Exploration mode is intentionally less regimented than encounters. As a result, during exploration you’ll be making judgment calls on just about everything that happens.
Fundamentally, exploration is all about rewarding the PCs for learning about their surroundings. To facilitate this, it’s especially important to have and convey a clear mental picture of the group’s surroundings. You’ll be better able to keep track of where the players are and describe the sights, sounds, and other sensations of their adventuring locales. Encourage the players to have their characters truly explore, and reward their curiosity. The things they try to do in exploration mode show you what they’re interested in and what they consider important.
As you play, you’ll get a good feel for the aspects of exploration that intrigue certain players, and you can add more of those things to your adventures or emphasize these points in published adventures.
Stakes: Low to moderate. Exploration mode should be used when there’s some amount of risk, but no immediate danger. The PCs might be in an environment where they’re likely to face monsters or hazards, but they usually stay in exploration mode until they enter a fight or engage in some other direct interaction.
Time Scale: When the PCs are in exploration mode, time in the game world passes much faster than real-world time at the table, so it’s rarely measured out to the second or the minute. You can speed up or slow down how quickly things are happening as needed. If it’s important to know exactly how much time is passing, you can usually estimate time spent in exploration mode to 10-minute increments.
Actions and Reactions: Though exploration isn’t broken into rounds, exploration activities assume the PCs are spending part of their time using actions, such as Seeking or Interacting. If they have specific actions they want to use, they should ask; you can decide whether the actions apply and whether to switch to encounter mode for greater detail. PCs can use any relevant reactions that come up during exploration mode.
In exploration mode, each player who wants to do something beyond just traveling chooses an exploration activity for their character. The most common activities are Avoid Notice, Detect Magic, Hustle, and Search, though there are many options available. While players usually hew close to these default activities, there’s no need for them to memorize the exploration activities and use them exactly. Instead, allow each player to describe what their character is doing. Then, as the GM, you can determine which activity applies. This also means you determine how an activity works if the character’s actions differ from those on the list.
The following sections discuss exploration activities that require adjudication from you.
This activity doesn’t enable characters to automatically find every single magical aura or object during travel.
Hazards that require a minimum proficiency can’t be found with detect magic, nor can illusions of equal or higher level than the spell.
When characters find something magical using this activity, let them know and give them the option to stop and explore further or continue on. Stopping brings you into a more roleplay-heavy scene in which players can search through an area, assess different items, or otherwise try to figure out the source of the magic and what it does. Continuing on might cause the group to miss out on beneficial magic items or trigger a magic trap.
Follow the Expert
A skilled character can help out less skilled allies who choose to Follow the Expert. This is a good way to help a character with a low Stealth modifier sneak around, get a character with poor Athletics up a steep cliff, and so on.
Usually, a character who is Following the Expert can’t perform other exploration activities or follow more than one person at a time.
As with Searching or Detecting Magic, the initial result of Investigating is usually enough to give the investigator a clue that leads into a more thorough examination, but it rarely gives all possible information. For instance, a character might note that the walls of a dungeon are covered with Abyssal writing, but they would need to stop to read the text or determine that it’s written in blood.
With a successful Perception check while Searching, a character notices the presence or absence of something unusual in the area, but it doesn’t provide a comprehensive catalog of everything there. Instead, it gives a jumping-off point for closer inspection or an encounter. For instance, if an area has both a DC 30 secret door and a DC 25 trap, and a Searching character got a 28 on their Perception check, you would tell the player that their character noticed a trap in the area, and you’d give a rough idea of the trap’s location and nature. The party needs to examine the area more to learn specifics about the trap, and someone would need to Search again to get another chance to find the secret door.
If an area contains many objects or something that will take a while to search (such as a cabinet full of papers), Searching would reveal the cabinet, but the PCs would have to examine it more thoroughly to check the papers. This usually requires the party to stop for a complete search.
You roll a secret Perception check for a Searching character to detect any secrets they pass that’s in a place that stands out (such as near a door or a turn in a corridor), but not one that’s in a more inconspicuous place (like a random point in a long hallway) unless they are searching particularly slowly and meticulously.
