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Into the Wilderness: Propulsive Exploration

Into the Wilderness: Propulsive Exploration

Atop an impossible outcropping on Griffon Peak, Kareem and Yara planned their next move. A map was unfurled in front of them, covered in Yara’s neat Gnoll handwriting and notes in half a dozen other languages. “We could try the Rokhai Forest or the Drake Planes,” said Yara, “or head back to the city—”

“What’s that bit in Dwarvish?” asked Kareem.

“The Cavern of Unending Woe? Subtitled ‘Abandon all hope, all who enter here’?” said Yara. “Surely you can’t be serious.”

“Yara, I’m always serious,” said Kareem.

So your players have explored a region: climbed its highest peaks, overcome its greatest challenges, or at least got all the stuff done that they were interested in getting done. Now they need to go explore something else. Without compelling hooks to propel them forward, this can result in the players stalling or being unenthused about their next destination.

Getting to choose where you’re going and what you’re discovering next is a draw of exploration campaigns, and it’s perfectly normal for players to take some time and weigh their options before making a call. The problem comes when the game loses momentum when the players try to make decisions. This normally happens because the players don’t have enough information or aren’t invested in the information presented to them.

It’s very likely that you feel you’ve presented all the information players need to make informed choices. However, players can still run into this problem because they’re not sure what information to prioritize or they can’t tell what will lead to content that they’re interested in. It’s similar to how players can hyper-focus on random NPCs while ignoring dangling plot hooks. It’s not enough to present the information. You also need to make sure the players understand its importance and are invested in it.

To do this, you want that information to be prominent, repeated, and compelling. The tools we’ve developed throughout this series will help with that, but the most important thing is figuring out what motivates your players. It doesn’t matter how obvious the descriptions of a pristine mountain valley are if your players want to find ever-harder fights, and the strange monster lairs in an area won’t be of interest if the players are mostly interested in climbing high mountains or crossing inaccessible terrain. That said, you should vary the types of hooks you provide. If you never give them the opportunity to expand their interests, they’re likely not going to.

Once you have an idea of what will interest your player, you need to start formulating your hooks. Hooks can broadly be categorized as passive or active:

  • Passive hooks don’t need to be actively explained to players, and their simple existence invites exploration. This includes things like exploring interesting location names or blank spaces on a map, abandoned ruins, and weird-looking landmarks and following rivers. Passive hooks are generally tied to location, easy to create, and simple to present but generate less investment than other options.
  • Active hooks must be built up in narrative. They’re shifting or tied to current events. Monsters mysteriously wandering into settled areas, missing companions who must be found, rumors of dark rituals in ancient wilds, and other “more traditional” adventure hooks. Active hooks take more effort to create and present, but they generate more investment than passive hooks.

While you should include both types of hooks, active hooks are key to propulsive exploration. The urgency, stakes, and personal investment involved provides actual motive force to get characters moving and setting priorities. The key is to set them up in response to player action well before they’re needed and not to confound the players by presenting too much information. If a character makes a check that could set up a hook, make sure that the hook is presented last, is detailed, and is clearly delineated from any extraneous information. Additionally, if the character fails the check, you should hint that there would have been useful information if the check had succeeded, and it may be worth trying again next time an opportunity comes up. You don’t want these hooks to be too urgent. They’re meant to propel further exploration after the characters have finished their current task, not divert them immediately.

Passive hooks can be sprinkled in more liberally and with less focus. Just passing your players a map presents a plethora of passive hooks, and any description of a landscape can easily toss in a couple of new hooks. These are backups, they flesh out the world, they might catch the attention of the players, and they don’t require much attention. You still want the descriptions to be clear and distinct from other scenery description, but it’s fine to present more information alongside them or multiple hooks at once.

Let’s run through this with the Red Range. We’ve already defined points of interest, random encounters, and elements of the local area. We’re going to use them to create hooks that might lead characters into the Red Range and that they might encounter in the range that will lead them out.

Hooks Leading into the Red Range:

  • Griffon attacks have escalated around the Red Range. Something is driving the griffons to desperation, and you’ll need to visit their nests to learn what. (Active)
  • The impossible, twisting geography of Griffon Peak is visible from the lowlands below. (Passive)
  • Passing through the Red Range at Shifting Pass will save almost a week of travel time. (Passive)
  • The druids of the Red Range may know secrets about a spate of recent earthquakes, if one could find them and convince them to help. (Active)

Hooks Leaving the Red Range:

  • From a granite spiral, the characters see a region of blighted prairie north of the range. (Passive)
  • A caravan the characters saved tells them of an unexplored ruin in a shattered canyon to the far south. (Passive)
  • A young red dragon was forcing griffons to bring it food and treasure. It fled to the north, and evidence in its lair points the characters toward an active volcano. (Active)

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