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View Full Version : What is the essence of exploration? (Game Design)



pwykersotz
2016-04-13, 06:33 PM
I'm creating my own TTRPG system for my table to play. Not for any serious reason, I love our current games just fine, but I thought I'd try my hand at a bit of design for the fun of it. The problem that I come up with though, is with exploration.

I get D&D and the conflict resolution of combat or of control. I understand Roleplay and the fun of throwing yourself into character or simply being a puppetmaster of your character as you direct him to do what you wish those guys in movies would do; or games like Microscope where the joy is in the creation and influence of the world around you.

But exploration is tough. I can detail ancient castles and lost ruins and deep secrets for my players to come across all day, but ultimately it all needs a purpose. The rules of the game create an incentive system that reinforce the behavior they center around. What I want to to is create an incentive system for exploration. One where there is a reward for doing so that is tangible on the character sheet as opposed to just being in the player's mind. Because my players are good gamers. They'll roleplay Sorry! or Monopoly if I ask them to, but it's all just them being freeform. They aren't gaining anything from it, nor are they interacting with the game when they do so. It's just an added layer.

So in your minds, what is the essence of exploration? What system would reinforce it? What would make it spectacular instead of just the GM reading off a page? And are there any TTRPG's that do it really well that I could reference?

Mark Hall
2016-04-13, 06:40 PM
To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

EDIT: To be more useful...

Consider looking at some of the Apocalypse World derived system, which lets you (or your players) define goals and character motivations that grant them XP when fulfilled. One person might have a goal like "Encounter a new language and try to understand it", while another might have the goal "Travel at least 50 miles in a day" or "Record three unique facts about a creature you haven't seen before." Fulfilling those motivations would give them XP, metagame points, or whatever you think will motivate them. It can also create a bit of tension in the group, with Mr. Travel 50 Miles yanking at the chain, while 3 Facts is going to want to study his owlbear until he figures out 3 things unique to owlbears

pwykersotz
2016-04-13, 06:45 PM
To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

...touche. :smallbiggrin:

Mordar
2016-04-13, 06:47 PM
I'm creating my own TTRPG system for my table to play. Not for any serious reason, I love our current games just fine, but I thought I'd try my hand at a bit of design for the fun of it. The problem that I come up with though, is with exploration.

I get D&D and the conflict resolution of combat or of control. I understand Roleplay and the fun of throwing yourself into character or simply being a puppetmaster of your character as you direct him to do what you wish those guys in movies would do; or games like Microscope where the joy is in the creation and influence of the world around you.

But exploration is tough. I can detail ancient castles and lost ruins and deep secrets for my players to come across all day, but ultimately it all needs a purpose. The rules of the game create an incentive system that reinforce the behavior they center around. What I want to to is create an incentive system for exploration. One where there is a reward for doing so that is tangible on the character sheet as opposed to just being in the player's mind. Because my players are good gamers. They'll roleplay Sorry! or Monopoly if I ask them to, but it's all just them being freeform. They aren't gaining anything from it, nor are they interacting with the game when they do so. It's just an added layer.

So in your minds, what is the essence of exploration? What system would reinforce it? What would make it spectacular instead of just the GM reading off a page? And are there any TTRPG's that do it really well that I could reference?

Not sure if this helps, but consider explorers of our own world history. They explored for money, glory, money, fame, money, freedom (often to make money), money, or king and country. So, how can this relate to your game?

Well, the money part is obvious - if they take the effort to monetize their exploration (by sale of goods found, trade route development, navigational information) that's well and good and easy.

Glory and fame can be a thing both on the sheet and in the mind...particularly if your game will have some mechanism for social interaction/reputation. Maybe it helps get them plot hooks, access to special goods/services, contracts or contacts among important folk, that sort of thing.

Freedom...well, that one just has to be its own reward, I think.

King and country fits a lot like glory and fame, but with a more specific subset of contacts and friends, and perhaps more potent bonuses.

Anyway, couple of thoughts there.

- M

OldTrees1
2016-04-13, 06:56 PM
Exploration requires:
1) A territory to be explored. Physical territory not required.
2) Players that choose to explore it.
3) The discovery resulting from that exploration to be valuable in itself for the players.

Essentially designing for exploration is relying on player curiosity and rewarding that curiosity with information the players find inherently rewarding.

As such I think it is mostly system independent.

