Exploration RULES!

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All right, it’s time to bite the f$&%ing bullet and get started on this project I’ve been building up for some time: building rules modules that extend D&D to allow for different modes of play and improving the bits that already exist. We are going to hack the s$%& out of the game. We’re going to change the way the players poke and prod the dungeons for secret doors, hidden treasure, and traps. We’re going to crack the holy grail that is crafting. We’re going to develop solid systems for social interaction. We’re going to come up with rules for building complex scenes of different types. Awesome, right?

I figure I should get about a dozen f$&%ing articles out of this s$&%, which will alternate with my articles about building and running games.

What is a Rules Module?

Before I start building the first module, it’s important to define what a rules module actually is. To me, a rules module is a set of rules and mechanics that extend the existing rules of D&D and allow for added mechanical depth of play. Extension is key. I don’t want to change the rules of D&D. I just want to add mechanics over them. Of course, I will tweak or fix rules when I feel it’s important. But I will try to keep those changes minimal.

Obviously, modules need to be modular. That means a rules module must be a self-contained chunk of related rules. It should be easy to say what the rules module does and when it should be used and what experiences it will add to the game. And the rules should all be related. No one wants rules for mass combat mixed in with rules for traps and rules for social interaction scenes. And no one wants the mass combat rules spread across three different modules.

That said – and this is f$&%ing important given the way I’ve outlined and planned this project – that said, modules can be grouped together and they can use other modules as prerequisites. In fact, that’s going to be important today. Why?

The Master Module: Exploration the Angry Way

Why is it important to understand how modules can be grouped together? Because we’re going to start by building an Angry Master Module – which is a name I just made up for the thing I’m doing today. As I mentioned before, before I can build anything useful or fun or modular, I need to build an underlying framework of slightly more advanced rules. And I’ve already done some of the work. Remember that bit about Tweaking the Core? That stuff about building the Time Pool? Those were the foundational work.

The problem is that there were some wonky bits in those two articles. Some of them, I found through testing and tweaking. Others were identified by readers, some of whom politely pointed them out and others of whom were massive bags of d$%&s about them.

And that brings me around to what I’m doing today. See, if I were to envision is as working toward something publishable – like a PDF or a book or whatever – I’d probably group a bunch of modules together. I’d have a master module that contained the big rules changes to various parts of the game and then I’d have all the other actual modules listed after them. You could use any of the modules you want, but all of them would require the master module.

In short, those rules tweaks and the time pool bulls$&% will – with some heavy revision – serve as the core rules from which other modules will be built. Which is why we have to fix them.

Exploration the Angry Way: The Exploration Master Module

The rules tweaks I’ve described above – some of which we will be fixing today – will form the core of what I might call the Exploration Modules. Those are the modules that pertain to the mode of play in D&D that we might call “exploration.” And, look, I don’t like that name exactly. But D&D references it. In fact, D&D references three specific modes of play: exploration, combat, and interaction. And that just goes to show how bats$%& insane the designers at WotC are. Because of those three modes of play, only one is an actual useful thing, and they gave that one a stupid name.

Broadly speaking, we can divide D&D into four different major modes of play. First, there’s encounter play. In encounter play, the characters are making moment-by-moment decisions and taking very short actions, actions measured in seconds. They may or may not be following an initiative order. These include various sub-modes of play like combat, chase scenes, action scenes, and social-interactions. Second, there’s travel. During travel, the characters are moving from place to play over an extended period. They choose actions that may cover hours or even days of game time and they generally keep to them until something happens. The third mode of play is exploration. That’s the middle ground. Exploration lacks the tension of combat, though sudden surprises and setbacks can happen. And it generally covers shorter time intervals than travel. Players will generally spend a few minutes on an individual task. The players may be moving from scene to scene during exploration, as in exploring a dungeon complex, or they may be playing out an extended single scene, such as stealthily infiltrating an enemy stronghold. The fourth mode of play is down time. Down time can cover hours or even days of activity. The party is generally not engaged in immediate activities and tend to be focused on long-term tasks such as crafting, research, training, building reputations, or carousing.

And those four distinctions: encounter, exploration, travel, and down time are a perfect way to divide up our modules. And it helps us specify exactly when those modules should be in play. The exploration rules we’re building now aren’t for use in combat or during travel. The fact that they don’t work for travel or combat or down time or whatever is utterly irrelevant.

Exploration has a completely different focus from those other modes of play. Encounter scenes, for example, focus on life-or-death situations, split-second decisions, and very short term resources. But exploration works at a slower pace. It is dangerous, but it’s dangerous by way of attrition and through daily resource management. Things like hit points, hit dice, fatigue, non-immediate conditions, spell slots, character abilities, and magic item charges. Of course, longer-term resources might also get used up, like one-use magic items. Stuff that pertains to the longer term – like rations and water and climate and weather – those things don’t really have a place in exploration. And stuff that pertains to the very short term, like conditions that end after a few seconds or cantrips or what have you? That belongs in the encounter sphere.

I’m not saying a character can’t fall prone or cast a spell with an immediate duration during exploration. What I’m saying is that those things are incidental to exploration. They don’t effect it. A short-duration spell is only important insofar as it affects a single task. We don’t need to know any more than that. Falling prone is not a good consequence for failure during an exploration task because it has no actual impact. However, being poisoned for an hour certainly does have an impact. And because it takes an hour to recover hit points via hit dice – or it requires the expenditure of healing resources – hit point damage is definitely a part of exploration.

So, that tells us a bit about what exploration is and the sort of mechanics we’re going to futz with when building rules for exploration. Now, let’s look back at some of the rules tweaks I made, fix a few problems, and explain why I’m NOT fixing or removing some things that people wrongly THINK are problems.

Tweaking the Tweaks

Look, there’s no reason to republish all of the rules tweaks I made to action resolution back in Tweaking the Core. The article is still there. You can go back and read it. But if I were, say, publishing a collection of Exploration Rules Modules with a master set of rules as the introduction, they would certainly be a part of that. And, who knows, maybe I could be convinced to throw just such a thing together.

So, let’s discuss some of the corrections that need to be made and some of the things that are working JUST FINE AS INTENDED despite the apoplectic fits they created.

On Passive Perception and Passive Knowledge

Man did people freak the f$&% out when I suggested that just because something is based on a stat, it doesn’t need a die roll. I’m not going to address all of the complaints or discussions here. At a certain point, I do just have to say “sorry, I’m right, you’re wrong, and I don’t care to argue any further.” But there were some really good points raised that deserve being addressed. And it seems like a few people were confused about where the lines between passive and active should be drawn and how the GM should use the separation between passive and active when designing adventures.

First, regarding the line between passive and active. The way I see it, every skill has a passive component and an active component. But some skills ONLY get talked about in terms of their active component (like Athletics) and others ONLY get talked about in terms of their passive component (like Religion). And that’s just f$&%ed up because it limits the skill system unnecessarily. Here’s how I divvy it up. And how you should too. Because I’m right.

The active component of a skill involves choice and action. It involves a direct interaction with the world. The passive component involves no choice, no action, and is entirely internal. The easiest way to see the difference is to consider the difference between NOTICING something and SEARCHING for something.

When you walk into a room, there’s a chance you might notice something. Or at least notice a sign of something. If someone is hiding behind a curtain, you might notice their bulk under the curtain. Or you might notice their toes peeking out from under the curtain. Or you might notice the curtain is disheveled and rumpled as if it’s been moved recently. That’s automatic. It’s passive. It doesn’t require an action. Your eyes and your other senses and your brain just handle that crap. You don’t even have to think about it. Yes, there is the small and barely conscious act of looking around, but that’s something that you’re hard wired to do. You take in your surroundings as a matter of course.

However, if you suspect someone might actually be hiding in the room, you’re going to search around for them. You’ll look around, you’ll prowl around, you’ll peer under things. You might move things or bend down to examine the floor, looking for scuff marks. If you notice something that seems odd, you’ll get closer and examine it in more detail. Doing so, you might notice muddy footprints leading to the curtain. Or the fact that the curtain has disturbed the dust on the floor. Or you might just find the hidden person by prodding the curtain or throwing it back. But that’s active. It’s a choice to take some action in the world and requires actual interaction with your environment.

Likewise, skills like Arcana and Religion and Nature SHOULD have active and passive components. Passive components are things like factual recall and recognition. You recognize a plant by sight, you recognize a religious icon and recall that god’s scriptures, you know what an elemental is and recall useful information about it. Those are things that happen in your brain. If someone were watching you, they wouldn’t realize it happened. Because you did nothing in the world. The action happened entirely in your brain. And there’s no choice. You can’t choose NOT to recall facts about something you recognize.

Arcana and Religion and Nature can also include active components. If you’re researching elementals in the library, you’d be looking for specific books, skimming through appropriate passages, cross-referencing and verifying things, consulting texts by authors you know and trust, and so on. That’s an active use of Arcana. You choose to do the research, you interact with the world, and it is based on your knowledge and training with arcane lore. Priests conduct religions rites like weddings or funerals or offer minor blessings or lead prayers and sacrifices. Those are choices and interactions that rely on the priest’s religious expertise. Experimenting with a plant – even on a rudimentary level such as rubbing it to note the texture and thickness of its leaves or tasting a tiny portion of it or smelling it – is an active interaction with the world. It might reveal properties about the plant even if the specific plant can’t be identified. The bitter taste of poison, for example. Or a minty smell that hints that it might useful in curing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

 

The reason why the line is useful is because die rolls, by themselves, aren’t actually fun. There’s nothing inherently fun about rolling dice. There needs to be something that gives the die roll some weight. In RPGs, that weight comes from choice. That’s why attack rolls are more emotional than saving throws. When you roll an attack roll, a success feels great and a failure feels bad. When you roll a saving throw, a failure feels like a screwjob and a success feels like you didn’t get screwed. That’s an important distinction. And passive rolls are the same way.

