Exploration in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition


Hexcrawls, pointcrawls and other options for exploration in D&D


D&D 5e boasts three pillars of gameplay. Combat, Roleplay and Exploration. We’re going to offer some ideas on how to run Exploration for your games.

Narration

If the area is not threatening or if there is nothing of consequence, it’s perfectly fine to tell your players “this area is safe. The roads are maintained by the Queen’s guards, merchants travel these roads in caravans as well as the occasional vendors and inns you’ll encounter along the way. Is there something you want to do on your way to so and so?”
You can introduce some merchants, any npcs that might relay plot points (Oh, you’re heading to the swam of fondue? I heard that there’s a big mean dragon there!), or perhaps the players would want to roleplay some moments when they’re setting up the campfire for the night. Unless there’s some element you’re wanting to bring in, let the players dictate the pace and let them arrive at their destination without too much hassle. It isn’t a lot of fun for the players to setup their watch at night, roll perception, etc if there’s nothing happening.

Progress Clock/Skill Challenges

D&D 5e does a lot of things well, some things well and some elements don’t have a ton of support. Exploration can certainly feel this way. One method of doing things (which I personally use and have adapted into my own homebrew work) is introducing Progression Clocks. They are very similar to the Skill Challenges of 4th edition. See their site for complete information, but here’s a description of how it works:
The players are trying to navigate through a potential dangerous forest, let’s call it The Misty Forest (super imaginative, I know).
There are plenty of potential dangers that might lurk here. Perhaps draw out a small table for yourself:

  • An owlbear nest
  • Mischievous pixies
  • Redcaps
  • A conclave of druids who detest outsiders
  • A pool of great calm where a unicorn provides shelter
  • A half-broken rope bridge

There are a lot of good suggestions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, in chapter 5 “Wilderness” section that might also help flesh this out.
You give the players a general description of the idea with some kind of call to action.

DM: “You see a chasm that leads to the other side, and an old rickety rope bridge spans the gap.”
Player: “I want to see if the ropes are in good condition and whether the bridge could hold our weight”

And off you go.

I’ll quote the BitD site here for you:

“A progress clock is a circle divided into segments (see examples at right). Draw a progress clock when you need to track ongoing effort against an obstacle or the approach of impending trouble.
Sneaking into the constables watch tower? Make a clock to track the alert level of the patrolling guards. When the PCs suffer consequences from partial successes or missed rolls, fill in segments on the clock until the alarm is raised.
Generally, the more complex the problem, the more segments in the progress clock.
A complex obstacle is a 4-segment clock. A more complicated obstacle is a 6-clock. A daunting obstacle is an 8-segment clock.
When you create a clock, make it about the obstacle, not the method.

https://bladesinthedark.com/progress-clocks

Eventually, they either succeed – “the rope bridge was weakened but you add a second rope and strengthen it”; or there is a complication and they succeed at a cost – “you make it through but in your haste, you drop a potion of healing in the chasm below and the noise alerts a nearby Owlbear’s nest”.

Hexcrawl

You provide a map of the area to your players and for each hex, there is something potentially interesting/dangerous that can either further the story, complicate things, be a a sidequest or an area to discover loot.

You can make your own maps using free sites if you want. Note that this lends itself really well for survival tracking (food, water, lodging) and this could be a nice time for the Ranger to shine and make use of that preferred terrain thing they picked long ago.
I will say that having random encounters for the sake of random encounters can be, and often is, pretty tedious. Try to add some elements in here that tie back into the greater story so they don’t feel like this was for nothing. If you’re playing by experience points for leveling up, this is a good place to rack up some experience, and for those using milestones, perhaps add some clues, items or elements that will be useful in the next town over.

For players and DMs alike who enjoy the tactile feeling of having a map and navigating through challenges, this can be a lot of fun. Tomb of Annihilation and Ghost of Saltmarsh, for example, offer those types of maps for example, and provide points of interest in them.

Pointcrawl

Cousins of the Hexcrawl, Pointcrawl systems have a long history in the game. You can refer to this post from long ago from Hill Cantons or from SlyFlourish here discussing it.
In short, you create points of interest and connect them. Players can choose multiple routes to get to their final destination. It’s less “grindy” than hexcrawls and usually allows for a clearer path of what lays ahead of them. I find using pointcrawls with a mix of the skill challenges listed above to work really well at my table.

You can use this great website to create your own pointcrawls in quick order and get going.


I tend to really avoid the “combat for the sake of combat” that you can find in modules where it’s there to grind the players down. It can serve a narrative tool (Curse of Strahd famously does it to reinforce just how terrible Barovia is) but it’s still really exhausting, at least for me and my players. Have encounters in the wild be varied, to give a chance for the players to explore fauna, flora, the lore, encounter flavorful NPCs, get some well earned downtime or for you to break the pace if they’re itching to kill something.

Do you use a different method? Something you’ve run that you’ve had great success with? Post in the comments below and let us know!


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