploration-related ones, involving a more baseline approach, with questions about more broad management.

“How can I create the tangible anxiety of wandering around the underdark?” or “How do I manage an ambush during a seven-days-long jungle exploration?”. Legitimate questions. Also, there is my personal idea of a missing pillar – there are many questions about that one, but I’ll address that issue later on.

Exploration, past-to-future

Looking back in the past, the game offered… well, few options, even in previous editions: the only mechanic really related on this part of the game were fourth edition skill challenges: in short, a non-combat encounter was meant to be solved by a stacking, let’s say, four successful skill checks before stacking three failed skill checks. The DM had to prepare a good number of skill check options to try to involve every member of the party.

If the mechanic was able to cover a large number of situations, on the other hand it was trivializing the result with just rolling a bunch of dice, flattening the flavour.

Story challenge

I designed a houserule variant for skill challenges to put on the table players ideas, decision-making and storytelling. I present the situation to the players and I ask each one to start the storytelling describing how the character is helping

  • one player at a time, in any order the players agree on, tells his contribution
  • the player then rolls a skill check related to his action, with advantage if the action is a narrative follow-up of the previous player’s action
  • if the player uses a resource that he can recover with a rest (a rage, a channel divinity, a spell slot, etc) an automatic success is gained and no roll is required
  • the challenge is completed once they have a number of successful skill checks equal to the number of players

Consequences can be handled and delivered in two ways:

  • every single failed check makes something bad happen – damage, exhaustion levels, HD loss…
  • stacking a number of failures equal to half of the group causes the challenge to fail, with broader consequences

Which one is the best? I pick based upon the challenge itself: if the challenge is designed to be an obstacle (how many threats they will have to face before reaching the Temple of the Sapphire Daemon™?) the choice goes on the former; if it’s a possible turning point (will they reach the Temple of the Sapphire Daemon™ before the kidnapped prince is executed?) I go with the latter.

Usually, this method is well-recepted: the chance of a roll with advantage is a positive reinforcement to let players look for cohoperation and build up a coherent story. Feedbacks are generally positive.

Exploration chart

If you want to give the idea of a very special environment with peculiar threats and give the players that their preparation made them overcome the problems, you can build a general chart of the possible encounters.

The general idea is to prepare a chart with the possible encounters of that area and assume that something will happen, unless the PC prepare themselves to avoid that. The DM sets up the encounters and some possible solutions for them, then asks the players to prepare themselves.

A crazy example: to reach the Temple of the Sapphire Daemon™ the group must undertake a trip across a desertic region. Gathering informations they discover that bandits are very aggressive and will try to assault every possible target while a very vicious group of purple worms hides beneath the sand – which can be kept at bay by a specific melody that must be performed all the time.

I tell the player that each one of them, during the trip, can do only one action to help the group:

  • to perform the melody all the time under the terrible sun of the desert and keep the purple worms at bay they will need someone to succeed on a Constitution [Perform] check
  • to disguise themselves as bandits and avoid being assaulted by the true ones, they need someone to succeed on a Intelligence [Deception] check
  • if someone takes the duty of being the sentry and succeeds on a Wisdom [Perception] check, they will not be surprised in case of an assault
  • they need someone to guide them with a successful Wisdom [Survival] check or they will gain a level of exhaustion for prolonging the route too much
  • …whatever idea they can have, let it have some effect (enemies surprised, inspirations, advantage on attack rolls during the first round of combat, improvise)

After the preparations, each player rolls – I usually award inspiration for entertaining descriptions of successes or failures – then I roll 1d20 and follow the chart as above in the picture:

  • with a result of 1 a haccident happens: it causes something to go bad and brings damage (hp damage, exhaustion, HD loss). Then I roll again
  • with a result of 2 to 11 the bandits show up: they will attack if noone was successful in avoiding their threat
  • with a result of 12 to 16 the sand trembles for the purple worms: if noone put in place a successful solution, they will strike
  • with a result of 17 to 19 I roll for a random encounter – which can still be avoided by clever thinking
  • with a 20 everything went better than expected and no one gets hurt

In this way you can let the player feel the importance of preparation, the hostility of the environment, and the value of their actions. They can also tinker their strategy, thinking that they can handle bandits but purple worms are damn scary, so it’s better to put more than one adventurer performing the melody and finding the right path and thinking of bandits or others as a calculated risk. They can have brilliant ideas: reward them.

How do you handle explorations? Do you have special procedures?