Exploration, Seeing What There Is To See

I’ve written this post two or three times now in my head, each time with a different emphasis. Hopefully I’ve chosen a good one.

Map of Plymouth, Whitesands and South Hams
Plymouth, Whitesands and South Hams

And I’ve just decided to bail on everything I’d written to start over, because I was digging into the differences between sandbox flavors (hex crawl versus node/point/path crawl… which I talked about a bit earlier this week with regard to cartography styles).

I decided to abandon all that and cover the sort of thing that really comes into any kind of exploration — overland, dungeon, city, even in books and other sources of knowledge.

As far as I can see, there are several degrees of information detail to be gained while exploring: the obvious, the inobvious, and the hidden.

The Obvious

The obvious is exactly that. If you are in a position to observe something, you do.

When exploring a hex in a hex crawl, these are things that are immediately evident in the hex. Terrain is generally one of them, major (or at least, large) landmarks and settlements are others. However, ‘major landmark’ and ‘settlement’ are not always clearly defined — a hex six miles from edge to edge, which is in many ways a small hex, is a little over 31 square miles, and it would be very easy indeed to not notice a fishing village or temple on the top of a hill. A city (with supporting roads), a river, a distinctively-shaped mountain (outside a mountain range) could all be ‘obvious’.

With a node crawl or path crawl, almost anything near enough the edge (path) you are following could be obvious, or nearly. Unlike a hex crawl where you are likely wandering, with this mode of crawl you are generally following pretty specific directions, so your path is fairly predictable. Depending on the direction you travel from node to node, points of interest (that might not themselves be worth full node definitions) on your route can be trivially found.

In a dungeon, the obvious includes everything you observe without examination. I usually present them in descending order of interest, generally starting with threats or potential threats (monsters! or other moving things), then other creatures, then room trappings (decorations, loot, and other interesting things), then other stuff. At this stage I present only the things that can be seen without effort, so (to use a common example) you will see the ceiling festooned with webs, you likely won’t see the spiders (that experienced delvers will expect to be there).

Generally the obvious is stuff you will find whether you want to or not, and don’t do anything to provoke that which is not obvious (such as digging around the midden and finding rot grubs; had you left things well enough alone they wouldn’t have been found). Mechanically there is no check or specific action needed to find these things if it would be reasonable you could; if there is a check it is probably on the order of DC 5, dead easy for anyone who doesn’t take a penalty.

This can also involve general, imprecise descriptions of things present. A mound of treasure (of whatever definition you want for mound; it might be a foot across or a hundred feet across, depending on circumstances) might be described as “a heap of mixed coins the size of your shield, with a bracelet and dagger visible in it”.


The Inobvious

The inobvious are things that are unlikely to be noticed immediately, but may become apparent to the alert, the inquisitive, and (sometimes) the unfortunate.

In a hex crawl, these could be things that could be found only with deliberate scouting, “seeing what there is to see”. You don’t just travel through the hex (which turns up the obvious), you are looking it over to see what’s there. If a city or a river are obvious features, here you might discover the smaller towns, larger tributary streams (that you don’t cross in your travel), and so on.

In a node crawl, the inobvious are things you would need to take steps to find, potentially stepping away from your planned path. The shrine next to the road you are following is obvious to you, the path leading away from it into the trees is only found if you stop to look around the shrine, or you have someone sharp-eyed enough to spot it.

In the dungeon, I would consider ‘stuff not immediately apparent but that you get clear hints at’ to be inobvious. You might be lucky enough to spot them in passing, or there might be a clear prompt to look closer. For instance, a Spot check might find a skeletal hand sticking out from the pile of rubble (also found if you specifically search the rubble), and I would consider the contents of the chest you just found to be inobvious as well — you can’t see what’s in the chest, but it’s not like you aren’t going to open that chest.

Generally the inobvious consists of things that you either can either find without intending to (such as when you spot something in passing) or took specific steps to find once you had reason to do so. Often there might be a Spot check that can be obviated by taking action. If you scout the hex you will certainly find all the obvious things, and the inobvious; if you look around the shrine you will find the path leading into the bush; if you sift the rubble you will find the body; and if you open the chest you will find what is inside it (and no Spot DC to notice the contents, because they are obstructed).

This can also include more detailed information than was presented in the obvious description. The previous mound of treasure (small mound) can be described in more precise, if mundane, detail: “about twelve pounds of silver and four of gold, a gold bracelet, filigreed and studded with emeralds, and a dagger with matching filigree and an emerald pommel; under the coins is a similar sheath that clear belongs with the dagger”.

The Hidden

The hidden consists of everything that you cannot expect to find by accident (Spot check need not apply) but might find through searching — especially if you know exactly where to look.

In a hex crawl, you’re not going to find the aranea village by accident; it has been carefully concealed in an area unlikely to be visited… but if you track the aranea who ambushed you back to their lair or have directions to find it, then you might.

In a node crawl, you’re unlikely to find the treasure buried near the shrine unless you either search for it blindly (dig the entire area up) or know that the shrine markings identify, to those who know how to read them, where a further marker is that will identify where the treasure is.

In the dungeon, you might get lucky and find the skeletal remains under the rubble, or find them for certain when you sift through it, but there’s quite a good chance you won’t find the treasure behind the (now well-buried) loose stone he was messing with when the trap collapsed the ceiling on him.

Generally hidden items require that you either know where they are or spend time looking for them. Specific action or thorough searching is typically required, and even then a search check may be needed.

You might include precise details about the treasure here: exact coin counts (1184 silver pieces, 409 gold pieces), specific value of the bracelet (40 gold pieces worth of gold and seven 50 gold piece emeralds, worth together 780 gold pieces due to the workmanship), and the specific value of the dagger, both mundane (500 as an ornate masterwork dagger, 425 without the sheath) and magical (a +3d6 frost dagger — equivalent of a +3 weapon in my campaign, thus 18,500 gold pieces nominal market cost, with sheath).


