Since becoming a DM I have run far more home brewed campaign settings than published modules. Over the last few months however, I have been both playing and running a published module for 5e. I have enjoyed DMing these modules for the challenges and struggles of prepping and running someone else’s material. That said, I noticed these pre-written modules have exposed some of my DMing flaws and have challenged me to find new ways to run my game. The following scenario caused me to dive in a bit deeper to come up with a solution to a problem I experienced many times as both a player and as a DM.
Recently, I was running a session that took place inside a castle. The book gave me a map so I drew it out.
Happy with my maps, I showed up to the session well prepared and excited. Surprisingly, this ended up being one of the slowest, least fun and least engaging sessions I had ever run. I had to figure out what went wrong.
The idea behind this session was that he party was infiltrating a cultist controlled castle while pretending to be cultists themselves. With the help of a guide, they infiltrated the castle and began looking around, relying partly on stealth and mostly on their deception.
The session consisted of the party sneaking down an empty hallway, checking a door for traps and locks, listening at the door, posting a lookout, moving their minis one by one into position, opening the door, and searching the entire room only to find it was empty.
Despite being adept at handling these actions quickly and with minimal dice rolls, the majority of that session was spent exploring boring space and standing outside of doors that had nothing in them anyways.
One week after running one of my worst sessions, I ran a home brewed one-shot at PAX. This turned out to be the most fun session of D&D I’d ever run.
The difference? The game at PAX took place inside of a mile wide cavern. This incidental fact led me to solve several problems that related to DMing exploration and this article will give you a few tools to help you manage it.
Before I explain how a mile wide setting helped me solve my bad session, I need to define and explain a few things.
I am going to us the word “encounter”. An encounter is any series of decisions that are related to each other in a clear way. Combat is an encounter, questioning a guard is an encounter, shopping and haggling can be an encounter, and navigating the woods can be an encounter. The reason I define this is because many people confuse encounter and combat. If you make that assumption then the only thing you will get out of this article is that you should add a ton more combats to your game… which is not at all what I’m saying.
I also want to point out that the title of this article, “Expediting Exploration”, is not suggesting that you remove all exploration from your game. The reason for the article’s title is that I have noticed that all of the issues discussed in this article show up most frequently while the party is traveling from one area to another: from dungeon room to dungeon room, walking around town, on their way to take down the big bad guy, or on a fifty mile trek through the underdark. Many of the least exciting sessions I have ever played in, run, or watched, occurred due to the problems with handling the parties exploration time. Mishandling travel can turn a 100 foot empty hallway into a dreary thirty minute skill-check-o-thon. This article will give you the tools to recognize when this is happening and show you how to fix it.
When I sat down to comapir what was happening in my exciting cave, and the boring castle session, I came up with three major differences between the two:
This is a huge topic that I am writing an entire article on, but for now, the simple version. We can zoom into the game, getting every detail correct, rolling for every action, and applying complex tactics. We can also scale down and zoom out, trading detail for speed and narrative. Combat is an example of zooming all the way in, where 10-15 minutes of real time represents just a few seconds of in game time.
For this article we wont get too in depth on scale of play, instead, we will just recognize the fact that when we map things out or add in more details, the game tends to zoom in and slow down. When we do the opposite, and use theater of the mind and narration, the game tends to zoom out and move more quickly. Recognizing when to zoom in and out and how to change from one to the other is one of the most important tools a DM has for running an exciting game.
The false encounter occurs when the DM sets the players up to think there is an encounter when there isn’t. It is usually caused by two things: zooming in quickly, or the DM waiting for the players to narrate themselves forward. Here is an example showing both.
DM: After traveling ten miles through the woods at a quick pace you come across a clearing with a beautiful lake and a cliff on one side. Carved into the cliff is a ruined statue that you recognize as Lord Zeeth, probably carved here several hundred years before the empire fell.
DM: (Pulls out a sketch of the area and a drawing of the statue to show them a picture)
DM: (Long pause, waiting for the players to tell him what they do)
Players:(thinking that the DM has stopped them here for an encounter like an ambush.)
Player 1: Umm, what time is it.
Player 2: Do we see or hear anything around us?
Player 3: I want to cast a warding spell to keep us safe in case of an ambush.
Player 4: Where is the nearest tree, I want to climb it.
In this situation the DM wanted to add a piece of lore to the parties exploration through the forest, which is wonderful. But when the DM narrated over ten miles of travel in five seconds and then suddenly zoomed in with a map and all these details, the players are thinking he is setting them up for an ambush. The game then slows down and zooms in even farther as the players take specific actions and draw attention to combat like details. This can slow the game down for ten or twenty minutes… and then nothing happens.
