Exploring Effects of Exploration

Expanding upon a comment I posted in reply to hdp on my post about modes of play!

The original thing I said:

… I think we would benefit from thinking less about strict/specific mechanics and more about broader principles that can be applied between activities. How much time does something take? What will it cost? What does it risk? Thinking more generally about the impact of character decisions and activities, as opposed to modeling and simulating specific activities (or fitting a variety of activities into the same mold). That’s just my opinion, though!

What they asked:

How broad are you thinking? Fate-style “everything is one of create advantage/overcome/attack/defend” or more specific? I’m thinking of the way Stonetop has Expedition and Homefront moves, but looking again those all end up with different mechanics so maybe that’s not what you mean.

I think those options are all from the standpoint of character actions, but I was referring to the costs/risks/benefits of activities or situations. One point of reference is the hazard die which consolidates many effects of exploration (whether dungeons or hexes), so we can do the opposite of what it does and look at each effect separately.

This isn't a super well-organized post, as much as it's basically like notes towards figuring something out. This is just a blog, after all.

Exploration Procedures as Automata

If I say that an exploration procedure is composed of rules, you would probably say “No shit!” And, yeah, no shit. But we can treat these rules as being grammatical in nature, so that we can pull apart the procedure and see all the little things taking place.

Our classic D&D underworld exploration rules are:

  • Wandering Monsters: Every 1 turn, roll d6: (1) monster; (5-6) nothing.
  • Light Sources: Deplete each turn; e.g., a torch lasts 6 turns.
  • Fatigue: Every 6 turns, party must rest or become fatigued.

Our singular hazard die exploration rule is:

  • Hazard Die: Every 1 turn, roll d6: (1) random encounter; (2) encounter clue; (3) party fatigue; (4) torch depletion; (5) locality; (6) nothing.

You can imagine the game like an automation which checks (or triggers) each subroutine once per turn. The hazard die system technically only has one condition being checked—the hazard die itself—but the subroutine encompassed by that check is more complex than the individual rules of the classic D&D exploration procedure. Either way, both systems have a grammar made of conditions and events.

  • Frequency: The rate at which conditions are checked or events occur.
  • Dice Roll: Produces a random number which may or may not trigger a condition.
  • Event: Something which occurs when a condition is met.
  • Resource Depletion: A type of event where a resource quantity is diminished.

Here’s a graph of the classic D&D exploration procedure, at least with regards to events. We can see that there are really three subroutines handled disparately/separately during the procedure’s execution. One subroutine occurs randomly, another recurs each turn, and the last one occurs periodically every 6 turns.

And here’s a graph of the hazard die. There are sort of six subroutines, but only one of them (selected at random) occurs each iteration.

Factors of Exploration Procedures

Exploration activities, as considered above, typically involve the following four factors:

  • Time Management: How long will an activity take?
  • Random Risk: Does the current activity risk an event, like an encounter?
  • Resource Depletion: Does the current activity cost something?
  • Clock Countdown: Is there something that will occur given enough time?

We can redefine the classic D&D exploration procedures along these factors.

Exploration Principle Underworld Wilderness
Time Management 1 turn represents 10 minutes. 1 turn represents 1 day.
Random Risk Wandering monsters. Encounters & getting lost.
Resource Depletion Consume light sources. Consume rations.
Clock Countdown Rest once every 6 turns. Rest once every 7 turns.

I’ve discussed before the difference between how classic D&D handles these factors, versus how the hazard or event die handles them (1) (2) (3). The former usually requires the referee to track events on (separate) clocks each turn, whereas the hazard die abstracts the bookkeeping of these events into random occurrences that statistically approximate the frequency of the original non-random events. Let’s compare the two with respect to underworld exploration.

Underworld Event Classic D&D Hazard Die
Wandering Monster Random 1-in-6 check. Random event on d6.
Light Sources Deplete every turn. Random event on d6.
Fatigue Rest once every 6 turns. Random event on d6.
Other Events Ad hoc. Random event on d6.

