The Implied Exploration Procedure in D&D

While it isn’t called out anywhere, some of the rules that show up in the Activity While Traveling section of the Player’s Handbook do have some rules that imply a formalized exploration procedure. I bring this up because I didn’t even remember this section of the rules until I read through the Esper Genesis books, and then double checked to see if these came straight from the D&D Player’s Handbook.

How Do You Want To Do This?

First, the section calls out that the party should have a default marching order. This is going to determine who gets whacked in the face by traps, who can actually do the tracking and the navigating, and potentially who is allowed to use perception to notice things in more constrained spaces.

Other sections of the rules mention moving at slow, standard, or accelerated paces for overland movement, but it’s called out in this section as well, so it might be worth asking the PCs if they want to do this. In this case, it probably helps if you know how long you think it will take to move through an area, and if time has any consequences to what is going on, as it should take about twice as long for the group to move in this mode.

My Other Favorite Overlooked Rule

I’d also say this is a good time to use group skill checks, which are also another rule that appears in the Player’s Handbook, but doesn’t get used as often. If the party is stealthing through a dungeon, it might be okay of the big clanky fighter isn’t super quiet, as long as the rest of the group makes up for it. Your mileage may vary, but if you want PCs to consider this option, you may want to make sure they know it’s available.

Time And Relative Encounters In a Dungeon

Many adventures assign random encounters every hour in a dungeon setting, which also coincides with PCs trying to take short rests. If the party regularly moves more slowly, you may want to make sure you have an idea of how long it would take to get from place to place, and roll twice as often on your random encounter table when they are moving with stealth. They have a better chance to potentially surprise foe, but they also have more of a chance to run into wandering monsters.

If you aren’t keeping strict track of how big your dungeons are, or aren’t having the PCs move square by square on a tactical map, you can always determine that an “area” takes about five minutes to move through regularly (i.e. from hallway to opening at the end of the hallway, from opening to door at the far end of the hallway), and bump that to 10 minutes if moving cautiously.

PCs can also hustle through a dungeon at double speed, with the main problem being they take a -5 penalty to Wisdom (perception) checks when doing so. This is handy if the PCs want to get out quickly (more on that in a moment), because they may be more likely to avoid random encounters, but unable to sneak up on them, and potentially more likely to be surprised by them.

Exploration Actions

There are a handful of activities that PCs are noted as doing that preclude them from using their passive perception to notice things. Those activities are as follows:

  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to navigate
  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to track
  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to forage
  • Drawing a map (no skill required)

Navigating and foraging may be more “overland travel” activities, although if the PCs have a map to the dungeon and someone following that map to a specific location, you could assume that PC is busy navigating in that sense. Tracking may be more likely to come up if the PCs start to follow some dungeon denizens that they think may be present.

The Magic of Maps

The interesting one of these options is drawing a map. Drawing a map doesn’t help you not get lost when exploring new places, but it can let you back track effectively without getting lost. This isn’t literally having a PC draw a map–this is a job that the Player’s Handbook calls out that one of the PCs can do that just allows you to travel back along the path you have mapped so far. As long as someone says they are doing it, and the forgo their passive perception score, you have a successful mapper.

To me, this would indicate that if you have a mapper doing their job, at any point, the party could stop exploring, safely backtrack through any area they have already been through, and leave the dungeon. Meaning, you don’t, as the DM, force them to map, and you don’t ask them if they go left or right or any of that as they leave the place. You just determine how long it takes them to get out, and they get out (possibly rolling random encounters, if it takes that long for them to backtrack through the dungeon).

This is also a good time for them to determine if they want to move at double speed, risking getting surprised versus not triggering a random encounter. Another thing to keep in mind is that the DMG calls out that a -5 penalty is the equivalent of disadvantage on a check for a passive check. So when your PCs are beating a hasty retreat, they can still use that passive perception score, but it’s going to be at -5.

Why do I call all of this out?

While I have definitely seen players declaring marching order, and I know that I have heard PCs state their travel pace before, I don’t know that I have often heard PCs specifically call out that they are navigating, foraging, or mapping, and because of that, I haven’t often heard PCs excluded from passive perception checks.

Additionally, the “no check needed” mapping to have a route back is, to me, a great time saver in storytelling. I know I have played through dungeons where we have had to backtrack, square by square, through a dungeon. While the mapping role, as written, doesn’t expressly mention backtracking through dungeons, it’s a natural extension that could definitely facilitate moving towards the interesting parts of the story (unless you really like round by round navigation through previously explored parts of the dungeon, in which case, you do you and knock yourself out–I’m not going to tell you that you are wrong).

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that there is a note in the Player’s Handbook that its totally cool for the DM to say that only the front or back rank of the marching order can use their passive perception to notice something, which is another aspect of exploring that I think sometimes gets lost.

What Now?

I have definitely had PCs tell me their marching order, and I’ve had parties designate their speed (slow/standard/fast) while traveling overland. I have even allowed PCs to backtrack through a dungeon before. But I haven’t formally called out the roles detailed in here before. I’m almost certain I’ve had characters track or forage and not excluded them from passive perception checks. I’ve never had anyone expressly map a route before.

I think there is some value in having a more formal structure for something, even if that formal structure exists so that you can then “shortcut” parts of the game, i.e. allowing the PCs to backtrack through an area that they have mapped. Because of this, I definitely want to be more formal about all of this the next time it comes up in a game that I’m running.

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