Keep in mind that this article is focusing on how to prevent and manage boredom and slowness in your game. If the PCs decide to have an exciting interaction, that’s great! Don’t ruin it by forcing them along. But all too often these situations drag on for far too long and no one is having any fun as they wait for the DM to move the game along.
The solution to this problem is to be aware of when you set up an encounter like situation, especially when you zoom in or use a map. When you do zoom into a situation where there is no encounter to be had, like in the example above, you can get out of it quickly by not waiting for your players to tell you that they continue doing what they have been doing for the last ten miles. If the party traveled ten miles and you stopped them to show them something, it is okay for you to assume that they continue on their travels after they have seen it.
In the example above, instead of waiting for his players to tell him they continue on, the DM could say, “Unless there is something else you want to do here, you continue on your way.”
If the PCs do stop, either to instigate or to rest, and the game begins to stall out with tedious actions, you can get out of this situation by zooming back out and narrating time forward:
DM: “You spend an hour fortifying your position, searching the area, and investigating the statue and cliff face. Besides the source of fresh water and the ruined statue, this place seems like any other section of the woods you have been traveling through. Once you take your short rest, you pack your things and are on your way again.”
This is one of the most frustrating things to watch as a player because the problem lies fully with the DM trying to collect information. This problem can petrify a game over and over for short periods of time that can really add up. Luckily, it has a simple solution.
The perceived decision happens when the DM waits for players to take action or give specifics in the following situations:
All three of these happen when the DM is fishing for specifics. Here is an interaction that includes all three.
DM: As the rogue grabs the treasure off the pedestal, a giant bolder falls from the ceiling and begins to roll after you… what do you do?
DM: You turn and begin running down the 500 foot, downward sloping hallway. Make an athletics check.
DM: Okay you keep running down the hall gaining distance from the bolder. You’ve made it 100 feet. Now what do you do?
Rogue: Umm, keep running
DM: ok you made it 200 feet.
(at this point what the rogue is doing what is working. But since the DM keeps asking him what he wants to do, he starts to think there is something else he should be doing.)
Rogue: umm.. I’ll look around for escapes. I’ll see if I can fit between the ball and the wall or in a gap. Ill check if the ball is real or an illusion. (This takes 4 minutes of perception checks and investigating before he realizes he has to keep doing what he is already doing.)
DM: 300 ft
Rogue: keep running
DM: 400 ft
Rogue: keep running
DM: 500 feet! you finally come to a side path you can duck into to get out of the way.
Rogue: I dive in.
DM: the ball rolls right past you, barely missing your feet. You stand up and brush the dust off and see a long hallway ahead.
Rogue: I pull out my torch and start walking down the hall.
DM: you travel 100 feet before the path turns to the left.
Rogue: …….. (there is only one option. Waiting for the DM to tell him more)
DM: (waiting for the rogue to tell him that he moves around the corner)
Rogue: (assumes there is a trap since the DM is stopping)
Rogue: I check the corner for traps.
(que 5 minutes of trap checking shenanigans when there is no trap)
DM: you continue 50 feet then the path turns to the right…
Rogue:…. ill go right.
DM: 50 feet farther it comes to a set of stairs that lead down..
Rogue:…. I’ll check them for traps.
DM: no traps,
Rogue: ok I go down the stairs.
DM: You see light ahead.
Rogue: Yay light! I’m home free!
DM: The exit is 60 feet ahead of you.
Rogue: cool, I leave.
(the DM put a secret door in the wall and knows that if he just lets the player walk out, there is no chance of him finding it. So he fishes for details trying to find out how the player walks along the wall, because if he puts his hand on it he could find it)
DM: ok you go ten feet and see mossy stones now from the water and light that pours in here.
Rogue: (just wanting the heck out and thinking this is his only option) OK I make a mad dash for the exit.
DM: ok you go another ten feet and the moss gets kind of slippery.
Rogue: OK I carefully make a mad dash for the exit.
(5 minutes later the rogue gets out of the hallway.)
Ugh,! that was hard to type and harder to read, but it is a real situation that is even harder to sit through! A situation like that can end up wasting ten or fifteen minutes of time because the DM was asking bad questions and searching for information incorrectly. As the rogue ran from the ball trap, the DM continued to ask if he wanted to keep doing what he was doing. This made the player think there was a clue he was missing and slowed down the process of running down the hall by several minutes. Then the DM pretended the player had a choice, by waiting for the player to tell him what he does at a one way turn. This often comes up due to poor trap design (see my article Problems with traps) when the DM wants to give them the opportunity to see it by basically going “are you sure you want to make that left turn? are you sure?” And then the game was slowed down farther by the DM doing the same process with a secret door. Knowing that the player was excited to get out, but wanting him to have the chance to find the door, the DM doesn’t allow time to move forward even though the player clearly wants to just fast forward that 60 feet and get out of here in a mad dash sprint.