I like to prepare my notes with the information arranged in the order it will be used. Obvious first, since that will almost always be found whether the observer tries or not. After that, the inobvious, the things that may or may not be found (and if the GM forgets, it’s not that big a deal — they implicitly failed their Spot check, move on). Finally, the hidden, the things they won’t find unless they take specific action to do so.

I remember some time ago in my Links of the Week posts (ah ha! June 11, 2012 — man, I want to start doing these again) FrDave of Blood of Prokopius, LasgunPacker, -C of Hack & Slash riffed on the topic, with Brendan and me throwing in some comments here and there that really had an effect on this mode of presentation. I am in the midst of redesigning the layout, to see if I can cause it to fit well with a template I’m considering using.

In any case, I like to have the information presented from most obvious to least obvious. I have done it as a table with the rows going from ‘most likely to be encountered first’ and working down to ‘most likely to be encountered last, if at all’, then columns for obvious, inobvious, and hidden. An encounter area might look like:

Element Obvious Inobvious Hidden
Western Door Heavy wooden door, opens into hall, handle on the south edge Not locked, listening will/may discover gutteral chanting Chanting consistent with orcish sacrificial ceremony
Orcs About a dozen orcs kneeling and facing an orc priest at an altar to the east, preparing to sacrifice a humanoid <orc stats, priest stats>; sacrifice is a female elf
Sacrifice Female elf, bound to the altar <elf stats> Actually a dark elf spy the orcs caught; didn’t reveal herself because while the orcs don’t like elves, they really hate dark elves and there would be nothing to be gained.
Altar Stone altar, blood channels, well-used sacrificial stone Bloodstained, defaced, was originally an altar to <another god> It still is; the orcs are not worshipping the god they thought they were.

And so on, with the various elements of interest having such information provided for them.

Not all parts need to be present. If there is nothing hidden, that column could be dropped. An element may be present but hidden, in which case the Obvious and Inobvious columns might be empty.

Closing Comments

When exploring, there are several layers of discovery. By arranging the information gained into those groups, you gain several benefits.

First, you can set the scene for the players, focusing on what they will (likely) most care about before anything else. You can point primarily at the obvious that they are likely to interact with and provide hints at deeper things. The players can treat things superficially (kill the ogres and take their stuff) or possibly gain more by engaging.

Second, attentive characters can gain more from the events. By investigating the obvious (or getting lucky, true, but that tends to draw them in also), they can find insight into the inobvious, and possibly gain more. More treasure, more trouble, it’s all the same to me :)

Third, tenaciousness can pay off, but not nearly as well as gaining knowledge first. You could pry up every flagstone in the dungeon and possibly find something (unless it’s hidden behind a false stone in the wall…), but learning specifics before you go in pays off better.

Finally, multiple layers of knowledge to be gained while exploring often leads to the possibility of multiple visits to an area, making the work worthwhile. If it is possible, especially if it is easily possible, to learn everything in one pass, it becomes difficult to engage with a place. Exploration works best when it holds the attention of the explorers.


  1. Actually, in retrospect I probably would drop the elf and orc stats here in order to focus on the narrative elements. I might keep treasure stats here generally because they tend to be pretty short, but monster stat blocks can be long enough I don’t want to clutter what should be a summary table.

    Not that that changes a lot, since I’m revising the entire thing anyway to try to fit to a narrower text column.

  2. I have slightly different categories for hex contents: obvious, hidden, and landmarks. I don’t really distinguish between inobvious (concealed?) and hidden, assuming that the difference will usually be clear in play.

    The presentation proposed here seems pretty heavy for what is otherwise a pretty simple room. If it were me, I would probably write it up like this:

    Sacrifice chamber. Altar. Female elf (actually drow spy, orcs don’t know) about to be sacrificed by 12 orcs + 1 orc priest who worship Some God.

    There’s not really anything here that requires being extra careful about clues (like a nasty trap), so I feel like the formal template is mostly getting in the way. That’s a lot of text to parse. There’s really no need to write details about the sounds; that should be clear from the contents.

    In general, I’ve become pretty suspicious of templates in RPG information presentation, as it seems they often encourage including unimportant information.

    • The presentation here is pretty heavy, I won’t dispute that.

      I can do abstract things very well, and it’s part of why I’m so good at my day job, but quickly generating detail consistently, without being repetitive[1], is harder work to me. I find that things work better when I have a little more prepared than you would use. I overlook too many pieces if I don’t.

      [1] that is, quickly coming up with the sorts of things I want to come up with, at a consistent grade, without repeating myself a lot or forgetting things.

      • That makes sense.

        Maybe more of a focus on nouns with simple description, to support the desire for anchored details? And there is some redundancy that could be cut out (example: the word altar shows up five times; could probably be cut down to 1).

        • Possibly so, the text could be made quite a bit shorter. I like having lots of notes so I can focus on interaction rather than invention or remembering during play, because I can use the help. Depending on what I’m writing and the audience I can see sticking with presentation like this (especially for beginning DMs who could use the same help I do), including the copious whitespace that hopefully makes it easier to find things. I can also imagine greatly reducing the detail (and what would for this audience be wasted space) if this were, for example, an encounter reference to deliberately be expanded on, such as Matt Stater’s hex crawl information in _NOD_. Summarizing an entire site with a paragraph or two is very concise, and useful for idea mining, but I would likely want to expand on anything like that that I use.

  3. Pingback: A-Z April Challenge 2013 | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  4. Pingback: A-Z Challenge Forfeit | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top