This is Part Three of a Three Part series on Exploration in TTRPGs. You can catch up by reading Part One HERE and Part Two HERE.
Welcome back again! Last time, we talked about how to integrate gameplay into exploration and make the character actively take part in it. Today, we’ll do more of the same, starting with something that used to be in a rule book but currently is not.
Back in D&D’s fourth edition – one that wasn’t really that well-received, let’s be honest – there was a mechanic that had a place in every book, from setting books to adventures. It was the skill challenge.
Skill challenges worked a little like this: The GM laid out a problem for the party – you need to escape a pack of hungry Gnolls pursuing you through the wilderness – and laid out how difficult this feat was – let’s say four successes were needed. Four successes also meant that if four failures were reached first, the players lost the skill challenge.
The way to gain successes was by making skill checks. A player might ask to use deception to make the Gnolls think they were heading a different way. Another might make a nature check to find a better path in the wilderness. The skill’s DC was up to the GM, but in general the more one action was repeated the harder it got.
You can take this system and use it in a Tabletop RPG today pretty much as is. Even if it’s not D&D, most such games have skill checks or something similar. Moreover, a skill challenge can be anything – from a negotiation with a NPC, to escaping from monsters, to traversing through a particularly rough stretch of land. It requires the whole party to think and get involved, which is what makes it so good.
Another thing fourth edition gave us were Diseases. This was a simple system, which, like the skill challenge, can be used for a myriad other, non-Disease things.
The way Diseases worked was the following. Once someone was infected by a Disease – either mundane or magical, it doesn’t matter – they were at Stage One. Every day – sometimes more often – they had to make a skill check to determine if they got better or not. If they got better, they went from Stage One to cured. If not, they went to Stage Two. In general, Stage One had symptoms but no actual mechanical drawbacks for a character, while Stage Two onwards debuffed the character somehow. Not all Diseases had Death as the final stage, but most did.
This system can be used as-is, like the skill challenge, but there are things a GM can add. For example, perhaps other players can attempt to cure the one with a Disease, making rolls for them. Perhaps, this can become more of a story thing, fueling further exploration, as the party must seek out a specific flower, mineral or something else that is required to heal the Disease. Thus, the Disease becomes a ticking clock, with the party hurrying to find the cure before the players fails too many checks and perishes. In this case, of course, the players can improve but never be cured without the item.
Both of those mechanics make the world feel more alive, and exploration feel like a more interactive experience. Now, finally, there is another little mechanical trick that you can do.
In most Tabletop RPGs, one gains level via gaining XP – usually by defeating monsters or accomplishing some task. There’s also milestone leveling – the players gain a level by completing part of the story.
What if leveling up was tied into exploration though? What if, for example, the players needed to discover strange obelisks or glowing menhir-like crystals to gain a level?
This makes one of the objectives of the game – gaining levels – directly tied to exploration. It teaches the players that to become stronger, they need to go out exploring. And, of course, if you choose to use this you can tie in story seeds as well. What if every obelisk has some words carved on it, words alluding to some great destruction or even that is yet to come?
By tying levels into such discoveries, you’re basically creating an improved milestone leveling system. The players can find the obelisks – or whatever else you decide – after important dungeons. They can find them after important events. They can find them while randomly exploring. Anything goes.
This concludes this series of articles! We hope you’ve had fun reading, and that maybe, next time you run a game focused on exploration, you’ll implement some of the ideas mentioned in these articles.
Is there a rule or mechanic from a different RPG system that you use in 5E? Let me know in the comments below!