Getting There First
In many tabletop roleplaying and video games, the setting is topheavy. Designers pack as much as they can into the game world to give players the impression that the world is real and it has a myriad of things going on. That’s fine, and it’s great for verisimilitude and for providing a variety of options, but it’s not always best for the drama.
Let’s say you’re an explorer. You’re Robert Peary, and you’ve crossed untold icy perils, faced down starvation and frostbite, and… you see a group of level-80 Arctic Rangers hanging around at the North Pole. One of them is jumping up and down for no apparent reason. One of them is naked and dancing on top of a mailbox. Whether you’re playing WoW or in the Forgotten Realms, this is your result. The world is already explored, a known quantity. Worse yet, it’s probably some lousy NPC who’s up there, or who has already discovered the place in some supplement or expansion.
In most published worlds, this is going to be the case. Published worlds are too "known" out of the box because the perceived value added, from the writer and publisher’s perspective, is the depth or breadth of setting. There’s something up there to do. It’s rare that the finding of the place is the objective itself, and the "something to do" is figuring out how to treat the discovery. Is being the first person there its own reward? It certainly can be, especially in a world that allows its characters to make their mark on the setting. That heretofore unclimbably tall peak can be named after a player’s character, party, or own poetic turn of phrase. Or maybe there’s something there that be harvested or exploited. There’s no silver mine in the unknown valley yet, say — it’s the characters’ opportunity to start one. Perhaps the discovery isn’t even a place. It might be an unknown piece of technology, or an extremely talented poet or musician.
How cool would it be to have something happening in your favorite world that facilitated and even rewarded exploration? Perhaps it’s a mostly cooperative effort, like the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (which is a magnificent name for a cultural event, by the way). Perhaps it’s a competitive land-grab or tactical effort, like the Space Race. Or even something with a bit of a higher calling behind it, like the Manifest Destiny. Maybe it’s looked at with a skeptical eye by the larger population, like the explorations of Heinrich Schliemann.
It’s certainly something that can fit in any genre, adding a bit of tension and/ or adventure, depending upon how you twist the dials. It doesn’t even have to be pure exploration of unknown places. It can be cultural rediscovery of places Man hasn’t visited in a long time, like discovering the Hollow Earth in a pulp tradition or uncovering a forgotten civilization in the sword-and-sorcery genre.
So there’s a challenge. Put a significant exploration milestone into your next tabletop session. If you’re an MMO player, grab a lonesome stretch of in-game geography and do something with it that the devs don’t expect. It can be a one-shot or just for a few nights, or it can spawn a whole campaign. Let me hear how it works out.