Exploration Mechanics

I’ve been thinking about the usual lack of exploration mechanics in most games. I’ve been contemplating integrating some resource clocks into a wilderness exploration and trade campaign. Shared resources for the party like - supplies (foodstuffs), trade goods, regional positioning (lost), and . . . something else probably maybe diplomacy with particular foreign cultures/groups.

Being able to negotiate and recruit or get information from other groups seems pretty important for this kind of game as well. It’s one of the reasons to have some useful trade items (even if it is just salt and some iron) to.

I’m thinking the campaign would orient around players being from a “ancient” trade culture (say Carthage) exploring part of the world that their nation has no prior direct contact with.

But . . . what games do you think have interesting exploration mechanics? Both ones that might suit the above, and even just in general. What was or seems to be their design objective?


The Perilous Wilds and Stonetop.


Conquer the horizon and The salt traders.

Duamn Figueroa Rassol’s Deep Nightly Fathoms is one that springs to mind.

From the coop Short Games Digest Vol.6, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Elfland also has some really clever and innovative ways to approach exploration.

What kind of exploration mechanics do they have? What is their overall concept and the exploration mechanic concept?
Are they story-games, more traditional or OSR?


Why did Deep Nightly Fathoms spring to mind? What is innovative about Guide to Elfland?

My goal here is to discuss some exploration mechanic’s. What do you like and why. How does a specific mechanic make you feel like you are exploring or provide verisimilitude?

I think there are probably two big buckets of exploration mechanics:

  1. Connected to PC actions/capabilities
    This is things like not getting lost (or rather knowing where you are relative to where you started and possibly some other point of interest, since the point of exploration is discovering things), recognizing signs of something before you blunder into it, preserving and maintaining enough food/morale/rest/supplies.

  2. Discovering the World
    The simplest example for me here is an OSR one. Your party heads off in a direction unexpected, and the DM rolls on a table to determine the type of terrain in that hex, then if there are any population centres, dungeons etc.
    On the surface I like this, because you can both pre-plan using it, or do it for inspiration and improv, but it also seems time consuming.

Other examples of the above? Things that don’t fit in my big buckets?

The Quiet Year has aspects that I would put in #2, where you can “discover” something new and draw it on the map. Most things are done by drawing on the map including projects – where the community is building something. It’s GMless, so the “exploration” has a slightly removed bird’s eye view feel to it.
(To be contrasted with GMed games where exploration could have PCs face the personal perils of exploration.)


Conquer… has PC with different moves / goals. Each PC is looking for (the player creates) a certain resource. Half the roles are more about discovering resources ; the other half is more about using them. You need a balance.

Salt traders is Descended from the Queen card prompts about travel anecdotes.

The committee for the exploration of mysteries has got simple tools for progress and obstacles (stimmyed).

Sign in Stranger has you investigating a world, creating a relationship network of things.

HHG2E is explicitly about exploration. Jon Garrad uses inspirations from Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett to examine what non-violent, permissive exploration looks like. The text of the game is written from that perspective rather than the perspective of, to quote The Damned, “sacheting into a country and saying, bagsy that’s mine”. In terms of what it does mechanically to reinforce that, Garrad came up with a clever little dice mechanism that emulates what a single track, branching or network journey looks like, and I think it melds so neatly with the main game mechanics. It takes the idea of rolling a sandwich box full of dice to generate a place and hones it down to a point; and that point is that you don’t need to look at every place to experience a journey.

Deep Nightly Fathoms uses the OSR trick of having a set of random tables, but they are steeply entrenched in theme and mood, and tie well back into the mechanics of play. DNF is also a lot about exploration; you’re heading into a dream-like underworld to retrieve a person or item that’s been lost to you, in the vein of Paradise Lost or What Dreams May Come, but darker and weirder. This game has combat, and it has interaction, but it’s principally about exploring a weird, dangerous place and seeing strange things. It’s very, very cool.