Setting A Party Order
In exploration mode, it often matters which characters are in the front or back of the party formation. Let the players decide among themselves where in the group their characters are while exploring. This order can determine who gets attacked first when enemies or traps threaten from various directions. It’s up to you to determine the specifics of who gets targeted based on the situation.
When you come out of exploration mode, the group usually remains in the same general formation. Decide the PCs’ exact positions, with their input, if you’re moving to a grid (as usually happens at the start of a combat encounter). If they come out of exploration mode on their own terms, they can move around as they see fit.
For example, if they detect a trap and the rogue starts attempting to disarm it, the other characters can move to whatever locations they think are safe.
Adverse Terrain and Weather
Exploration gets slower when the party faces dense jungles, deep snow, sandstorms, extreme heat, or similar difficult conditions. You decide how much these factors impact the characters’ progress.
Difficult terrain such as thick undergrowth usually slows down progress. Unless it’s important how far the group gets in a particular time frame, this can be covered with a quick description of chopping through the vines or trudging through a bog. If the characters are on a deadline, adjust their progress on Table 9–2: Travel Speed, typically cutting it in half if almost all of the land is difficult terrain or to one-third for greater difficult terrain.
Hazardous terrain, such as the caldera of an active volcano, might physically harm the player characters.
The group might have the option to travel directly through or go around by spending more time. You can transition into a more detailed scene while the characters move through hazardous terrain and attempt to mitigate the damage with spells or skill checks. If they endure hazardous terrain, consider giving the PCs a minor or moderate XP reward at the end of their exploration, with slightly more XP if they took smart precautions to avoid taking damage.
Dangerous crevasses, swampy bogs, quicksand, and similar dangers are environmental hazards.
Exploration can get broken up by traps and other hazards (see Hazards). Simple hazards pose a threat to the PCs only once and can be dealt with in exploration mode. Complex hazards require jumping into encounter mode until the hazard is dealt with. Disabling a trap or overcoming a hazard usually takes place in encounter mode. PCs have a better chance to detect hazards while exploring if they’re using the Search activity (and the Detect Magic activity, in the case of some magic traps).
Transitioning from exploration to an encounter usually involves rolling for initiative. Call for initiative once a trap is triggered, as soon as two opposing groups come into contact, or when a creature on one side decides to take action against the other. For example:
- A group of PCs are exploring a cavern. They enter a narrow passage patrolled by a group of kobold warriors. Now that the two groups are in the same area, it’s time to roll initiative.
- A barbarian PC and a kobold champion agree to have a friendly wrestling match. They square off on a patch of dirt, and you call for initiative using Athletics.
- Two characters are negotiating with the kobold king. Things aren’t going well, so one of them decides to launch a surprise attack. As soon as she says this is her plan, you call for initiative.
- Two characters are trying to Balance across a narrow beam to reach an isolated kobold treasure trove. When they get halfway across, a red dragon who was hiding behind the mountain flies around to attack! As soon as the dragon makes its appearance, you call for an initiative roll.
Initiative after Reactions
In some cases, a trap or a foe has a reaction that tells you to roll initiative. For instance, a complex trap that’s triggered might make an attack with its reaction before the initiative order begins. In these cases, resolve all the results of the reaction before calling for initiative rolls.
Choosing the Type of Roll
When choosing what type of roll to use for initiative, lean toward the most obvious choice. The most common roll is Perception; this is what the kobolds would use in the first example, as would K-NAME and the kobold king in the third example. The next most common skills to use are Stealth (for sneaking up, like the dragon in the last example) and Deception (for tricking opponents, like M-NAME in the third example). For social contests, it’s common to use Deception, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Performance, or Society.
If you’re unsure what roll to call for, use Perception.
If a different type of roll could make sense for a character, you should usually offer the choice of that roll or Perception and let the player decide. Don’t do this if it’s absolutely clear another kind of check matters more sense than Perception, such as when the character is sneaking up on enemies and should definitely use Stealth.
You can allow a player to make a case that they should use a different skill than Perception, but only if they base it on something they’ve established beforehand. For example, if in the prelude to the attack, M-NAME’s player had said, “I’m going to dangle down off the chandelier to get the drop on them,” you could let them use Acrobatics for their initiative roll. If they just said, “Hey, I want to attack these guys. Can I use Acrobatics?” without having established a reason beforehand, you probably shouldn’t allow it.
