Rules Index | GM Screen

Mastering the Wild

Discovery and Exploration

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 124
Unspoiled wilderness and uncharted lands represent an opportunity for exploration and the discovery of ancient secrets, lost treasures, natural wonders, and the remote lairs of terrible beasts. As exciting as exploring wilderness can be, the fact that there are no city streets or dungeon walls to guide choices can make running exploration in uncharted wilds a challenge. The rules presented in this section can be used when a group enters such uncharted lands to discover what lies within, and at your discretion can serve as an expansion on the rules for exploration as presented in Pathfinder RPG Ultimate Campaign. Brief definitions of terms used in this section are listed below.

Discovery Points: As the PCs explore a territory, they’ll accumulate Discovery Points—an abstract measure of how thoroughly they have explored the region. Note that while gazetteers, maps, research, and rumors can grant bonus Discovery Points for a region even before the PCs set foot within the wild, inaccurate information gleaned from such sources can penalize the accumulation of Discovery Points.

Exploration Check: As the PCs search a territory, they’ll attempt exploration checks to determine how many Discovery Points they accumulate. Exploration checks are typically Survival checks, though unusual territories may require other specialized skills. A character can attempt an exploration check using Perception in place of the required skill with a –5 penalty.

Location: A location is an adventure site or other point of interest within a territory—it could be an ancient ruin, a dragon’s cave, a druidic monument, a hidden treasure, a portal to the First World, or anything else of note. Each location has a discovery score equal to the number of Discovery Points required to find the location.

Territory: Territories are discrete geographic areas with defined boundaries. These can be political borders or geographical transitions. If you’re using the exploration rules from Ultimate Campaign, a single hex constitutes a territory. Alternately, a territory can be a much larger region; in this case, the PCs’ exploration of the territory is a much more abstract concept and doesn’t involve tracking exact locations on a map. In either case, each territory has its own Challenge Rating, which determines the danger of wandering monsters in the territory as well as the DC for exploration checks to earn Discovery Points.

Way Sign: Way signs are events, objects, or terrain features that give a hint to find a location. Discovering a way sign, either by stumbling across one in the wild (such as by reaching a vantage point that gives an excellent view of the lay of the land, or by stumbling across an old road sign) or by researching a region beforehand (such as by consulting gazetteers, maps, or the rumor mill), can grant bonus Discovery Points or reveal the existence of previously unknown locations—but some way signs may be inaccurate or misleading.

The Exploration Process

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 124
Typically, explorers come to a territory to seek out a specific location within its reaches. Sometimes they know of multiple locations reputed to lie within the region and needs only find them. Other times, some or all the locations remain unknown until the explorers stumble across them or find clues as a result of their investigations in the territory. In either case, before explorers can discover a location, they must first accumulate enough Discovery Points (either by succeeding at exploration checks or by correctly interpreting way signs).

Once the explorers reach the territory in question, they can begin exploration and discovery. Their efforts result in the accumulation of Discovery Points, which they can spend to discover locations, and in finding way signs, which provide additional Discovery Points and sometimes also reveal the existence of further locations to be discovered. Discovery Points earned in a given territory are tied to that territory; the PCs cannot apply points earned in one territory to a new territory. The party’s accumulated Discovery Points remain indefinitely, even if the PCs leave the territory and return later.

Character Actions

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 124
At the start of each day, each character must decide if she will spend the day documenting the territory, exploring, seeking a location, or taking another action (such as crafting magic items, guarding a campsite, resting, or the like). Only the first three options—documenting, exploring, and seeking a location—directly contribute to the exploration process. Uncovering way signs can also contribute to the process, but the actions required to earn Discovery Points via way signs vary widely and depend on the way signs in question.

Documenting: The character spends the day mapping the territory or recording its features in a gazetteer and can attempt one skill check for each day spent documenting. Creating a map requires one or more successful Profession (cartographer) checks, while creating a gazetteer requires one or more successful Linguistics checks (at the GM’s discretion, other skill checks can be used in place of these). The number of checks needed equals the territory’s CR, and the DC equals the territory’s exploration check DC. Once the character has succeeded at the required checks, she has created a detailed map or gazetteer of the region, which grants a +5 circumstance bonus on future exploration checks in that territory (bonuses from multiple maps or gazetteers don’t stack).

