So over on RPGnet someone posted a question about how to make exploration exciting and fun in RPGs. I've been having some good luck with this in the Hill Cantons (~2 years now, forth the Nefarious Nine!) so I thought I'd start the ball rolling on a parallel discussion here.
Chris has a few thoughts here and here, and Zak had some really good thoughts on hexcrawls and exploration here and here and here.
From the player perspective, some things that have worked well for exploring the Hill Cantons (but now flipped around as statements to the GM) have been:
a) Having a coherent theme/themes. It's important to have dungeons that are not only weird and fantastic, but also have a structure and logic to them. Being able to determine things about the dungeon from your surroundings helps fix the environment together and provide ideas for what else can be around, driving exploration efforts.
|Concept Art for Linage II|
c) Jacquaying the dungeon. Creating interesting structures to explore, that have multiple branching paths. Weird geometry, shortcuts, loops - these things make exploration exciting, provide opportunities for sudden windfalls, and suggest new ideas. ("This flooded tunnel might be a path to the next level; let's see if we can figure out some way to get through it!")
|Unsure of this image's origin, alas|
b) Provide for altering the wilderness. In the HC, we're in a pseudo-domain-game stage, which requires clearing and holding hexes (exploring to make sure they're safe for regular folks, then establishing control over them through patrols), giving us an opportunity and incentive to interact with the environment.
a) Recognize that you're going to create and prep areas which may not see the light of day. THAT IS OK. Part of exploration means that you're likely going to miss things.
b) Have interacting parts. Don't make each hex / dungeon zone it's own little bubble. Have groups move around and interact with each other and make use of their surroundings. (A multitude of factions also provides players with another reason to explore: being able to find allies and/or Yojimbo their way through trouble.)
All of these are centered around making exploration contain meaningful choices. Someone on the RPGnet thread suggested that exploration is like a slot machine hit. I think it ought to be more like a hand of poker or blackjack; a slot machine is completely random, but blackjack and poker both require the application of skill along with the randomness to provide an (arguably) more compelling experience. Chance should most certainly play a role, but exploration should also make use of player agency and decisions.