Travel and Exploration in RPGs

Travel and Exploration in RPGs

Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Part of what made the 2017 game Zelda: Breath of the Wild so popular was its travel and exploration element. This aspect of the game was exceptionally well designed.


The game has a climbing mechanic, which means that you can basically go anywhere in the game world; there is nothing to stop you, not even mountains. Once you have reached the summit of a mountain, you are often rewarded with a beautiful view.

Spotting something interesting in the distance

Everywhere you go in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you will see something interesting to do or explore. Once you have climbed a mountain, you typically see several other interesting places you could go. And once you go to them, you will spot other interesting things in the distance.


Once you have altitude, you can fly by forwards and slowly downwards by using a glider. This means that it is often easy to get to interesting locations once you've spotted them from your mountaintop vantage point.

Towers and fast travel

Dotting the landscape of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are towers. Once you have reached and climbed a tower, you will be rewarded with a map of the area around the tower. Each tower, however, has some sort of challenge associated with climbing it. At any time, you can instantly teleport to any of the towers that you have conquered in this way, which is a reward in itself, and makes it easier to get from A to B without constantly having to traverse the same area. This makes long journeys less repetitive and tedious.

Shrines and Korok seeds

Scattered through the landscape are also Shrines (which, when completed, upgrades the player character in various ways). You can also come across Korok seeds which are hidden - either physically under a rock, or sometimes behind a small challenge like "hit ten targets with bow and arrow within this set time limit". The Korok seeds can be used to increase your inventory space, which is sorely needed in this game.


This is the feedback loop of exploration in Zelda: Breath of the Wild which makes exploration a rewarding experience.

  1. You see something in the distance that looks interesting, and thanks to the climbing and flying mechanic you can be pretty sure you can reach it.
  2. While traveling to that destinations, you are likely to also stumble across things which are also interesting, such as Korok seeds.
  3. When you do reach your destination, you can be certain that it is in fact interesting.
  4. When you complete a tower, which is the central point in each area, you are rewarded with a map and the ability to fast-travel to the top of this tower (from which you can easily glide to other nearby locations), which reduces repetition of already consumed content.
  5. Once you are done at the destination, you likely can see other interesting-looking locations in the distance, and the cycle repeats.

How to replicate in tabletop roleplaying games

The following aspects are important in order to be able to replicate this experience in roleplaying games.

Location interconnectedness

Each location should be connected to at least one other location. This can be done in many different ways:

  1. A road sign at a crossroads which point to three different towns in different locations.
  2. At one location, you could find a treasure map which leads to another location.
  3. Letters, notes, or journals found in one location could contain references or even directions to other locations.
  4. Location B could simply be visible from point A, such as a town being visible from a mountaintop or from the top of a tall tree.

Random discoverability during travel

While travelling, it should be possible to randomly stumble across interesting locations or events. This can be accomplished either by having hexes pre-populated, or by using random tables to generate content on the fly - this is harder to do and slower, but it requires less preparation on the part of the game master.

A middle ground between pre-populated hexes and content generation on the fly at the table is to just pre-generate a smaller number of locations without pre-placing them in a hex. Instead, once the dice determine that players have discovered something interesting, pull (or select randomly) from your pool of pre-generated but hitherto unused locations, and place them wherever the players are. Just make sure to make a note of this afterwards for consistency's sake, so that you can keep your world consistent in future sessions. This can also make the sessions more rewarding for the game master, as they are in a sense "discovering" what lies where along with their players during play.

Locations should be interesting

As a designer you can do everything else right, but if the locations you reach are uninteresting, then it was all for naught. There are different kinds of rewards that you can provide players for finding a location:

  1. Combat. Lots of players enjoy finding a bandit camp that they can clear of bandits.
  2. Information. By finding a location, players can learn of the existance of other interesting locations through maps or other means as discussed above, or they can learn of the plots of their enemies.
  3. Lore. Some players straight up enjoy reading lore about your world.
  4. Allies. Coming across a hidden camp of outcasts in the forest gives players a chance to forge new alliances, and can also provide new plot hooks.
  5. Loot. Players always enjoy finding a hidden cache of loot in the form of a chest, or perhaps as the belongings of a dead adventurer.
  6. Experience. You could also simply award players with experience points for finding a new location, to encourage exploration.

Consider allowing fast travel through already explored locations

To avoid the tedium of repeatedly travelling through the same areas over and over, consider allowing fast travel through and to areas that have already been explored.

  1. A horse-and-carriage network can allow travel between towns that have already been explored.
  2. Fast travel via gryphons as in World of Warcraft is also a possibility.
  3. Good old teleportation also works. Perhaps you need to have seen the destination first in order to be able to properly visualize it, and that's why you can't teleport to locations you haven't seen before. Perhaps teleportation is only available between specific designated teleportation circles, which prevents players from bypassing problems by teleporting past them.
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I think this is a great idea.

I think these are great. The only thing I might want to do is compound them into a situation. For example: the bandit’s camp is the location; the bandits themselves are the obstacle; the reward is something that they have (a map, a prisoner, etc.).

I’m not a big fan of fast travel in my TTRPG, personally, however, eventually, you get there via spells and magic items. I think, if I were going to implement something like this in my game, I’d want there to be some sort of risk involved. I’d have to think more about what I would want that to be but I would search out for something risky and thematic to the campaign/world.

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Perhaps fast travel would require a spell which needs a spell component, and it’s difficult / dangerous to get that spell component?

That could totally work. The first thing that jumped into my head was some version of The Ways from The Wheel of Time.

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After thinking about this some more, I think it would be best to divide locations into Major Locations and Minor Locations.

Minor Locations would be locations that are (at least initially, you never know how things develop) less important - locations for which you have no plans. This could be things like a wolves’ den, or a glade in the forest. They’re just there as a thing you can randomly find, and they’re not typically connected to anything else.

These Minor Locations can be either generated on the fly, or they can be pre-generated without a pre-determined location, so that they are available to plop down when players wander off in a direction where there is no other pre-generated content.

Major Locations, however, are different. They are more likely to be plot relevant and have connections to other locations, plots, or NPCs. Major Locations could be anything from a whole city to some ruins that players find in the forest (but which contains some clues which lead you to a nearby hidden dungeon, or something). More thought goes into the planning of Major Locations, and they can’t really be generated on the fly, unlike Minor Locations.

I would say that the primary difference between Major and Minor locations is that you can plop down Minor locations anywhere on the fly during play when you need something for the players to discover, without messing up any of your grander plans. Because they don’t typically have connections to other locations, their exact location in the world doesn’t matter as much, and doesn’t require planning beforehand.

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I like this idea of differentiating between setting-connected features and minor, isolated locations.

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