When you roll a check for information, you get information. But that information is rarely a reward in-and-of-itself. Usually, that information just provides a new option or allows you to make a better informed choice. Getting information isn’t super exciting compared to breaking down a door or killing a monster. But when you fail that check for information, you lose out on something. And you don’t even know what it is. And if you later suffer because of that lost information, it feels like you got screwed by a die roll you had no say in.

Emotionally speaking, an active roll feels either great or terrible, but you also feel responsible for the choice that led to it. A passive roll feels either okay or terrible, but you also feel like you had no control. And considering every die roll takes time from the game and requires the flow of the game to be broken to resolve the mechanics, that’s a pretty s$&% tradeoff.

And that’s why I created the rule to STOP ROLLING PASSIVE ROLLS.

Now, as a GM, if you have information you’re going to gate behind a passive knowledge check or passive perception or whatever, you set a DC for the check just like you normally would. It doesn’t require any change to the way you prepare. You still use the normal DC range 5, 10, 15, 20 depending on how complex or esoteric the knowledge is. It requires absolutely NO CHANGE to your prep. You don’t have to take into consideration the scores that your players have (unless you want to). You don’t have to add a bunch of information you wouldn’t otherwise include. The only change is to the die roll. Don’t roll the dice. Just quietly – without consulting with the player, ideally – compare the DC to the result they would have if they rolled a 10. Just keep a list of everyone’s knowledge skills and passive perception scores. And when you dole out the information, you just say something like: “Alice, thanks to your religious studies, you recognize this as an icon of Shrub Niggurath, the eldrtich horror who takes the form of a non-euclidean geometric topiary.” Done and done.

I could rant about this. I really f$&%ing could. I’m utterly baffled about the level of resistance GMs have put up over GIVING THE PLAYERS USEFUL INFORMATION! I don’t understand why GMs would even want to create information and lore and world details that would help the players make better choices and bring the world to life and then NOT SHARE THEM because a f$&%ing random number generator said not to. I mean… you know what? Sorry. I’m not going to rant.

Thank the gods I didn’t tell people the crazy thing I do. Do you want to know? Do you want to know what I do when it comes to knowledge skills? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you how I handle this s$&%. Prepare to have a f$&%ing aneurism. IF THE CHARACTER HAS THE PROFICIENCY OR RANKS IN THE SKILL, THEY GET THE INFO. THAT’S RIGHT. THAT’S WHAT I DO. I DON’T EVEN COMPARE NUMBERS!!! I’VE BEEN DOING IT SINCE 3E!!! AND THE PLAYERS HAVE NEVER NOTICED!!! THEY THINK I’M ROLLING CHECKS!!! AND I DON’T!!! I’M CRAZY AND RUN TERRIBLE GAMES!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Now let the passive thing go already for f$&%’s sake.

The Proficiency Rule and the Tool Rule

Speaking of, here’s just a quick rule I missed in my Tweaking the Core article. D&D 5E skirts around the issue of “training requirements.” In general, it doesn’t answer the question of whether you can even an action without a proficiency or tools or whatever. In the cases where it HAS TO address the question – such as with regards to thieves’ tools, lock picking, and disabling traps – it hides those answers thoroughly and gives multiple, contradictory answers in different places. Well, I need an official ruling for some of the trap rules I’m going to be using later. So I’ll just have to make my own. Consider this rule a part of the Exploration Master Module.

A task that requires specialized tools – such as a proficiency kit – generally also requires specialized knowledge and training. Thus, characters may only attempt tasks using tools if they also possess the proficiency with those tools. The GM may decide that specific tasks are an exception, as might adventure designers, but they should be explicit. For example, a GM might allow any character to disarm a trip wire with thieves’ tools simply by cutting the trip wire.

The GM or adventure designer may also decide that a specific task requires training, tools, or both. Characters lacking in the required training or tools cannot attempt the action. The GM or adventure may allow improvised tools to work, but should impose disadvantage on ability checks for doing so.

Group Checks

I’m happy with my changes to the “helping each other” rule that changes the bonus to +2 for one assistant and +5 for multiple assistants. But the “one roll for group checks thing” wasn’t quite working as intended. So, here’s the new rule:

Group Checks. When several PCs are trying to accomplish something as a group, the GM can call for a group check. First, the GM determines whether the group will succeed if any member succeeds (such as with searching) or if the group will fail if any member fails (such as with stealth). In the first scenario, the group rolls a single check using the highest ability check modifier and proficiency bonus available to any single character. If any member of the group would have advantage on the check, the check is made with advantage. If any member of the group is benefiting from any bonuses that would apply to the check, the best single one of those bonuses is also applied to the check. In the second scenario, the group rolls a single check using the lowest ability check modifier and proficiency bonus available to any single character. If any member of the group would have disadvantage on the check, the check is made with disadvantage. If any member of the group is suffering from any penalties that would affect the check, the single worst one of those penalties is also applied to the check.

The group still makes a single check. In most situations, the group can avoid penalties by focusing all of their efforts on shoring up a single character, but if the group if swimming in penalties – like everyone wearing heavy armor during a group stealth check – they have to address all of the penalties to get rid of them. But it also prevents the group from getting overwhelmed with penalties. All right, now, with that out of the way, let’s make our Exploration Rules.

The Reaction Rule

I’m happy with the reaction rule that I original presented. I think it works well. I’m just mentioning it here so you don’t forget that it’s a thing.

Now on to the Exploration Rules themselves. These rules entirely replace the Time Pool stuff I wrote. Consider that thing a first draft for the core of my Exploration Master Module. Okay? Here we go.

Exploration Tasks

During exploration, the party is generally engaged in tasks that will take several minutes at a time or they are moving between nearby locations, like rooms in a dungeon. Obviously, more immediate tasks are possible.

When a player declares an action, it is important to distinguish between an immediate action and one that will take a few minutes. Kicking open a door or jumping over a pit are immediate actions. Securing a rope and climbing down one side of a pit and up the other is a task that will take a few minutes. As is picking a lock. Any action that will take more than one minute but less than ten minutes should be considered an exploration task.

During exploration, the party is generally moving slowly and carefully. That means that tasks that would otherwise be quick and easy – like crossing a room, opening a door, moving down the hallway, and reaching the next room – tend to be a little slower. Think about it. The party must gather back up in their marching order, move quietly to the door, someone will peer through, everyone will stop to listen, they will move slowly down the hall, and stack up against the next door. And then decide what to do. Thus, moving from one room or scene to another should generally also be considered an exploration task.

Exploration tasks can also be quiet or noisy. A noisy task is one that can be heard or perceived at a reasonable distance. A quiet task is one that is no louder than quiet talking, one that would be difficult to hear from more than a few feet away. Kicking open a door is a loud task. Picking a lock is a quiet task. Movement between rooms is generally quiet as long as the party is making some kind of effort to go carefully.

In order to determine whether an action is immediate or not and whether it is loud or not, the GM should listen carefully to the players’ description of their actions and ask questions as needed. But the default position is that a task is not-immediate and it is quiet. The party can rush or hustle if they so desire and if the GM allows it. A rushed task is almost always loud unless the GM determines otherwise. The effect of rushing will be described below.

Actions During Exploration

As is normal, once a player declares an action, the GM determines whether the action can succeed or fail and determines whether an ability check is required. The GM should also determine whether the action is immediate and also whether the action is quiet or noisy. If the description of the action doesn’t make that obvious, the GM should ask questions of the player to determine those answers.

If the action is immediate, the action can be resolved immediately. If the action was loud, the GM Rolls for Complications (see below).

If the action is not immediate, however, the GM should let the other players know that the character is engaged in an action that will take a few minutes and ask what the other players are doing during this time. This should be done before the non-immediate action is resolved. If any players undertake immediate actions at this point or ask questions, they should be dealt with immediately. If any players declare actions that aren’t immediate, those actions should be held. Once all the players are committed to non-immediate actions or to waiting for their allies to finish their tasks, the GM should resolve each non-immediate task in turn and then Advance Time (see below). If any of the actions were loud, the GM should Roll for Complications (see below).

Example: The party enters an ancient study. There is a book chained to a lectern in the middle of the room, an ancient desk, and a bookshelf filled with aging books. Unbeknownst to the party, there is also a strongbox sitting on the floor behind the desk. Any player in the vicinity of the desk will notice it immediately. Alice says, “I want to go check out that book on the lectern.” The GM explains that it is a leather-bound book, aged, but intact. The cover has a padlock, locking it closed, and it is secured via a chain to the lectern. Alice wants to investigate the book further. The GM asks what she means. She says she suspects the book might be protected by a trap of some kind. She’d like to be sure it’s safe before she tries to unlock it. The GM says “that will take several minutes, okay? While Alice is doing that, what do the rest of you do?” Bob says he’d like to go over an examine the desk. The GM says “as you approach the desk, you notice a metal strong-box on the floor beside it. It is closed with a padlock.” Bob says “I want to try to pry open the padlock with my crowbar.” The GM nods and says “that will also take a few minutes. You can do that while Alice is looking for traps.” Carol says, “I’m just going to keep watch.” Dave says, “I’ll go look through the books on the bookshelf. I’ll see if I can find anything valuable or unusual.” Now that Alice, Bob, and Dave are committed to non-immediate actions and Carol is waiting for them to finish, the GM can resolve each action in turn. The GM determines that none of the actions are loud. The GM Advances Time and then resolves each of the actions in turn. And then asks the party what they want to do next.

