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I've been struggling with making exploration of locations/dungeon crawls engaging for the players. This is occurring for me in several systems including D&D 3.5e, D&D 5e, and Numenera.

I've tried a few things:

  • "And then you enter another room with X, Y, and Z" provides no choices, even if stuff in the rooms is interesting.
  • "You see two doors ahead of you" provides no meaningful choices.
  • "You met an NPC who outlines areas of interest in the dungeon which are X, Y, and Z" provide some semblance of choice, but ultimately I'm not sure how to make choice matter.

I think I'm missing the core concept of what makes exploring a place fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @ADDO Please don't answer in comments. If you think that's a good solution to the problem please put it up as an answer along with the support to back it up. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jun 25 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ What game are you playing? You've tagged this system-agnostic, but this seems like a situation where understanding your game is extremely relevant. Different games will prioritise different focuses for actions and details, including informing us what your players' choices and goals are and how they'll be interacting with the environment and your dungeon crawl. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 25 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I recognise how a system-specific answer would be relevant, I think a system-agnostic approach is valid. I ask you to expand on whether you are looking for techniques to present exploration or whether you are asking about what makes exploration of a location in general exciting. Voted to leave open, but I would welcome improvements either way - from review. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 25 at 22:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener This is something I struggle with across few different systems: D&D 3.5, 5, and Numenera. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruslan Osipov Jun 26 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RuslanOsipov Thanks for clarifying. I've updated your question to specify that. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 26 at 11:23
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Exploring is fun!

For me, dungeon crawling is not about choices, it is about thriller, mystery, and discovering new stuff.

It is not about choosing between Door A or Door B for a goat or a car, it is about finding out what is behind each and every door. Ultimately, I will open all doors, whatever the order I choose.

Simply stating

There is a long corridor in front of you. It is unusually quiet, you do not see any foot steps or presence of life.

is already thrilling. Is there a trap in the corridor? Is a really challenging monster waiting for them in the end? Should we go back to the village and live happily as farmers? ME IS SCAR'D.

Note that this description contains no choices at all, except for whether they want to keep going or not.

So, to emphasize, for me, dungeon crawling is less about the choices I make, and more about what treasures will I find? What monsters will I defeat? What level will I be when I clear this?

So, overall, the problem I see with your description is not that they provide no choice, but rather that they are... too plain. "You see an empty room with two doors." is, indeed, a MEH description, and I would simply go with it and say "Sure I open the right one" with 10% less interest than before.

If, on the other hand, you describe something along Nuclear Wang's suggestions, it may be more interesting. Even if it is ultimately meaningless, create suspense and excitement. One door is worn out, with some holes on it, is that an arrow? oh, the other door is shiny and perfectly safe. Wait, is that door a mimic? Oh that explains it.

Exciting choices

Sometimes, the choice matters, however, and decision making is important and thrilling. An example from my favorite controversial 5e adventure - Curse of Strahd. SPOILERS FROM THE DEATH HOUSE BELOW.

In an underground dungeon, in the Death House, the characters find a room with a Statue depicting Strahd himself, with an Orb in one hand and petting a Wolf in the other hand.

Every time, my players instantly enter the dilemma: SHOULD WE TOUCH IT? - note that a lot of tension has already been built up in the adventure so far, with many things that they touch becoming Animated Armors or Mimics and trying to kill them, or summoning ghosts enraged by them touching their belongings.

As the adventure teaches, not touching is actually the right choice. If they touch the statue or get the Orb, they will summon five Shadows that will proceed to attack and possibly kill them.

However, until they try something, they do not know what is going to happen. Are we going to die? Is it going to trigger a trap? Or is it going to open a secret door with a mountain of treasures? Should we risk it even though we have depleted half of our resources already, or should we leave it alone?

Give them constant findings, good or bad

So, previous sections said, this is what I will usually do: most rooms have something. Not necessarily a combat, and not necessarily a treasure, but something. Maybe just an almost harmless trap, maybe a small token of reward (small amounts of gold or that one potion of healing they were eager for after a tough combat), maybe a jump scare (A SKELETON SHOWS UP AT YOUR FACE. AAAAAAAAAA. Oh, nevermind, it is just a dead, regular skeleton. False alarm.)

