For a game that coined the term “Three Pillars”, 5e sure loves to let folks ignore two of them. The exploration pillar, while not outright ignored like the roleplay pillar, doesn’t get a lot of love when compared to the combat pillar. There’s a bit about tracking overland movement in the DMG that’s pretty good, and a couple of spells or features here or there, and today, we are looking at two. The ranger’s class feature Natural Explorer, and the Outlander background.
Independent of the game itself, both features are actually kind of cool. Natural explorer means you don’t get lost in your favorite terrain type (and some stuff we aren’t focusing on today), and Outlander means you automatically forage for food for the average adventuring party size of people. Both are impactful to your character, both let you tell cool stories, and both give real, tangible benefits.
So, what’s the complaint? If you’re running a combat, or I guess roleplay, focused campaign, nothing. It’s kind of a cool thing to jot down, and on the off chance you get spun around in the woods you get to say “Don’t worry, I’ll get us home and can keep us fed”. You spend 15 min RPing through it and move on. You aren’t looking to do Exploration, so you move through it quickly, because who cares? Your game is about the events on either side of the journey, a party you are now late for, and will need to come up with an excuse about, or a dragon you have to go slay.
The problem comes in, if your group wants to do some of that Exploration stuff that’s supposed to be the third pillar. Now you’re in a bind. One player can say “I can get us out of this” which is awesome, but then they auto succeed. It’s one thing for a player to be Very Good at a thing, and another for them to bypass it entirely. Imagine a background called “Trained Swordsman”, that gives you the ability to beat anyone in a duel. Broken, right? It certainly would be in a game claimed to do anything but pay lip service to a combat pillar, that’s for sure. But what about in an rpg that was all roleplay, and focused on nobility in a ballroom jockeying for social status? In that game, you might even call it a trap option because sword fighting rarely comes up and is actually stacked with penalties to your social score if you resort to violence.
I’m using some extreme cases to highlight the issue, but these abilities are a genuinely bad take for the 5e game. They come up organically throughout play, and if you’re group isn’t totally on the same page, it turns out that the guy who picked Outlander 6 months ago kind of did want to step into the spotlight on some exploration if it arises, even if we all agreed it was mostly a Roleplay pillar game. If D&D wants to have a focus on exploration, and I think it very much should, it shouldn’t have included abilities like this.
Natural Explorer: This is actually pretty easy. “Your group can’t become lost except by magical means.” becomes “You gain advantage on skill and ability checks to become lost by mundane means.”
Now, you can still step forward and say “I got this” and tell stories about being an expert explorer, but you don’t automatically win. You still have to play the game, and more importantly, your teammates can help you. Maybe they pile some magic buffs or help you out somehow.
Outlander: This one is a little harder, but I think the crux of the problem is that you let your entire party bypass the “do we have rations” minigames. Which is one of the few exploration minigames that even exists. There’s a decent enough fix though. You supply rations for yourself, a mount, and maybe a pet. You get advantage on checks to forage for others. Once again, you don’t bypass the entire challenge. You get to spotlight yourself some, and help the others, but it’s still not an automatic win.