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Fighting is a fun thing in D&D 4e, and every session we enjoy battles. The next sessions I will no doubt have some. But at this point in the adventure I'm running for my PCs, I think it would be a good time to also give them something different: exploration. Places for them to discover, were it to be by getting lost or following a map's directions. Interesting places, with mysteries that can tie into the plot of my campaign, or give options for new things they would like to do. To let them choose or stumble into encounters where they will discover, and love discovering, as much as they will fight.

The problem is that I'm not sure of how to do that. My core rulebooks are quite vague when talking exploration, and my (limited, I admit) searches on the internet have found little to nothing. I know excitement is generally related to conflict, but I am not sure of how I could integrate a good conflict into what I want to be a free-form exploration. Also, how do I handle free-form exploration itself? How much do I map? Should I use the dice for truly unexpected discoveries? How do I give my PCs the chance to explore a rich setting without flooding them with lore that doesn't contribute to the story? How do I interest my layers in said exploration?

Those are just a few of the questions that I'm facing right now, and they really capture the essence of my problem: I have no experience with pure exploration in D&D 4e. Of course, I could just go with whatever I feel is best, and use LOTR as a spiritual guide, but I don't want to go in blind, hence my question: what are tips and strategies to engage my players into (mostly) free exploration of the setting I provide them?

Please note: I understand that 4e is a focused combat system. I am not looking to create an exploration only campaign, but rather to integrate exploration in the game in addition, and to enrich, the combat element.

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You should definitely familiarize yourself with the section in your DM book on skill challenges, these are a helpful way to plan non-combat encounters. There are a number of good questions here to keep them from becoming a simple matter of die chucking and turn them into brilliant RP opportunities –  wax eagle Apr 26 at 0:51

3 Answers 3

While it is true that 4e does center around combat, not all conflicts are about combat.

If you find some good resources on RPG plots, like S. John Ross' List of RPG plots, it can give you some ideas about running exploration adventures. Especially what he calls the Safari, Any Old Port in a Storm, and Uncharted Waters plots are good starting points to work from, as you want a focus on exploration. As for the implementation of this plots, remember your skill and social encounters!

The social encounter and the skill encounter will be your best friends. Social encounters are good for talking to "natives," maybe even talking to other random explorers. Skill encounters would be good for general scouting, climbing a mountain, opening a lost tomb, tracking a gryphon to its nest, and so forth.

Of course, you can always find a fight in the wilderness. Maybe the adventurers ignored the obvious signs of an owlbear's territory? Perhaps a random band of orcs or gnolls are inhabiting that ruin they discovered a few days ago?

As for generating the wilderness, I'm afraid using LOTR as a spiritual guide may be best. It also depends on what your setting is. If the adventurers are in a well-documented world, like those WOTC produces, then you could use those as a guide. If it's a home-made setting, then it's up to you how to populate that world. (Again, looking at a the WOTC campaign settings can be helpful in making your own.)

NOTICE: Subjective Input follows! I would recommend rough maps of places for adventurers to go to. This will give you an idea of what can happen in the coming session, and will likely produce a more cohesive wilderness rather than a nonsensical generated one. With such a planned wilderness, you can even have past exploration sites affect others. This means the ruins over there give a clue about the door to the ruins over here, or something along those lines.

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First of all, let me just say in advance that not all excitement comes from conflict. Although it is a central element of most of the stories we tell, it is by no mean a must-have. With that out of the way, let's dive in to your question. Reminding, though, as always that everything here is based upon my experience and my experience alone. It is by no mean definitive or the right and ultimate answer.

Mapping is nice, and it can help you quite a bit, but I believe that you are overthinking it. The important thing here is that you will know in general sense where they are. A great tool that I use, especially in explorative adventures, is to let the players do the mapping for me. It is an explorative adventure, right? Most people don't go these ways (or it wouldn't be explorative) so there's no use for official and professional cartographers to map the area. As such is the case, there won't be maps available to the PCs. Have a general sense of the area, and if they will map it for themselves, photocopy it later or something. If not, you don't even have to make the way the same every time- they don't really know it.

Discovering is another thing altogether. It should be exotic and strange, not the things that they would expect to see. If you can improvise those areas on the spot, it will be much stranger and exotic, as even you won't know what lies in there. If not, I would go for generating those discoveries in advance. For me, the coolest things are the places and cultures that I find and not the items. If that is the general consensus for your group also, I would almost exclusively focus on those places- ancient ruins, temples, ghost cities and the like. A tool that I use a lot when implementing those places is to give the players something to play with- a ghost city, with some marks spreading all over it, for example- and then create the original society who lived there according to the players ideas of them. It is not for everyone, but for me it works.

Lore

Creating lore is probably one of the hardest things to make, but that doesn't mean that it is impossible. In addition to what I wrote in the preceding paragraph, there are also a few tools that I use to present the lore. One way that I use is to draw them somehow into the exploration of the area. Through the exploration I can give them a lot of lore without making it feel forced. When they enter a temple, they will find the shrine, with the statue of the god(s) of the area, and maybe like a book or something. As players they will read it and I can give them even more lore about the subject matter- this culture.

Another way to present the lore is through the people living in those places. Some of the places might even have inhabitants. Those persons are going to live their lives according to their beliefs and cultures, right? Through describing what they're doing I can again present the culture without making it feel forced.

