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As a DM, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on how to build interesting combat and social encounters for parties of any level. However, I often struggle to do the same for the exploration pillar of the same, especially at mid to high levels.

Note that this question is about the exploration pillar as described in the basic rules:

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.

The problem that I'm facing is that most exploration challenges I can think of such as deep chasms, poisonous swamps, lava streams, hidden treasures, et cetera that are suitable for low-level (tier 1) characters, are trivially defeated once the party has access to spells such as levitate, fly, locate object, create food and water, etc. Some of these spells are available at lower levels but there they actually take a significant investment of spell slots, which becomes less of an issue at higher levels.
I do not want to take away these spells from the party, but that means many exploration challenges I put on fail to provide an actual challenge.

I would like to build exploration challenges that are appropriate for characters of mid (tier 2) and high (tier 3 and 4) levels. For combat challenges this is easy to do by using creatures of a higher CR, and likewise for social challenges the party can move from dealing with local lords and hedge mages to dealing with kings and archmages. So my question is: how do I scale up an exploration challenge to higher levels so that they are not trivially defeated?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dregntael Maybe focus on how to avoid the "trivially defeated" part. That seems to be the core problem and it is less opinion based. \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jul 22 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ The environmental challenges you list seem to be limited to single, immediate, mundane locations. Are you trying to stick to that type of down-to-earth milieu? 5e rather strongly suggests that characters in the higher levels will face challenges on a global scale, or even an interplanar scale. If you're trying to avoid expanding the action to such a scope, even after the characters obtain the power that allows them to face such threats, that's going to affect what type of answer is useful for you. \$\endgroup\$ – recognizer Jul 22 at 7:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm definitely not trying to restrict the kind of challenges to the mundane. In fact, exploration challenges on a global or interplanar scale might be exactly what I'm looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Dregntael Jul 22 at 7:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could this question be made sufficiently specific if it asked for GM techniques for scaling exploration encounters at higher levels (similar to how combat encounters scale)? \$\endgroup\$ – Odo Jul 22 at 7:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Odo I am more looking for general principles for building exploration that work at any level. But knowing how to scale up exploration challenges would be interesting as well (though that would perhaps be better as a different question?) \$\endgroup\$ – Dregntael Jul 22 at 7:22
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Don't scale up challenges, add new challenges

A level 20 character eats the same as a level 1. By the time your party is above level 10, they probably won't find carrying rations, looking for water, and making camp to be substantial challenges. But that's ok. Allow your party to skip those things by using their abilities. Instead of trying to scale up challenges, it's time to move on.

High level challenges

A high-level party should face high-level threats.

  • Evading a high-level enemy force hunting for them - a dragon is trying to hunt them.
  • Gaining entry to somewhere that is guarded by magical or powerful guards - traveling through an ancient lich's vault-fortress
  • Navigating geopolitical borders - traveling is easy, but the tyrant-king of the country won't easily allow it
  • Maneuvering to exploit enemy force weaknesses - the question is where to travel to accomplish the party's goals
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Have something else going on

Very simple challenges have simple solutions, such as the fly spell to the chasm. To make challenges more interesting, less trivial, you should add layers, alternatives, or obfuscation. In short: There should not be own clear and simple objective. Some ways that this can be done are detailed in the following.

Competing interests / opportunity costs

Making it so that you cannot have your cake and eat it too makes anything more interesting. Socially, this happens usually because helping one faction steps on another faction's feet, so you need to choose. In exploration you can have something similar by giving multiple objectives which cannot all be met because of time constraints or otherwise (e.g. any objective will make you consume an object that is needed for every one). One example of this is how Batman needs to choose between Rachel and Harvey in The Dark Knight. Obviously, this does not need to be an urban environment. I once ran a game (my own system, not 5e, but this is applicable to 5e) where the party had to chase someone and there were two possible ways. Giving multiple valid ways makes this a lot more interesting, so long as the players have some information about the dangers of each.

Giving agency to the opposition (objectives)

There is no reason you cannot give objectives to the environment, e.g. to the wind over the chasm or the river below. This can swap somewhat into combat or social. But so long as you cannot persuade the wind or deal damage to it, it is still exploration. You can also mix the pillars when you can persuade the wind or you throw in some goblin archers.

Obfuscation (secrets)

Challenges get more interesting if you can't know for sure what will happen. If you present the players with a heavy stone gate and an obscure contraption, you obfuscated things. Nobody knows, if the contraption can be used to open the gate or if it will do something nasty if one tries to blow the gate. The encounter will probably be interesting at first, even if in the end it can be resolved with a single spell. Just because the players don't know that. You could even add an obscure contraption to your chasm. This is how I run traps. I make sure that the players know something is off, but they need to find out what it is and how to circumvent it.

Scaling for level

Opportunity costs work at every level, so long as the tools available at that level don't allow the characters somehow to eat the cake and have it. Obfuscation equally works at every level.

Otherwise you need to choose your challenges with the character's tools in mind. It is nice if the players can use their shiny toys from time to time, such as fly on a simple chasm. But otherwise, you should either make challenges with an added complication or which cannot be one-spelled with the available spells.

Take the toys away from time to time

By adding a complication such as an antimagic field, you can remove the most obvious solution to a problem. You should not do this too often, however, because your players chose the spells and what to use them. Imagine you bought a lawn mower but aren't allowed to use it in front of your house. You can also make it so, that the complication can be removed, adding just another layer to the challenge.

Specific solutions for specific spells

If you know a specific spell that will invalidate your challenge, you can add a countermeasure that will need to be dealt with.

Fly: Make it a small passage with an entangling plant. Now you have to things for your players to think about.

Locate object: This can only find a specific object you have seen before. Or a type of object. Imagine your players are looking for the legendary dagger of xyz. Too bad the users of the ancient temple had a whole collection of daggers lying around everywhere for locate object to detect.

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Go to more difficult/dangerous places, the underdark, pandemonium, the bottom of the ocean, the feywild. Places where those spells are required just to get around. Bottom of the ocean is great becasue even the players' basic assumptions break down: light does not travel far, magic swords are barely usable, everything can move faster than you can, nothing burns, and opening that bag of holding might destroy it.

Put conditions on them. I had high level players crossing a jungle haunted by wendigo (proper mythology not the regular creature), and if they flew above the tree canopy, they were guaranteed to be attacked by things that were incredibly dangerous and could drop out of the open sky, even being out in open was dangerous (percentile). I used giant Roc in a similar way years later for Savannah adventure, making travel by day a really bad idea. It could even be just due to what the party is trying to do. If you are trying to sneak up on a dragon's lair, flying is probably not a good idea, and pass without a trace may be necessary to even make it possible.

Keep in mind the limits of the spell. Locate object requires detailed knowledge AND proximity, fly does not work well in hurricane force winds or underwater, divination can't tell you about anything more than 7 days in the future. My favorite is a player sent to find a lost artifact by their patron deity, she tried divination and asked her deity where it was, to which the deity replied "If I knew that, I wouldn't have asked you to find it."

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