The standard adventure is a quest — the PCs have one or more specific goals, and the DM creates encounters for PCs as obstacles and aids.
One of the best things about 4e is how it created great tools and tips for designing encounters and quests. This applies to combat, obviously — how to use monsters tactically, how to use terrain, obstacles, traps and hazards, how to influence the movement of monsters and characters, how to structure XP, treasure and other rewards, how to pace challenge levels, numbers of encounters and rest periods, you name it, it’s there or is getting discussed. This also applies to non-combat encounters in the form of skill challenges.
However, I suggest that when it comes to designing exploratory adventures, one thing DMs might want to do is think more about non-encounter spaces and non-quest events.
Let’s call a space where an encounter occurs E. This includes both combat and non-combat encounters (i.e. skill challenges) and encounters that mix combat with skill challenge elements. Let’s call a space where encounters do not occur N.
In my last blog post I noted there were static spaces and dynamic spaces. I now say that *all* spaces are fundamentally dynamic, in the sense that decisions that PCs or DMs make can alter these spaces. One of the most common ways spaces are dynamic, in fact, are when PCs use combat to change an E to an N — that is, by killing off all the monsters within.
What kind of N are there, and what are they good for? Well, let’s start with the most basic kind — the empty room, which I’ll call Z. The most crucial thing about Z is that characters can rest there. Combat encounters and a number of non-combat encounters are exercises in resource management — how much damage monsters inflict, how much hit points and powers PCs have, how much treasure and XP, etc. — and Z help PCs replenish hit points and powers.
What other kind of N are there? Well, there are libraries or other repositories of information that DMs can use to convey information about the rest of the adventure, as well as potential future adventures, random information, and fun tidbits that enlarge the feel of the world the PCs are in. There are also vaults, supply closets and other spaces filled not only with treasure and plot coupons, but also tools that could potentially find use further down the line as well as just random junk that players may or may not find creative uses for. And there are just spaces that DMs can fill with flavor — strange apparitions, haunting music, mindboggling vistas, comic moments, and roleplaying moments with NPCs that are not either combat encounters or skill challenges but a way for PCs to learn more about the world or just have fun. Flavor may be fluff compared to the crunch of an encounter, but it subtly goes to enlarge the feeling of the world the PCs are in, which is what exploration is all about.
What else are Z good for? Well, they can be dynamic. They can go from Z to E, for instance, with the aid of wandering encounters. Weak arguments one could make about how wandering encounters add to an exploratory feel include them possibly doing so vicariously (if encounters are wandering the dungeon, that could mean they are explorers) and possibly doing so directly (if the PCs wandered past this room before when it was Z and returned to find it E, that means they were doing some wandering of their own). Stronger arguments one can make — if PCs see that spaces might change in their absence, they might want to investigate further or come back at some other time to see what else they might find; and a changing world again suggests a world larger than players might have thought before.
In fact, all N can be more dynamic than they’re often portrayed in adventures. There’s a long history in D&D of including strange machines with lots of buttons and levers that PCs can push. What inevitably happens, of course, is that no PC wants to toy with them for fear of something awful happening, but that kind of experimentation inside a space is a key ingredient in exploration — the feeling that players have choices that can affect the game world or their PCs. Simpler and potentially more inviting examples of dynamism can also be suggested — giving PCs the chance to destroy a bridge to divert access routes, for instance, or magic items that allow them to build or modify structures.
Another key and perhaps counter-intuitive way to make an adventure seem exploratory is to add encounters, treasure, information, etc., that have nothing to do with the quest or quests the PCs are currently on. You don’t want to carry this too far, obviously, or you’ll load down an adventure with too many distractions or dead ends. One advantage here is that one can set up story hooks for quests further down the line. Still, not everything in an adventure has to be related to the quest the PCs are on, or even related to quests they might eventually go on; this enlarges the feeling of the world the PCs are in, which is what exploration is all about.
What brought this all to my mind were the many interesting discussions conducted lately regarding the design of exploratory adventures in 4e, spurred on largely by an excellent recent blog post of Robert Schwalb’s. A followup from him here, an outside comment from SRM here, and an outside comment from the Chatty DM here. I feel incredibly presumptuous adding my two cents here, since Robert Schwalb, SRM, etc., have *loads* more adventure design experience than I do. I agree with Robert et al. that more should be done looking into Z. However, I would argue that besides resource management — how to structure encounters and rests in an adventure in order to budget how much damage encounters dealt out and how many hit points, powers, etc., that characters had — one actually has to consider the other aspects of Z and other N to create a more exploratory adventure.
In quests, PCs have specific goals they want to reach, but in exploration, PCs might not have specific goals at all — they might just want to see what they find. As such, encounters might not be the only thing they run across, and any encounters they find might not be linked to any quests they are currently on. Quests are mostly linear, while explorations are full of branches that may or may not lead anywhere — that’s what causes the PCs to explore around to look for what they want to find.
Now a problem with too many branches, as I mentioned in my last post, is that you can spend a lot of work designing stuff that might get wasted. So what do you do? One solution is that you don’t create more non-quest encounters, which take a lot of time and planning, but more non-encounter spaces, which take less time and planning. Another solution is that you create loops in branches, so that PCs can see all the branches more easily. What I think is likely the best solution, however, is that DMs create environments that players want to explore all of, as opposed to ones they feel obligated to explore.