Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 1: Gamemastery Basics

Running Exploration

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 17
Exploration covers a wide variety of situations, letting the group’s creativity and storytelling shine. You can also use it to control the pace of the game, guided by the number of interesting locations and phenomena in the area being explored and the level of detail you want to go into.

The Core Rulebook discusses running exploration mode starting on page 496 of that book, and this section supplements that information. If you want to run a session or adventure specifically focused on exploring and mapping uncharted wilds, consider using the hexploration subsystem. If you’re looking for guidelines on managing initiative, see page 11 in the Running Encounters section. As you run exploration, keep the following basic goals in mind. You’ll find more advice on many of these points in the sections ahead.
  • Evoke the setting with sensory details.
  • Shift the passage of time to emphasize tension and uncertainty, and speed past uneventful intervals.
  • Get players to add details by asking for their reactions.
  • Present small-scale mysteries to intrigue players and spur investigation.
  • When rolls are needed, look for ways to move the action forward or add interesting wrinkles on a failure.
  • Plan effective transitions to encounters.

Evocative Environments

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 17
As the PCs explore, convey their surroundings by appealing to the players’ senses. This sets the scene, gives them a better sense of their environment, and can be used to foreshadow what they might find ahead. When determining which details to cover, think about what’s familiar versus novel. A new dungeon might have similar architecture to previous ones but feature ancient structures that set it apart. You can use the PCs’ familiarity as a tool to single out what’s new. When preparing for a game, imagine yourself in the environment and jot down a few notes about what you would sense. Conveying these details keeps the players on the same page about what they sense, even if each character responds to it differently.

Keep in mind that the more you explain something, the more important it seems. This is valuable for you to drive interest, but can also be a mixed blessing, since describing something inconsequential to set the mood can lead players off on a tangent. Sometimes, the best solution is to find a way to make that unimportant thing as important as the players think it is!

Flow of Time

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 17
As noted in the Core Rulebook, you rarely measure exploration down to the second or minute. If someone asks how long something takes, the nearest 10-minute increment typically does the job. (For long voyages, the nearest hour might be more appropriate.) You convey the passage of time through your descriptions, but not just by addressing it outright. In a roleplaying game, information and time are linked. Time will seem to slow down the more detail you give. Think cinematically! A long voyage through a series of tunnels works well as a montage, whereas progress searching a statue for traps could be a relayed as a series of distressing details in quick succession, and would feel more tense due to that precision.

With that in mind, when is it best to speed up or slow down the passage of game time? Usually, you’ll slow down and give more description when you’re establishing something or progressing the story. When the PCs enter a dungeon or a new area, describe how it feels, slowing down to give the players a sense of what’s ahead. When a PC stops to do something important or makes a key decision, and slowing down gives that moment its desired weight. You can also adjust the flow of time to reflect PCs’ mental states. As a PC returns home after decades away, you might pause to ask the player what their PC is feeling, matching time to the rush of memories and emotions filling that PC’s thoughts.

Exploration Activities

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 17
As described starting on page 479 of the Core Rulebook, PCs will undertake exploration activities while they explore. The purpose of these activities within the game is to clarify what a PC focuses on as they explore rather than being able to unrealistically do all things simultaneously. This adds variety within the group’s behavior and can show you where players want the story to go. For example, a player whose PC is Investigating carvings on the walls shows you that the player wants those to be informative.

Exploration activities that happen continually as the group explores are meant to be narrative first and foremost, with the player describing to you what they’re doing, and then you determining which an activity applies, plus any details or alterations for the situation. If a player says, “I’m Avoiding Notice,” add more detail by asking what precautions they’re taking or by telling them which passages they think are least guarded. Likewise, if a player says they’re looking for traps and keeping their shield raised and covering the group’s tracks, ask them which is most important to narrow down the activity. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of an activity given current circumstances. For instance, someone Scouting might encounter thin ice and fall through before their group can reach them, or someone Investigating ancient hieroglyphs might critically fail and lead the party in the wrong direction. This does not apply for exploration activities that are discrete and occur when the group is taking a pause or zooming in on a particular action, such as Treat Wounds. Characters can always drop out of a continual exploration activity to perform a discrete one (even if they are fatigued and can’t sustain an exploration activity as they travel), and they can change activities at any time. The Core Rulebook covers how to adjudicate specific activities—Detect Magic, Follow the Expert, Investigate, and Search.

More on Searching

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 18
The rules for Searching deliberately avoid giving intricate detail on how long a search takes. That’s left in your hands because the circumstances of a search can vary widely. If the group isn’t in any danger and has time for a really thorough search, that’s a good time to allow them to automatically succeed, rather than bothering to roll, or you might have them roll to see how long it takes before they find what they’re looking for, ultimately finding it eventually no matter the result. Conversely, if they stop for a thorough search in the middle of a dungeon, that’s a good time for their efforts to draw unwanted attention!

PCs might get to attempt another check if their initial search is a bust. But when do you allow them to try again? It’s best to tie this to taking a different tactic. Just saying “I search it again” isn’t enough, but if a PC tries a different method or has other tools at their disposal, it could work. Be generous with what you allow, as long as the player puts thought into it! If you know a search isn’t going to turn up anything useful, make that clear early on so the group doesn’t waste too much time on it. If they’re determined to keep going—which they often are—you might have them find something useful but minor in the search.

More on Follow the Expert

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 19
Follow the Expert is a truly versatile activity that lets a PC who’s lacking at a skill or exploration activity have a better chance to succeed. It’s important that this doesn’t become too rote. Let the players decide how one of them is helping out the other. The description can give you more to work with and add fun color to the exploration beyond just the mechanics. Also, if one PC helps another in the same way over and over, that could be a sign of the character being helped growing in a particular way. If the rogue has been helping the fighter Avoid Notice over and over, the fighter is essentially receiving training in Stealth at that point and might want to consider taking or retraining a skill increase to make that true. Connections like these can breathe life into the characters and their relationships, and it can help promote camaraderie and interactions between characters.

Improvising New Activities

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 19
The list of exploration activities isn’t exhaustive. More appear in special subsystems and adventures, and you’ll often need to create your own. When making your own, it’s usually fine to just consider whether the amount of effort the PC has to put in is comparable to the other exploration activities and go from there. If you’re having trouble, try finding a comparable activity. For example, if the PC are Swimming as they explore, consider that travel speeds are based on the equivalent of 1 action per 6 seconds, and that other exploration activities the PCs can keep up without getting tired are generally based on alternating between 2 actions per 12 seconds, averaging to 1 action per 6 seconds. (Defend, for example, is based on using 1 action to Stride then 1 to Raise your Shield, which is why the PC moves at half Speed.) Hustle is a good example of an activity that can’t be done indefinitely, so you can use it as a model for strenuous activities where the PCs are using the equivalent of 2 actions every 6 seconds. When improvising an exploration activity, have in mind some advantages and disadvantages of that activity to inspire you. What else might the PC be neglecting while doing this activity? How does it interplay with activities the rest of the party uses? If the new activity seems like it’s a better option than other activities all or nearly all the time, chances are you might want to adjust it so it’s more balanced. Eventually, you’ll start to find which exploration activities your group enjoys the most.

Scenes Within Exploration

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 19
It can help you to think of exploration as a series of scenes, with encounters not just breaking up exploration, but functioning 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 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, 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 as you play. Also, it can be useful to go from PC to PC to avoid everybody talking at once. Start with someone who instigated the scene change, if possible, or perhaps the PC using the most relevant exploration activity, like a PC Investigating artwork or Searching for secrets in the example above.


Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 20
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 they should be glossed over. Give a clear picture of what action by a PC set off the hazard, what happens as the hazard activates, and 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 setback beyond just damage.

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 give 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 Gamemastery Guide pg. 20
The Investigate exploration activity is pretty broad and can lead into a more thorough investigation scene. Lead off with a definite clue that has details but clearly isn’t the whole picture: “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 the pillar caps are all made of granite, except for one that appears to be painted plaster,” or “Each of the stained glass shows scenes of one of the god Norgorber’s aspects, but there are only three windows, and Norgorber has four aspects.”

Then, if this piques 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.

To make the investigation feel real, it helps to talk the 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 a further question that detail raises. Then let the player extrapolate rather than telling them their conclusion. Even if the investigation doesn’t lead to a an unambiguous conclusion, the players should feel they’re more informed than when they started.

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.

Getting Lost

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 21
When PCs are exploring the wilderness or twisting dungeon corridors, they might get lost. This is most likely if they fail to Sense their Direction using Survival but 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 it’s 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.

The Sense Direction activity uses Survival to find 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 in deep wilderness. As the PCs try to find their way, 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 they can climb to get a better vantage point or a mountain slope where multiple plumes of smoke billow up, indicating a settlement. Others might be mysterious or dangerous, such as haunted glades or animal 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.

If the trek takes multiple days, you can move through each day pretty quickly. You might need to have the group Subsist if they run out of food, and you might want to include some encounters if they’re in a dangerous area. 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, resulting in more interactive scenes that might even help the PCs.

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

Surprise Attacks

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 21
Page 499 of the Core Rulebook covers the mechanics of how surprise attacks occur while PCs rest. Such surprise attacks should be used sparingly, even in dangerous areas. The fact that PCs are 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, rather than assume that their silence on the issue means they aren’t.

Related Rules

Exploration Mode (Source Core Rulebook pg. 479 3.0)