Exploring: The character spends the day exploring the territory. At the end of the day, the character attempts an exploration check against the territory’s DC. An exploration check is usually a Survival check, but in some unusual regions or circumstances, it could require another skill check. A character can always attempt an exploration check using the Perception skill, but doing so is more difficult since this represents a more generalized method of exploration, and the player attempting a Perception-based exploration check takes a –5 penalty on the roll as a result.

If the character succeeds at the exploration check, she earns 1 Discovery Point for the group, plus 1 additional point for every 5 points by which the result of the check exceeds the DC. Failing the check by 5 or more reduces the group’s Discovery Point total by 1, plus 1 additional point for every additional 5 points by which she failed the check. Unless every character in the group is skilled at the territory’s exploration skill, it’s often prudent for one character to attempt the primary exploration check and for others to engage in other tasks or use the aid another action to improve the primary check’s result.

Seeking a Location: If the PCs wish to seek out a location, they can do so by spending Discovery Points at the start of the day. If they are seeking a specific location that they know exists in the territory (typically having found clues to it in the form of way signs), they must spend a number of Discovery Points equal to the location’s discovery score—a number that determines how difficult that location is to find (with higher values representing locations that are more difficult to discover). If the PCs want to attempt to uncover an unknown location at random, they choose how many Discovery Points from their total that they want to spend. Once the points are spent, divide the total spent in half, then compare that result to the discovery scores of all the locations in the territory. If any of those locations have a discovery score lower than that total, the PCs discover one of those locations (chosen at random if more than one location is a potential discovery). If none of the locations have a discovery score lower than that total, the group recovers half the Discovery Points they spent, but the other half is lost. Once the party discovers a location, travel time to the site varies according to the GM’s discretion and the overall size of the territory.

Uncovering Way Signs: Every way sign the characters uncover has an associated skill check with a DC determined by the complexity of the way sign. The amount of time necessary to interpret a given way sign varies; some checks can be attempted with an insignificant time expenditure (such as recalling information about a territory using a Knowledge skill), while some require significant time to complete (like translating ancient texts or visiting a nearby settlement to gather information), which takes away from time spent documenting, exploring, or seeking a location. On a successful skill check, the PCs earn Discovery Points for the territory to which the way sign is linked. A simple way sign grants 1 Discovery Point, a moderately complex way sign grants 3 Discovery Points, and a complex way sign grants 5 Discovery Points. However, misinterpreting a way sign can complicate exploration— if a PC fails a check to interpret a way sign by 5 or more, the misinformation he obtains reduces the PCs’ current Discovery Point total for that territory by 1d4 points. This can result in negative values. The PCs can attempt to interpret a way sign multiple times, but once they have successfully interpreted it, further attempts do not grant additional Discovery Points.

Additional Factors

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 125
Some factors can affect both the rate and effectiveness of exploration, as detailed below.

Careful Exploration: Some groups might choose to explore more slowly and methodically in order to make a more careful search. This allows the group to attempt one extra exploration check for each day spent in careful exploration, but it limits the total number of Discovery Points that can be gained to 1 (a character using careful exploration cannot earn additional Discovery Points by exceeding the DC by 5 or more). Typically, careful exploration can be performed only if the terrain is relatively clear and free of obstructions. The GM is free to limit this option if she believes that a slow search would not garner much benefit due to the terrain.

Darkness: Unless the explorer has darkvision or another ability to see in darkness, he takes a –4 penalty on exploration checks he attempts when some but at most half of the hours spent exploring that day occur after nightfall. Explorers take a –8 penalty on checks attempted when more than half of the hours spent exploring occur after nightfall.

Extending the Day: A day of exploration typically takes 8 hours; the rest of each day is assumed to be split between 8 hours of rest and 8 hours spent eating, making and breaking camp, relaxing, and the like. It’s possible to increase the amount of time in a day used for exploring by spending an additional 8-hour session exploring, but for every additional stretch of time up to 8 hours by which the PCs extend their time spent exploring, they take a cumulative –4 penalty on exploration checks to earn Discovery Points until they next rest for 8 hours. At the GM’s discretion, fatigue and exhaustion can also set in if the PCs don’t rest enough.

