Recipe for Exploration Encounters in Dungeons and Dragons

Recipe for Crafting Exploration Encounters in Dungeons and Dragons

I love to cook, but don’t always keep up with my recipes and the same was true for playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. However, in making my own adventures, week after week, my players leaned upon the edge of their seat waiting in anticipation for my next big encounter. I decided that I was doing something right (people kept coming back for more) so I wanted to write up a recipe.

I love all of the pillars of D&D, exploration, social interaction and combat. In my mind, they all fit under the general umbrella of roleplay in their own unique way. I feel like combat is straightforward and interaction usually involves silly voices and banter until the dungeon master decides the encounter is over (it’s much more dependent on our specific table’s social rules). With exploration, how do you run your encounters beyond a single dice check? This is the best recipe I know for crafting an exploration encounter in your games.

Ingredients and Instructions

The goal of this recipe is to help each player explore the setting until they discover all of the information.

A list of Informational Ingredients to be Discovered within the Setting is provided below. You may use one of each or as many as you can imagine to spread throughout the entire exploration encounter.

  • Observations
  • Knowledge
  • New Information
  • Mysteries
  • Complications
  • Gain
  • Risk

Note: Within the following examples, the game master must fill the italic words with their own examples based on the specific setting for exploration encounter. If you want help with enriching your descriptions, visit How to Describe Scenes to Prompt Exploration.

Example – A Large Oak Tree Fortress.

This large oak tree castle is set within an expansive field, other than it’s appearance, there is no hook in which to draw the players. Instructions: Use the ingredients below to draw in the players to explore.

Observations – What can they perceive?

  • Senses – Use all of them! They see, smell, or hear some change in the setting – the bark of the oak tree smells earthy and provides healing points from it’s sap if extracted, but can only be done by a druid, ranger, or monk.
  • Movement- they feel a movement in the environment – every hour a sacred wind blows around the tree and each creature must make a Strength save or be pushed 10 feet, but those who have tasted the sap gain advantage as they receive a premonition.
  • Weather – how is the weather? The weather shows clear skies, bright light and good for vision.

Let me pause here and show you my thought process. The goal of this encounter is to be explored and will do so if you lead the players with a bread crumb trail of information. So, when the player approaches the tree, they must see the bark, but please don’t end there. Either call for a perception check, or use another sense to describe the sweet smell of sap. If they don’t lean into the exploration, give another player a clue as they approach with the glistening sap reflection of the light. Once the player chooses to interact with the sap, reward with a whopping 1 temporary hit point if they touch or lean into smell. This sets the stage for the player’s ability to harvest the sap if they choose. Either way, they know this tree is full of healing properties that can be unlocked. This promise should extend throughout the encounter so that at any time, the player may choose to access that discovery. Let’s continue.

Knowledge – What can they already know?

  • Fact – – A player remembers that oak trees are the oldest trees in the world.
  • Opinion – a player recalls that the local villagers believe the tree is alive.
  • Legend – a player recalls that a god once set up a shrine within the fortress.
  • Lie – a player recalls that demons feed off of the sap and are known to haunt.

The best way I know how to hand information to you players is to simply tell them that their characters know. It is likely that their characters have gathered information around game time, so why not grant them the knowledge? You can roll for random as to who already knows this information and then watch with glee as your players roleplay that knowledge and determine what is true and what is not. This information can also help the player in social situations as well. If you are a very brave game master, you will simply state to your player that their character recalls a piece of knowledge about this oak tree setting and wait to see what their creative mind generates. Either way, find appropriate times in the game to hand this information to your players. 

New Information – What new things can they learn?

  • Information regarding the Quest – within the fortress, there is a prisoner trapped within the root dungeon who reveals the identity of the villain.
  • Complication regarding the Success – to further explore the oak tree fortress, a toll must be exacted by powerful guardians.
  • An answer to a Mystery – the barbarian’s tribe once travelled here as evidenced by the pictures on the walls of one of the rooms. They are alive.
  • An update on the Setting – from a high vantage point, the volcano can now be see as brimming with fire.

Exploring this setting should come with some rewards that are also pertinent to the story and especially the individual story of the players and their quest. Plant this new information throughout the setting in places that the players are sure to explore. In the above examples, I made sure that each piece of information could be transplanted into any part of the oak tree fortress. I don’t want the players to miss these goodies, so I make them lightweight and hinging upon the previously explored areas. So, if the player touched the sap, then they would also remember the shrine, which would lead them to the shrine where the barbarian’s family relics are located. Remember to link your information together through the player’s actions within the setting

Mystery – What can be puzzling or mysterious?

  • A Sense – A sound of singing originates from the root hinting at an underground location.
  • An Item – A letter from a previous tenant speaks of a secret room or treasure.
  • A Puzzle – a locked door, a moving painting, writing on the wall

The best way that I know to create mystery is to present half of something that makes the players ask “what about the other half?” When you add out of place information, hidden information, or unanswered questions, you present a mystery that will keep the player exploring the setting. Once again, use the momentum of their actions to present new information and then answer the questions of the puzzle as they explore new areas of the setting.

Complications – What can go wrong?

  • Pests – present a challenge native to the setting and if possible, neutral but hamping to the progress of exploration.  Termites within the oak tree begin to sense your interrupting presence and eat away at your items.
  • Change in the Setting – adjust the light, sound, and movement of the player’s senses, weather outside, or positioning of the rooms. At the top of the hour, the tree draws water from the earth and floods the chambers in which you walk.
  • Conflicting Interests – present a memorable NPC with a conflicting interest that could end in partnership, deception, trade, parlay, escape or combat. – a goblin hunter seeks out old relics and wants the barbarian’s family heirlooms for a trophy.
  • Attack – present a predator, monstrous being, or villain to attempt to threaten the player’s exploration. –  suddenly, a host of fiends arrive from a portal with ambition to destroy the tree and all within it. 