I think in terms of the two buckets you list, games like Ironsworn, which has a lot of resource management built into its journeying subsystem, fall into the first; and into the second, the OSR-mood is king: Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number is certainly in this vein, with its incredible system of planet/system/faction generation. Equally, the Fuzion-based (I know, I know) Lightspeed does a similar thing, promoting and extolling the virtues of exploration over combat.

I agree with you about The Quiet Year; it doesn’t fit neatly into either. I think a lot of people would describe it as a pastoral game, and there are many such map-making games. I would probably lump Fall of Magic into this nebulous third category: you’re on a journey, and that journey has already been mapped out for you, but you are inevitably discovering it on the way.

This is a fascinating topic, thanks for making me think about it.

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Perilous Wilds is interesting, it creates a vocabulary for a region and a hierarchy of the things you might find in it (areas, steadings, sites, etc), environmental factors and tags and a procedure for preparing a sandbox. Then it presents moves for things like recruiting followers, procedures for creating followers and managing resources. This it gives moves for different roles characters can take in an expedition, like staying sharp on watch, scouting ahead, navigating, managing provisions.

There’s a ton of stuff in there, it covers moves for dungeon delving, weather, tables for generating stuff. It’s a really impressive supplement for Dungeon World.


Thanks for sharing about Perilous Wilds, a lot of this sounds very interesting. How does it setup these hierarchies? Are the moves ones that standard classes/playbooks are suppose to take on advancement?

Aside: I’ll admit I am very biased against Dungeon World – the GM never rolling doesn’t work for me. It breaks my verisimilitude – an orc should be able to swing and use the same rules to hit someone as a PC, and then if the orc is recruited by the PC to fight for them, nothing should mechanically change and it should work the same.
I don’t have this problem with other Apocalypse World engine games, like The Warren (helpless rabits - of course they have to roll a check to not have something bad happen), or more narrative focused implementations Monsterhearts or Headspace or The Veil. It’s a bias for the level of . . . simulation that I expect.

Sort of a side-conversation here but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head saying that only players rolling works in more narrative-focused implementations - you’re describing Dungeon World but because it dresses up in a lot of the clothes of OSR games people expect to play it in that mould and then you’re kind of working against the grain of the game. One of the failings of DW in my view is that it keeps too many of the trappings ( the 0-18 skill scores, for example, which are then barely ever used ) and tends to give the impression it is more of that kind of game, but it sings when you play it very much fiction-first.

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It sounds like you’re considering supply mechanics rather then the whole array of ‘exploration’ mechanics (turn-keeping, risk embodied in random event/encounters, pathing/navigation) specifically at the scale of long distance overland travel?

This works of course, though it might risk pushing into board game territory. The travel scenario removes much of the main risk with introducing supply mechanics – that they are meaningless either because there’s no encumbrance system or mechanic that forces usage (e.g. there’s no point worry about torch supplies in 5E D&D where you can carry a lot, a torch lasts 60 turns, and 90% of characters can see in the dark).

I found the caravan system in Ultraviolet Grasslands, which has an overall classic system structure/play style, but is a new subsystem, rather well thought out and pretty robust for the longer distance overland travel you seem to be suggesting. It’s a point-crawl based system, but shouldn’t be hard to adapt to uncharted lands (something like a hex crawl). Ryuutama might also be worth a look - it’s mostly about wandering around.


Ultraviolet Grasslands might be worth a look.

The moves in PW are general moves, they’re just how you generally do those things.

Just my 2 dirty self-promoting cents :sweat_smile:

In Fantasy World journeys are abstracted away in a single move, but the move focuses on detailing, enriching and exploring the environment the PCs are traversing. The end result is a more vivid landscape that feels both explored and ripe for further exploration.
Here is the move:

Resource management is very much secondary, but present. Mostly it’s there to prompt Players to go out and explore, while hunting down the needed materials and resources.

