5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons players often lament the exploration pillar as the most underdeveloped portion of the game, behind the combat and social pillars. While there are great tools for fleshing out your world in the core materials, there is a lack of mechanical bite. Let’s give those narrative elements some mechanical teeth with Exploration Dice.
We’re rescuing the exploration pillar with a mechanic called exploration dice. The goal is to combine multiple types of environmental effects that the party might encounter, in order to build an interesting narrative.
There’s only so many times you can come across a goblin ambush before it becomes trite. When you layer in exploratory elements behind random encounters (which lean heavily on the combat tier), the world becomes more developed.
Example 1. What if the party comes across goblins ambushing a trading caravan? This presents several choices. Since the party is not the target of the ambush, they can slip by. However, if they decide to help the caravan they may be rewarded with an ally or some discount provisions.
Example 2. Instead, what if it’s bandits raiding a treasure trove? Now, the party can still slip by the distracted bandits. There’s an immediate monetary incentive to intervene.
Example 3. What if the party can hear the rustling of monsters from inside a thick fog? The party can likely still slip by. If they choose to engage, are they setting an ambush or about to walk into one? It’s difficult for the party to discern the risks and rewards due to the magical or natural effect creating the fog.
In order to flesh out the exploration pillar beyond just informing our random encounter fauna, we’ve broken down the things you can encounter into a few different types: traps, encounters (hostile, neutral, and friendly), magical effects, ecological curiosities, informational assets, and treasure. You can see from the examples how combining these effects creates wildly different encounter scenarios.
How It Works
When the players explore a new area, ask them to roll exploration dice, which is a d100. Really, we’re not taking the result of the d100, but the individual digits from each die, so you could just roll 2d10.
We’ve placed the different exploration elements into an exploration table, from worst to best. At the bottom you have traps, followed by encounters of increasing difficulty. After that, you can have magical effects, which are generally neutral, but can be helpful or harmful, depending on the scenario. At the top you have potentially helpful things like information and treasure.
Take both results and combine them to make your encounter! There are some additional tables in the PDF where you can roll magical effects and informational assets. Ecological curiosities and combat encounters drive better narrative when they are suited to your own campaign. So, we’ve also provided some blank tables where you can populate your world with encounters that fit the narrative and tell players something about the world.
Caveat: Rangers and Survival
Recognizing that we are tromping all over the Ranger’s Favored Terrain, as well as characters investing in the Wisdom (Survival) skill for navigational purposes, you may see fit to make an accommodation.
My solution is to allow these characters to roll an additional exploration die (d10) and select from among the results. This will result in missing a lot of traps and nuisance encounters, while being better at locating interesting and useful locations that can hold information and treasure. That’s exactly what we expect a good tracker to do!