Complications are wonderful ways to tell the players that they are on the right path. As you link information to player’s actions and then reward with more information that links to new information, the layers of your setting can be explored. Complications can also be linked to information to discover as well. For example, the termites tunnel through the wood showing a letter from a previous adventurer, or the fiends could fight through the characters only to break through a previously locked door revealing a treasure trove of family heirlooms. Complications, at the most, extract the character’s resources and present a challenge for the players to solve while on their quest to explore.

Gain – What can they win?

  • Prize – given your Wizard’s constantly low armor class, a nice sentient cape of shielding flies around the oak tree. It will attach itself to you if it can be persuaded.
  • Friend – now that you made it to the top, a pixie exclaims you won and vows to record your deeds for it’s life. Provides advantage on perception checks for one player.
  • Enhancements – each potion in your pocket doubles in efficacy for 10 days and then retires as a normal potion. 
  • Rest – this magical wooded realm welcomes you to rest for 7 days in which you gain proficiency in an ability of your choice.

One of my favorite parts of the game is designing means to boost my player’s statistics for winning. See how I get creative outside of the handbook? To design a boost, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Where are they weak? – give them armor and HP but design it thematically with their character. Plate armor is great, but equal to a light mithral shirt and works for the character.
  • What do they wish? – give them an item that functions as normal, but also does something else outside their character class or skill. 
  • What looks cool? – give them something that makes the player feel more in character – a minotaur skull as a helmet. Provides no boost, but makes for an intimidating character and encourages roleplay.
  • What encourages character interaction? – give an item to one player that another player can use, and while seemingly useless, encourages the one player to interact with another. Example: let the rogue find the spellbook.
  • What will anchor them into the story and setting? – great opportunity to give them one of many pieces of a magic item that will drive them towards the quest to save the world. Make it obvious, such as a key, an inkwell, or a blacksmith’s hammer.

A great gain to include are books and here are 100 Books your Players will Enjoy

Risk – what are the dangers?

  • Luring – within the oak tree, a bright light dances upon the walls, begging you to follow. Please make a saving throw against being charmed.
  • Injury – while making your attempt to climb further beyond the party, the branch snaps beneath you and you fall, suffering an injury for the next 7 days.
  • Impairment – after downing all of the magic potions, your body suffers a restful feeling and risks falling asleep every hour. Please make a saving throw against sleep.
  • Lost – before pressing on through the tunnels, you recognize a similar drawing upon the wall and discover that you are lost. Please subtract 4 hours from your timekeeping and make a check to navigate.

There are so many more exciting elements to risk before death. I try to keep my player’s characters conscious during the entire game – it’s no fun to roleplay as unconscious, but if you do, throw in some visions of the afterlife to increase their knowledge of the universe. Instead of unconsciousness, make exploration dangerous. Remember to link the risks directly to the player’s actions by offering them the previous information. As the tree tunnels fill with water, the players decide to run for it – and this may lead to being lost. As the potion room brims with magic, the player decides to try them all and suffers an injury. The key to remember is to link the next step of the game directly from the player’s actions. By adding risks, you allow the player to continue the game, but with a new factor to consider in their exploration.


This is the point in which two or more options are in front of the players and they choose one. The decision is this point in which the characters follow along the new path of the encounter. This decision should be the linking point that triggers the next stage of the encounter. The order should follow like this:

The game master presents the large oak tree and describes the strange liquid leaking from it’s bark. The players decide to take a closer look and trigger the Knowledge encounter. Now that the players have information on the context, they decide to interact with the entrance and trigger the Observation encounter. This appeals to the players, so they decide to move beyond the entrance point and trigger the Mystery encounter. The players decide to investigate or solve the mystery and this triggers many encounters such as Risk and Gain and also New Information. At this point, the players are well into the encounter and the game master can go back and include any other pieces of information remaining from the Observation, Knowledge, New Information, or Mystery. The game master waits for the players to decide on the next action to trigger a Complication which may lead to another piece of information such as a Gain. The exploration of this setting, the Large Oak Tree Fortress doesn’t stall because the player’s actions to engage trigger the next encounter. Advise the game master to end the encounter with a transition once the players decide they exit the setting or the game master introduces an interruption into a new direction.

Resolution – Every action the players make can alter the setting somehow and the game master should keep track of the changes. After the decisions are made by players, the game master may then resolve the encounter and introduce a transition into the next setting.

Transitions are simple ways in which the game master manipulates time and spaces within the setting. A transition can look like the following examples.

  • As you walk into the next room, you see a door leading out of the tunnels.
  • When you finish your rest, you see the new daylight coming in through the window.
  • Beyond the spacious cavern leads a hallway out into the daylight.

Each transition gently moves the players from one setting to the next. In the case of the Large Oak Tree Fortress, the game master transitions the characters from the Large Oak Tree back into the spacious fields or down a branch slide from the top of the boughs to the bottom of the trunk. It is still up to the players to decide to engage the transition, but the game master may indicate it happens if they perceive the players are ready to move on. 

Finally, keep in mind that performing exploration encounters will take some time to practice and of course, will require some modifications as you play the game! As with any skill such as cooking, practice over time equals performance! Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception and with each encounter you run as a game master, you will improve your skill set. And isn’t that what exploring is all about? Be a fun game master and keep laying useful and fun pieces of information for your players to find and they will keep playing the game with you!

And as always, may your story continue!

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