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GM Tips: The Explorer's Guide to TTRPGs

This is Part One in a three-part series of articles on Exploration.

Exploration plays an important role in many a Tabletop RPG. Some consider it an integral part of their gameplay – it is one of the three pillars of D&D, for example. And yet, there aren’t really many rules to help a GM run adventures and campaigns heavily focused on it. Through this series of articles, we’ll take a look at some tips and tricks to make exploration feel interesting and engaging.

The problem with exploration is that – at least at first glance – it doesn’t have the same variety in terms of gameplay as a battle or a roleplay scenario. There are hundreds of monsters in most Tabletop RPGs, and each one behaves a different way. In a roleplay scenario, each character has a different personality, and each NPC wants something different from the players, or vice versa. The way exploration is usually done though is through dice rolls – the players try to find their way, or forge a new path, and they do so by rolling dice to determine if they succeed. The players’ roleplay is minimal, and the GM is stuck describing areas to them.

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The solution to this is to add in some spice. One way to do this is to change up the setting.

After a couple of campaigns, every player has probably explored a forest. While there are obviously things the GM can change up in a future forest exploration to make it interesting, the players might be bored of it regardless. Even a group of new players might not care about forest exploration that much if they’ve done it real life.

But what about a desert? What about an ancient city in the clouds, or a fire giant enclave inside a lava river? Generally, the more fantastic the setting, the more likely it is the players will want to interact with it and figure out its secrets.

If you do decide to stick with something more ordinary like a forest or cave system, consider adding things that will get the players interested. In general, the more things you add that the players can interact with, the better.

For example, consider adding a mystery. If the players enter a forest and find strange purple glowing roots sprouting out of the ground at places, they’ll be far more inclined to explore to figure out what’s going on.

You can also add factions. It’s your choice how much worldbuilding you wanna do on them, but they should absolutely have a goal they are pursuing – if it’s a goal that’s somehow connected to what your players are doing – or perhaps it’s the same thing – then even better.

You don’t need this faction to appear all the time during exploration. The meetings should be almost random in nature – perhaps the players come across a representative of the faction early on, then a larger group sometime later. It should be organic, like that faction is exploring the area too. Alternatively, the faction could have a specific home area, which the players might happen across while exploring.

Earlier, we also mentioned goals. This is a big part of making exploration something the players will care about. Too often, exploration is often a means to an end – the players do it not because it’s interesting, but to discover their next place of interest, like a dungeon or a city.

If you make exploration become its own reward somehow, then the players’ interest in it will certainly spike. Still, everything described above mostly deals with how to make exploration interesting, but not how to run an exploration adventure – not how to integrate gameplay into it, that is.

Next week, we’ll talk about precisely that part of exploration – how to have your players play along with it.

How do you spice up exploration and overland travel in your campaign? Let me know in the comments below!

~Filip Alexandris

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