Extended Tasks

In general, an exploration task should take no longer than ten minutes. However, some very complicated tasks can take an extended period of time. The GM can determine, for example, that an extremely complex, ancient lock might take longer to pick. During that time, the party might attract attention and complications may arise.

When designing an extended task, a GM should determine how much time the task requires in terms of actions. Each action Advances Time (see below) once and, if the action is noisy, may cause a Roll for Complications (see below). Obviously, during this time, other characters may engage in actions as described above or they can simply wait. If the action does not require a die roll, the GM merely Advances Time for each required action and, if necessary, Rolls for Complications. If the action does require a die roll, the GM Advances Time and Rolls for Complications for each action as normal, but if the die roll is a failure, the character makes no progress. Thus, they may have to attempt further actions in order to complete the task. Of course, if the action takes too long, the party may decide to give up. Particularly if complications arise.

Time and the Time Pool

As players spend time on exploration tasks, the passage of time will have an effect. Timed effects (like spells and conditions) will expire and timed resources will get used up (such as torches and lamp oil). There is also an increasing chance that the party will suffer some random event, setback, or complication. But, while it is important to keep track of time, it is not important to keep track of time precisely. Instead, the GM uses the Time Pool.

The Time Pool is a pile of tokens visible to all of the players and the GM. The GM can use coins, candy, or poker chips. The GM can also use dice of the appropriate type if the GM has enough of them.

Whenever the party is engaged in one or more non-instantaneous exploration tasks as described above, or whenever they move from location to location within the dungeon, or whenever they engage in an activity that takes between one and ten minutes (such as casting a spell as a ritual), the GM Advances Time. The GM may also Advance Time if the party is staying in one place debating their actions for more than a few minutes. This can prod a distracted party to action as the characters realize they are wasting time and possibly attracting attention.

When Time Advances, any effect with 10 minutes or less remaining of its duration expires. Other durations are not effected. The GM then adds a single token to the Time Pool. If multiple characters undertook simultaneous exploration tasks, the GM adds only a single token to the Time Pool. However, the GM does not add a token to the Time Pool if there are already six tokens in the Time Pool. Instead, the Time Pool is Cleared (see below). If the party was rushing at a task, the GM also does not add a token to the Time Pool. However, in those cases, the GM still Advances Time and all applicable duration expire.

 

After expiring durations and adding necessary tokens to the Time Pool, the GM should Roll for Complications if any of the attempted tasks were loud (whether they succeeded or not) or if any of the tasks were rushed (again, regardless of success).

Rolling for Complications

Whenever the party attempts a loud or rushed task, the GM Rolls for Complications. The GM will also Roll for Complications before Clearing the Time Pool (see below). In addition, whenever the party does something to attract attention (such as arguing loudly), the GM may Roll for Complications. If the party spends several minutes arguing loudly about where to go next, the GM may both Advance Time and Roll for Complications.

Elements of the adventure could also call for a Roll for Complications as determined by the GM or the adventure designer. For example, if the party sets off an alarm trap or if a goblin prisoner starts screaming for help, the adventure could call on the GM to Roll for Complications.

To Roll for Complications, the GM rolls a number of dice equal to the number of tokens currently in the Time Pool. That’s why it can be helpful to simply use dice for the Time Pool if you have enough. In most normal situations, the GM will roll d6s. However, in less dangerous or more sparsely populated environments, the GM could use d8s. And in extremely dangerous environments, the GM could use d4s.

Various factors in the adventure could change the size of the dice used when Rolling for Complications. For example, if the party invades a kobold lair during the day – when most of the kobolds are sleeping – the Complication Dice might only be d8s. But if they come back at night, those dice become d6s. And if some kobolds manage to escape from a battle and raise the alarm, those dice might become d4s. Again, GMs and adventure designers are encouraged to use the Complication mechanic creatively to add different elements to their adventures.

Regardless of the number and size of the Complication Dice, if any die shows a 1, a Complication occurs. The GM should remove one token from the Time Pool and then resolve the Complication. Otherwise, nothing happens.

Complications

A Complication is a random event, setback, or encounter that befalls the party. They are prescribed by the adventure, but the GM can invent new ones on the fly. The most common Complications are random encounters with creatures wandering around the dungeon. In general, such an encounter should be an encounter of Easy difficulty for the party’s level or even easier. Such encounters should be nuisances rather than serious threats. The party should not earn any XP for dealing with this encounter, nor should they earn significant XP for dealing with any Complication.

Wandering creatures do not have to be hostile, though outright friendly creatures should be exceedingly rare. Other random events can include geological events, minor traps and hazards that risk a few hit points of damage or impose a condition on an unlucky PC, or the like.

GMs or adventure designers are welcome to design whatever Complications serve the theme of the adventure. But Complications should not be terribly complex. A random encounter should include only one or two types of creatures with clear, simple motivations. Other random events should not be more complex than a single event that the party can react to. In general, for each adventuring day that the GM or designer expects the party to spend exploring the site (as defined on DMG 84), there should be at least four but no more than six possible Complications. They could be organized on a random table or the GM can simply choose an appropriate one.

Specific locations can also have specific Complications keyed to them. For example, in the cave of sulfurous geysers, a Complication can always result in a spray of noxious gases from one of the geysers. An adventure designer could also instruct a GM to Roll for Complications each time the party passes through the Sulfurous Geyser Cave. Complications and Rolls for Complications should be used in this way to create special effects that help bring a dungeon to life and all sorts of random events can key off of this system.

GMs and adventure designers are advised not too worry too greatly over the idea that the party being “loud” can somehow increase the odds of an earthquake or volcanic geyser eruption. This sort of abstraction is actually quite common in fiction and is seen all the times in movies. And since loudness and brash clumsiness go hand in hand, as does loudness and inattention, it is perfectly sensible to key sudden, unexpected surprises to the party’s “loudness.” And the fact that I even feel the need to include this paragraph makes me mad and angry. So, if you want to argue the point with me, I’d strongly advise you to reconsider.

If the GM is ever required to Roll for Complications when there are no tokens in the Time Pool, the GM should roll one Complication Die. If it shows a 1, a Complication arises. Otherwise, nothing happens.

Clearing the Time Pool

If there are already six tokens in the Time Pool when Time Advances, the GM does not add another token to the Time Pool. Instead, it means that one hour of game time has passed and it is time to Clear the Time Pool.

After all effects with 10 minutes or less remaining of their durations expires as normal for Advancing Time, any effect with an hour or less remaining of its duration expires. Any effect with a duration greater than one hour remaining has one hour subtracted from its remaining duration. Then, the GM Rolls for Complications regardless of whether any attempted actions were loud or rushed. The GM should only roll six dice and not add any for the final advancement of time that caused the Time Pool to clear. Whether a Complication occurs or not, the GM then removes all tokens from the Time Pool.

Thus, the Time Pool gradually counts up to one hour of game time. Because of the slight variation due to Complications removing token from the Time Pool and the possibility of characters rushing, the actual number of tasks accomplished in an hour may vary slightly. This accounts for the imprecise nature of time tracking.

Whenever the Time Pool is cleared, the GM can mark one hour of time on a log. This will help the GM determine how long the party has been adventuring. Moreover, in event-based adventures or adventures with specific time limits, the GM or adventure designer can key those events and time limits to one-hour intervals. Thus, the Time Pool provides a simple mechanic for keeping track of time.

Time Flies

Each token in the Time Pool represents the passage of approximately ten minutes of time. If the party engages in an activity that takes more than 10 minutes – for example, the party takes a short rest – during exploration, you may add one token to the Time Pool for each 10 minutes of time spent. Each token represents a normal Advancement of Time. Thus, if the party is being loud or drawing attention during these extended activities, the GM should Roll for Complications once or twice. If the Time Pool is filled as a result of adding these tokens, the GM should add only enough tokens to fill the Time Pool, Roll for Complications as normal, and clear the Time Pool, and then add any remaining tokens.

As a shortcut to this process, if the party takes a short rest, the GM can simply assume one hour passes. He can mark an hour on his log and expire or decrement effect durations as normal. After that, the GM can pick up six dice of the appropriate size and Roll for Complications. The actual Time Pool remains untouched. This removes the possibility of interrupting a short rest in the middle with a complication, but it greatly simplifies the process, avoids the need to deal with partial short rests, and does not prevent the players from benefitting from a short rest they desperately need. However, it still provides consequences for the choice to take a short rest. Thus, most GMs are advised to use this simpler method.

Exploration Mode Engage!

And with that, we have an excellent framework for extending the modes of play around exploration. It provides tools for GMs and adventure designers and also provides consequences for different choices the players might make. Consequences they can understand and can easily see. For example, bashing down a door is quick, but loud. Picking a lock is quiet, but slow. But, while the Exploration Master Module works fine on its own as an addition to the game, it will really shine when we start building other rules on top of it.
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109 thoughts on “Exploration RULES!