Particularly in (modern) D&D, Dungeon Crawling is mostly about combats and treasures, and I know this holds for many other systems. So, if you go dungeon crawling, you are probably expecting a whole bunch of combats, and a whole bunch of rewards. For many people, that is actually the fun part, not the doors you chose until you arrived at Smaug's lair.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree most players will probably wind up opening every obvious door anyway. But still, I think choices add a level of interactivity - I can't imagine dungeon crawling would be as fun if every dungeon was just a hallway of rooms with one leading into the next and no sense of choice or navigation. But perhaps it isn't the choices at all, it could be the additional sense of mystery knowing that there's branches of the dungeon you haven't explored yet? \$\endgroup\$ – Nuclear Wang Jun 25 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang Yeah, I think this illusion of choice helps in increasing the mystery behind it. You give the players two doors that lead to the exact same place and they will think for 5 minutes which one is safer - one may have traps, while the other is safe, maybe? But ultimately it is not about how meaningful the choices are, but how much suspense the choice can create. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, I am not saying take away all choices. But the querent seems to be focusing entirely on "how to make the choices meaningful", and, at least for me and most of the players I have played with, that is like the number 5 priority when dungeon crawling. Give me a straight hallway that leads to an epic dragon fight and rewards me with a legendary weapon and I don't care that it was a straight hallway. (Obviously that's my own liking haha. I tried to give an answer based on experience with many tables and different players) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 20:54
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Choices are interesting when you have some idea of possible outcomes of those choices. If there is no way to deduce consequences from a choice, it's essentially just picking a random outcome, which is not really a meaningful choice at all. Your example of seeing two doors and having to pick one is a great example - if it's really just two identical doors, I have absolutely no preference or reason to pick one over the other. To make the choice meaningful, it's best to give your players some hints about what might happen next.

You enter the room and see two doors. The one on the left is bloodstained, and behind it you hear the faint echoes of bloodcurdling screams. The one on the right has a welcome mat, and the smell of fresh-baked cookies wafts from the rooms beyond. Which do you choose?

If there is no meaningful way to link consequences to actions, player actions feel meaningless, since the world just "happens" to them no matter what they do.

See also: How can I help my players make meaningful choice during dungeon navigation?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You basically paraphrase the problem OP has already described: "You see two doors ahead of you" provides no meaningful choices. What solution do you suggest? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 25 at 18:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor I thought it was clear - provide additional information as means of linking choices to possible outcomes. With just 2 nondescript doors, players will randomly wind up in either Grandma's Cookie Shop or Beezlebub's Torture Chamber with no control whatsoever about which it is. With additional information, the choice becomes meaningful, as players can non-randomly select whether they want cookies or demons. \$\endgroup\$ – Nuclear Wang Jun 25 at 18:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor I think they're suggesting giving some hints as to what should be behind the doors, to give some choice. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruslan Osipov Jun 25 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RuslanOsipov my bad, I thought the two doors example was supposed to show the same problem... even when doors are different you still can't make a choice since you can't assume the consequences \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 25 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor The solution to that is to design environments so that there's a logical connection, or at least a learnable pattern, relating what you see before opening a door to what's on the other side. However, this is hard, and a lot of published dungeon design is frankly not very good at it--the door that smells like cookies is always a cookie mimic or something, which instead teaches the pattern that the signs can't be trusted and nothing is predictable. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jun 25 at 20:18
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Exploration is about theme, mood, and discovery

I, too, struggle with exploration phases of the game sometimes. For me, it's just too easy to forget the separation the role of DM demands:

  • For me, by definition there cannot be any surprises or mystery to a dungeon.
  • For my players, nothing is known about the dungeon and everything that happens is a surprise. The only question is how interesting the surprises are.

I try to focus on using every (or at least most) of the descriptions and features of a dungeon to reinforce the theme and mood I want to express, and use that to focus the discoveries I want my players to make. It's very easy for players to view dungeon crawls as generic mechanical exercises, and those are frequently not too fun or engaging. Don't let them! A few things I try to do in support of that:

  • The dungeon is designed in advance

    I simply get worse results when improvising very much, because the minutia of dungeon crawls tend to be more than I can handle well while doing so. This also helps to keep dungeons cohesive and interesting overall. Whether or not I mean to play out the dungeon crawl on a grid, I find having created a map of the dungeon invaluable.

  • Every room has (or had) a purpose

    Rooms with no details are not very interesting. Sometimes you have a blank hallway, but in general any room that people (or whatever) bothered to build or excavate was meant to be worth that effort. This idea also helps me fill the rooms with content, be it thematic or loot.

  • Every dungeon is a story, which the players' explorations uncover

    Discovering dull things is, itself, often dull. And since not every discovery is going to be amazing loot, something else has to fill the void. I, personally, like to use plot for this. Sifting through the ruins describes the powerful individual or group that once was here, what they did in the dungeon when it was intact, and what led to their demise. Ideally (for how I try to handle dungeon crawls) those details tie back to the overarching campaign plot, but one-offs and side quests are totally fine. They just need to have a story around them that is worth the players' table time.

    To that same end, the narration of the dungeon should reinforce the themes and moods the dungeon's story describes. This is true of any portion of a campaign, but deserves a special shout-out here: dungeon crawls are also stories, just like any other part of a campaign.