Weather: Inclement weather hampers exploration checks if it is the predominant weather of a given exploration period. For example, the PCs would take a –1 penalty in the case of light fog or light rain, but a –10 penalty in the case of a blizzard or hurricane.

Exploration Rewards

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 125
Finding a location is often its own reward, but given the time, energy, and sometimes the resources needed to successfully conduct an exploration, you should consider the following additional rewards for parties that successfully discover all of the locations hidden in a territory.

Experience Points: The PCs should earn experience points equal to what they would have normally earned for defeating a monster of a CR equal to the territory’s CR once all locations within the territory are discovered. (If you’re using this system with the exploration rules in Ultimate Campaign, you should decide if you want to use this method of XP reward, the one detailed in Ultimate Campaign, or both, as appropriate for your game table.)

Maps and Gazetteers: The successful completion of a map or gazetteer can generate a monetary reward if the PCs sell their hard work back in civilization. A complete map or gazetteer of a region that has never before been explored can be sold for a number of gold pieces equal to 100 × the territory’s CR; once a map or gazetteer of a region has been sold, further copies of a map or gazetteer of that region (regardless of whether the first item sold was a map or gazetteer) are generally worth only 10% of that value or less, depending on GM’s discretion and supply and demand.

Creating a Territory

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 126
The steps listed below present all the information you need to generate territories for your PCs to explore. If you’re using the hex-based exploration rules from Ultimate Campaign, follow these steps for every hex in your map, though you can reuse information for similar hexes.

Step 1: Define the Territory

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 126
The first step is to determine your territory’s Challenge Rating. Typically, this should be the same value as the PCs’ Average Party Level, but you might want to make it easier or harder for the sake of the story. The territory’s CR helps guide the creation of random encounters, but it also determines the base DC of exploration checks, which can be found on Table 4–1. Though most exploration checks use the Survival skill, you can assign a different skill for particularly unusual or magical territories (for example, exploring a complex extraplanar library might require a Knowledge check, while exploring the mindscape of a slumbering god in which the PCs are trapped could require a Sense Motive check).

Exploration check DCs are intended to be moderately difficult. Characters who are heavily invested in the relevant skill for a given check should have a reasonable chance of success, while those who are not adept with the necessary skills are in danger of leading the PCs off track by providing erroneous information or misinterpreting way signs. Often, characters who lack the relevant skills for a particular exploration are better off using their abilities for other tasks or helping more skillful PCs via the aid another action.

Table 4-1: Exploration DCs

Territory CRExploration DC

Step 2: Design Locations

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 126
As a general rule, each territory should contain at least one location to discover; otherwise there’s little point to exploring a territory. In some cases, you need to design only a single location—the focus and eventual goal of the exploration. Other times, such as if the PCs are surveying a lost world or another terra incognita, you’ll want to design multiple locations, each competing with the others for the PCs’ attention.

Each location should be something memorable and significant. Finding a location should grant a reward (such as a supernatural enhancement, valuable treasure, or a way sign), or that location should be an adventure site. Locations can be as simple as a stash of ancient pirate treasure or as complex as a lost city harboring ancient magic and technological mysteries.

Each location in a territory needs its own discovery score. An obvious location (such as a large castle or a humanoid army camp) should have an initial discovery score of 3, while a more obscure location (such as a single house or a cave entrance) should have an initial discovery score of 6. You can modify this initial discovery score total using the values given on Table 4–2, but feel free to come up with your own values based on the exploration’s narrative.

Table 4-2: Discovery Score Modifier

ConditionModifier to Discovery Score
Desert or plains terrain+1
Forest, hills, or marsh terrain+2
Mountain terrain+3
Location is traveled to or from often-4
Location is mobile within the territory+4
Location is unusually large-2
Location is unusually small+2
Location is deliberately hidden+2 to +6
† Adjustments are cumulative, but the minimum discovery score = 1.