  1. Do you think you will ever tackle encumbrance, or do you think that much the best policy there is simply to ignore it, or just note where things are stowed?

  2. Dear Angry, why would you bury the genius concept of automatic success on skills challenges for proficient characters in an article on an unrelated topic. It’s like you want us to thoroughly read each of your articles instead of just skimming the title and then posting in the comments section and…. Ohhhhhhh, I get it now.

    • He has actually mentioned it a few times already.
      I already started using it because of him; it works great! 🙂

      • The only hiccup I see is the “talented amateur” vs the “trained inept”.

        Say you have someone trained in religion, but with a low (or penalty) wisdom, or other pertinent stat.

        Someone else is untrained, but with a high stat.

        I don’t think I’d find it an issue, but some might. I mean, in that example “knowing the names of the gods and their domains (passive Religion, proficient gets info)” is different from “being generally respectful when dealing with a ritual pertaining to Boccob (active Religion, rolled)” but in principle.

        • Personally I think that distinction actually benefits this method, as long as the players are aware during character creation that they gain specific knowledge by choosing knowledge proficiencies and not from raw Intelligence.

          That way, no matter how intelligent you are, if you’ve never studied Arcana then you don’t passively recognise what those runes mean, but you CAN use your Intelligence to actively research them in a library.

          • I can be quite intelligent but if I didn’t study mathematics I couldn’t research possible. Not every knowledge is accessible with a simple I use google, visit a library etc.
            Some forms of academic knowledge require you to have a basis of knowledge that you need to comprehend of course you can always study the subject to comprehend something you found but that takes time.

  3. This drastically alters the DM calculus from the Five Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. Specifically, it moves a whole bunch of actions that were previously automatic successes or failures under Rules #2 and #3 into extended tests with a ticking clock under #3a. That brings this way closer to the RPG orthodoxy where you roll for everything. Now, only immediate actions would be automatically resolved under the Five Rules, because there is always a ticking clock for non-immediate actions, so each segment of time requires an additional roll.

    • Not only that, but it also eases the analisys required to determine whether a skill check is necessary. Since there is ALWAYS a cost, you need only to determine whether there is a chance for success and failure. I know this is quite similar to what you said, but I just wanted to point out how this simplifies the mental load for the GM during these scenes.

    • Just because something is an automatic success (or a failed roll) doesn’t mean it doesn’t take time.
      It comes down to whether the party is going to choose to do the task quickly, and in some cases risk failure or drawing attention to themselves, or whether they will do said task slowly and carefully, adding a die to the time pool (which can amount to a chance at them drawing attention to themselves, or some other thing. It’s a bit of random chance).

      As far as forcing active rolls to be the best option (which I presume is your point), I rule that a failure takes as much time as doing it carefully and succeeding, whereas a rolled success takes the least amount of time the action could feasibly take.

      I believe this rules hack adds dramatic tension (and a little mini game of hedging risks) that is very much needed in places where the party might choose to meander without doing anything, as well as it making a meaningful distinction between taking 10 and rolling on an action.

      By the way, we tried it out tonight in a pretty complex dungeon that the players have been slowly picking away at. They LOVED it. Decisiveness was at an all time high, and they chose strategically whether to spend the extra time or try to get things done quickly at the risk of it possibly taking longer.

      This article came just in time for me, and as always, Angry, keep it up!

  4. Oh, I see my mistake now. I thought that the Hacking Time article was about putting an emphasis on the tension caused by the passage of time. I see from this article that the point is about measuring the passage of time and making sure it is a limited resource. Tension is just a tool used to make sure that the passage of time isn’t meaningless.

    Thanks for clearing that up for me, Angry. Hope I fell under the category of ‘polite’ instead of ‘massive dickbag.’

  5. Good stuff, Angry.

    About the “loudness causing earthquakes” abstraction, one could even choose to not make it an abstraction, but a feature of a world that doesn’t belong in our universe and doesn’t follow the same laws of causality.

    The universe being random and disconnected (at different hierarchical levels) is a very modern notion anyway. The simple idea that the world might react to players’ intentions or actions in a direct way is not foreign to fantasy, or even our own historic religions.

    To use your Murky Mirror description, a GM Rolling for Complications is the world reacting to the party in a way that’s beyond physical causality, like a divine intervention.

    Looking forward to this series.
    Cheers!

    • I’ve noticed that the loudest person in a group (usually but not always me) or loudest group in a room are the least perceptive of events happening around them and stumble into things like walls, people, chairs, railings, etc… I can see being loud in the sulfur vent room causing you to miss seeing the vent that is steaming most until it blows into your face. Having it be a feature of the world is definitely a good option as well, maybe in a game like Dark Sun or Palladium’s Wormwood setting

  6. Any thoughts about how to incorporate long rests, other than eight (or longer for rotating watches) rolls of a full pool?

      • For tonight’s session, the party didn’t end up taking a long rest. I had hoped to have a chance at trying out the plan i devised based on this hack. Long rests have a time pool of 8 dice. D6s for resting in probably not the best place, D8s for being out of the way of possible patrols, and D10s for being hidden. If they are in a locked room or otherwise inaccessible to possible threats, add no dice (unless there is something that has a chance of happening at regular time intervals, and whether or not it will disrupt their rest, regardless of how safe the party is. I haven’t thought too much about that). If a 1 comes up, they get a short rest and have to deal with the threat. It will give them the idea to find a better spot to nap next time.

    • I think if you’re taking the adventuring day structure seriously (and we should) then you assume that the party can have a long rest without fear of being interrupted. They’ve either gone back to a town or inn, set up a secure campsite or if you really have to just bite the bullet and say “you sleep in a quiet tucked away part of the dungeon”. The point is you should be designing your adventures to fit the game’s structure in the first place, not trying to twist the game’s structure around your adventures.

  7. I tried out the previous iteration of the time pool method in the Curse of Strahd game I am running. I really like the mechanic and plan to keep testing it and refining my usage of it and especially in creating complications that achieve what I want them to (adding pressure without slowing down the game).

    I have one question about the complications that you hadn’t addressed. Combat is called out explicitly as being an immediate task (and so does not increase the time pool), however combat is going to be a loud action, so it should call for a complications roll. The complications could easily be reinforcements/stragglers joining the fight. But when do you call for the roll? At the end of combat? After the Xth round (maybe the danger die/2)? Every (other? Xth?) round?

    • Combat is not an exploration task. Combat does not Advance Time and therefore doesn’t cause random complications. When the party enters into an action scene, like a combat, stop using the Exploration Rules. They don’t belong there.

      The Time Pool is not really ABOUT attracting attention. I said as much. That’s why loudness isn’t really loudness. It’s more about carelessness. It’s about the chance of a random event increasing if the party is careless or wastes a lot of time. If your adventure features combat encounters that might “hear” other combat encounters, that sort of design should be specifically called out. For example: “the kobolds in this room will hear any fighting in Room 6 and join the combat after two rounds.”

      • If the party ends up in combat we switch to the combat rules and switch back to the exploration rules once combat ends, am I correct that the current time pool remains (minus the token for a complication if combat was a result of the complication) or do we start the time pool over?

        • I don’t see why would you start over. I mean, time does not reset. You’re still counting up to your next hour. I just wouldn’t add any tokens for combat, since it usually takes a very short time, usually less than a minute.

          However, I do disagree with Angry that the rules must be kept completely separate. In my opinion, there should be a connection here: Once combat starts, roll for a Complication, since it’s loud. The complication, if one comes up, can even be a minor reinforcement to the monsters. Of course, this whole idea is very easy to add or remove and shouldn’t change things too much.

          • I see where you’re coming from, but I think I’d stick with Angry’s method. The whole project of dividing the game into different modes based on timescale seems like a really great idea to me, since D&D as written is so utterly lacking in tangible mechanics for anything but combat, so I’d prefer not to muddy the waters.

  8. The system seems solid, though I can’t help but feel that rolling all the dice in the time pool every time you roll for complications seems… Odd. In my mind, touching or moving the time pool would only cause accidents to happen. Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the number of dice you roll be static based on the location + current activity?

    Or am I just missing something here? I’ll read the article again tomorrow morning. Probably for the best. I’ve already typed this out so I may as well leave this here.

    • You could use something else instead of dice in your pool, but dice are a powerful symbol in D&D. They are the single most intimidating tool in the DM’s arsenal because they make it clear that you are putting the player in the hands of fate. No human judgment, no mercy, just cold, unforgiving random number generation.

    • The whole point is to increase the tension as time passes. Assuming the party remains quiet, the Time Pool will actually only get rolled once at the end of an hour. The odds of rolling at least one 1 on six d6 is just about a certainty. That means a careful party will have a good chance of having one complication an hour, but that’s not a certainty.

      Fixed dice don’t simulate the passage of time and increasing tension as the party realizes they are wasting time. See the original article for more on that subject.

      As it stands, you can use anything you want as your Time Pool tokens. I specifically said that because some people mentioned that (a) not everyone has six extra d4s, d6s, and d8s lying around and (b) online games don’t simulate piles of dice in the middle of the table well but almost all of them can provide the function of displaying a pile of tokens.

      Once the dice are rolled, they don’t have to remain undisturbed. You can just pick them up and put them back in the pile in the middle of the table – excepting the one that you remove if a complication occurs.