  • In my experience, dungeon crawls tend to come in two varieties: explorations and excavations. Decide which you want to be possible (if not both), and plan accordingly

    My players seem to always want to explore every inch of every dungeon, and take anything that isn't nailed down. After that, they move on to trying to take everything that is nailed down. So when I give them a dungeon crawl with no constraints around it, I expect them to systematically explore and try to figure out a way to take everything home with them, or optimize the subset of things they are actually able to take. I think of this as an excavation, and it needs the most dungeon-plot to succeed. The players are really marking time until they find out if they survive, at which point they steal everything. Choices matter a bit less in excavations, because the major question is in which order the players will visit every room. That they will try to do so is never in doubt.

    The alternative is some kind of external constraint that prevents that sort of careful, systematic exploration and looting. A ticking clock on some other challenge, some plot reason why they can't spend much time in the dungeon, or any other plot reason you can think of will do. I think of these as explorations, and I plan them under the assumption that the players may not (or may not be able to!) explore every room or grab every treasure.

    Explorations require extra care to make sure that enough of the dungeon-plot will be revealed by the time they leave for the dungeon to be interesting and feel cohesive. If they'll only realistically be able to get to 6 out of 10 rooms, then the 6 rooms need to be enough to tell the story. If they do manage to get to more rooms, then they get more detail and more loot, but the goal is to make sure they can't miss out on the dungeon-plot. Especially if they won't be returning to the dungeon again.

  • Understand what motivates your players and/or their characters to shape the exploration signposts

    PCs go to dungeons for some purpose. They're looking for an ancient artifact, or they hope to become rich, or they're on a plot MacGuffin hunt. What drives a given adventurer should factor into how their choices are presented to them.

    Choices matter a lot in explorations, but should be signposted both at and immediately before the decision is to be made. Players may not ever get the opportunity to understand what they missed out on in the unexplored areas, and so need some kind of clue at decision time. I like to use enticements and warnings: glittering contents seen through the door of one room might suggest treasure, while unearthly screams coming from another room might suggest danger. And those signals may or may not be deceptive...

    Recurring symbols or patterns are also features I've used to good effect-- it's a puzzle to work out as they explore, and gives them an opportunity to guess at what consequences a given choice might have. Whether they're right or wrong, it's exciting, and they were the authors of their own exploration.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "For me, by definition there cannot be any surprises or mystery to a dungeon." What about random encounter, player choices, and complext interactions between monsters, traps and tricks in the dungeon? \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi Jun 26 at 11:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tommi I'd meant surprises or mystery about the dungeon itself. As DM, all of those elements have at least been prepared by me-- creating (or studying, if using a module) the dungeon and everything that even might be in it means my experience is the opposite of the players' in that way. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jun 26 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another tip I've taught myself: When describing a room, always have (at least!) several objects in it, and describe one unique thing about each object, one unique thing about the floor, one unique thing about each door, and one unique thing about at least one wall. These unique things usually aren't traps or leads of any sort, but it goes a long way toward making the dungeon feel "real and exciting", and also opens up a host of roleplaying opportunities. rpg.stackexchange.com/a/112587/4119 \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Jun 26 at 16:13
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Make the act of exploring part of the challenge.

I once created a maze for my players, but instead of drawing it out as they went, I described it to them and told them to do their own drawing. "Two corridors stretch in opposite directions... You follow this one for 15 feet and come to another corridor on your left..." etc. This heightened the tension and made it feel more like being in an actual maze, because if the draw-er got his directions mixed up, they could wind up well and truly lost. The choices my players made were still essentially meaningless-- they had little indication which choice was the right one at any given time-- but they still talk about the maze as being a highlight of that campaign.

Since you specified "theater of the mind" I assume you already aren't drawing out the dungeon, but you could try making physical layout important in some way. Have your players know or suspect that there's a secret compartment somewhere, but they don't know where it is so they have to try and deduce it from room dimensions. That way, every door they choose is important even if the room it reveals is empty.

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Choices

Offering choices and branching paths is good.

But all the choices are identical

They should not be. If the has some kind of internal logic, that should also offer information the explorers can use. The geometry itself can also offer such clues, since most dungeons obey the typical laws of geometry. (The exceptions are explicit navigational challenges and mind twisters.)

Discovering the internal logic of the dungeon is one of the great joys of exploration.

If some creatures live in the dungeon, the leave tracks and other traces of living there. If it is an ancient building, then its purpose provides clues. If nature has formed it, then it should make sense with respect to that.

Contents

The contents of the dungeon should be

  • interesting in and of themselves
  • relate to the internal logic of the dungeon.

The latter point provides a link between exploring the dungeon and interacting with whatever is in the dungeon.

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