Of the three pillars of tabletop roleplaying games (combat, social interaction, and exploration), exploration is the one that befuddles GMs the most. It gets just over a page of explanation in the Dungeon Master Guide which addresses practical concerns such has reading a map, travel pace, and visibility. However, it offers little in the way of how to run a hexcrawl or exploration-centric adventure that is structured, engaging and fun. Too often, GMs who try to do this find themselves, ahem, lost in the woods.
When done right, exploration-focused adventures and campaigns instill a sense of awe and wonder in the players as they eagerly wait to see what their characters will discover next. Here are my top three tips to help you level up your exploration pillar.
Provide Specific Goal - While we want players to feel a sense of curiosity and thrill over the unknown, too often they instead feel lost as to what to do and where to go. Instead, structure your adventure with a specific goal like one of these:
Reach a barely visible peak in the distance and map what you see
Travel east and make contact with a strange civilization rumored to exist there
Track down a clan of Orcs that has been terrorizing the village
In The Vanishing Bandit Fortress, the party is tasked with tracking down sophisticated bandit who are constantly on the move, constructing Roman Legionnaire-style forts wherever they stay for the night. This structure will make sure the party has a clear goal in mind that offers structure for an exploration adventure.
Offer Informed Choice - One way that exploration-centric games often suffer is that players feel like they have little agency. instead of having consequential choices, they are at the mercy of simplistic and unimaginative random event tables. Instead of throwing 1d4 owlbears at the party, think of ways to offering interesting decision points for the layers. These options should have legitimate consequences but because the players have the opportunity to weigh their options, the consequences are based on their actions which is SO MUCH more engaging for the players. Here are some examples of what I mean.
The party must cross a gorge but the rope bridge is on the verge of collapse. They can cross (faster but more dangerous) or they can circumnavigate it (probably safer but more time consuming)
The party discovers an ancient mine but with evidence of a predator living inside (play it safe or investigate for potential high risk/high reward?)
The party sees an NPC high up in a tree with an angry Giant cutting the tree down with an axe (play it safe or go out of their way to save a stranger?)
Occasionally, you may want to simply ambush the party with some monsters - this especially works well if the ambushing monsters are in some way connected to the larger conflict - but your players will generally have much more fun when they feel like they are making the decisions. Even if bad things happen to their characters, it will still be more engaging because the consequences were a direct result of their actions.
The party starts here
Visual Aids - I've found that "theater of the mind" style play can often work well for dungeons (how hard is it to imagine a long stonewall hallway?) but it can be more challenging to engage players with exploration adventures in this way. After all, a big part of the excitement of exploration adventures is seeing a totally new world. Unless you're an illustrator, you're probably not drawing making the map live as you GM (If you are, PLEASE share a video haha). A passable way I've attempted this is with Role 4 Initiative's dry erasable hex boards. I will simply use a different color marker to fill in each hex depending on what the party discovers (forest, mountain, lake, etc.). My favorite way to engage the party with a visual aid is with our Hexplorer Map Tiles, either the physical magnetic ones on those blissful occasions we play in person, or the digital ones when we play online. The way I start a lot of campaigns is by putting a single village tile on the white board - the party's home village. As they explore and move around, I add new hex tiles in real time so the party feels like they are making real progress and discovering the world in a meaningful way.
What was the best exploration adventure you ever ran and why did it work so well? Let me know in the comments below!