      • It feels like it’d make the party make riskier stuff right after the time pool has been emptied and careful stuff when it’s been filled. That’s what bothers me. It could probably come in handy when designing stuff (you can guesstimate how much time it’ll take for the party to do something and put special complications in certain rooms depending on how much time would have passed)

        But here’s the thing, I don’t think that’s the best option. I WILL adopt this system, but not with the current usage of the time pool dice. Let’s say I was making a megadungeon, right? And that megadungeon had days, right? I’d use bigger dice at the beginning of each day, medium sized dice in the middle of that day, and smaller dice near the end of the day. That way, tension WILL be at a peak when they’re nearing the end of an adventuring day (near an objective), and tension WON’T be at a peak near the beginning/middle of the adventuring day.

        That’s my 2 cents. Now I need to re-read this article, so excuse me for a moment.

        Also, I don’t know why I even mentioned disturbing the dice. Like that’s a f#%&ing problem.

        • I wonder if it might work the other way around.
          What if being loud/careless added dice to the pool, and time passing caused the pool to be rolled?
          I think that could work quite well purely as a random encounter system, but unfortunately it no longer tracks the passage of time, which was kind of the whole point.

          • The time pool seems like the best way of tracking time in D&D. I just don’t agree with implementing random encounters into it. Not the way it’s been done at any rate. So any changes to it that I’d make would not involve turning it into purely a random encounter system. I’d just remove the rolling of the dice pool part and have loud or rushed actions be a separate thing (as well as the passage of time) where you roll a set number of dice instead.

            I’m making a big fuzz about this aren’t I. I’ll just… Leave. Stop.

      • I’ve re-read the article again. Whoo.

        So, in my mind, number of dice rolled for complications = current tension level and the size of dice = the current area’s threat/danger level.

        If you clear the time pool, you remove all tension. The chance of something random happening is now significantly lower, no matter how dangerous the area is. Thus, tension is lower.

        However, I also came to another conclusion: you can just have really weak complications near the start of an adventure, and stronger ones near the end. Thus, tension is created by the harshness of the complication, while the time pool is there to create the wobbling feeling of increased tension during certain periods of time.

        I can’t help but feel that a combination of increasing the number of dice rolled for complications as the adventure reaches its peak (boss fight and the likes) while also increasing the severity level for the complications and letting the dice rolls create the wobble is a better choice though. It feels like less to keep track of and it feels a lot cleaner (you won’t have to take into consideration that the players might act differently to a situation based on how many tokens there are in the time pool, for instance). That said, I DM far less than you, and it’d take a significant amount of time for me to actually verify that. So for now, the thought’ll just have to remain as is.

        I think I said some of this in another comment somewhere. But hey, I did sort of promise myself I’d make another comment once I re-read the article. So here it is.

  9. This paragraph confused me:

    “When Time Advances, any effect with 10 minutes or less remaining of its duration expires. Other durations are not effected. The GM then adds a single token to the Time Pool. If multiple characters undertook simultaneous exploration tasks, the GM adds only a single token to the Time Pool. However, the GM does not add a token to the Time Pool if there are already six tokens in the Time Pool. Instead, the Time Pool is Cleared (see below). If the party was rushing at a task, the GM also does not add a token to the Time Pool. However, in those cases, the GM still Advances Time and all applicable duration expire.”

    How does time advance if a token isn’t added to the time pool?

    • Time Advances, but it advances by slightly less time than it would if the party wasn’t rushing. Remember, the tokens don’t really represent fixed intervals of time. They really represent how wasteful the party is being with their time and the resultant increasing chance of complications.

      This method abstracts away precise durations and assumes durations and the length of time it takes to perform a task is somewhat fuzzy. If a party is really loud, for example, and suffer multiple complications, they could advance time eight or ten times before an hour passes because complications remove a die from the time pool.

        • Effects with 10 minutes or less left of their duration expire. If the Time Pool is full, you Clear it. If the players performed a Rushed action, you Roll for Complications.

        • I was also a little confused by that paragraph, but if I understood it correctly, Time Advances means that you remove all effects with a remaining time of ten minutes or less. Then, IF the party did not rush, you add a time token.

          So if the party rushed their task, you would simply remove effects with a remaining time of ten minutes or less, and not do anything else.

  10. Bravo, really excited for the modules. Personally really wanting the stealth one. I do wonder which one others are interested in though.

    • Mass Combat. Specifically for 30 < people 100; it’s too abstract for the scale, and I can’t scale up because it takes too long to play.

      Also maritime combat is beaten to death, but I want angry to do it.

      • I’d also like to see Maritime combat. I’m currently running a campaign of Pirates, and I found I had to kludge together rules in order to make things satisfying for all players to participate in.

        A big issue with ship-to-ship combat is that generally, all the PCs are on one ship. Normally all the ships actions are done on one turn, by one person(Captain), so while you might be able to sail by committee, that can get either boring or bogged down real fast.

        My solution was to divide the ship into sections on index cards, and let the players choose who got which (one for the Helm, one for Starboard Bow, one for Starboard Aft, etc). Each section of the ship had stats like HP, Cannon, and Crew, and we fluffed it out by saying each PC was the commander for each section, giving the crew directions on their turn. They could assign crew to Load Cannon, or to Brace for Impact, and if the PC wanted to take an action themselves, they can do so.

        This so far has allowed everyone in the group to participate in naval combat before boarding actions, so no one has to get bored. It also puts less pressure on the Captain, giving them free reign over the movement of the ship, while also being able to take into account the status of the ship as reported by the other PCs.

        • I’ve had the same problems, and came up with a similar solution with the ship sections. That way I didn’t have to track precisely where everyone was for AoE effects. Just say “section x is hit by a volley…” but that’s where I became unsure. Certainly a PC gets a save, but how do I handle the crew? Because the real consequence of a ship getting hit usually isn’t structural damage, it’s casualties to make boarding easier.

    • Travel. I’ve been tinkering for ages with an attempt to make journeys work as a gameplay element. My current thinking is that rations (or a more abstract “supplies”) have to be spent when you rest: one unit for a short rest, three for a long rest. Since you can’t carry more than ten at a time, some of the sleeps you have at night on a journey need to function only as short rests in terms of resting rules or you risk running out of supplies. This allows the GM to stretch an adventuring day of combats and other encounters over seven days of travel, so random encounters on the road aren’t meaningless as players don’t get a long rest after each one.

      But I am really interested to see how Angry approaches it.

  11. I’m confused about durations. When you advance time you reduce durations of everything by ten minutes, then when you clear the time pool you also reduce duration by 1 hr? Or do you only reduce the duration of things measured tens of minutes (or an hour or less) when you advance time, and only reduce the time of things that are measured at 1 hr or longer when you clear the pool? The former seems like double dipping and expiring tim twice as fast as it should for durations in hours.

    • I believe it’s supposed to work like you said second, reducing times longer than or equal to an hour by hours and reducing times less than an hour by 10 minutes.

      • I’m assuming that’s what was intended. But it’s not the way what he wrote reads to me. I read it as you do both. Which is why I’m confused.

        • He doesn’t say to reduce durations by 10 minutes.
          He says that any durations of 10 minutes or less expire.
          Then, when the pool is cleared, any durations of an hour or less expire,
          and any durations of more than an hour are reduced by 1 hour.

          • That is correct. And that is what I mean. But if you look very carefully at the durations of spells in D&D, you’ll notice that they almost exclusively fit into the pattern of instantaneous, 1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour or more. There are no spells that last for 30 minutes or 15 minutes. You don’t need to reduce things by 10 minutes because everything is either “10 minutes or less” or “an hour or more.” There’s actually an important and subtle bit of game design in that that speaks to how these spells were intended to be used during the game. Which is how I knew I could just sweep all spells of “10 minutes or less” with a single advancement and only have to worry about counting multiple hours.

          • Yeah, it kept out at me that 5e mostly has 10 min and 1 hr durations once I realized what I missed in what you wrote. The problem was I’d glossed over it because you had the 10 min part, and ignore other durations, under advancing time. I was focusing on the text under clearing the time pool.

            Readin comprehension failure on my part.

    • [ Unnecessarily dickish comment removed. There’s only room for one dick on this site and it’s MY site, so I get to be the one. – The Angry GM ]

      • I was confused too, maybe I didn’t read carefully enough. It seems like this could happen:
        5 tokens in the pool, and you cast a spell with 1 hour duration. Time Passes once, the pool is cleared, and your spell expires, after roughly 10 minutes instead of 1 hour.
        Similar issues with 10 minutes durations if Time Passing represents 1-10 minutes, instead of roughly 10 minutes.

        I know my players would protest heavily to this. I don’t mind the abstraction though, makes it easier to bookkeep. I would have to house rule in advance all spells to change durations in minutes to number of Time Passes etc.

    • The way it’s written, it can be very confusing, but if you use a bit of logic, you can get over that bump quite easily. If something has a 1 hour duration, you can still just subtract 10 minutes from it each time you add to the time pool/advance time/whatever it said, yeah? But then why take that extra thing to keep track of when you can just subtract 1 hour after clearing the time pool? It’s easier, and it still works just as well.

      • I agree, that’s the logical thing to do. But that doesn’t seem like what he wrote. I went back and read it again. Maybe I’m still just missing the obvious.

        • “After all effects with 10 minutes or less remaining of their durations expires as normal for Advancing Time, any effect with an hour or less remaining of its duration expires. Any effect with a duration greater than one hour remaining has one hour subtracted from its remaining duration.”

