D&D is a game about heroic adventure. As such, the basic mechanic of rolling a d20 and comparing it to a DC fits well. The basic unit of the game hinges on the question, "Did I beat the challenge?" That really ties into the heroic adventure feel: you're presented with a series of challenges, and the expectation is that you'll have a chance to overcome them. This is also why it's so notoriously difficult to play, for instance, a horror game in D&D, or why you might feel so lost and unsupported if you try to have a game of high drama. Horror can be about many things, but it's rarely about overcoming the danger involved. That's the real difference between adventure and horror: in an adventure, you expect to overcome the challenge, whereas in horror, you typically don't. Drama, by the same token, operates on completely different questions, to which the tension of rolling a d20 seem rather completely unrelated.
The classic story game to really innovate on this sort of thing, of course, is Dread. The physical tension of pulling a brick from a Jenga tower aligns perfectly with the tension in a horror story. And as in good horror, this isn't a matter of meeting a series of challenges and overcoming them, as dice would suggest, but a matter where success merely means putting off the inevitable calamity just a little longer.
I know, for most of you, I'm just telling you what you already know. But I thought it might be a good place to start as I ponder what sort of game lends itself to the fun of exploration. Now, yes, certainly, you can tell a tale of exploration in something like a D&D game. All you have to do is turn the exploration into a series of challenges that the explorers need to overcome. However, I think that crosses a line where you can describe it more accurately as a game of heroic adventure with the trappings of exploration, rather than a game about exploration. It seems to me that a game about exploration would require that no one at the table knows what they will find next.
For a few months now, I keep coming back to how you could achieve this with a deck of cards. Once shuffled, cards don't randomize like a die does; not really. When you roll a die, you determine the outcome. Once you've shuffled a deck of cards, you have already set all the outcomes before you even begin to play. The landscape exists; you don't determine it, you explore it.
The cards in Ganakagok frequently create mythopoeic tales. I think a lot of that has to do with the symbolism. You can pull a number of different elements from each card, making them broad enough to interpret in many different ways. This leads to that "magical moment" that seems to come up at least once, at least in every game of Ganakagok I've played, where you stare at the deck in wonder, and might even think it really does have some kind of magic, because the card you pull just fits the situation too, too perfectly.
I'm interested in a more down-to-earth sort of exploration, with a real emphasis on rich description and really indulging the senses. So, I've spent some time thinking about assigning each card to a very specific image. I think, but haven't yet really proven or even thoroughly tested, that you can control the magical-ness of the experience by making the cards more or less specific.
I also thought of having several places. At the beginning of the game, we deal cards to each place, forming smaller decks, each kept face-down. We can then explore these places by diving deeper and deeper into them, from the most superficial things we find there (the first card we see), to their deepest secrets (the last card we draw).
I really just have the kernel of an idea here, though. Rolling a die or pulling a block from a Jenga tower tell you not only the action to take, but how to consider it a success or not. I just have an action to take. How do we introduce the tension of exploration? Where does the risk come in? Do some cards always present danger? Or perhaps you can only draw so many before you have to turn back, and if you can't find what you seek before then, you just can't find it?
What ideas do you have?