When calling for initiative for a combat encounter, you’ll need to decide where the participants in the encounter go on the battle map. Use the party’s order as a base. You can move forward characters who are using Stealth to get into position, putting them in a place they could reasonably have moved up to before having a chance to be detected. Consult with each player to make sure their position makes sense to both of you.
Characters require 8 hours of sleep each day. Though resting typically happens at night, a group gains the same benefits for resting during the day. Either way, they can gain the benefits of resting only once every 24 hours. A character who rests for 8 hours recovers in the following ways:
- The character regains Hit Points equal to their Constitution modifier (minimum 1) multiplied by their level. If they rest without any shelter or comfort, you might reduce this Healing by half (to a minimum of 1 HP).
- The character loses the fatigued condition.
- The character reduces the severity of the doomed and drained conditions by 1.
- Most spellcasters need to rest before they regain their spells for the day.
A group in exploration mode can attempt to rest, but they aren’t entirely safe from danger, and their rest might be interrupted. The 8 hours of rest do not need to be consecutive, however, and after an interruption, characters can go back to sleep.
Sleeping in armor results in poor rest and causes a character to wake up fatigued. If a character would have recovered from fatigue, sleeping in armor prevents it.
If a character goes more than 16 hours without going to sleep, they become fatigued.
Taking long-term rest for faster recovery is part of downtime and can’t be done during exploration.
The following exploration activities are fully detailed. Many more appear within Skills.
- Avoid Notice
- Detect Magic
- Follow the Expert
- Repeat a Spell
Improvising New Activities
If a player wants to do something not covered by other rules, here are some guidelines. If the activity is similar to an action someone could use in an encounter, such as Avoid Notice, it usually consists of a single action repeated roughly 10 times per minute (such as using the Sneak action 10 times) or an alternation of actions that works out similarly (such as Search, which alternates Stride and Seek). An activity using a quicker pace, corresponding to roughly 20 actions per minute, might have limited use or cause fatigue, as would one requiring intense concentration.
You might find that a player wants to do something equivalent to spending 3 actions every 6 seconds, just like they would in combat. Characters can exert themselves to this extent in combat only because combat lasts such a short time—such exertion isn’t sustainable over the longer time frame of exploration.
Watches and Surprise Attacks
Adventuring parties usually put a few people on guard to watch out for danger while the others rest. Spending time on watch also interrupts sleep, so a night’s schedule needs to account for everyone’s time on guard duty. Table 10–3: Watches and Rest on the next page indicates how long the group needs to set aside for rest, assuming everyone gets a rotating watch assignment of equal length.
If a surprise encounter would occur during rest, you can roll a die to randomly determine which character is on watch at the time. All characters roll initiative; sleeping characters typically roll Perception with a –4 status penalty for being unconscious. They don’t automatically wake up when rolling initiative, but they might roll a Perception check to wake up at the start of their turn due to noise. If a savvy enemy waits for a particularly vulnerable character to take watch before attacking, the attack can happen on that character’s watch automatically. However, you might have the ambusher attempt a Stealth check against the Perception DCs of all characters to see if anyone noticed its approach.
Table 10–3: Watches and Rest
||Duration of Each Watch
||10 hours, 40 minutes
||2 hours, 40 minutes
||9 hours, 36 minutes
||1 hour, 36 minutes
Just before setting out to explore, or after a night’s rest, the PCs spend time to prepare for the adventuring day.
This typically happens over the span of 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, but only after 8 full hours of rest.
Daily preparations include the following.
- Spellcasters who prepare spells choose which spells they’ll have available that day.
- Focus Points and other abilities that reset during daily preparations refresh. This includes abilities that can be used only a certain number of times per day.
- Each character equips their gear. This includes donning their armor and strapping on their weapons.
- Characters invest up to 10 worn magic items to gain their benefits for the day.
Starvation and Thirst
Typically characters eat and drink enough to survive comfortably. When they can’t, they’re fatigued until they do. After 1 day + a creature’s Constitution modifier without water, it takes 1d4 damage each hour that can’t be healed until it quenches its thirst. After the same amount of time without food, it takes 1 damage each day that can’t be healed until it sates its hunger.