Say about the AngryGM what you will, but everytime he puts out a new article, I find something to think about. Not necessarily what he is actually writing about in a given blog entry, but even if it’s only something presented as an afterthought or a tangent, it keeps my mind going and that is why in my opinion, Angry’s Blog is one of the most interesting blogs in the RPG community as of today.
This time, it is about exploration, especially about exploration from the player’s perspective and that is an important difference to make, because you can easily become confused by Angry calling all kinds of thing NOT-exploration, when these activities are defined as exploration by basically everyone else. I really recommend everyone to read the original post but I’ll try to summarize things quickly because that’s not even what I want to talk about.
So here’s how Angry defines exploration in 2 steps (and I quote):
1. The first thing that makes exploration exploration is that I – the player – have decided to satisfy my curiosity.
2. The second thing that makes exploration exploration is that exploration is, by its nature, a distraction from the current goal.
And here’s how Pathfinder 2nd edition defines exploration in the introductory chapter:
Most of the time, your character will explore the world, interact with characters, travel from place to place, and overcome challenges. This is called exploration.
Now I don’t want to discuss the fact that the Pathfinder definition isn’t actually a valid or helpful one (though it’s clear what they mean when you put it into the context of their three modes of gameplay model), but I want to focus on that Angry is defining the term from the player perspective, while Pathfinder is doing it from the perspective of the character. And that’s an important distinction even when I would argue that Angry isn’t completely clear on that point himself in his article all the time.
Because let’s face it, when you’re playing roleplaying games, your character is only the means with which you do it, and while PCs doing exploration can be fun at times, it isn’t the real reason you do it. If you look at the dungeon example Angry is describing in his blog post, it isn’t about the PCs deciding to stray from the road just to satisfy their curiosity (they would probably rather hurry to end the threat and maybe do some exploration after that), it is about the players wanting to know what’s behind that other corner. Same with computer games. The character from any of the Elder Scrolls games would probably follow the main story route, because that’s what set him going in the first place. It’s the players getting distracted by all the world stuff Bethesda is so great about putting in their games (in my case, in every of the TES games I got lost so much by all those distractions that in the end, I didn’t even remember what the main story was. Didn’t matter though because exploring those huge worlds was so much fun.
And here we come to the point that actually got me interested (and thinking): Angry rightfully states that every player gets curious for different reasons, so to make them want to explore, you have to know your players (difficult) and then you have to present them with all kind of things that might get them curious enough to want to explore. And that means that you have a lot of stuff to include into your preparation that might never see the light of the day in your game.
And this is kinda the first time I hear someone saying that more can actually be more instead of the usual advice to avoid overpreparing because “you don’t need this stuff anyways”. I’m also pretty sure that’s not exactly what Angry meant because he’s usually the one to tell you that you should cut any “unnecessary crap”, probably calling overpreparing Gms some not-so-nice names, as he does it. Still, if I think about it, that’s the essence of why I prepare so much stuff, why I’m so obsessed with details even when most of it will never get used in actual gameplay. Because in the end, it’s about giving the players choice, and with choice, I mean “meaningful” choice. And building a rich, vibrant setting is part of that. And building intricate, multidimensional plots is also part of that. And giving the players tons of hooks to follow is also part of that.
In the end, that’s why I love the Realms (or Aventuria, the world of the Dark Eye RPG) so much. Those settings are insanely detailed, and still there’s room to put your own things into them. I love world-building but it would take me years to have that degree of detail for my own world or even for that little part of the setting where actual gameplay happens. So using those settings and adding my own touches here and there, for me, is having my cake and eat it too.
It’s also why I like to work with published adventures, especially of the sort that Paizo produces. Because those modules come with a lot of background information to help you decide what to do when the players stray from the suggested course of things.
But it’s also why I love when my players come up with a bit of a background for their characters. Because that background can tell you a lot about what players expect from the game and if you combine this information with an adventure’s plot, the result will be an experience you could only have with that group of people you’re playing with, but it’s also something the player will be invested in. They’ll want to explore, not because you tell ‘em that that’s what the game is about, but because they are genuinely curious about how that game plays out.