The latest Unearthed Arcana has some fantastic rules for exploration and travel.
Exactly what it says on the tin. This month’s Unearthed Arcana is a fantastic look at an alternate set of rules for exploring locations. Alternate might be misleading–these rules complement the existing travel rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but emphasizing players’ goals rather than just stumbling around from one hex to another.
Even if you don’t really use this kind of thing in your own campaign, this Unearthed Arcana has some excellent guidelines for describing wilderness/areas. So read on to find out how you can design a region that feels like it has an active role in your world.
via Wizards of the Coast
Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen exploration in the Moon Hills of Nentir Vale, but this latest iteration of exploration rules really feels like it’s honed in on a way to capture that feel of trekking out in search of adventure. Because it’s not just about getting to your destination (though that is a huge part of it), it’s about making the place the characters are in feel specific. About giving it a presence in the game world that grounds a region in the character’s reality, offering both narrative and mechanical experiences (or maybe filters) for the characters.
At the core of the rules is the Navigation DC. As you might guess from the name, it’s a DC for the Wisdom (Survival) check needed in order to successfully progress towards the location. The environment might modify the check and certain magics/fantastic terrain might change the DC, or magic items might be needed to make the attempt in the firstop place. Imagine an ancient elven ruin that can only be found by moonlit night, and then only by characters possessing a special rune stone, for instance.
You’ll find how to integrate these rules with the existing travel/exploration rules. Consequences for failure are introduced, characters can get lost and wander into random locations/encounters. But being lost is just a roll on a table, then it’s navigating again from where you are.
“Where are we going?!” “Away from here!” “I love that place!”
It’s simple, straightforward, and discovery-oriented system. Whether characters are heading for a dedicating they know about, or trying to find the lost ruins that are only rumored to exist, this system handles it. It puts the emphasis on the exciting things that players can discover while exploring. It makes that feel like an active choice on the player’s part, and that’s really cool. That keeps them invested.
The other thing these rules do that I absolutely love, is provide a practical guide to describing wilderness and travel. It seems really simple, and I’m sure there are other ways to do this, but traveling and environmental encounters are things I tend to struggle with as a DM. So seeing something like, “hey spend some time generating tactical terrain” and providing an example of what that looks like (which, those random tables are great at) really help up your DMing-on-the-fly game. Random encounters have a little more heft now–I feel like I get what they’re for, which is to highlight the narrative feel of a place. Rather than just fighting orcs or whatever in the woods, these random encounters are there to reinforce the theme with mechanics.
The theme is, “you’re dead.”
I’d never made that connection before, at least not with that lightning/eureka kind of moment. And here’s hoping you get your own moment out of these rules. There’s some great examples here you can use to practice with, so fellow DMs, get out there and get designing. You’ll find the full rules linked below, so check them out.