However you are also asking a related question: You want to know how to incentivize those, that were not inherently incentivized to explore, to explore. You could ask the same about any other Aesthetic of play (http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf), and I think it misses their nature.

Mark Hall
2016-04-13, 07:01 PM
...touche. :smallbiggrin:

I was a bit more useful, later, but I got called away from the desk. :smallbiggrin:

pwykersotz
2016-04-13, 07:02 PM
Exploration requires:
1) A territory to be explored. Physical territory not required.
2) Players that choose to explore it.
3) The discovery resulting from that exploration to be valuable in itself for the players.

Essentially designing for exploration is relying on player curiosity and rewarding that curiosity with information the players find inherently rewarding.

As such I think it is mostly system independent.

However you are also asking a related question: You want to know how to incentivize those, that were not inherently incentivized to explore, to explore. You could ask the same about any other Aesthetic of play (http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf), and I think it misses their nature.

I might need to rephrase my question then. I don't want to incentivize it because my players won't do it, nor to encourage it from those who don't want to. Rather, I want enough of a system based around it to make it a game instead of free-form play. I want to stay pretty rules light/medium, but I want to have their exploration mean something tangible for them. If they visited Ravenloft (as an example) and lived to tell the tale, I'd like some mark upon them, some benefit or drawback that might not be related to combat or roleplay. They've seen things and done things that others have not, and it matters.

That's what I'm going for.

Edit: Or the other side, I'd like the exploration to have value while they do it. I don't know how to describe it because I don't have a clear focus on what I want, having not seen it before. Some sort of "Achievement Unlocked" benefit maybe? Or a a game by which surface level explorations can lead to something deeper? I'm not sure...

Edit2: Oh, and Mordar, thank you for your post. It's certainly a starting point to help me define what I want.

NichG
2016-04-13, 07:33 PM
Goals are all about a change in circumstances. When the adventurers depose the evil king, they want to make the external world match their internal vision of how things should be. The buzz you get from that kind of quest is to be able to say 'because of what I did, the world is different (better) now'. The in-character source of this desire can be injustice, inconvenience, ambition, etc.

For exploration, the kind of change of circumstances is less about changing the world to match an internal vision, but more about having one's internal vision change as a consequence of interacting with the unknown. So here, the idea would be that the thing you explore releases the tension associated with an internal inconsistency with one's self - anything from a simple mystery to a change in philosophy or existential awareness.

So in order to make exploration attractive, you have to clearly label the unknowns before the exploration even begins. You have to make it clear that 'people don't know what's on the other side of the Endless Sea', 'people don't know why magic exists', 'people don't know what happened to the gods after the Day of Silence', etc. It won't be enough to just say 'be curious!', you have to present a world where the adventurers will be different because they're the ones who will go and find out, rather than just accepting 'we don't know'.

As for the reward, the simplest thing to do is to pin advancement to exploration rather than to combat/other systems. The world has all sorts of questions and unknowns, and the way to gain XP is to return to society and present your findings about the answers to some of those questions. You could do it like a gentleman's explorer society - after the adventure, you return and sip brandy and enlighten high society as to how the world really is, and as a result you get fame, prestige, financial support, (and character levels).

OldTrees1
2016-04-13, 07:37 PM
I might need to rephrase my question then. I don't want to incentivize it because my players won't do it, nor to encourage it from those who don't want to. Rather, I want enough of a system based around it to make it a game instead of free-form play. I want to stay pretty rules light/medium, but I want to have their exploration mean something tangible for them. If they visited Ravenloft (as an example) and lived to tell the tale, I'd like some mark upon them, some benefit or drawback that might not be related to combat or roleplay. They've seen things and done things that others have not, and it matters.

That's what I'm going for.

Edit: Or the other side, I'd like the exploration to have value while they do it. I don't know how to describe it because I don't have a clear focus on what I want, having not seen it before. Some sort of "Achievement Unlocked" benefit maybe? Or a a game by which surface level explorations can lead to something deeper? I'm not sure...

You want tangible/mechanical symptoms of exploration. I think I understand what you are asking for, but not why you are asking for it.
In Mario I will try to climb above the ceiling just to see what is there.
In Dark Souls I will search for secret walls to see what is behind them.
In D&D I will delve every dungeon to see what is down there.
This is the exploration aesthetic of play.
So if you are trying to provide for this aesthetic of play, then just put something in most of the places the players might look(not necessarily everywhere since that diminishes the "found something" factor).