Exploration, à la Carte

We’ve looked at two different ways of characterizing two exploration procedures, in both instances reducing them to their constituent rules in order to see how they tick. Then we found that these procedures are based on events which are triggered either randomly or deterministically, sometimes mutually exclusive or sometimes not. Each event structure produces urgency in the mind of the players, but in different ways. Checking for random encounters introduces risk every turn that the characters spend in the location. Resource depletion (at least, when non-random) means that every turn has a cost. Fatigue differs in its implementations, but either it forces players to choose between risk and debility, or it forces them to periodically waste a turn—imposing risk and cost without benefit.

This all is nothing we don’t already know, but it leads to the point I was wanting to make originally. The hazard die, by defining random events for a certain activity, imposes a strict scheme on that activity. It’s useful to consolidate all the events we expect to happen, but it relies upon those events being consistently applicable between different instances of an activity (or even between different activities if one uses a universal hazard die). The classic disparate method gives us more wiggle room to deviate from or expand upon the exploration rules, but we only receive wholesale activities.

Instead, taking those procedures as examples, we can extrapolate basic techniques which we can employ as we see fit. I’ve already shown you the bits and bobs to do exactly that! Forecast risks which characters take by being someplace, and check them periodically. Declare that a resource is necessary to proceed—e.g., you need light to see, or you need to bring food on your travels—and deplete that resource recurrently. Set a “timer” or clock with consequences when it goes off. Make the passage of time matter. Internalize the four factors.

You can do all that without anticipating and then designing a specific mode of play, if you are well-practiced in the potential side-effects of a situation and the circumstances that (may) produce them. The exploration procedures of old serve as a great model or example but they don’t have to be imposed wholesale; we can just take what we need, piecewise, instead, and mold the formal rules of a play session to its fictional context.

Example 1

One of my favorite games that I've ever played was You Awaken in a Strange Place, by Jacob Andrews of the Drawfee channel. It's a game where players make up their character's various stats (PbtA-style), and then work with the game master to ad-lib a story. My partner ran it for a couple mutual friends and myself, which was really fun because she (out of everyone I've played with) is the best ad-libber. This was true on one hand for the story we were pulling out of our asses, but also for the rules of the game that we basically built on the fly as we needed them.

The most obvious example I remember was that we were searching a big office building for evidence of a conspiracy against electoral rights for dogs (or something like that). She imposed a particular condition: that we had a handful of turns (six, maybe?) before the building would explode to hide that evidence. It's a really simple imposition, but one that drastically changed how we interacted with our environments as we had to pick between multiple points of interest; more importantly, it was an improvised condition rather than one pulled from a rulebook for a specific situation/context.

Example 2

hdp left a really cool example in their aforementioned comment, about learning a new spell via research. Each attempt at a 2-in-6 success rate (1) takes 1 week, (2) costs food and shelter and maybe materials for the time being, and (3) risks a magical disaster such as accidentally summoning a demon. You could imagine this would find itself at home in a fantasy adventure game rulebook, with how in-depth it is! But hdp improvised it on the spot, employing techniques with which referees are experienced. This is just to say that with enough practice, one can improvise situations very well, and that it would be nice if we encouraged more of this improvisational thinking as opposed to the authoritative kind we get in books.


  1. "with enough practice, one can improvise situations very well, and that it would be nice if we encouraged more of this improvisational thinking": I certainly agree. A balance of supporting structure and creative freedom is needed, and I think the it varies according to how much practice person has had in improvising the kinds of situations (and mechanics) involved. For example, without experience with combat in whichever edition of D&D you happen to be using, it is difficult to anticipate the overall cost, risk or likely duration involved if the PCs elect to fight a given set of monsters.

    As an aside, early D&D combat also fits your general "exploration" framework quite well. The analogy is more obvious if you impose some kind of explicit countdown - e.g. progress of a "dread ritual" - or introduce a randomly triggered event - e.g. nearby monsters hear the fight. But for low level characters, the danger from every extra round of enemy attacks builds in a lot of time pressure, without needing those elements.