Step 3: Create Way Signs

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 126
Way signs provide information about the territory and, if correctly interpreted, can provide bonus Discovery Points. A way sign could be as simple as a vantage point that offers a glimpse of a location from a distance or a hidden path toward a sought-after goal, or it might itself be a reward for finding a location. Way signs can even be earned or uncovered in advance of exploring a region—if a PC researches the territory the party intends to explore in a library, she might uncover a set of old maps or a traveler’s journal that provides clues to navigating the territory and thus serves as a way sign.

When designing a territory, you’ll usually want to include at least one or two way signs, or as many as 10 in cases of large territories. If you’re using hex-based exploration, treat each significant terrain feature as a territory for the purpose of deciding how many way signs to include, rather than treating each hex as its own territory. Each way sign should have a trigger that results in its discovery by the party, be it attempting to recall lore about a region, gathering information in a nearby settlement, using flight to scout the lay of the land, or uncovering an old map or journal discussing the region. Each way sign should also have an associated skill check and DC to successfully gain information or interpret the clue. For a simple way sign, this DC should equal the territory’s CR + 10. For a moderately complex way sign, the DC should be equal to the territory’s CR + 15. For complex way signs, the DC should be equal to the territory’s CR + 20.

Step 4: Create Random Encounter Tables

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 127
A territory’s CR sets the average CR of random encounters occurring within that territory. Numerous example encounter tables appear on pages 324–327 of Pathfinder RPG Bestiary, as well as throughout Chapter 7 of Pathfinder RPG GameMastery Guide, but your encounter tables don’t need to be as complex. Usually, a short table of a half dozen or so potential encounters is enough. It’s generally best to check for encounters four times per day—once at dawn, once at noon, once at dusk, and once at midnight, with a 20% chance of an encounter each time. You can even tie encounters to exploration checks, with a result of a natural 1 on such a check indicating a random encounter. Feel free to adjust the frequency of these checks and the chance of a random encounter occurring as best suits your game. Keep in mind that too many random encounters and wandering monsters can slow down the progression of your plot and can frustrate players. It’s often best to limit random encounters to one per day of in-game time.

Example Territory: White Canyon

Source Ultimate Wilderness pg. 127
Suppose the PCs have learned of a great evil rising in a hidden temple of Lamashtu in the arid hills surrounding the gnollheld territories of White Canyon. Rather than generate a map of the region, you instead use the rules in this section to guide the PCs’ exploration of White Canyon and their search for the hidden temple. You might also include a few other adventure sites in the region for the PCs to seek out and way signs to help them get a jump on locating these sites. Your notes on White Canyon might end up looking like the following.

White Canyon Territory   CR 5

Arid hills ruled by bickering gnoll tribes and stalked by desert beasts and ghuls
Exploration Check Survival DC 23

Location Discovery Scores

Hidden Temple of Lamashtu 12 (base score of 6, hills terrain +2, location is deliberately hidden +4)
Red Sultana’s Camp 1 (base score of 3, hills terrain +2, location is traveled to or from often –4)
Wyvern Lair 8 (base score of 6, hills terrain +2)

Simple Way Signs (1 Discovery Point)

Rumors about White Canyon A successful DC 15 Diplomacy check to gather information in a nearby settlement can reveal information about the region.

Moderate Way Signs (3 Discovery Points)

Recalling White Canyon Lore A successful DC 20 Knowledge (geography) check reveals information about the region.
Reconnaissance via Flight A character who spends at least 30 minutes flying above the region and then succeeds at a DC 20 Perception check spots landmarks and gets the lay of the land.

Complex Way Signs (5 Discovery Points)

Deciphering a Journal If the PCs find an ill-fated explorer’s journal in the wyvern’s lair, a PC who can read Aklo and succeeds at a DC 25 Linguistics check correctly interprets her coded notes.

Random Encounters

Frequency 4 times per day (morning, noon, dusk, midnight) Chance of Encounter 20%

1-15Giant vulture4
31-55Gnoll wild pack (1 gnoll, 3 hyenas)5
56-752 dire hyenas5
76-85Gnoll hunting party (1 gnoll rageborn, 2 gnolls)5
86-951 wyvern6
96-1002 ghuls7