I want to talk about another mode of Pathfinder play called the Exploration mode.
We have talked about downtime, and you can hear examples of our group in combat though I think we should talk about combat more in depth in the future. Exploration mode is the median between combat and downtime. Every second is not necessarily life threatening but there is a significant amount of uncertainty for the life and health of characters.
Many games can spend much of the time in exploration mode, especially if there is minimal focus on combat encounters. Activities like investigation, burglary, tracking or any non-combat skill check tends to fall into exploration mode play.
GMs often use this mode of play to describe rooms, present environmental conditions, or drop foreshadowing for upcoming encounters. Players have a great deal of agency in encounter mode, which allows them to interact with the world and challenge the game master with their own creativity. Flexibility and mood setting help make exploration mode fun and engaging for both sides of the GM screen. Some of the most memorable moments in a game can come from encounter mode as a player picks up on an unlikely environmental queue, then creatively works the information into a combat encounter. Or the dramatic spells of the party sorcerer play havoc with more than just their enemies, and suddenly the environment is on fire! What will the party do now?
One of the challenges of running exciting encounter modes is to not let the pace drop out from under the players. Using exploration as just the loose binding between combat encounters can be quickly picked up by players and either make the game play “samey” and predictable or allow for the tension to drop as the 5th bread pun in a row is tossed out to round out the bakers dozen for the session… soo many puns.
GMs can be tempted into running sessions where exploration is so dominate that combat never happens. Mystery investigations, courtly intrigue, and heist style games can fall prey to overuse of exploration. We can take some additional time to talk more about those styles of game but the general concern is that timing and pace for those games styles requires more nuance and preparation by the GM, and tacit agreement from the party to make them epic fun. If a member of the party is not on board for one of these styles the game can devolve into a slog or general social shit show.
The GM is responsible not only for guiding the story but making sure that the party will have fun on the journey. If your wizard is more interested in maxing out their downtime crafting or your barbarian only wants to swing their great sword, the GM has to help facilitate the motivation for Barnaby of the pointy hat and Crushor the Orc slayer to put on high society attire and mingle with the bard and sorcerer at the winter soiree thrown by the queen regent.
That scenario can be fun. The party making a mess could be epic but you know what makes them epic? The threat of conflict. Pathfinder and D&D represent mortal conflict with combat modes of play. If Crushor’s player has their head down on the table and Barnaby’s player is nose deep into the core rule book, the GM needs to find some balance for the whole table.