    The problem here tends to be that once the two sides are locked in combat, characters tend to have few (standard) options but attacking, and hoping to knock out some of the opposition. So there's pressure, but little real choice.

    I am now wondering whether we can learn something from the exploration game discussion to help address that particular issue.

    1. totally agree on all counts! :D that is a really interesting point about combat in early d&d. it brings to mind some discussions my friends are having about abstracting combat into one-roll-per-round, since the risk that each round presents is appealing but it involves more work than if that were leaned into by itself.

      thank you for your thoughts + sorry for my delayed response! have been driving back and forth for a while haha :)

    2. If you're not careful, you will invent Tunnels & Trolls...

  2. I'm excited to see your continued thoughts on this topic! I just sent the previous post to a friend because it's been stuck in my head.

    One avenue I've been pondering is coming up with guidelines for modelling event (risk or success) chances. For example:

    * Sometimes the likelihood of an event depends on some fixed quality per time period. Your chance of foraging successfully *here* isn't really affected by how well you foraged *there*, so maybe you say "roll a d4, d6, or d8 depending on how plentiful food is to forage, 4+ is success". Or you're trying to evade patrols that aren't actively looking for you, cutting you off, etc. so you roll a different number of dice based on how alert the region is. Your in-game actions could affect that alertness level (ambushing the supply caravan permanently adds a die, etc.) but you don't add more dice just because you spent more time there -- the fact that you're more likely to get caught as time goes on is reflected in the fact that you have to keep rolling.

    * In other circumstances the affect of cumulative attempts does increase the probability of success. A full-scale manhunt of a city might be able to slowly close a perimeter around the villain's suspected location, or learning a new technique might practically have a bounded amount of time you think it should take. Each time you try, you rule out some ways to fail, basically, so you step up the die, or add another one, or whatever. Even if the condition is something difficult like "roll triples", you'll eventually have enough dice to have pretty good odds at success!

    Intuitively I feel like there should be other options than "fixed chance" and "increasing chance", but maybe not?

    1. Decreasing chance seems like a candidate. For example, when searching for a person lost in the wilderness, the chances-per-unit-time of finding them might be expected to decrease over time. There might or might not be a point beyond which it hits zero. Diminishing returns is a related case. If you are trying to catch fish from a pond, but there's a finite stock of fish, your chance-per-unit-time decreases every time you catch one of the remaining fish (but not necessarily every time you go fishing - in fact, if you gradually become more skilled at fishing, your chance per day might slowly go up).

      There's also a case of increasing chance without a definite moment in time when the chance per unit time hits 100%. For example, with strong wind events in a gradually warming global climate.

      There's a general modelling distinction between events that can recur without limit (e.g. bad weather) and those that can only occur a relevantly finite number of times (e.g. catching the three fish in the pond).

    2. hi hdp, that is a really good point! :) there's a lot of tools at our disposal to model situations however we want, to good effect. the trick is figuring out what tools there are and how their usefulness can be described.

      agree w kenco that decreasing chance seems like it fits there! though i think one can speak more generally about constant versus variable chance, where in the latter case then we can talk about how chance can vary according to different factors.

    3. "what tools there are and *how their usefulness can be described*" (emphasis mine)

      I think this bit is critical. To me the promise of this line of thought is that the GM can reason from their understanding of real-world processes and the events in the fiction to the procedure they want to use, which means the different possible mechanics have to be made legible to them; and not just what they're well-suited to in isolation but how it could make sense to combine them.

      kenco, I imagine something like the number of dice decreasing as you catch fish, but the size of the die stepping up as your fishing skill increases, which makes me want to play whatever game this is!

    4. Ponds & Piranhas. :)

      Cute mechanic, btw.

    5. i love ponds & piranhas!! also need that fishing minigame so bad


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