          It shouldn’t expire effects with an hour or less duration. That’s all there is to the confusion. Put up a 1 hour duration spell right before the time pool is cleared? It’s gone now. Poof.

          The system treats hours as a separate thing compared to minutes. All it needs to do is to not count dowwn a spell with the duration of X hours if it hasn’t already passed through a “clearing the time pool” phase.

          For example, if you cast a spell with X hours of duration before the time pool is cleared, it doesn’t go down in duration when the time pool does clear. The next time you clear the time pool after that though? 1 hour is subtracted from its duration.

        • I wrote what I meant to write. And enough people are confused by this that I’m going to have to come out with a response video. And some people are obsessed with arguing against it while missing a subtle part of how the spells were designed and how their durations were set. I’ll have more to say on the topic next week.

    • Replying to my own comment, because someone else found it for me on a forum. Advancing time only reduces durations of 10 min or less. “Other durations are not affected”

      Glad to see I WAS missing it.

  12. This article was great. I really feel these rules much more than the previous Time Pool rules.

    There’s only one thing that looks odd to me, and it is the fact that you always roll dice equal to the amount in the Time Pool (which is what Terra Reveene already said). It seems to me that this would encourage players to be louder when the hour has just started (the Time Pool has just been cleared and is emptier) and discourage them from being loud when the Time Pool is fuller. This isn’t really a problem for me actually, I would happily run these rules as they are now, but I can’t stop feeling that this is an unintended side effect instead of the desired effect. I personally feel that it would make more sense if the number of dice rolled for carelessness was independent from the Time Pool, but making more sense is not necessarily better for the game.
    So, I’d love it if someone, preferably Angry, could explain to me if this is desirable/intended and why.

    Anyways, I really like this version much more than the original, I can’t wait to see the rest of the exploration modules.

    • My theory is that since the GM gets to pick the complication they can scale the results themselves as time passes.

      So if the time pool is nearly empty when a 1 comes up the GM might pick … idk a section of the floor collapsing under the party’s feet which leaves the party temporarily split across two floors and potentially suffering damage and means MORE time passes as the party works to rejoin (either all jumping down or somehow climbing back up etc). Also the floor collapsing would be loud which might(?) allow for a second complication role to see if anyone comes to investigate. All sorts of tension!

      Then when the time pool is full the complication might be … maybe … a pair of amorous teenage goblins stumble into the room while looking for somewhere to make the beast with two – oh god please stop we shall never sleep again that’s horrifying!
      And two unarmed goblins with their pants down is a very simple encounter which should probably take about three seconds to solve 😀

      So basically as the GM you can kinda pick how much trouble to introduce based on your whims, player mood, personal caffeine intake etc and that in itself should keep the players on their toes constantly thinking because sure the odds are low but if something happens it’ll be a dozy vs high odds but probably something low-key.

  13. If clearing time ends 1 hour duration effects, then isn’t it a big disadvantage to cast those type of spells, or use those type of items, when there is already 5 or 6 tokens in the time pool?

      • Sort of. Again there is a subtle point in the design of the spells in 5E and in the setting of their durations that I am exploiting. That said, there is an aspect to this I certainly do need to clarify and modify. I’m going to post a short response sometime in the next week or so. I’m not sure when, as I am traveling next week, but – except for not noting a specific instance vis a vis concentration, this is actually working as intended.

        • If I were running this I might consider saying that 1-hour effects expire when the Time Pool returns to the same number of dice as when the effect started, AFTER the next time the Pool is cleared. That way you can cast a 1h spell with 5 Time Dice in the Pool and still get approximately the same amount of time out of it as casting on an empty Pool.

          Admittedly this requires a tiny bit more bookkeeping so without actually running it I can’t be sure the trade-off is indeed an improvement. Maybe we just say “f#$% you, 1h effects expire when the Time Pool clears; plan accordingly, players.”

  14. You said in an earlier comment “The odds of rolling at least one 1 on six d6 is just about a certainty” which is what I was thinking as I was reading the article. Doing the math makes it just a shade under 2/3 or 2 complications every 3 hours. d4s raise this to 82% (say 4 every 5 hours), d8s drop it to 55% (say 1 every 2 hours).

    By providing 4-6 complications we are going to have to start re-using complications after 6-9 hours for a cautious party (more frequently for a reckless one) – is your thinking that this is enough for 1 adventuring day of planned encounters? That is, 4-6 complications are enough for a dungeon we expect to be cleared in a day with only a few repeats but we should provide more for multi-day dungeons?

    • How does this differ from normal random encounters?

      Depending on the complication it might make a lot of sense for it to repeat. Obviously some won’t.

      I can totally see noxious fumes from the walls of a volcano happening more than once a day.

      • It depends on how often you would normally roll for random encounters.

        Most random encounter chances I’ve seen are roughly 1/6, so if you add a dice to the pool at the same rate you would normally have rolled for a random encounter, you should get roughly the same total encounters, but more bunched up at the end of each hour.

        You would lose some encounters in the overlap when multiple dice roll 1s in the same roll, but I suppose you could account for this by having multiple 1s mean more or worse complications, or just average it out and have worse complications in general.
        I expect the players should be able to handle more of a challenge since the encounters come somewhat more predictably.

    • There are actually a lot of things you can do with the complications that will build a narrative. Say for example your players are traversing through the fireswamp. Everyone knows the three dangers of the fireswamp, so your complication table can be a 1d3 table (or you can use a different die and weight outcomes differently, so that for example ROUS’s occur less frequently and bursts of flame are the most common).

      In the one test I’ve been able to do with the previous time pool, I actually liked using the same complication for the entire dungeon/area. I don’t think this is always going to be appropriate but having a sense of consistency in the complications isn’t a bad thing.

      You could have a progression of complications. Say for example your players are in the volcano-lair of the evil princess trying to stop her schemes but they know the volcano is unstable and will erupt soon. Maybe your complications are in order something like:
      -Seismic activity causes entire cavernous lair to shake, dislodging stalactites to fall on party
      -Pressure release causes volcanic fumes to spurt up through the floor
      -Princess’s minions begin fleeing the volcanic lair
      -Volcano erupts
      -Lair begins total and rapid collapse
      I don’t think this is the perfect example of using a progression of complications, but it was what I came up with in a few minutes.

      • Yes. Complications are far more powerful than random encounters. And they are meant to be narrative tools as much as game elements. I’m into loaded mechanics.

  15. We just need a proper name for the “Non-Immediate actions”. Because just using the name actions is too confusing, and reading the word “Non-Immediate Actions” is ridiculous and befuddling.

    Angry, I’ve been using your passive/active proficiency since you spoke about it, and It works just fine. A lot of times, I just determine whether or not the person is “Trained” in a certain skill, and give them either the boon. I like that much better than “rolling” for random knowledge. So I’m going to continue using that heretofore.

  16. For the record and to reduce the number of people that may feel the chances are too high (as I did before I actually did the math) and argue about it.

    Probability of a complication at time pool clear (1 hour) for…
    d12 = 40.6708%
    d10 = 46.8559%
    d8 = 55.1205%
    d6 = 66.5102%
    d4 = 82.2021%

    The probability of at least one random encounter in most retro clones (with a check of 1 in 1d6 every three turns) is 30.5556%. A few systems call for a check every two turns; the probability for that is 42.1296%. Obviously a check every turn is 66.5102%

    Note that random encounters are more deadly than the complications that angry suggests, and also have a chance of happening more than once per hour (i.e. 2.7778%, 7.4047%, and 21.4999% respectively) so it is more than possible for the average damage to be the same (because damage is a perfectly good metric here; it is calculated by multiplying the average damage of the encounter/complication by the probability that the encounter/complication will occur).

    This is of course assuming the party never makes any loud noise, but both systems require a roll there anyway.

    On a side note: The actions during exploration procedure (immediate action resolved first, time passes, non-immediate actions resolve) is the exact same as the one I came up with about a year ago to help out a new GM. It keeps play organized, it takes no book keeping, and I f$&%ing love it.

      • MORE MATH!

        Over the course of 8 hours of exploration (assuming that’s the dungeoneering/exploring “day”…) in a normal (d6) dungeon, without EVER being Loud or Rushing, you have a:

        0.01582% chance of 0 Complications
        0.2514% chance of 1 Complication
        1.747% chance of 2 Complications
        6.941% chance of 3 Complications
        17.23% chance of 4 Complications
        27.38% chance of 5 Complications
        27.18% chance of 6 Complications
        15.42% chance of 7 Complications
        3.829% chance of 8 Complications

        A quiet, regularly-paced party should expect 4 to 7 Complications per 8-hour “exploring day”, with 3 or 8 Complications being relatively common as well.

        As the article says, not all Complications are supposed to be combats. If half of the Complications (for the whole dungeon on a random table OR the specific Complications assigned to the spaces you happen to be passing through when you roll) are combats, a quiet, regularly-paced party should expect 2-4 random encounters, ALONG WITH whatever encounters are in place in the rooms they path through.

        The typical party, being hasty and loud to an unavoidable degree in the process of playing a fun game, will get MORE Complications, MORE random encounters.

        I know I made a lot of assumptions with my math, but it seems like rolling so often and with such high probability for Complications would be grinding to character, player, and DM resources when you also have set-piece encounters to resolve. As such encounters are fixed to particular “rooms” that are triggered by movement through “adventure space” rather than the number of actions taken by the group in the PROCESS of that movement, they function differently than a Complication.

