And yet - and this probably says more about me than about RPGs because the RPG market is vast and broad - I don't remember many, if any, of the games I've played over the years having mechanics for exploration even with it being such a huge part of the game.
There are nods to it. Drowning rules, cold exposure rules, character abilities that help find food and such all exist. But the actual meat and bones of exploration is left for the GM to resolve with the players. The only mechanics you have are the normal mechanics for resolving conflicts, things the system tends to set up as for on the spot/in the moment challenges. The normal resolution mechanic is for clearing this obstacle, not all obstacles in the way. The perception and investigation mechanic is for searching this small contained area, not the four to five miles - or 10 to 20 minutes - of delving going on.
You can do this with one check, sure, but when that check comes back bad and so the PCs find nothing for an extended period they feel somewhat cheated. And when the PCs get a good roll so they find everything no matter how well hidden, while that's great and all it also feels weird.
However, bringing everything to a dice roll has the problem of heavily bogging things down. The game slows to a crawl as the 'most capable' PC takes the rolls for each task as needed. Which means the players with characters that are not so good at this part of exploration get to sit there and listen to the rather uninteresting mechanics of the GM calling for rolls, the player rolling dice and doing math before reporting the roll, then the GM giving out basic information about what is/isn't seen with questionable interest to the group. I mean, there's only so many times you can hear "the door isn't locked or trapped" or "the door is locked and trapped with a tiny mechanism that will..." before it just becomes so much noise and your brain wanders.
Unfortunately I don't have a real answer to this. There are ideas for sure, but a lot of this is very table and system specific. If your table loves the granularity of individual rolls for traps and such then you should do that. Other tables may be fine with the GM just telling the story of them exploring without rolls at all, and they should do that. For me, well...I have the following goals:
- Everyone gets a thing to do, even if it is just them choosing to assist another player instead of taking ownership of their own things.
- Some mechanics, or reference to mechanics, in order to have the feel of the characters exploring with the chance for missing some things and finding others
- No bogging down with mechanics for every door, chest, nook, and cranny
On Wednesday we'll go over some ideas for this for the games I'm currently running (5e) and where possible indicate how they could make transcend that system to other games.