If you've read this blog enough, you've seen me bemoan the fact that while D&D 5e claims to have 3 pillars of play, it really only supports one of those pillars - combat - with in depth mechanics. In counter to this argument I've seen several people point out that the DMG does in fact have Exploration mechanics. It is true that in the DMG there are mechanics for being in the wilderness, and there is some information there that is useful for exploration, but the mechanical systems that are present are not exploration mechanics. They are survival mechanics.
I won't sit here and tell you that survival mechanics have no place in an exploration pillar. They very much do. However, exploration and survival are not the same thing, even if they often come up linked arm in arm. At least, in High Fantasy. All it really takes it a look to other genres to see the difference.
Star Trek Is About Exploration
The original Star Trek and Star Trek the Next Generation are very much about exploration. Starfleet is interested in exploration. The encounters and situations the Enterprise and her crew get into are things that can and could happen in an Exploration game. However, no one would ever say that Star Trek is a show about wilderness survival. Why? Because the Enterprise, and the technology level of the Star Trek universe, solves the problem of shelter, food, and medicine. The survival mechanics are dealt with. The exploration is still there.
What then is the 'meat and potatoes' of exploration? Well, it is partly there in the mission statement of the Star Trek Enterprise: These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!
That Is Tautological
Yes, it is tautological to reference exploration in what I say exploration is about, but look at the rest of the statement. "Strange New Worlds," "Seek out new life and new civilizations," and to "go where no one has gone before."
Let's break those down.
Strange New Worlds
Strange new worlds, the ones in need of exploration, is about finding new settings. It is about going into 'strange' environments - read: any environment that is different from 'normal' as determined by the perspective of the observer - and to figure out how they work. A strange new world means encounters with new flora, new fauna, new natural phenomenon. Which is covered in...
New Life and New Civilizations
Again, the flora and fauna of the world. How does the 'food chain' work on this planet? What is the ecology like? Are there sentient and sapient races? If so, what does their civilization look like?
In a High Fantasy setting like D&D this can mean discovering peoples that have been cut off from wherever the PCs are from for various reasons. It can also mean discovering the remnants of those places. An ancient, abandoned elven city, the ruins of an old dwarven castle, the lair of a now deceased mighty red dragon, are all wonderful examples of things people can find while exploring in those worlds - and can also include who lives in that now, and what type of people or life form are they.
Where No One Has Gone Before
This is not so much about being first as it is about expanding horizons, seeing new sights, learning new things. I would also argue that while going where no one has gone before is an amazing drive for explorers, very often so to is to "go where no one has gone in a very very long time."
What Would Exploration Mechanics Look Like?
Exploration mechanics would look like world building mechanics in a lot of way. There would be questions, rules, and guidelines for things like how to generate a wilderness, what type of features show up on animals and plants in those types of climates and environments, how to modify existing creatures to fit into these areas (even if just visually while preserving a stat block.)
There would also be notes on how and where to place land marks, special finds, sight seeing opportunities - an amazing view can be just as impressive and special as the waystone of an ancient civilization.
Speaking of which, there would also be guidelines for how to generate different types of cultures and people from more tribal bands of nomads and early hunter/gatherers, to more expansive empires that were once as mighty - or mightier - as the current super powers that exist in your world.
Exploration mechanics would give you the tools to take something like "the PCs enter the wilderness" and tell you how to flesh out and populate that wilderness so there is always something worth finding and poking at inside. And then leave it to the GM and the game to decide if things like getting lost, staying rested, and having enough food are things you want in your game or not. Because sometimes Exploration without Survival is very nice.