Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 1: Running the Game / Running Exploration

Scenes within Exploration

Source GM Core pg. 35
It can help you to think of exploration as a series of scenes, where encounters break up exploration and function as subsections within it. Many of these are based on geography, for example, with exploring a series of dungeon corridors as one scene and entering the dungeon's great hall kicking off another. Other times, you'll break out of a scene at a point of interest. If the PCs decide to stop their travels and investigate a statue, think of that as a new scene.

This gives you a good point to describe the transition between scenes. Describe what was happening to reinforce where the group was, then describe what they now face to show the change. For example, “You've been making your way through this long hallway, but after a moment of debate, you stop, your footsteps and voices still echoing down the hall. The stone statue before you is seven feet high and adorned with rubies. It represents... maybe a god? Its face is damaged and broken. What do you do?”

When playing out a scene, your initial description should set the expectation of what level of detail the scene might go into, with you and the players adjusting as needed during play. Since players aren't bound in a strict initiative order in exploration mode, it can be useful to proactively call on PCs to avoid everybody talking at once. If possible, start with someone who instigated the scene change, or perhaps with the PC using the most relevant exploration activity, like a PC Investigating artwork or Searching for secrets in the example above.

While the number of scenes that could take place during exploration is limited only by your imagination and your players' actions, there are some common types of scenes that often come up, which are detailed below.

Daily Preparations

Source GM Core pg. 35
Just before setting out to explore, or after a night's rest, the PCs spend time to prepare for the adventuring day. This typically happens over the span of 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, but only after 8 full hours of rest. Daily preparations include the following.
  • Spellcasters who prepare spells choose which spells they'll have available that day.
  • Focus Points and other abilities that reset during daily preparations refresh. This includes abilities that can be used only a certain number of times per day.
  • Each character equips their gear. This includes donning their armor and strapping on their weapons.
  • Characters invest up to 10 worn magic items to gain their benefits for the day.
Beyond making these mechanical decisions, daily preparations can be a good time to check in to see how players might think their characters are feeling. The twentieth morning of a long voyage might see the characters wearily strapping on their boots and armor as listlessness sets in, but the sun rising over a hill as the invading skeleton army finally arrives to lay siege to their city could have a tense air of fear or might taste of the rush before a glorious last stand. Use this time to set the stage for the adventuring day to come!


Source GM Core pg. 35
The task of looking for and disarming hazards comes up frequently in exploration and is an example of a type of exploration scene. Hazards don't usually appear out of nowhere. A trap might be on a door's lock, at a specific bend in a corridor, or so on. You could have a pit trap in the middle of a large room, but a surprise that's entirely unexpected can be pretty unsatisfying. The same pit trap appearing in the middle of a 10-foot-wide, suspiciously featureless hallway can make the players say, “Okay, we should have seen that coming,” with even that minimal amount of foreshadowing.

When a complex hazard triggers, move to encounter mode. Simple hazards are usually dealt with in exploration mode, but that doesn't mean that they should be glossed over. Clearly depict what action by a PC sets off the hazard and what happens as the hazard activates, and illustrate any aftereffects. PCs have many ways to heal themselves, so keep in mind that a damaging hazard won't always have a huge effect. They tend to work best if their activation might alert creatures in the area, lock the PCs out of an area, or cause a similar narrative setback beyond just damage or another condition easily removed outside of the pressure of combat.

Searching for Traps

Source GM Core pg. 36
PCs usually have a better chance to detect hazards while exploring if they’re using the Search activity (and the Detect Magic activity, in the case of some magic traps). If a PC detects a hazard and wants to disable it, slow down a bit. Ask the player to describe what the PC is doing and provide concrete details about how their efforts pan out to make it feel more real. It’s good if the player sweats a little bit! It’s supposed to be a tense situation, after all. If a hazard requires multiple checks to disable, it’s good to describe what happens with each success to show incremental progress.


Source GM Core pg. 36
Investigating and searching for clues is another common exploration scene. Lead off with a definite clue that has details but clearly isn't the whole picture. For example, you might say: “These runes look like ones used for arcane magic but are some kind of variant form,” “As you assess the architecture of the room, you see that the pillar caps are all made of granite, except for one that appears to be painted plaster,” or “Each of the stained glass windows shows scenes of one of the god Norgorber's aspects, but there are only three of them, whereas Norgorber has four aspects.”

If these details pique a player's interest, you can go into a more detailed investigation. They might look at the runes more closely, chip away at the plaster, or search around for a representation of Norgorber's fourth aspect. Avoid calling for checks if it's not necessary. In the last example, you'd likely tell them which of the deity's aspects is missing without another Religion check, and if the aspect is represented as a statue in the room, asking for a Perception check to find it might short-circuit the investigation in an uninteresting way.

Though one person starts the investigation, getting others involved can help them become more interested and bring different skills to bear to get other types of information. Reward collaboration and clever ideas.

Roleplaying Investigations

Source GM Core pg. 36
To make the investigation feel real, it helps to talk a player through their character’s thought processes by saying what clue inspired them to think of an important detail, explaining what the detail is, and possibly mentioning further questions that this detail raises. Let the player extrapolate their own conclusion rather than giving them the answers outright. Even if the investigation doesn’t lead to an unambiguous conclusion, the players should feel they’re more informed than when they started.


Source GM Core pg. 36
Long journeys are staples of the fantasy genre, but they take work to be fun in play, especially if the timeline the PCs are on isn't urgent. Use encounters and special scenes only if there's something compelling to cover. It's perfectly fine to fast-forward through exploration to get to the next stage of an adventure. That said, you should keep in mind that if any players have invested in exploration-themed abilities for their characters, those abilities should still matter.