Once again I must say that there are times when these little mistakes, searching around when nothing is there, and the DM helping his players along by asking “are you sure?” can be fun. But when you end a four hour session, and you realize that over an hour of it was spent on this one tiny part… you might consider using the following tools to speed things along.
When there is only one option, narrate them through it. you just narrate them walking down the 200 foot long tunnel and make them turn the corner too. (unless something will change, like if they hear a monster around the corner and have a chance to stop). If you are worried about doing this because you don’t want to walk them into a trap or something, then use passive perception or better yet, Read (Designing quality traps).
When a PC is already doing the best thing or the thing they are doing is working, there is very little chance of them changing tactics unless something changes. In the example of outrunning the ball…. just assume they keep outrunning it until something changes or the player stops you.
DMs sometimes fish for information from their PCs. How they walk down a path determines if they find the trap. How they search a room determines if they find the secret door. It isn’t bad to gather this information, but often DMs try to gather the information discreetly so they don’t give anything away. If the DM says, “how do you walk down this hallway?” you can bet that every player’s answer is, “slowly, on my hands and knees checking every tile with a ten foot pole.” To avoid this DMs will not directly ask for details but will instead give players more and more opportunities to change their tactics by not advancing the game forward. The way around this is to design traps, encounters, and ambushes that either don’t rely on the players stating something specific, or for you to be okay with them walking right past/into it.
This happens when a DM gives his players a choice to make, but when there is no background or clues to make any kind of informed decision. This can often be drawn out of a long time because the players and the DM know that this is an important decision and will have an impact…. but without the information, it’s just a coin flip. Here’s an example:
DM: The pathway splits into two, one leading left and one leading right.
Player 1: lets go left
Player 2: we should go right
(ten minutes later after the least exciting argument ever)
Players: okay, we will go right.
Duel non-decisions create the worst case of decision paralysis in the game. Players making decisions based on two identical paths is 100% luck and is not important. Except that the DM put an angry ancient red dragon on the right path and a treasure room on the left path… so it is important. TPK or treasure hoard!
There are a few solutions to this problem. To prevent the least logical and most boring argument ever, all you have to do is give a little bit of information surrounding the decision. If the right hallway is slightly blackened and they could tell it was ash or suit with a skill check, at least that gives them a choice. Compare the previous example with an actual example from my mile wide dungeon I used at PAX:
DM: You come to a path way that splits in two. One curves up to the left and the hallway is covered in blacked jagged scratch marks similar to the ones you saw earlier. The other path curves down and to the right. From it wafts up the strong smell of seaweed and salt water.
Player 1: I’m scared of whatever is making those scorch marks. It killed a pretty strong creature, lets go right.
Player 2: I think we pissed off the merfolk enough last time and the right path will probably take us to more of them. I vote left.
(ten minutes later…)
Players: We go right
In both this and the previous example the players deliberated about which way they would go, but the second example was significantly more fun because the players could justify their decisions and opinions instead of arguing about luck.
Another way to deal with duel non-decision is to advance time forward. If players argue to long and it starts to become repetitive and boring, just move things along:
DM: “after nearly an hour of discussing which way to go you realize the sun is starting to go down and you only have a couple hours of daylight left. What’s your decision?”
The last way to move past the issue is to have a consequence. If the party sits there deciding which way to go, maybe another group happens upon them, maybe it gives the monsters time to prepare, or maybe an NPC gets impatient and decides to head off one path on her own to scout ahead.
One important tip here is for you to know when it is time for you to take action as the DM. If the players are having an exciting tactical discussion about which way to go and what monsters they think will be down there, then you should let it play out as long as everyone’s having fun. Here are my tips for knowing when to step in and use these tools:
1. One or more players looks bored.
2. The players are not bringing up logical arguments.
3. Players are attacking each other or becoming frustrated.
4. Players are repeating the same arguments or statements over and over.
When you see one or more of these things happening, it signals that it’s time for the DM to step in and force a decision. If not, then you can sit back and watch a great interaction that you didn’t have to plan for.