        This gets into the idea Angry wrote about with Schrodinger’s Encounters and the issues with Wandering Monster mechanics. This case is a little different because the players will know whether an encounter is a Complication triggered by Noise, Rushing, or Time Passing versus being something they encountered by walking through a door.

        This may just be to say that in adventure design, you should restrict the number of Complications that are combats down to 25% or 15% of all the options for Complications. With these built-in expectations, no change to the rolling mechanism is necessary, which is good because the mechanism is simple and intuitive.

        If the designer doesn’t bake expectations like these into the adventure design, you could get WAY too many random encounters generated by this system. A DM encountering this issue might switch to rolling half the pool, rounded up, instead of the full pool. Not sure if this is solving an actual problem or just adding complexity for phantom reasons, but the math was fun!

        • Your assumptions are fine. Assuming that every complication or random encounter does damage is fine as long as we realize that 1. This isn’t really true for either, and 2. that this naming convention is just a little arbitrary.

          The probabilities for a random encounter in a retro clone (1 in 1d6 every 3 turns) gives a very similar distribution, so if you’re ok with rolling those then you should be ok with Angry’s system.

          I’m not sure I see the connection between Schrodinger’s encounters and wandering monsters. My understanding is that Schrodinger’s encounters are when you “quantum ogre” [1] a fixed encounter, and wandering monsters are just replaced with complications (which could be monsters). I don’t see how those overlap.

          As you said, I don’t think this is an actual problem. Or at least not one that can’t be solved with good design. Angry also intended for the complications to be tailored to the location, which includes choosing how many complications will involve combat.

          Here are the numbers if you want to compare them.
          I recommend using a graph:

          0.002925 chance of 0
          0.020595 chance of 1
          0.067964 chance of 2
          0.139554 chance of 3
          0.199563 chance of 4
          0.210739 chance of 5
          0.169997 chance of 6
          0.106855 chance of 7
          0.052893 chance of 8
          0.020687 chance of 9
          0.006371 chance of 10
          0.001529 chance of 11

          [1] If you don’t know about the quantum ogre it was a long (ongoing?) debate created in 2011 by this:

          http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/search/label/series%20(Quantum%20Ogre)

          In my opinion Angry squashed both sides of the argument (Players must *always* have choice vs It doesn’t matter if they don’t know) when he wrote his “shape of adventure series,” in which he said that choices exist on multiple levels, and that they must have consequences.

          • If you’re interested about the probabilities for 12 to 16 they are minuscule, but here they are for completion’s sake:

            .000280 chance of 12
            3.80E-5 chance of 13
            3.58E-6 chance of 14
            2.10E-7 chance of 15
            5.77E-9 chance of 16

          • I didn’t know the origin of that particular debate, thanks for the link, it’s a fun one. What I was trying to refer to was not the phantom ogre but a couple points Angry made in past articles. I don’t remember the articles, but the gist was that set-piece encounters and random encounters play similarly because they are both combats. The lack of differentiation isn’t good signaling to the player whether an action they took triggered the thing, if it was unavoidable, or if it was pure randomness they couldn’t affect. This can result in decreased player engagement through uncertainty or lack of agency.

            This article’s system is designed to address those issues. Because it does, and attentive players will be able to understand the consequences of certain actions, they’ll know when they run into a combat that was always there waiting for them, because they’ll know they didn’t trigger it. If too many things they trigger are combats, in addition to the ones that are waiting for them, that mode of play would get really overloaded.

            What are the probabilities you gave probabilities of?

      • I should note that it starts losing it’s usefulness in downtime activities; more specifically when the difference in time that actions require gets larger. It’s not terrible, but I usually have to expand it a bit, e.g. now actions, soon actions, later actions, etc. and even then things can get weird when some players are only doing shorter actions, and the others are doing longer ones.

        Don’t take this as me saying there’s a flaw in your current procedure, just that it doesn’t perfectly scale to something outside of this subsystem (Duh).

        • Your final sentence makes me think you probably do understand this already, but just in case:
          This system is specifically not intended to be used for Downtime.
          A separate (but possibly similar) system will be developed for Downtime.
          That was the whole point of Angry’s speech on modular playstyles.

  17. Wonderful work overall. We can already see a lot of improvement over the first drafts you wrote last month. I will definitely be using this, with minor modifications (thinking about adding a separate table for Major Complications – or Disasters – if, at any point, I roll 3 or more “1”s at the same time when rolling for Complications).

    One question that I do have, though, is why rolling a Complication when the party is messing up reduces the pool by one token. I understand that the tokens are not supposed to reflect an accurate measurement of time, but I really don’t see the point for this reduction. It might cause a – admitedly minor – crash for realistic-inclined players, who would probably wonder why “time recedes” if they are being reckless. It also complicates the process a fair bit, since you could simply roll for complication when they are being loud and just leave the time pool as it is. This is not a complaint, it’s just that… I really am not seeing the reason for this particular rule. I’d love if someone could elucidate that for me.

    • Oh, forgot to add, I’d also change the “Clear the Time Pool” rule a bit. Instead of removing all tokens when the hour passes, I’d reset the token counter to 1. This makes the hour be split in 6 intervals rather then 7, which is more in line with the passage of time represented by the tokens (again, I know it’s not supposed to be an accurate measurement, but it still makes more sense overall while not being any more complex), AND it helps reduce complexity a little by removing the “if the party is being loud but there is no token in the pool, you roll 1 complication die” tidbit (since, the way I’m planning to use it, there will always be at least 1 token in the pool).

      I’m aware this is some major nitpicking. I just wanted to point it out because i KNOW there will be some jackass player out there saying “waitaminute, why do we Advance Time 7 times between each hour when each advancement is supposed to represent 10 minutes and blah blah blah nhaaaaagh”.

  18. Great system, much improved from the last version!
    I still have a few misgivings, but not really coherent enough to question your expertise.

    I really liked your other random encounter system from ages ago.
    I think it was from the Megadungeon, or maybe Slaughterhouse or something else, but I remember a simple yet elegant merging of the “does something happen” roll with the “what happens” roll, with each faction being assigned a number, and if you roll that number they show up, but if you roll an unassigned number or a faction that isn’t currently active then nothing happens. Factions could become active or inactive depending on certain events that the players had some control over, and you could even befriend a faction so that when they do show up it becomes a good thing.

    I loved that system, but this one seems to replace it completely.
    If I had to choose, I’d probably go with this new one as it seems to contribute more to the game experience, but it would be nice if they could work together somehow.
    Any thoughts?

    • That was the Random encounter table from the megadungeon. While you can use the time pool as a random encounter system, there’s no reason you have to. The megadungeon already has a functional random encounter system, and there’s no reason that a random encounter system can’t coexist with this. You just have to design appropriate complications.

      Maybe the Desiccated sanctuary has partial structural failures as its complication, while the Crystalline caverns have corrupting magical radiation, and the fiery abyss has… fire. Quick little complications that only require a single die roll, drain the PC’s resources, and bring the environment to the forefront of the players’ minds will still sit nicely with a separate random encounter table.

      • Sounds awesome. I was wondering if he was going to incorporate these new rule hacks into the Megadungeon. Now I’m really hoping he will.

      • Ooh, I hadn’t thought of it that way, nice.

        I’ve also suddenly remembered that the Megadungeon’s random encounter system was also used to repopulate old rooms, an important function which is completely unaffected by the Time Pool.

        From that perspective, they do seem to work alongside each other after all, thank you. 🙂

  19. I really enjoyed reading this, and I’m excited by the eventual(?) “modularity” of 5th edition! This is what I’ve been waiting for since the playtest, and I have every confidence in your delivering. This article all made sense to me, and I was impressed with the elegance of it. Thank you for helping me make my D&D game better.

  20. Having a Complication (due to Noise, Rushing, or because the adventure tells you to roll because of where you are) before the Time Pool is full extends the hour by ~10 minutes. Rolling lots of 1s in particular situations could get you stuck in the same hour for a dozen Time Advances. Good for long duration buffs, bad for most other resources.
    Not an issue with the system, just a quirk that could occasionally give the game an unusual pace.

    • I was having a similar thought earlier as I was thinking about the system more, that parties trying to game the system might repeatedly try to rush tasks early on in the hour while the time pool is only at a single die.

      I’m unsure if this is an issue that needs solving, but it seems like weird pacing being encouraged: spending a lot of time at the beginning rushing and being careless and then towards the end being extremely careful and methodical.

  21. I really like this rule, I have already tried out the previous version in my game and it really brought the dungeon to life. I saw comments mentioning the limitations of casting an hour long spell when the time pool is close to full, you could potentially ask players to note the number of die in the pool when casting such a spell, and then say the effect ends when that number of die is next reached. (excluding 1 die being removed and then added when time next passed). This would only take a small bit of extra book keeping and I think fits the feel of the time pool.
    Just a thought. Either way, I really enjoy your content and it has improved the way I thin about DM’ing a lot.

  22. I tried to come up with a simplified version of this (awesome) Time Pool rule and I’d love to hear what anyone thinks about it – why it not might work, what I’m overlooking, why it maybe sucks, etc.

    “Whenever time is spent exploring an “actively dangerous place” like a dungeon, cave, haunted forest, ruined castle – or trying to sneak into a royal palace without being noticed – use this. Each hour spent in the “actively dangerous place” means more danger. Hourly danger is represented with different dice.