However for what you are asking for: Yes, "achievement unlocked benefits" / "quest granted feats" would result in mechanical symptoms of exploration.

Edit: Better link describing the aesthetics of play (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uepAJ-rqJKA&ab_channel=ExtraCredits)

pwykersotz
2016-04-13, 08:12 PM
Goals are all about a change in circumstances. When the adventurers depose the evil king, they want to make the external world match their internal vision of how things should be. The buzz you get from that kind of quest is to be able to say 'because of what I did, the world is different (better) now'. The in-character source of this desire can be injustice, inconvenience, ambition, etc.

For exploration, the kind of change of circumstances is less about changing the world to match an internal vision, but more about having one's internal vision change as a consequence of interacting with the unknown. So here, the idea would be that the thing you explore releases the tension associated with an internal inconsistency with one's self - anything from a simple mystery to a change in philosophy or existential awareness.

So in order to make exploration attractive, you have to clearly label the unknowns before the exploration even begins. You have to make it clear that 'people don't know what's on the other side of the Endless Sea', 'people don't know why magic exists', 'people don't know what happened to the gods after the Day of Silence', etc. It won't be enough to just say 'be curious!', you have to present a world where the adventurers will be different because they're the ones who will go and find out, rather than just accepting 'we don't know'.

As for the reward, the simplest thing to do is to pin advancement to exploration rather than to combat/other systems. The world has all sorts of questions and unknowns, and the way to gain XP is to return to society and present your findings about the answers to some of those questions. You could do it like a gentleman's explorer society - after the adventure, you return and sip brandy and enlighten high society as to how the world really is, and as a result you get fame, prestige, financial support, (and character levels).

Great points. That last paragraph touches on some of my thoughts. I'd like to figure out what leveling in exploration would mean though. Fame, money, etc might play into it, but that treats the exploration as the journey, not the reward. I'd kind of like it to be both. Not in isolation of course, but I'd like exploration for the sake of it to be rewarding on a game level.


You want tangible/mechanical symptoms of exploration. I think I understand what you are asking for, but not why you are asking for it.
In Mario I will try to climb above the ceiling just to see what is there.
In Dark Souls I will search for secret walls to see what is behind them.
In D&D I will delve every dungeon to see what is down there.
This is the exploration aesthetic of play.
So if you are trying to provide for this aesthetic of play, then just put something in most of the places the players might look(not necessarily everywhere since that diminishes the "found something" factor).

However for what you are asking for: Yes, "achievement unlocked benefits" / "quest granted feats" would result in mechanical symptoms of exploration.

Edit: Better link describing the aesthetics of play (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uepAJ-rqJKA&ab_channel=ExtraCredits)

I do so love Extra Credits. That was a good refresher.

I think the why is based on a desire to involve the element more than simply being a journey that is forgotten. I've run a lot of games in D&D 3.5 and 5e. I think I started DM'ing 6 years ago, and I haven't been a week without a game (barring national holidays) since. Sometimes more like 2-3 games, and one time as many as 6 games a week for several months. I've made countless settings and places to explore. But I'm always bugged a bit that it's not really relevant. The things I create become dungeons of the week. Sure we'll talk about the space adventure or the journey to Menzoberranzan, but I think I want some player agency to come from those experiences. I want my players to be able to draw on what they've done for a tangible benefit.

Over time, I've noticed a strong correlation to my players (and myself when I am a player) focusing on the things that allow them to have more power and more agency. You do more to get more so you can do more. And it just feels like the exploration avenue is untapped in that regard. Just as the combat/leveling system in D&D incentivizes and rewards combat, I'd like a system that does the same for exploration so that it can be a focus of the game for the sake of it. We can free-play explore all we want, but improvement and change on the character sheet is what cements it to the character. My players already enjoy exploring the mysteries that I set up, and I'd like to reward them with more agency and ability in addition to that.

Kind of rambling, I know, but my thoughts are a bit unfocused since design is a new subject for me to delve into like this. :smallredface:

OldTrees1
2016-04-13, 09:30 PM
I do so love Extra Credits. That was a good refresher.