The mechanical search is caused by having maps and minis used at the wrong times. Remember that having a map causes your players to zoom in and slow down. While the mechanics of D&D are great for combat, using turn by turn exploration to search rooms, move down hallways, and pick locks, can turn 30 seconds of game action into an hour of real time boredom. Sometimes DMs feel the need to zoom in to turn by turn mode for specific reasons, which is fine. But when the maps and minis cause the players to start playing in this way, it can slow the game way down unnecessarily.
Probably one of the biggest causes of mechanical searching is having a map and a mini for each character. As soon as you pull those out, players will begin moving themselves around the board one by one and asking for approval to do anything or move anywhere. I don’t want to give the impression this is always bad… but if your game bogs down with this mechanical searching and you don’t want to lose your player’s interest, then this tip is for you.
One way to solve this is to not map out exploration space. The areas in between encounters, where you don’t have anything planned… leave that off your map and just walk your players through those hallways and tunnels with narration.
The second way to speed things up is to avoid dice rolls. When a player asks if they heard anything when they are in the empty half of the dungeon, instead of calling for a perception check, just tell them, “You guys have been listening closely for the last few minutes and heard no sounds from any of the adjacent rooms. Either there is no one there or they are completely silent.” No check needed because no matter what they roll, the answer is the same.
Another option is to avoid turn by turn mechanics for as long as possible. One of the tricks I have found for this is to place only one mini on the map to represent the entire party. You can just assume they move together unless otherwise stated.
The last tool I have to solve this is to group sections of the map together. The same way a perception check searches a whole room, have a perception check count for a whole group of rooms. Here is a map I ran two weeks after the castle map that ended up being so boring. This map had a massive amount of exploration space in it with only two or three encounters. I considered skipping over the whole area because of how few encounters there were, but several of the rooms had interesting lore, items, and story that I didn’t want to gloss over. So I converted well over two hundred squares of exploration space into 11 large sections that the party could search all at once. Instead of searching five separate bedrooms and checking each of the doors for traps and listening in the rooms and ……. I would have them roll one perception check that represented them searching all the bedrooms in that section of the house at once.
DMs love to hide things. DMs that use maps often end up with the map itself being an obstacles to their fun. The main reason for this is that while they love having a map, they don’t want their players to see any part of the map that has yet to be explored. This leads to DM techniques like covering the map with papers and books, drawing the map as they explore it, or even cutting the map into tiny pieces and assembling it as the characters arrive.
The problem with this is that while you panic over your map, your players are just sitting there, waiting; and we all know there is nothing more fun as a player than watching your DM pull out books and try to trace a map onto the grid for five minutes.
I have three ideas that can solve this problem.
First, is to just try to run your game where your players can see the whole map from the start and watch how little it affects the game. Sure the players can see the next room, but that really doesn’t change the fact that they are going to go in there anyways and they are going to have the exact same battle that they were before. It really doesn’t affect as much as you would think it would. So solution one is to just make your map ahead of time and let your players see the whole thing.
Of course showing your entire map can cause some problems, especially with things like secret rooms. So my second tip is to use what I call a disembodied map. This technique allows you to revile the whole map, while still giving players minimal spacial information. Simply disconnect each encounter or room in your map. When you draw them out, leave out the hallways and connective parts and draw the rooms and caverns scattered around your map so that your players aren’t sure which room connects to which. This means that while the players can see the whole thing and you don’t have to spend time blindfolding them or cutting your maps into pieces, your players will only get the minimal information from it.
Here’s my dungeon, each encounter is separated from the others so that the players can’t see which ones connect or get any information off of where to go based on the map. Sure they can see that a sunken ship exists here… but they have no idea how to get to it.
If you look closely, you can probably see that there are two sections that clearly connect. I have played this several times and it has almost no effect on the game… But if I am super worried about it, I can cover up the one section that has a connection so that the players don’t notice that there is both a top down and a side view of the sea anemone area.
There, one piece of paper, a two second removal time, and it’s all done. No need to hide the map.
If you absolutely can’t use the first two tips, then my advice is to prepare and practice. If you want to cut up your map and give it to them piece by piece (which is basically just the same as disconnecting it but slower) then please label the pieces, practice pulling them out in order and quickly, and make them big pieces so that you don’t have to do it every ten feet they move.
Now that we have looked at issues with the scale of play lets look at some of the map design problems themselves. Usually, these are related to the number of encounters on the map.
The infinite search map comes up when you design an area that has a massive amount of exploration space compared to encounters. This isn’t usually as big of an issue when you don’t have a map because you can speed past the boring parts when you are narrating. It can also be fun to have a big exploration area if it is interactive or your group of players keeps things exciting. However, if your game is bogging down and your players are mechanically searching everything and becoming bored, then this is an issue you need to handle.
