Running exploration similarly to combat means that all players can be engaged.

a dungeon entrance

Dungeons are the classic location for exploration.

Exploration play can be one of the most fun aspects of a good role-playing game session. Many players enjoy the sense of discovery and the apprehension of what can be lurking around the next corner. Exploration play is also a scenario where many players feel lost and confused. It can easily favor those with stronger imaginations, louder mouths, or a better grasp of the rules, depending upon the precise style you choose. Let’s level the exploration playing filed so all players can engage in that part of the adventure.

Every Player Should be Engaged

In my home game, I tried to first identify what I wanted out of exploration play at my table. I came up with the following list:

  • It should be easy for all players to engage in exploration.
  • The space should be sufficiently complex to support meaningful discovery
  • Heroes should get to move or do something every time it is their turn – multiple turns for a single action is no fun

This list lead me to the idea of handling exploration in initiative order, much like combat. We roll initiative once, at the beginning of the exploration, and keep the same order as players move and reveal new terrain. Just like in 4e combat, each player gets a standard, move, and minor action before we switch to the next. By going in turn order, every player has a chance to participate, regardless of if his or her character is optimized for exploration.

A common complaint about such structured play is that it limits good role-playing and creativity. This does not need to be the case at all. As the dungeon master, your roll is to encourage creative thinking and people taking actions that make in-character sense. You are not limiting the players’ ability to take unique actions – you are just limiting their ability to do so at the expense of the involvement of other players.

a large map of a dungeon, drawn at the 5'=1" scale normally used for battle mats

Large dungeons with many choices are the best for exploring. Having the entire dungeon pre-drawn as a battle map allows the players to freely explore as they wish.

Some Changes Are Needed

In order to use turn-based exploration, you may need to make a few changes to the game is played. These changes are specific to Dungeons and Dragons 4e, but they give an idea of what sort of changes could be needed in any game.

A round is a fairly arbitrary unit of time. Do not stick to the six-second rule for a combat round. Allow as much conversation between players as they would like, so long as it is not just a couple of them belaboring a point and preventing the others from taking their turns. Remember that the goal of this style is player involvement, not simulation.

Lessen the time needed to perform common actions. Searching is normally a standard action and applies to a limited area. Instead, make searching a minor action, and have it apply to the entire distance moved by the hero that turn. This keeps play moving and reveals new terrain at a good pace. Similarly, consider having actions like detecting magic with Arcana and some rituals only take a standard action to perform when exploring this way. No player want to miss 10+ rounds of action because his or her characters is taking a complex action, and other players at the table may resent being asked to have their characters “just sit tight” for several rounds.

Combat begins when it begins, not at the top of the order. If the heroes encounter some monster half way through a turn, just roll with it. Yes, this can slightly penalize characters and monsters who are built around going first, but they still get that bonus almost all of the time.

As your players explore the dungeon, you may need to tweak a few more rules to help them fit. No one at the table generally minds having the rules slightly altered to make the game flow easily, especially when it is in the players’ favor.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Miniatures are on a large dungeon battle mat. Most of the battle mat is covered in index cards, blocking the players' view of what lies beneath.

Set your map out ahead of time. Index cards make a great fog of war because they are cheap, a decent size, and can be moved easily.

For this sort of setup to work, you need to front load a good deal of your work as a DM. The advantage of this approach is that running your dungeon is a cakewalk once exploration begins.


Set up your dungeon ahead of time. Lay your dungeon out on the game table before any of the players arrive. Once it is out, make liberal use of the fog of war. I have found that index cards make for great fog of war on 2d terrain, and a light bed sheet isd’t bad on 3d terrain. Just pull back the fog of war as the heroes explore further and further into the unknown.

Make it difficult to take short rests. Maybe there are monsters trying to chase the heroes out of the dungeon. Maybe the walls are collapsing around them. Maybe necrotic energy is sucking away their life energy. The reason doesn’t matter – just make it risky to take a short rest. This is primarily to prevent abuse of certain powers, like those that give hefty skill bonuses, but it also adds a new layer of dread for the PCs.

