Content of the article: "My summary of the exploration rules from the Angry GM"
Here's my summary of the 23,000-word blog post series Hacking New Modes of Play into 5E by The Angry GM. I thought it had some great ideas when I first read it, but when I went back to actually use the rules, I found they were buried within a lot of what I'll call "flavor text". This summary is for people who just want the rules, not the thinking behind them. Comments by me are in italics.
No rules in this section, just some good insights.
Modes of Play
Gameplay in D&D has different modes, such as combat, stealth, social interaction, and survival, but other than combat, they're not very well structured. Structure in combat improves flow and makes combat easier to run, and it also lets the DM role play the monsters without also worrying about constraining them, since the monsters are constrained by the structure.
By contrast other modes are much less constrained. This means more work and more judgment calls for the GM, especially if they're not experienced with game design. Constraints make it easier to run a mode, which means more people will do it.
Exploration is one major mode of play, characterized by an intermediate level of immediacy. It's less immediate than combat or social interaction, where events unfold moment by moment, but more immediate than travel and down time.
The Core Mechanic
When making rules for a mode of play, it's important to tie it to the underlying rules already there. It should be more like an extension of the game rather than a completely separate minigame. Keep in mind the Core Mechanic of D&D:
The player says what they want to do. The GM determines which ability modifier to use, and whether there are any penalties, proficiency bonuses, advantage, or disadvantage. The GM also determines the DC. The player rolls a d20 with the appropriate modifications, and achieves their desired outcome if they meet the DC. The GM also determines any consequences of this action, which may apply whether it succeeds or fails.
(Notice that the Core Mechanic includes attack rolls as a special case: the DC is the armor class of the target.)
If there's no cost and no risk associated with the action, then you skip the roll and just say they succeed. For example, breaking down a door might carry the risk of alerting monsters to your presence, but if they already know you're there, there's no risk and thus no roll. Time is only a risk or cost if something actually happens when time passes, like a timer counting down to something, or a random encounter roll that happens every 10 minutes. (Combat has a built-in timer with the turn system that applies to every action made during combat.)
If a roll is required, then often a player can retry a failed action. The same rule applies, but the situation may be different now. The modifier involved or the cost might be different the second time. If there's no cost anymore, then no need to roll.
The GM may also say the desired outcome is simply impossible to achieve, for instance if certain tools are required, in which case you also skip the roll.
Use the Skills with Different Abilities variant rule for every roll. That is, ignore which ability each skill is associated with, and choose the ability and the skill for each roll independently, based on the approach the player takes.
The players don't choose which skill to use; they describe their approach and the GM determines the skill involved. A player should never say they want to make an Insight check.
These changes to the rules are given as the introduction to the exploration rules module, but they can be used independently, in any mode.
Saving throws are weird, because it's the target making the roll rather than the attacker. Make saving throws outside combat fit better with the Core Mechanic by treating them more like reactions. For events that would normally trigger a saving throw, such as setting off a trap, consider asking the player how they want to react to the event, and then have them make a saving throw for their roll if appropriate. Don't do this during combat, though. (This is sometimes called the "click" rule.)
Don't roll for passive skills. Instead just use passive checks. However, subtract 2 from the PHB version for passive check total, i.e. use 8 in the formula rather than 10. This makes active uses of a skill stronger than passive uses.
Passive skills are for something that happens automatically, like noticing someone's feet behind a curtain or recognizing a plant on sight, and active skills for things that require an action, like searching under the bed or examining a plant to tell if it's poisonous. Rolling for an active skill can be fun because you were responsible for the choice, but rolling for a passive skill feels, at best, like you just avoided getting screwed.
Checks to see whether a character knows something are also passive. Knowledge-related skills like Arcana can still be rolled if the player is doing something active with that skill, such as research.
You can go even further and say someone succeeds any passive check where they have proficiency, and only set a DC for advanced uses of the skill or particularly obscure knowledge.
Also use passive scores to set a DC for someone acting against a character's skill. For instance, the DC to bluff your way past a guard may be equal to the guard's passive Wisdom (Insight) score. The common example of this is Stealth vs Perception, and an attack roll vs AC is also a special case of it.
If a task requires tools, it should also require proficiency with those tools. You can make exceptions but they should be explicit.
When multiple characters work together, use the Working Together rule but instead of advantage, apply a +2 bonus for one helper or a +5 for two or more. All characters working together must be able to attempt the task on their own (for instance, if it requires proficiency).