I think the why is based on a desire to involve the element more than simply being a journey that is forgotten. I've run a lot of games in D&D 3.5 and 5e. I think I started DM'ing 6 years ago, and I haven't been a week without a game (barring national holidays) since. Sometimes more like 2-3 games, and one time as many as 6 games a week for several months. I've made countless settings and places to explore. But I'm always bugged a bit that it's not really relevant. The things I create become dungeons of the week. Sure we'll talk about the space adventure or the journey to Menzoberranzan, but I think I want some player agency to come from those experiences. I want my players to be able to draw on what they've done for a tangible benefit.

Over time, I've noticed a strong correlation to my players (and myself when I am a player) focusing on the things that allow them to have more power and more agency. You do more to get more so you can do more. And it just feels like the exploration avenue is untapped in that regard. Just as the combat/leveling system in D&D incentivizes and rewards combat, I'd like a system that does the same for exploration so that it can be a focus of the game for the sake of it. We can free-play explore all we want, but improvement and change on the character sheet is what cements it to the character. My players already enjoy exploring the mysteries that I set up, and I'd like to reward them with more agency and ability in addition to that.

Kind of rambling, I know, but my thoughts are a bit unfocused since design is a new subject for me to delve into like this. :smallredface:

Well then 2 ideas:
1) Acquire Resources - A Kobold tribe, a buried archive, an abandoned keep, a friendly merchant, a contact with the Guild ... all of these are resources gained through exploration. If they have goals that require resources, let them cultivate resources through their exploration.
2) Battle Scars - Every hardship survived hardens one's resolve and blessings granted accumulate. Basically give them DM created feats as a result of their exploration. For example: returning from Ravenloft might make fears pale in comparison (+3 to Will saves) but soaking in a nymph's spring rejuvenates the body (+1hp/HD).

NichG
2016-04-13, 10:35 PM
Great points. That last paragraph touches on some of my thoughts. I'd like to figure out what leveling in exploration would mean though. Fame, money, etc might play into it, but that treats the exploration as the journey, not the reward. I'd kind of like it to be both. Not in isolation of course, but I'd like exploration for the sake of it to be rewarding on a game level.


The more difficult but more rewarding road is to make knowing things inherently powerful in your campaign. Not mechanically per se, but in terms of being able to influence and control the overall pattern of events.

Example - in an ancient temple the PCs find information about an empire that has long fallen to dust - not because they died, but because they left the world to explore the cosmos. However, they had a duty to seal a particular evil away, and left magic items to monitor the seal. Tampering with one of the detectors will cause one of their scouts to show up and check the containment. Breaking one of the detectors will cause a military force to be sent.

Knowing this, the PCs can use it to sow chaos, summon a dimensional traveler for conversation, or for an emergency escape, etc. They can hold the seal hostage to threaten an enemy who would rather deal with the PCs than the sealed evil. And so on.

The knowledge and discovery can intrinsically provide more options, but to do so it must be interactive.

Thrudd
2016-04-14, 09:13 AM
Award XP mainly for finding things and returning to civilization with those things. Use a system of fame/prestige points that are also awarded upon returning to civilization and showing/telling of the journey. Ultimately, the goal of explorers is to translate their exploration into benefit for themselves or society. They discover a new country where either they or their countrymen can settle down, or farm/gain resources. They find an easier way to get somewhere that they can do that. In fantasy, they might find new magic or technology that will be useful for themselves or the wizards back home to make life easier for everyone.
They might end up with property in the new territory, and become barons or governors or mayors of a new settlement once dangerous locals have been dealt with.

pwykersotz
2016-04-14, 10:37 AM
The more difficult but more rewarding road is to make knowing things inherently powerful in your campaign. Not mechanically per se, but in terms of being able to influence and control the overall pattern of events.
...
The knowledge and discovery can intrinsically provide more options, but to do so it must be interactive.


Award XP mainly for finding things and returning to civilization with those things. Use a system of fame/prestige points that are also awarded upon returning to civilization and showing/telling of the journey. Ultimately, the goal of explorers is to translate their exploration into benefit for themselves or society. They discover a new country where either they or their countrymen can settle down, or farm/gain resources. They find an easier way to get somewhere that they can do that. In fantasy, they might find new magic or technology that will be useful for themselves or the wizards back home to make life easier for everyone.
They might end up with property in the new territory, and become barons or governors or mayors of a new settlement once dangerous locals have been dealt with.

These are great points. I will consider how I might implement them. :smallsmile: