Exploration, Pathfinding, and How to Know the Difference

Inspired by my recent playthrough of Star Wars: Fallen Order, I have been pondering how the term exploration gets used in videogames and tabletop roleplaying games. Exploration is one of the Three Pillars of Dungeons & Dragons along with Combat and Roleplaying/Social Interactions, and I find it is the most challenging to define. Exploration implies that there is uncharted territory that the players can either uncover or even create new information to fill in the blanks. The DM and the players sit down at a table and must create…. something.

Exploration (in theory) gives the players an infinite canvas – you can go anywhere and do anything. Exploration (in reality) fills the canvas through one – and usually a combination – of these three things:

  1. A published setting
  2. The DM’s homebrew plans
  3. Collaborative worldbuilding between DM and players

I imagine most games are run on the settings that are published by Wizards of the Coast with DM homebrew plans coming in second place with collaborative worldbuilding sprinkled in.

This has been on my mind after reading a review of Fallen Order that said the game is less of an action game and more of an exploration game. I recoiled at this description. It’s not exploration, it’s pathfinding!

What’s the difference?

Fallen Order has routes along the map that can only be accessed through specific Force powers. There are multiple routes (or paths) the player must find and then figure out the Force powers required to navigate them. One could argue this is exploration from the player’s point of view, and I would argue that it is not so much exploration as pathfinding.

The game designers created a route that has a lone solution and the player is tasked with uncovering the one and only way to navigate through the route. To place this in terms familiar with tabletop gaming, it feels an awful lot like railroading.

“Players, we’re going for a ride!”

However, are not all published settings a form of railroading and pathfinding? When a published book details the nooks and crannies of a tomb, the players are not so much exploring that tomb as they are painting along the canvas to designated margins. The DM is aware of the bounds of the adventure and shapes and likely narrows the players’ explorations into the available paths.

A core skill for DMs is to understand what feels like exploration or pathfinding from the players’ perspective and how to pick and chose your spots to turn the dials one way or the other. A great example of this is Chris Perkins running the Dungeons & Dragons X Stranger Things holiday session last Christmas. During the introductions, one of the players mentions that they are seeking revenge on a yeti that killed his entire family. Perkins files that information away and about 80 minutes later, the party encounters that yeti on their way to their overall destination for the quest.

Perhaps this was plotted out ahead of time by Perkins and the cast though it felt organic as it played out during the session. A player mentioned something important to his backstory and the DM incorporated that player’s backstory and motivation seamlessly into the adventure. Maybe the yeti replaced a different monster that was planned for the session or maybe Perkins just threw the yeti in there for some added spice. Either way, Perkins leaned into the third option listed above: collaborative worldbuilding between DM and players.

I find myself wanting games that are heavy in this third type of exploration and less-reliant on the pathfinding type of exploration. It’s another reason why I’m excited to run Strixhaven because it gives everyone at the table a familiar academic setting where players can contribute to shaping the world. A friend recently joked that as a kid their D&D group had a town, field (low-level encounters), and woods (dangerous encounters). And that’s it!

Honestly, what more do you need?

One of the issues with recent D&D hardcover books is that it seems to offer a similar play experience to Fallen Order. It’s less about exploring and more about a chain of events the players get involved in and continue to stay involved in regardless of their motivations. The DM presents the entrance to the path and nudges the group along the way to stay on a specific path.

I realize the alternative is difficult, and it’s something Teos Abadia spoke about during our recent discussion on finding new ways to present adventure information visually to assist DMs. Creating a book of possible plotlines and potential encounters without a series of connected encounters is a challenging book to write and properly organize. Publishing a book from a variety of writers with disparate encounters and settings that kinda-sorta fit together as a whole is easier.

And those books serve a useful purpose and are not inherently bad in any way. This is important! They heavily lean into the first type of exploration listed above; they give the DM and players something to talk about when the game begins.

“Here’s a town! Here’s some dungeons! Here’s a faction! Here’s an important artifact! Here’s who needs your help!”

An excited DM

I mean, that’s the game. And that likely serves many players well.

It would be nice to see content that shapes the game experience for all players in a different way. I’m hoping Strixhaven is heavy on setting details and less specific on a paths that must be found and followed. Develop content that encourages collaborative worldbuilding so sessions for more like the following!

“Listen, DM, buckle up!”

One can hope.

Summary

  • Consider the differences between exploration and pathfinding in your games and experiment with turning down the pathfinding dial.
  • Change maps, make up NPCs, go sideways during an adventure, let the players surprise you!
  • Let the players nudge the canvas margins! So what if it’s not in the adventure. Add in that killer yeti; it’ll make for a better experience!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

2 thoughts on “Exploration, Pathfinding, and How to Know the Difference”

  1. In my opinion, the common definition of exploration referenced in this post is too narrow. The exploration pillar encompasses more than just -territory- exploration. Instead it encompasses the total experience of presenting interesting questions that players can seek answers to through gameplay. Exploration, at its simplest, is any and all of the activities associated with answering questions players are interested in. Research, interrogations, investigating a room for clues, etc. are all just as much exploration when they’re done with the intent to learn (i.e., discover) something not previously known.

    Build the game on “exploration” first. Fill the world with interesting questions, challenging spaces, NPCs, lore bits, etc. and then set the players loose. As they wander through the space(s) trying to find answers to the questions that they wonder about, they will naturally bump up against combat & social encounters. Combat and Social interactions are simply ways to provide answers to the wondering. In fact, I’d argue the game isn’t on 3 pillars. Exploration (wonder & wander) is the backdrop against which Social & Combat takes places.

    This is why even a linear adventure can still have an exploration experience.

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