Design most of your encounters at half or two-thirds normal power. Even the best parties get a bit spread out when they are exploring. You cannot count on the fighter being able to get to the rogue and take some hits before the rogue will go down, so make your encounters slightly easier than normal. Combined with few or no short rests, this can make for a great exercise in resource management for the players.

Include some beneficial terrain. A magic circle where leaders can use their Healing Word type power without it counting against their encounter limit is a great choice.  The real goal here is to reward the players who take the time to really investigate the dungeon.

Provide brief, but rich, descriptions for every room. Have no blank rooms or hallways. Provide descriptions of furniture, carving, the smell of the mold, and anything else you can think of for every location. Write them all down ahead of time, like you see in the older adventure modules. Exploration is not as engaging when the hero enters yet another blank room.

If you take the time to prepare an exciting, dynamic exploration scenario, your players will thank you. If you go one step further, and take actions to ensure every player can equally engage in the content, then you will have a really great adventure on your hands.

How do you handle dungeon exploration in your game? What might you change, if anything, for using this approach for exploration in an outdoor setting? How do you engage players who tune out during exploration?

6 Responses to “Turn-Based Dungeon Exploration”

  1. How do you handle the mob mentality of not splitting the party? What is to prevent a party from simply having the thief go first and then everyone else files into the room he just explored and then the thief explores a new room and the party files into the room he just explored , etc, etc. I know with my group they are adamant about not splitting the party at all.
    Or is this something you explain to the players before hand so they trust you to keep the encounters lower level so starting a combat encounter will not cause their death before the party can regroup?

    • Good questions. My first expectation was that they would be very cautious and tactical, sending a scout ahead with a high perception. Boy was I ever wrong! Players seem to take a sort of glee from being the one to remove some fog of war from the board and though they stay somewhat close together, almost invariably at least one party member wanders off in a different direction from the group. “Oh, I just want to take a peek around this corner over here. . . .” This is a group that avoids splitting the party as well; curiosity kills more than just cats.

      I do not explicitly explain to the players that the encounters are more numerous and below-level, but they quickly get a rough idea of how survivable a battle is. What has actually become fairly commonplace is a running retreat to regroup the party when they are under attack.

      I suppose part of why I like this method of exploration is that it challenges the old “thief goes first to search for traps” trope. The party can certainly play that way, but when the player of the impulsive barbarian gets tired of waiting, she becomes much more likely to charge down a random side corridor.

  2. This is really interesting. I did something similar once in one of my games, where the PCs had to break into this castle and bust out a captive. I didn’t use the fog of war though, as I hoped my players wouldn’t metagame – but it didn’t really work. The cards seem a bit fiddly, but I guess its the only way to make this thing work.

    Anyway, this article has inspired me to try this out again, but this time I’ll use your suggestions. There’s some really good advice here.

    Nice blog you’ve got here, by the way. Just stumbled across it.

    • Yeah, the fog of war is not ideal, but it is the best solution I have found so far. When I use 3D terrain, like the Heroscape hexes, I use a bed sheet instead. It is also not ideal, but that is a common solution I have seen other DMs use.

      Something I forgot to mention in the article is that I do not put secret rooms on the giant dungeon map. I cut secret rooms out of a piece of the same grid paper, so I can just lie them on top of the map when they find one. I like it because it really does surprise the players when they find a hidden door.

      Thanks for commenting! Let me know how it works out for you and your players.

    • About the fog of war issue… I think that this is something that technology will ultimately solve for us – even now, a lot of groups (I know of two, including one that I play in) use digital tools designed for online play as a way to manage battle maps. One of the real perks of this system, especially if you have access to a large enough wallscreen, is that everyone can see the fog of war and character locations handily. Someday, I dream of a touchscreen tabletop interface… but for the time being, if your group is comfortable with the technology, using an interface like maptools or OpenRPG is a great way to remove the “fiddly” element – and also to create a really polished dungeon presentation.

  3. [...] crawls. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re a part of the fantasy RPG experience. Matthew Brenner at Blood, Sweat, and Dice has some thoughts on keeping players engaged by doing turn…. Honestly I’m not sure that I’d ever try it because describing every brick, rock, and [...]

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