Lastly but most importantly, I make at least part of this lore important to the story. It might be their only way to leave this place, or just a way to get the respect of the people there, or a different thing altogether (like the answer to a riddle), but by making it important I can make sure that they will both remember it while also giving them a reason to receive it- they wanna get the bonus.

A few additions

In addition to the things that were written earlier, a few additions that might just be what you're looking for. Firstly, there are 2 questions in the backlog of the site that may help you- one about descriptions and one about wilderness.

A great place to start, as was mentioned before me, is to use LoTR as a spiritual guide. This book is full of exploration, and as such can give you a general sense of how it should look. But every other journey story might be your answer too. Most fantasy stories revolve at least one kind of explorational adventure. Look at the things that they find on their ways and use them. Don’t be afraid to "borrow" elements from other stories. Indiana Jones is a really nice place to start, even though it is not fantasy, as is Star Trek which is Sci-Fi. Many a time, you will find great things in other genres which is even better. Just re-skin it and "ta-dam", you've got yourself a new thing to implement.

For conflict I'll go for far more familiar things- bandits, locals and maybe a strange and exotic monster. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that it should be somewhat related to the place they are into right now. If they're in a desert, for example, have the bandits use camels. If it is an exploration through the sea, have a Kraken as an enemy.

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I ran a 4th-Ed game for a couple of years. What follows will be informed from my experience running that campaign. My campaign was made a mix between the real world and the base 4th-ed "canon", so my examples will reflect that.

First off, while a map is not necessary, I think you should sit down and get a rough idea of the world/continent/area that the game will involve. Given that a picture is a thousand words, a rough map helps in the same regard. Less detail far away, and more detail (but still rough) in close. All I knew about the America of my campaign was that the indians were shifters, and the Aztecs were dragonborn. For Europe I knew the shape of the continent, the mountain chains, and the major cities. And then for the area of Germany where the campaign started I knew the major towns (on that scale), and the major geographical area of interest (The fey-ridden Swartzwald, the snow-capped Alps, the Hûrghills).

The exploration itself was generally goal-driven. The group need to kill a monster, to get information, to secure an artifact, and the goal happened to be in a location with no teleportation circle. This happened often, given that I had only put teleportation circles in the capitals of Europe. Everything outside of that needed travel, either by trudging along roads (which we generally quickly skipped past), through wilderness (interesting through encounters with locals or wildlife, or through spot-light features) or through neighbour planes like the fey-wild (with weird terrain to add to the standard features). Through the goal I generally had a rough idea of what they were going to do, and could plan the travelogue appropriately (though if you are going free-form it is important to have that rough idea of neighbouring areas, so you have something to improvise over if they wander out of the planned area or path).

Now, I'm not sure that I've got down the art of the travelogue. Sometimes the player's just wanted the journey over with, and to get to the actual accomplishment of the goal. However, the way I did it, there generally were two levels. One is the actual travel. I'd give the player's a quick description of the landscape they were traveling through (including whether where appropriate) and then fast-forward to the next encounter or spot-light feature ("You travel through this miserable landscape for three days until). The fast-forward could be weeks or could be hours, depending on the scope of the scope of the journey.

Then they run into an encounter with locals, wildlife or a spot-light feature. In Siberia they might run into Kossack Orcs. In Arabia they might run into a battle between to feuding Bedouin tribes. The important thing is that this is not just a filler encounter. It means something. They get to know what tribes are in the area, and interact with them either peacefully or not. They learn that the wolves in this area will attack an armed convoy, and this will color the following journey, especially if you mention how they get attacked several more times in the following fast-forward.

The spot-light feature in the same way is something that worth noting, big or small. They might set camp by some warm springs (which would be a very short spot-light). They might reach the Great Wall, and have to figure a way past it. Or they might encounter a ruin from which strange lights emanate, and decide whether to investigate or go past. The feature should either provide color to the geography of the world (warm springs), the lore of the world (the ruin left behind by the ancients) or both (the Great Wall stretching from the Himalayas to the ocean, crafted by the dwarves under the servitude of the ancients).

Once the group has dealt with an encounter or a spot-light feature, you fast-forward again to the next encounter, or finally to the goal. If the group crosses into new terrain, you comment on that. Sometimes during the fast-forward, the group might also encounter other people or animals without you having to make an encounter out of it: "As you get closer to the mountains, you see more and more dwellings, and start to meet other travelers on the road.", "As you continue your journey you continue to be hounded by wolves, though you never experience an attack as large as the first."

Now, all this actually covers travel from one location to another. If you want more traditional dnd wilderness exploration, you will either need a map, or you will need to pretend that the exploration is freeform.

If you are just pretending, you can more or less follow the above structure. You have some spotlight encounters and features that you want to display, and you do so as they trudge around aimlessly trying to find the goal. Once you've displayed your stuff, you then let them find the goal.

With a map, you can have more of a mix. You can decide that "this feature is in this area" and "and that feature is around here", and then track the party around. But given that formula, there is no guarantee that they won't just miss all the stuff, unless you supplement the stuff with at least as many clues (they'll be ambushed by lizardmen anywhere in the swamp, and the lizardmen's tracks will lead back to the pyramid).

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