When multiple characters are doing the same thing but not acting together, such as foraging for food or sneaking across a courtyard, use this alternative for group checks. Make a single roll for the entire group, and identify whether you need one to succeed, or all to succeed. If one success means the group succeeds (as with foraging), take the highest modifier (ability + proficiency) of any character in the group, and the single highest applicable buff of any character in the group, and advantage if at least one member of the group has advantage. If one failure means the group fails (as with stealth), then it's the opposite: the lowest modifier, the worst penalty, and disadvantage if anyone has it.
EXPLORATION MODE RULES
This rule set is based around tying the resolution of actions in with the passage of time.
Time is an important implicit component of many game situations. For example, if time is not an issue, then the optimal strategy for dealing with traps is to search everywhere in every room multiple times, which leads to a bad play experience. So handling the passage of time well will have big consequences.
Within the rules, resource drains and random encounters are reasons why time is always an issue, but they're not that effective at actually penalizing players for wasting time, because resources are cheap and combat is fun. Plus these things slow down the game. Since the rules let you get away with mostly ignoring them, many GMs will.
Also, the players are barely aware of passage of time for the characters, and certainly don't feel it. So they're not inclined to treat time as an important resource.
The passage of time in exploration mode should be more structured and more visible to the players, like it is in combat with turns. The important aspect of a visible time tracking system is not timekeeping accuracy, but instilling a sense of dread at wasted time. It should also be less work on the GM's part.
Tasks in exploration
In exploration mode, non-immediate tasks take between 1 and 10 minutes, such as securing a rope or picking a lock. Moving between rooms too, because the party is generally moving slowly and carefully. An entire combat encounter is treated as an immediate task.
Players can typically choose to rush non-immediate tasks, which has tradeoffs. Non-immediate tasks are typically quiet (meaning no louder than quiet talking) unless they're rushed. The DM determines whether a task is immediate and whether it is quiet or noisy based on the players' description of the task.
If a task takes longer than 10 minutes, it is an extended task, and is treated as a series of subtasks, each taking 10 minutes. For instance, you might require 3 subtask successes to complete a task that takes at least 30 minutes.
Tasks are resolved using the Core Mechanic. Resolve immediate tasks right away. Before resolving any non-immediate task, see what the other players are doing while that player is doing their task. Once everyone is done with immediate tasks and is either doing a non-immediate task or waiting, then the non-immediate tasks are resolved in order, using rolls where appropriate.
The Time Pool
After resolving non-immediate tasks, the GM then Advances Time, which means:
- Any effects that last 10 minutes or less expire.
- The GM adds one token to the Time Pool, which is a time tracking system visible to players.
- If all non-immediate tasks are rushed, do not add this token.
- If there are already 6 tokens in the Time Pool, instead Clear the Time Pool back to 0 tokens. At this point, any effects that last 1 hour or less expire. Any longer effects have 1 hour subtracted from their remaining duration.
- Roll for Complications if any of the following is true:
- Any of the tasks attempted were loud, including any immediate tasks done since the last time the GM Advanced Time.
- Any of the tasks attempted were rushed.
- You Cleared the Time Pool in step 2b. Use 6 dice in this case.
You also Roll for Complications separate from Advancing Time if the players do something to attract attention, such as arguing loudly or tripping an alarm.
For a short rest of 1 hour (as well as other activities lasting about an hour, at your discretion), instead of breaking it up into 6 tasks, just leave the Time Pool as is and Roll for Complications once using 6 dice. You can roll twice if they're resting loudly.
After a complication is resolved, remove 1 token from the Time Pool if it's not empty.
If you're tracking time of day, advance it in one-hour increments, once every time you Clear the Time Pool or take a short rest.
A complication occurs if you roll one or more 1's. The number of dice you roll is equal to the number of tokens currently in the Time Pool (minimum of 1, maximum of 6). d6's for average environment, d8's for safer areas, d4's for more dangerous areas. The die used can change over the course of a dungeon if the danger level changes, such as when tripping an alarm.
Complications can either be random, or pre-determined to fit the environment. They don't need to be combat encounters. Consider environmental hazards like rock slides. Find the thing in the adventure that hooks into the passage of time and use that.
Larger complications can be broken up. For instance, an evil ritual being performed deep in the dungeon might require 5 steps, and a complication is one step being completed.
Complications that are combat encounters should be Easy and confer no XP, to feel more like a nuisance and not take up too much real time.
Expect 4-6 complications per adventuring day.
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