When you act as the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons group (or any tabletop RPG for that matter), you probably hope to tell great stories. To that end, many DMs will draw up maps, create NPCs with fun quirks, and plot out all kinds of big twists. Those things are certainly important, but they only make up one of the three pillars of D&D– social interaction. TheGamer already has a guide about how to make the second, combat, more exciting. The third is exploration, and it plays a very important part in storytelling.
"Exploration" in D&D covers everything that isn't talking or fighting. It could be obvious things like going through a haunted forest or delving into an underground cave. It can also be sneaking through a bandit camp while they sleep, transporting a cursed artifact that slowly drives the holder insane, or working out a sphynx's riddle. While these events can be exciting at first, eventually you'll find players passively say "I'm going to make a stealth/arcana/perception/etc. check" and roll their dice. So how does a DM keep exploration interesting? These five house rules could be a good start.
5 The "Click" Rule
Dungeons are often filled with traps that, if triggered, will fire something at the players. The common reaction to this is a dexterity saving throw to dodge. The issue with this is that it gets stale fast, especially when you're dealing with rogues or monks that have such high dexterity that traps will never hit them.
That's where the "Click" rule (courtesy of Youtuber Dael Kingsmill) helps. Instead of just calling for a roll, say "click" or make some other sound that's appropriate for the trap. Then, players have a split second to declare what they do in response. Do they duck and cover? Run? Throw up a shield? Whatever they do, you can use that to inform their roll. Maybe they automatically succeed because they ran, or get disadvantage for ducking when the trap falls from above. Get creative, and you can make the simple trap an exciting moment.
4 Levels Of Success
Let's say the adventurers are trying to climb up a steep cliffside. You ask them for athletics checks and they get rolling. You set the DC for the task at around 17 since the task is hard but doable for a band of hearty adventurers. The fighter and paladin crush it, achieving something over 20 once their modifiers are applied. The rogue and sorcerer are less fortunate, with the rogue getting a 14 and the sorcerer a 6 even with modifiers.
What happens then? It's easy as a DM to just say the fighter and paladin zoom upwards while the rogue and sorcerer fall and take some damage. Then they keep trying until they get a good roll. Maybe the paladin offers to pull them up, giving them advantage. Those are decent options, but they also just turn the whole ordeal into a bunch of rolls.
This is where it's better to think of degrees of success. The rogue almost made it, so why not acknowledge that? Maybe they slip a little and take very light damage as they hurt their arm trying to grab on to the rope. Then they get a bonus to their next roll since they're close to the top. The sorcerer, however, slips a lot further down. Perhaps their bag opens as they fall, and one of their healing potions crashes to the ground. Mixing up the consequences and acknowledging varying degrees of success can make even a simple climb turn into an intense scene.
3 Surprise Stealth Checks
We discovered this one on the Dungeon Dudes Youtube channel. This rule addresses players who like to shout "I use stealth!" and then roll the dice. Rogues especially can get addicted to this habit thanks to their high stealth modifier. How can a DM create a believably dangerous situation when one of the party members always assumes nothing can see them?
Simple, make it a rule that you the DM call for stealth rather than having the players declare it. The idea is that only you know when something is searching for the adventurers, so you tell them to roll stealth when there's actually a need to hide. This makes stealth checks a more dangerous thing because the players don't always know who or what is spying on them. The rogues can still sneak about, but their stealth now comes into play at key moments rather than being some kind of always-on buff.
2 Fireside Chat
One thing that can get boring is the travel between exploration. Some DMs choose to skip the three day walk from the town to the abandoned castle. Others make the long trek part of the game at the risk of bogging it down. This mini-event is a great way to add flavor to the hike.
When the party sets up camp to rest in between days of traveling, take a deck of playing cards and draw one card for each player. Each player is then invited to share a campfire story based on their card's suit. The relationship goes according this rhyme: a story of love, a story of pain, a story of loss, a story of gain. Heart is love, club is pain, spades is loss, and a story of gain is diamonds. The players can make up a story about their character's life, or something they've heard. Either way, it makes for a great opportunity for players to develop their characters while breaking up a long stint of exploration. It also gives you the DM cause to hand out inspiration.
1 I Know A Guy
This rule mostly applies to urban exploration. Perhaps the party is trying to solve a murder or strike a deal for sea travel. They failed a crucial persuasion check or didn't talk to that helpful street urchin you put in their path. What can they do now? Maybe they know a guy...
This rule means that you allow players to potentially solve a problem by "suddenly remembering" that they know someone who can help. The rogue could have a criminal contact who can forge official documents. Or maybe the ranger once met a sailor at an inn who will provide passage. By giving players this power, the DM encourages creative role play. Also, the players might feel more invested when the solution to a problem is something they came up with.
Of course, the DM still has plenty of room to add challenge. You can say that the rogue owes their criminal friend a debt, and forging those documents will add to it. The ranger's sailor friend could have a thing against elves and give the elven fighter trouble. Whatever you decide, using "I know a guy" allows for players and DM to actively come together to move the story along.