    First hour = 1d10
    Second hour = 1d8
    Third hour = 1d6
    Fourth hour and onwards = 1d4

    These dice are added to a pool in the center of the table after each in-game hour passes.

    An additional d20 is added to the pool whenever the players do something that could rouse extra attention. Loud arguments, breaking open a door, triggering a loud trap, using a bright light source in a dark area, casting a noisy spell, etc.

    When there are 3d20s in the pool, roll all dice in the pool. If there is a 1, a Complication occurs. After rolling for a Complication, remove all d20s but keep hourly dice in the pool.”

  23. Seems to me that a very natural complication would be getting lost. It’s common for players to take for granted that their characters can easily navigate an underground labyrinth with bad lighting that they’ve never been to before with perfect confidence that they can find their way back. You’ve covered getting lost in your overland travel article, but it seems appropriate to include some of that thinking here. Parties that dungeoneer slowly would be less likely to get lost (Marking door frames, leaving breadcrumbs, mapping meticulously) but would add more dice to the time pool. But that is a problem because in this case, going slowly is intended to reduce complications. Whereas it seems that players under the system above are rewarded for going faster (less die in the pool).

    Perhaps pacing could also alter the time pool dice used. Instead of using D4s only for very dangerous dungeons, perhaps you could also use these to reflect hasty dungeoneering, which is quicker and riskier. Meticulous dungeoneering could use D8s. Getting a complication would be less likely, but then there would be more dice in the pool because they are spending more time.

  24. I’m a bit unclear on the difference between the whole group helping a player (+5 bonus) and a group check based on one success all succeed or one failure all fail. When would you use the group helping a player instead of the group check rule? In the one failure all fail scenario that +5 bonus would be especially useful. Or is the distinction that in a group check all players are responsible for performing the task themselves as well as aiding the group as opposed to being solely focused on helping one player?

    • The group check scenarios are when either one person passing while doing an activity that each player may succeed or fail individually will meet the conditions of success (searching a room) or one failure will meet the conditions of failure (sneaking past a room with guards). The helping bonus is used when the group works together to overcome an obstacle that an extra set of hands (or more) could feasibly aid in success (pulling a wagon out of the mud)

  25. I wanted to comment an idea on the passive vs. active skills! In some 4th ed skills, there are some things you can only do if you are trained in the skills, like detect magic with Arcana, which is similar to the tools and tool proficiency. I also added another tier of information and bonuses for the Skill Focus feat to make it a more attractive option since you generally don’t need the numeric bonus it provides. So, the average person knows X, the trained person knows X+Y, and the person with Skill Focus knows X+Y+Z (and Z might grant some advantage or offset a penalty), all without bothering to roll. For active rolls, you can both set a difficulty for the task and offer slightly better results to trained or focused characters. So, you might have a scenario where the characters could try a Religion test to drive away an obnoxious spirit temporarily, those trained in Religion can banish it permanently, and with Skill Focus in Religion you can force the spirit to provide some kind of clue or service before it leaves.

  26. Good stuff as always.

    Anybody else thing that the process of “Roll for Complication” and a “Dice-drop table” kind of really fit well together ??

    (For those who don’t know what is a Dice-drop table, it’s a sheet of paper on which you roll your dice and the actual location of the dice determine the result instead of using the value of the dice roll or in conjunction with it as the sheet can be divided in multiple standard random tables)

    So you can use the same roll to determine if a complication occurred and what the complication is.

  27. I’m running savage worlds and this system is ideal for our campaign, with one sticking point. As it’s not a resource based game like DnD, nuisance encounters aren’t interesting. Complications in general are usually awkward. I’m not sure what to do with them most of the time. I’ve been considering using food and water as resources to replace DnD’s hit points and spell slots, but survival rolls make that a non-issue given how easy it is to find supplies.

    Perhaps fatigue rolls? That could work I think. Whenever a complication arises the entire party makes a fatigue roll suitable to the environment. I’d been having trouble deciding when to use fatigue.

    • I’m reading through knife in the dark, and it uses an interesting series of clocks. A clock is just a circle cut into pie slices that slowly fill up until something bad happens. It seems like something like that could work for you. Instead of a complication occurring, add one to the ‘big’ clock. That will have the same effect as a nuisance encounter. The party feels ratcheting tension. When the clock fills up, throw something REALLY bad at them. I know this basically just adds another layer of chips to the existing process, but you psychologically separate ‘it’s ok to get time chips, because things take time’ and ‘this is something bad coming, because I’m spending too much time’. In addition, you can use effects that interact directly with the clock system. i.e. being exceptionally loud is a tick all on it’s own, regardless of time. This even solves some of the ‘problems’ with the difference between loud and slow.
      I’m reading through knife in the dark, and it uses an interesting series of clocks. A clock is just a circle cut into pie slices that slowly fill up until something bad happens. It seems like something like that could work for you. Instead of a complication occurring, add one to the ‘big’ clock. That will have the same effect as a nuisance encounter. The party feels ratcheting tension. When the clock fills up, throw something REALLY bad at them. I know this basically just adds another layer of chips to the existing process, but you psychologically separate ‘it’s ok to get time chips, because things take time’ and ‘this is something bad coming, because I’m spending too much time’. In addition, you can use effects that interact directly with the clock system. i.e. being exceptionally loud is a tick all on it’s own, regardless of time. This even solves some of the ‘problems’ with the difference between loud and slow.

      Alternately, you could use the geologic effects system. Have things happen that are still minor complications but not actual encounters. Instead of a random combat encounter, throw in a random skill check. A skill check to avoid a negative outcome (a fight, a fall) is faster than a nuisance encounter, but just as effective. They are generally going to pass them, but eventually they’ll fail, and it’ll be bad.

      • You could even combine the two systems. Have something occur on a big clock tick that makes it clear that something bad is going to happen if they keep ‘failing’ these encounter checks. (You hear shouting in the distance. Did you forget to shut that door behind you? A small rock hits you on the head as a tiny avalanche of lose stones reminds you that the temple you’re in is falling apart.)

        At the end of the day, my .02 is that if you don’t have a timer, a consequence you WANT to impose for people taking it slow, why track it? why care? Let them take their time. If you want to create a sense of urgency, create it via the drama of the fiction first, then use a rule system to enforce/simulate it.

        Sorry about the insanity of the double text / double post…

  28. One thing that always bugged me about passive skills use was that, if you used 10, it meant later active effort only had a fifty percent chance of helping.

    I’m contemplating changing it to a +5 for passive skills. That way players who attempt to actively do something… (I don’t remember anything about trolls, but if I spend a combat round studying him, maybe he’ll do something that jars my memory… Or maybe I can shuffle through my notes?) Players who actively attempt the skill have a slightly better chance to improve their results.

    I think this’ll work especially well for perception vs investigation. You may not notice the guy standing behind the curtain, but if you search the room, chances are good you’ll find him.

  29. I love the time pool, I’ve added a wrinkle at my table inspired by DREAD; the pool is all d6s, and the player who wasted time/was careless/etc stacks a die on the other(s). If she knocks the dice tower over, we roll for complications. It’s a nice visual tension-builder. Dim as players can be, they get careful, even downright sensible, when they see that tottering tower.

    I always reserve the right as DM to reach out and just flick over the tower if they’re being super clumsy.

  30. I love Angry GM’s system of running Exploration in a campaign! The Time Pool system is excellent as-is…

    Here is how I summarized the Time Pool (aka “Exploration Exigency Machine”) in 3 simple steps:

    [1] While PCs are exploring, add a token to the Time Pool bowl whenever PCs continue movement (10 mins), pause for a brief rest (10 mins), perform actions (1-10 mins), or they are especially ‘noisy’.
    [Optional] If stopping for a short rest (1 hr), leave tokens as-is, and roll for a Complication (6 dice).
    [2] When there are 6 tokens in the bowl, empty the Time Pool, log an hour has passed, decide level of risk (d4, d6, d8, etc), and roll for a Complication. If a 1 is rolled, goto step 3, otherwise go back to step 1.
    [3] Pause Exploration, resolve the Complication, and then go back to step 1 to continue Exploration.

    Don’t reply that I missed something… this is just my condensed set of steps, and people need to read the whole article to make it work right.

    • More long windedness….

      The Time Pool simplifies time tracking and checks so the DM can focus on building the story with the players, delivering info in-game to the PCs, handling PC explore actions, if any. Adding the tokens to the bowl for all to see simultaneously provides delicious tension in the form Exigency whilst establishing pacing. (Wtf is ‘Exigency’ you say? Read Angry DM’s awesome article “How to Manage Combat Like a Motherf$&%ing Dolphin”.)

      Some of the responses I’ve read seem overly concerned with rules, probabilities, logistics and so forth. Keep in mind that time tracking during exploration does not need to make perfect sense, like it does in combat. When you clear the Time Pool, it is not actually the end of that hour (although an hour of time is logged), it is a check to see whether or not there was a Complication during that part of this chapter of the story. You’re a GM, so simply apply your best judgement to the level of difficulty, roll it, and if there is a Complication result make it an appropriate simple event or encounter.

      (Here is my pro-forma salty apology for adding context to Angry’s expert advice…)
      I know I’m probably being an a$$h@t by repeating what is clearly in this article in this way too long reply, but hopefully it helps to keep us on-topic and avoids all the what-ifs that don’t f$@%ing matter in the end. Cheers!

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