I'm currently running a game where the players are exploring a large ruined city (It happens to be Rathess in Exalted, but the question is more general than that), and I'm looking for techniques to handle a large scale search of the city.

Right now I've given the players a few options:

  1. Go visit major landmarks that are clearly visible from an aerial survey
  2. Explore the ruins on foot looking for interesting sites

In the case of #1 it quickly turns into them visiting a specific locale and that works well. In the case of #2 I have them make some investigation rolls, lapse ahead some time, and then pull encounters from a pre-made list.

This appears to flow alright in the game itself, but I feel like I've abstracted away the sense of exploration.

What techniques do you use for handling the exploration of large areas in your games?


4 Answers 4


With a lot of scenarios like this -- where I have a bunch of ideas of end goals that will be boring if found directly -- I like to work backwards. Here's what I mean:

First, make a list of possible destinations: abandoned statue park, collapsed arena, well-preserved forge, still-inhabited hovel. Decide how interesting you think each one will be, think up what can happen there, think about which players will have fun there, how it will tie in to the overall setting and theme and plot, and so on.

If there are things only likely to be of minor interest -- worth ten minutes of the party's time for flavor or to find a minor item -- they go in the "places you can just find" list. These places can be found, looked at, and then left. They're very minor encounters.

More interesting locations get a build-up. The forge is of particular interest to two of your characters -- the dwarf and the artificer -- so you know that you can get lots of mileage out of it. You want to build a trail of breadcrumbs leading there. What can that trail look like? Maybe the forge's final location had just opened. The previous one still has an etched-metal sign in front that says "Smithy now at the south branching of the Elbe." How do they find that sign? Maybe it was well-known and a signpost somewhere else still points to it. Maybe the old address is in a ledger book found in another location.

Make the trail as long as you think will be interesting. As you develop more and more incidental locations, you can make them intersect and branch. The hovel's door is an large ancient shield, and its rear has a trademark on it. That trademark appears elsewhere on a signpost to the old building. At the new building, there are signs of recent looting, with a path leading back to the hovel.

Multiply that by as many times as you think will be fun.

You can make a concept "map" (rather than a geographical one) by making a circle for each location with a "clue arrow" pointing to other places.

This turns the exploration into a story. The only dice you might want to roll are for picking where they randomly wander to, or to find particularly obscure clues. I can't advise enough against having to roll for the obvious clues. That makes exploration into a boring series of trying to find the next clue, instead of an exciting exploration of a rich environment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for not rolling to find clues! I would modify your statement a little: If it's necessary for the plot to proceed, the PCs will find the clue. Obvious or not. Let the rolls determine who finds it, sometimes. Or how long it takes. Or roll not to find the clue, but to puzzle out what the clue means. If there are clues that can be missed, make sure finding them confers some sort of advantage - even if it's only forewarning of danger! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    May 4, 2011 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the idea of having the very interesting locales have that kind of lead up- that way when the PCs do get to it they know they've found something major. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rain
    May 4, 2011 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given the number of mentions people have made about "aerial view" and "geographical map" it seems worth noting that you could easily turn the concept map (mentioned in my answer) into a hybrid of geography and concept. Then the party can pick starting points (we go to the "visible from space parking garage") and you can know where they might end up when they say "we wander around the neighborhood." \$\endgroup\$
    – rjbs
    May 4, 2011 at 20:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this concept of starting backwards with the destinations, and thinking about character interest and clues based on that. I will try this out in my games. \$\endgroup\$
    – RMorrisey
    May 5, 2011 at 0:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ While looking for another article by the Alexandrian today, I stumbled across his articles about node-based design, which are very similar to what I wrote above, and well, well worth reading. \$\endgroup\$
    – rjbs
    May 17, 2011 at 3:17

I think this is a great opportunity for you to rediscover one of the original joys of RPGs - mapping! It was on a smaller scale, but I recently had some experience with this that I think might be relevant for you.

My players were going after some bad guys who had holed up in a warehouse. I had a whiteboard behind me that started blank. They did some recon - driving around. After a roll or two, I drew what they could see of the warehouse from the outside on the whiteboard, including:

  • exterior lights they could spot
  • the positions of important vehicles in the parking lots
  • where the fences and gates were, etc..

As they made their way inside, I filled in details as the players explored them. Some things I had planned, some things I made up on the fly, some things came from the PC's declarations ( allows players to do that) .

They enjoyed filling in the map, and I enjoyed revealing the setting slowly and seamlessly blending what they created with what I knew ahead of time.

Now, this was one setting, much smaller than yours. What I would do for a much larger amount of territory is not a huge map - I'd make a metamap - an abstract representation of the city with ovals or something to represent areas, with lines between them showing what neighborhoods are between each other, etc.. Then each smaller portion I would make a real map of, filling in what the PCs already knew and then adding details during the game as they are discovered.

I think the sense of discovery, of exploration, was really enhanced by seeing the map evolve as we played!

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ April's RPG Blog Carnival used maps and mapping as its theme, and while there are few instructional guides for making different types of map, there are a lot of inspirational maps to spark ideas about how to represent space and use it to expand or enhance play: Mapping Instruction, April's Host. It may be worth digging around the list of entries. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2011 at 2:25

Re: #2 one technique I've started using in order to abstract a long, complicated task, like searching a ruined city, but still give the players consequences and rewards for failure or success is to use skill/attribute/whatever rolls, but change the stakes for failure.

For example, if they are searching a ruined city for a specific building, have them roll on appropriate skills: orienteering, climbing, balance, history. They find the building in question, but a failed roll indicates a complication. For example:

Failed orienteering: they find the building but are lost themselves--getting back will be a problem. Failed climbing: an exterior stair breaks apart while the party is traversing a ruin. Failed balance: someone slips off a roof or into an open pit. Failed history: they find the building but cannot figure out how to reach it (its across a chasm, protruding from a maze of alleys, crawling with enemies, etc.

That way the exploration is still interesting--if they fail, they have problems. And more engaging than a lucky choice of direction--a skillful party will find what they're looking for quicker and more easily than a bunch of schlubs.

If the party has a map, give them a bonus to their rolls where applicable. Ditto for other intelligence about the state of the ruins, the frequency of pits, and similar obstacles. You could even allow them to do a scouting mission in order to get bonuses to later rolls.


I was running an Atlantis game where they could see the exterior of the city. I gave them a map of what they could see; general outline of the city, and smaller outposts.

And then as they were exploring, they used that map as a general "we're in this area." The map gave them something to focus on when they moved from area to area.

I did a "you travel another four hours and then you see..." technique to move the game along, but I also tried to describe a general flow of what they were seeing as they moved from one area to another. Stuff like, "this area is more cramped than previous areas, with small rooms branching out from the hallways, mostly empty."


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