You can usually move through a travel scene pretty quickly. For a journey that takes multiple days, you might need to have the group Subsist if they run out of food.

Travel Speed

Source GM Core pg. 36
Depending on how you track movement, the adventuring party might track the distance they travel in feet or miles based on the characters' Speeds with the relevant movement type. Typical rates are shown on the Travel Speed table.

The rates on the Travel Speed table assume that the characters are traveling over flat and clear terrain at a determined pace, but one that's not exhausting. Moving through difficult terrain halves the listed movement rate. Greater difficult terrain reduces the distance traveled to one-third the listed amount. If the travel requires a skill check to accomplish, such as mountain climbing or swimming, you might call for a check once per hour, referencing the resulting distance on the Travel Speed table to determine the group's progress.

Travel Speed

SpeedFeet per MinuteMiles per HourMiles per Day
10 feet10018
15 feet1501-1/212
20 feet200216
25 feet2502-1/220
30 feet300324
35 feet3503-1/228
40 feet400432
50 feet500540
60 feet600648


Source GM Core pg. 36
The Sense Direction activity uses Survival to find which way is north. You can combine this with Recalling Knowledge about the area—typically using Nature or Society—for the PCs to get their initial bearings. The DCs for these checks are normally trained or expert if the group is still fairly close to settlements or established nations but might be higher the deeper they are in the wilderness. As the PCs try to find their path forward, think of ways to include notable landmarks they can seek out or stumble upon. Some of these might be useful, such as a great tree off in the distance that they can climb to get a better vantage point or a mountain slope where multiple plumes of smoke billow up, which might lead them toward a settlement. Others might be mysterious or dangerous, such as haunted glades or an animal’s hunting grounds. When the PCs first look around or scout, pick two or three landmarks to point out. Let the group decide on their course from there.

Getting Lost

Source GM Core pg. 37
When PCs are exploring the wilderness or navigating twisting dungeon corridors, they might get lost. This is most likely as a consequence for failing at Survival or similar checks, but it can also happen based on the story, such as if they drop out of a portal in some strange land or come up from an underground passageway into a forest. Playing through the process of wandering in the wilderness and trying to find their way can be fun for a party, provided they do so for a fairly short interval. If a party is lost at the start of a session, they should usually have found their way and reached a significant destination by the end.

If the PCs get unlucky or are just awful at Survival, they might end up stuck with no way to reorient themselves. In these cases, have someone come to them! They might get captured by local humanoids or monsters or even stumble upon a dangerous location. They've figured out where they are, even if it's not where they wanted to be!

Encounters During Travel

Source GM Core pg. 37
You might want to include some encounters if the PCs are in a dangerous area, especially if they travel for a long time. For these encounters, choose creatures that live in that type of environment. Remember that not all creatures attack on sight. Friendly or cautious creatures might approach the characters, resulting in more interactive scenes that might even help the PCs.

Difficult Terrain

Source GM Core pg. 37
Difficult terrain such as thick undergrowth usually slows down progress. Unless it’s important how far the group gets in a particular time frame, this can be covered with a quick description of chopping through the vines or trudging through a bog. If the characters are on a deadline, adjust their progress on the Travel Speed table (page 36), typically by cutting it in half if almost all of the land is difficult terrain or to one-third for greater difficult terrain.

Hazardous Terrain

Source GM Core pg. 38
Hazardous terrain, such as the caldera of an active volcano, might physically harm the player characters. The group might have the option to travel directly through or to go around by spending more time. You can transition into a more detailed scene while the characters move through hazardous terrain and attempt to mitigate the damage with spells or skill checks. If they endure hazardous terrain, consider giving the PCs a minor or moderate XP reward at the end of their exploration, with slightly more XP if they took smart precautions to avoid damage.

Environmental Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 38
Dangerous crevasses, swampy bogs, quicksand, and similar dangers are environmental hazards, which are described beginning on page 90.

Adverse Weather and Terrain

Source GM Core pg. 37
Exploration gets slower when the party faces dense jungles, deep snow, sandstorms, extreme heat, or similar difficult conditions. You decide how much these factors impact the characters’ progress. The specific effects of certain types of terrain and weather are described starting on page 90.

Surprise Attacks

Source GM Core pg. 38
Surprise attacks should be used sparingly, even in dangerous areas. The fact that PCs are usually in a group scares away most animals, and setting a watch can deter even more attackers. Surprise attacks are most likely if the PCs did something in advance that would lead to the ambush. For instance, they might be ambushed by bandits if they were flaunting their wealth or showing off expensive items earlier in the session, or they might be counterattacked by enemies if they attack the enemies first, only to retreat to rest. If the PCs set up camp hastily and decide not to set a watch, they might be in trouble if they’re attacked. This should happen only in cases of extreme sloppiness, since if you take advantage of minor lapses, you might end up with a group that repeatedly spends an inordinate amount of time describing all their camping preparation to keep it from happening again. It’s usually better to ask the PCs if they’re setting up watches (page 43), rather than assume that their silence on the issue means they aren’t.

Starting Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 38
If an encounter begins, you’ll need to shift to encounter mode by having everyone roll initiative, as described on page 24. Call for initiative once a trap is triggered, as soon as two opposing groups come into contact, or when a creature on one side decides to take action against the other. In some cases, a trap or a foe has a reaction that tells you to roll initiative. For instance, a complex trap that’s triggered might make an attack with its reaction before the initiative order begins. In these cases, resolve all the results of the reaction before calling for initiative rolls.