What Is 5e Exploration and Why It's an Awesome and Essential Pillar of D&D
A Series on Reintroducing the Forgotten Pillar to Your Fifth Edition Adventures
By Riley Rath
Not - so - hot take: exploration in D&D 5e is underrated.
Hot take: it's the most unique and enchanting part of Dungeons and Dragons.
"Best" would take it too far... and "best" is situational anyways...
But I contend that even though social or combat encounters are the cool kids at school, it is exploration that sets D&D (and other TTRPGs) apart from all other games.
So it is quite a shame that so many players get through the exploration part in their sessions ASAP... as though they have a train to catch. And DMs only throw some exploration in to take up time when a player is missing an important session.
And yet... I don't know if you noticed... but, like, A LOT of people complain about how often D&D falls short of expectations.
We introduce people we thought would love it, but they come away with "meh." So we go back to the drawing board and theorize all sorts of ways it could be better. We think adding spells and classes and items will do the trick. Or rethinking lore and strategy and ways to role-play.
And yes, the majority of the suggestions and homebrews of the 5e community are great and interesting and creative and I love them!
But the problem isn't that we aren't adding new things... it's that we are leaving out something fundamental... something that was always intended to be partnered with the social and combat pillars.
We are like fancy French bakers experimenting with every possible cookie combination, desperately trying to find a way to improve it, when all along the best way to improve the cookie was to dip it in a cold glass of milk!
Exploration in 5e is seriously neglected... and our D&D sessions suffer for it.
The fault does not lie with exploration in and of itself. Exploration is inherently appealing, something humans across the globe have innately done for eons.
The problem is the mechanics/perspective of exploration in D&D 5e. For many reasons, it is difficult to properly execute. The reasons why are as numerous as they are complex... and it's not even totally our fault.
We skip exploration in our DnD sessions because we don't know how to run it or enjoy it.
Here at Awesome Dice, we are beginning a series of blog posts on the "forgotten pillar" of D&D 5e: exploration.
Through several posts over the next year, we are going to define what exploration is, describe what makes it so fun, and identify what's getting in the way of having fun exploring.
We are also going to go through all the ways exploration shows up in your campaigns: dungeons, travel, chases, survival, puzzles and traps... etc.
Because exploration in D&D 5e should be a fun and engaging part of every adventure.
Of course, there will be some homebrew... but a lot of it will be figuring out the rules just as they are (or lack thereof...).
After all... the fifth edition has been out for darn near 9 years now... it's about time we started getting exploration right.
Table of Contents
What Is Exploration?
What Do You Mean "Forgotten Pillar"?
- We Don't Recognize Exploration
- Exploration is "Hidden"
- Running Exploration is Hard
How Do We Get 5e Exploration Wrong?
How Can We Make 5e Exploration Better?
What is Exploration?
For a proper introduction, let me first clarify something very, very important:
EXPLORATION IS NOT THE SAME AS TRAVEL.
I have seen definitions for exploration that sound something like "Discovering things while traveling across new, unknown areas" or "moving across space and getting information," but both of those are wrong.
The error is like that of the relationship between a square and a rectangle. You know, how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn't a square?
Image © MashupMath. Click that link if you're confused.
Well, travel IS exploration, but exploration IS NOT travel. Travel is included under the umbrella of exploration, but exploration is not limited to travel.
This is... without a doubt... the most common mistake people make regarding exploration. People confuse travel to be the best example of the exploration pillar. And since travel is often boring as hell, a lot of players would rather... just... not.
And we will get to travel in a later post, but here and now let me clarify what I mean by exploration:
Exploration is seeking, investigating, wandering... out of a desire to discover something.
Yep, that definition is "8-lane-highway" broad. But if you don't believe me, Wikipedia also has good, broad definitions.
- "To examine or investigate something systematically."
- "To examine diagnostically."
- "To wander without any particular aim or purpose."
Mr. Wikipedia is right in demonstrating that exploration covers a lot of ground. It can be intentional or aimless, often (but not necessarily) involves physical movement, and is some form of seeking.
But one way or another...
When you explore, you move from the unknown to the known.
Since this is the first post, we won't go into the human experience of fear and curiosity that drives our need to explore the unknown.
But for stories and adventures, this "exploration-truth" is HUGE:
- Take Harry Potter... how LAME would it be if Harry knew that Snape was a double agent death eater and that Harry was, himself, a horcrux?
- Or Lord of the Rings... yeah, they knew they needed to destroy the ring all the way back in Rivendell. But how LAME would it be if they also knew A) the right route to take, B) every monster they would face, C) exactly how to beat them?
- Or a simple adventure like the opening of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (which is basically a D&D dungeon, btw)... yeah, there isn't much story going on, but how LAME would it be if Indy knew the boulder would come rolling down on him as soon as he took the idol?
I mean, for crying out loud even SPORTS, the least story driven and adventurous thing there is, is LAME when you already know what the final score will be!
So if stuff is boring when you know everything ahead of time, what does this mean for D&D 5e?
Exploration is an essential, expected, and exciting part of any story and adventure... including D&D 5e adventures.
I could go on and on, but I think this is self-evident.
If players knew everything and had nothing to discover, then you would be playing something that has more in common with a board game or a war game rather than cooperative storytelling.
Adventure with no exploration = bad adventure.
Ok... is everyone still here? Still hanging with me? Nodding gently as you read silently?
Good... cuz I'm guessing some of you still might have a hard time agreeing with me that exploration is ESSENTIAL to D&D.
After all... you have probably played entire adventures that were almost entirely social and combat encounters.
My response is: "Well... actually... even if you were mostly playing social and combat encounters, most of those sessions still had some exploration."
And to prove it, let's look at the fabled "three pillars of D&D 5e."
What Do You Mean "Forgotten Pillar"?
When DnD 5e was released, some of the creators of D&D shared their "3 pillars of 5e." These, they believed, were the essence of Dungeons and Dragons. They were woven into the heart of fifth edition, both as an overall game and the design of "ideal' individual sessions.
The three pillars of D&D 5e are 1) Combat, 2) Social, and 3) Exploration.
Dungeons and Dragons has its roots in wargaming, so it is no surprise that "combat" is accepted as essential. The vast majority of the rules and mechanics in the Players Handbook deal with combat.
And given that it is a role-playing game that you play with friends, it's pretty hard to avoid the "social" part. You both socialize with other players as well as with other characters in the world you inhabit.
Both the combat and social pillars would be obvious to even the most inexperienced of players.
But exploration? It's not as noticeable and, as a consequence, is forgotten. And there are three main reasons for this:
The first way exploration becomes the "forgotten pillar" is due to simple ignorance.
Look again at my definition: "exploration is seeking, investigating, wandering... out of a desire to discover something."
Notice that included the word "investigation"? Like, the investigation skill?
That was intentional. When you investigate, you are seeking out something and hoping to make a discovery. Which means every investigation check is a form of exploring.
And once you realize that, then your perspective on exploration expands a great deal indeed, even beyond investigation checks:
Every time you open a door to an unknown room in a dungeon...
Or wander through a forbidden, magical forest...
Or mill about a tavern, hoping to overhear some of the local gossip...
Or try to figure out what attack will kill this strange monster...
Or ask questions of a mysterious NPC...
... you are participating in the exploration pillar of DnD 5e.
Many of the skills, spells, and abilities in DnD 5e are all about exploration.
Think about the Identify spell, which allows players to discover if an object is magical or not. Or the Ranger's Natural Explorer class ability, which allows them to easily navigate favored terrain. Or the Historical Knowledge ability of the Archeologist background, which allows a character to better understand the origins of ruins and dungeons. And most of the equipment is there to enable your character to explore... and survive!
It would be veeeeeeery difficult to naturally use any of these examples in combat or role-playing scenarios. They were designed with exploration in mind, but we easily overlook them!
But there is a reason they are so easy to overlook...
The second way exploration becomes the forgotten pillar is that it is "hidden."
What I mean by "hidden" is that it is taken for granted. It often exists in the background. Consider how so many DMs spend hours and hours slaving over their world building. Sure, they like doing it, but do you think all that work is merely so you can have a cool place to fight?
Gif does not belong to Awesome Dice
No way Jose. Street Fighter and Tekken have cool places to fight... very little world building needed for that.
And do you think they do it just so that all the fun NPCs you encounter have a complex backstory? Nuh uh... though that is a fun by-product, that would be way too much work to be worth it.
DMs build a world so players can explore that world.
Sometimes this looks like an NPC describing the political turmoil in the upcoming kingdom. Or the players arriving at a sprawling city the DM built from the ground up. Or something as simple as the DM describing a sublime mountain vista the players stumble onto.
The main purpose of world building is so there is something for players to explore. And as the players explore the world, exploration also leads the party to new people and places: an interesting NPC, or a new tavern, or giant's cave. Exploration is started by plot hooks and ends in new encounters that move the plot forward.
Exploration is the "hidden" glue that holds social and combat encounters together.
- If combat and social encounters are bread and peanut butter... exploration is the jam.
- If combat and social encounters are cookies and milk... exploration is the glass.
- If combat and social encounters are wings and beer... exploration is carrots, celery, and ranch.
The quintessential example of this is the classic DnD dungeon. The whole point is for players to explore a dungeon... room by room... in order to discover some treasure. Along the way, they solve puzzles and answer riddles (exploration stuff) as well as battle strange monsters (combat) and encounter strange NPCs (social).
Sometimes exploration is the third piece that turns DnD into more than the sum of its parts. And other times it is the vehicle in which combat and social encounters are delivered.
Regardless, when it comes to the "standard" D&D adventure, exploration is an essential piece... a pillar which holds up the "world's greatest role-playing game."
Which begs the question... if exploration is so essential... how could it be forgotten?
Well... while it shows up in many ways... there is only one really big way exploration does NOT show up.
The third way exploration is forgotten is the absence of "exploration encounters/scenes."
This... this right here... this is the big kahuna of reasons. This is why exploration falls so so so so so so so far behind the social and combat pillars. so much so that I have bolded, underlined, and italicized this paragraph. That way you KNOW I mean business.
So big, in fact, that it deserves its own future blog post.
For now, a quick summary:
- D&D is a game
- D&D is also a story
- A game takes place in encounters
- A story takes place in scenes
Most of the time it does not involve a dynamic encounter or a relevant scene. Instead, it takes place over out-of-character conversation, or narration, or a roll.
This is why exploration is less fun. This is why exploration is less noticeable. This is why players and DMs want to skip exploration or rush past it.
How Do We Get 5e Exploration Wrong?
Exploration is an exciting, expected, and essential pillar of D&D... but it's forgotten. It's forgotten because we don't understand it, it's hidden in the background, and does not lend itself to encounters or scenes.
Otherwise, it's perfect... right?
Turns out... it's not all our fault as players and DMs for dismissing exploration... the creators of D&D kinda did it too.
The way Wizards of the Coast has/does/teaches DnD 5e is... kinda dumb.
Gif © Netflix
Jk... it's really dumb.
Here are three examples/reasons why:
1. WOTC assumed running exploration was INTUITIVE (it's not).
I suspect they assumed it was just like role-playing because, just like pretending to be someone else, we all have explored in one way or another. We have all wandered off the path in some woods or gotten lost in a new neighborhood at some point in our lives.
And whether we can put words to it or not, we all know what it feels like to explore and discover something. And because of that, WOTC assumed we would know how to explore while playing DnD 5e.
I believe exploration sits in-between the social and combat pillars. And because it sits in-between, it draws from both.
The social pillar has one or two bumps, but it's mostly A) hanging out with friends and B) acting as your character.
The combat pillar is a reflection of actual combat, which is almost entirely foreign to the vast majority of Western players of DnD, many of which have never been punched in the face. Thus, the game provides multiple chapters with hundreds of rules to teach us how to play it (obviously that is not the only reason, but you catch my drift).
The exploration pillar is a little intuitive, but not totally intuitive. It needs more rules than the social pillar but less than the combat pillar.
So where do we find those exploration rules?
2. WOTC put the exploration rules all over the f*ck#ng place.
This part blows my mind... it's as though they organized the exploration pillar in the most confusing, convoluted way. A way guaranteed to turn it into something neglected and forgotten.
Want your players to explore a forest and look for a dungeon? Ya know... a SUPER common experience?
Well, WOTC has blessed you with 4 whole pages of a 320 page book (1.3%) in the Dungeon Master's Guide to help you make that fun.
But if you get greedy and want to expand on the player's ability to survive, well you're going to have to keep reading until pages 267 of the DMG. Don't worry, even they knew one page for survival isn't enough... which is why they added one more page in the adventure module Tomb of Annihilation (page 37).
Thankfully, Tomb of Annihilation also gave us two whole pages on travel (36 - 37), adding to the already whopping one page NOT in the DMG, but this time in the Player's Handbook (181 - 182).
What about some staples of any dungeon diet: traps and puzzles? The DMG has pages 120 - 124 for traps, but nothing specifically on puzzles. Thankfully, traps were expanded in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, pgs 113 - 123... and puzzles were added in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, pgs 171 - 189.
Need realms for them to explore? DMG 99 - 120, published in 2014. But this is a game full of wonder... where are the areas of magic? Um... six years later... Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, 150 - 170.
And as far as I know, they have no plans to compile aaaaaaaaaaall this relevant exploration info into a single, easy-to-use tome.
I could go on and on... but my voice is weak from being up on this soap box for so long. And all my comments on how few pages there are leads to my third point:
3. WOTC did not make enough exploration rules.
On the one hand, I commend Wizards in their effort to make D&D 5e simple. They were smart to flavor storytelling and distance themselves from stat sheets and math problems. By removing the glut of rules from previous additions, they have opened the game to an entirely new generation of players. And as a result it has exploded in popularity.
On the other hand... they went too far. As stated above, exploration sits between the social and combat pillars. The social pillar has almost no rules (PHB 185 - 186 and DMG 224 - 246) and just relies on ability checks. And the combat pillar has more rules than I can count across multiple chapters.
But exploration only has slightly more rules and strategy guidance than social... and that is not enough.
The exploration pillar needs to have a "medium" amount of rules specific to it.
You know when we roll initiative, and combat starts, the game clearly shifts to a "combat" phase?
I believe, for the exploration pillar to thrive, it needs some of those "clear shifts" as well... which requires more rules.
And until it has more structure... more rules... more "doctrine"... it will remain the forgotten pillar.
Conclusion: What Do We Need to Get Conclusion: How Can We Make 5e Exploration Better?
"Exploration is seeking, investigating, wandering... out of a desire to discover something."
The experience of exploring in D&D is, just like in real life, inherently fun and exciting, and makes D&D a special and enchanting experience.
And yet, a huge reason DnD doesn't always live up to expectations is because we neglect the third essential pillar: exploration. And many of our favorite sessions actually had exploration either hidden in the background or holding the whole session/adventure together.
But exploration does not lend itself well to encounters or scenes. And while we don't know how to explore... and the rules are all over the place... we also need more structure and rules.
So... how are we here at Awesome Dice going to make it better? What can you expect from this 2023 exploration series?
1. Learning about why humans love exploring stuff.
2. The importance of scenes and encounters in TTRPGs.
3. Further investigation into the 5e rules as written.
4. Exploration "doctrine" to guide our gameplay.
5. Classifying and explaining all the different types of exploration (travel, chase, etc.)
6. Homebrew rules to create exciting "exploration encounters."
And if I may end this post with a terrible dad-pun... hopefully you will join us as we explore exploration.
(Bows to the boos and battery of rotten fruit and vegetables).
Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help D&D related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!