Here is the castle map I showed at the beginning. I have colored it to show you where the encounters are:
Light green has no encounter.
Light red has a possible encounter.
Dark red is an area my players had an encounter.
(remember when I say encounter, I’m including talking, bartering, and hiding from someone walking by. not just combat)
Notice how much green space there is. This is all area where there are no encounters. Here is the caverns under the castle.
That has way more encounter space! Guess which one was more fun… the castle or the caverns? Based on this I’d say the caverns and that sure was the case.
Remember that building that I divided into 11 parts before. Here it is, with the encounters and exploration space mapped out.
This hunting lodge was almost pure exploration space! There was basically nothing for the party to do here. They could look at my drawings of beds and walls and that was about it. The module basically built an entire building for one encounter… and that was just about the only encounter they put in it.
Okay so how does my cavern work out?
Almost all red. I only mapped out the encounters. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t miles of caves and exploration space for the party to explore; the cave actually has several more encounters than this that aren’t mapped out. It just means that when there was an encounter that I didn’t want the party to be taking turns on and slowing down, I didn’t map it out. This made the game move significantly faster.
The first way to solve this problem is with design. Just try not to map out large spaces without any encounters in them. Have enough encounters to keep your dungeon exciting. Even in the last example, my dungeon, it had miles of networks and caves, with several encounters in them… but I only mapped out the ones that I thought would need a map and where I expected the players to want to zoom in and slow down the game a bit.
The second option is to manage scale. If your party gets stuck in exploration phase and they are miles from the nearest encounter, simply zoom out the scope of time and narrate them through what they are doing.
DM: “you spend the next several minutes carefully walking along and listening for any signs of life or movement. You hear nothing as you search the rest of this basement. Apparently there is no one down here.”
Sometimes a DM wants to take his players on a journey by narrating the forest they travel through, and the artifacts and wildlife they see, and the types of trees, and the rocks they step on, and the moisture in the air, and……
I recently played a session of D&D that was two hours long. It was 45 minutes before anyone rolled a die because the session came complete with an opening narrative about the environment we were in and the way we had traveled and all the NPCs we were with. By ten minutes, he had lost his audience.
This is a simple fix. Pay attention to your players and make sure you notice when they are losing interest. Designing massive amount of exploration is often where this problem shows up. Try to keep your descriptors short and try to keep the story moving forward. Also keep in mind your own abilities. Some people can entertain an audience for quite some time. Others need their games to have more player interaction because they can’t. Know yourself and this wont be a problem.
This is an issue big enough to write another article on, and I am. In order for an encounter to engage your players, it needs to involve the players and PCs in making decisions that have consequences.
When a DM has a lot of exploration space they will often try to fill it by throwing in some sort of encounter… They key word there is “throw”. Often the random encounters are combats, traps, and skill challenges which are thrown into these situations. These encounters are poorly planned and lack challenge, objectives, and meaningful decisions and consequences. When a DM plans a boss fight, he typically puts a lot of effort into it; planning out the tactics, objectives, personalities, terrain, and everything else that can make an encounter exciting. This hopefully leads to a great boss fight.
However, when it comes to filling in exploration space, it is given less attention than any other part of the game. This leads to a slippery moss bridge that takes 45 minutes of real time to cross, a random combat that provides no tactical choices, story, and uses no resources, or a trap that randomly goes off, deals ten damage, and then the party takes a long rest anyways.
Again, this is an area that needs an entire article on this topic, but here are a few things to think about. To completely avoid this problem, spend time developing the encounters you put into your exploration space. Giving them tactics, decisions, and lasting consequences will make fights way more entertaining.
If you do get yourself into a random encounter or skill challenge that isn’t going well, get yourself out of it. I suggest putting a flexible time limit on your encounters to make sure they don’t go too long. For example, if you have a slippery bridge, tell yourself that this will probably be fun for five to ten minutes and no longer. If it goes past that, you can speed things along or use group skill checks to move the party quicker. (In the last three sessions I have played I have literally spent over two hours of real time rolling skill checks to cross unstable bridges.) When things start to slow down completely, scrap your idea and just narrate through the rest of it.
Hopefully these tips help you to speed up your game when the exploration phase becomes a drag. Again this isn’t to tell you to ditch it or force your players through things, it is to make sure you have the tools to maximize your fun. Be careful with your maps. Use them with purpose. And make sure you speed things along when things get too slow. You as the DM are in control of the pace of the game, make sure you use that to the entertainment of everyone.