The journey move then links to the Long Rest one, which promotes the exploration of the PCs and their relationships as a group (maybe not the kind of exploration the OP meant though :sweat_smile: ) and finally prompts again the Players to envision, imagine and enrich the environment. AKA: more fuel for the exploration machine.
Here is the move:

So… an approach that is pretty much opposite to the one found in DW, where travel is mostly about resource management and the occasional ambush, or in PW, where travel is very logistically and mechanically detailed.
But I found that this approach tends to encourage and reward exploration, helping Players marvel at the details of the world surrounding their PCs.


I think Forbidden Lands has one of the best mechanics for exploration and resource management. It utilizes the “resource dice” mechanic, but you could replace that with a clock if you’d want it to be more deterministic.

When exploring the rules spread the actions around in a group, so it’s not just one type of character that can contribute, and it ties together well with replenishing and burning of the Resources. It feels like the design works well for a low prep, “play to find out what happens”, but it also provides a quite good sense of actually wandering around in a strange new world.

They also have a rules section for crafting, and a section on strongholds which tie in neatly to the resource mechanics and I think the design focuses on a very simple economic model that makes it fun to build and plan instead of the spreadsheet kind of planning you would get in a Traveller game.

It’s well worth a look.


Stonetop is a Dungeon World adaptation, where the PCs are all the heroes of an isolated iron age village. So when they go on an expedition, it’s almost always to either deal with some sort of threat to the village, and/or to seize/explore some sort of opportunity for the town (or sometimes the specific PCs).

So the core assumptions are the the PCs are going on a journey with a specific purpose in mind (not just exploration for the sake of exploration), and that they’ll usually return home. The scale is relatively small, too (the longest journeys you’re likely to take in the game are maybe like two weeks each way), and there’s a starting map of the region with a number of points of interest. Plenty of blanks, and lots of player-created and procedurally-generated content.

When the PCs want/need to mount an expedition, they Chart a Course, which is basically a Savvyhead Workshop style move where the GM lays out the likely courses, how long they’ll probably take, the requirements (“you’ll need warm clothes and snowshoes” or “you’ll need a guide”) and the challenges they can expect to face (“you’ll need to watch out for hunting drakes on the Flats” or “the way will be grueling”).

When the PCs actually head out, you do point-crawl style travel, dividing the trip up into legs of travel and points of interest.

On each leg, if it’s unfamiliar-to-the-players terrain, you describe (or get the players to help describe) the environment, ask questions to each about how they’re experiencing the trip, what they’re talking/thinking about, etc. If this leg would involve one of the challenges established when they Charted a Course, the GM drops it on them. Otherwise, maybe we do some role-playing, maybe the GM throws in some unexpected encounter, but more likely they get to the next point of interest.

At each point of interest you zoom in and have a scene. These can be landmarks that haven’t been seen in play before (in which, you describe them, ask questions, maybe do a little roleplaying, and then likely move on). And/or they can be places where you know something interesting will happen: an ambush site, a mystery to explore, a crucial decision to make, an obstacle to surmount.

Basically, you’re playing out the legs and points in much the same way that you’d handled a dungeon-crawl, just a bit more zoomed out and with a lot more time spent on reflection and Q&A. I find that asking each character questions about their experience of travel creates a sense of time and distance passing, in a way that you don’t get when you just say “okay, the next few hours are uneventful.”

But also, one of the principles of Stonetop is portray a rich and mysterious world, and spending time fleshing out new-to-the-players parts of the world is a big part of that.


Stonetop is excellent, and Jeremy is understandably unwilling to self-promote too blatantly here, but I have no such conflict of interest. It’s on kickstarter right now. I highly recommend it.


UVG, Perilous Wilds & Forbidden Lands are great suggestions to steal mechanics from and I will also suggest The One Ring. It is, unfortunately, completely out of print, so please forgive the Trove link, but the mechanics are worth studying. A second edition just finished on Kickstarter, however, so I will suggest finding that version with revisited rules when it’s released.