Apparently 5E has identified three core game tasks: combat, exploration, and interaction. The problem is that the game has historically focused on different pillars (I'd argue OD&D on Exploration and later editions more on Combat).
The thread identifies a few problems with exploration type tasks or skill challenges (whatever you want to call them). I distilled them down into a few key points here and added a few of my own.
- Participation -- Only Weakest Matters. Historically exploration tasks are dominated by the LEAST capable member of a party. It doesn't member of four of the PCs have sneak checks of plus three million if there's a stinky dwarf in plate mail clunking along. In all editions I've seen this mitigated by either (A) copious amounts of spells (i.e. the wizard casts invisibility, fly, and silence on the dwarf...) or (B) "Team Sneaky" (the 100% elf & halfling party in 1E, a bunch of optimized characters for 3E or 4E, etc). Even more simply, having a 12" move is irrelevant if there's a 6" move person trundling down the trail with you. This is different from combat -- every D&D party that wants to someday have Sleep figures out how to keep the pointy hat wizard (useless in combat) alive for at least a little while in 1E.
- Participation -- Only Strongest Matters. Alternatively, some exploration tasks are capable of being handled by one PC (example -- climb a cliff to affix a rope for everyone to climb). Then everyone else is pretty much irrelevant.
- Lack of mechanics. 1E had a good number of mechanics for exploration but they've kind of dropped off. Without concrete mechanics, player skill exceeds character niche in importance.
- Lack of dynamism or two parties. In a fight, the orcs swing back. In exploration, the environment rarely gets a vote. Who has honestly cared if it rained in an RPG? This makes things very static and unsatisfying.
- Risk/Reward problems. Often exploration is harshly punished. "Thou shalt not split the party!" is a hard learned lesson of 1E. It also neuters the scout types. Meanwhile, poor exploration often results in resource sapping random encounters. The incentives need to be set up properly.
- Details... and irrelevant details. Sometimes there is a huge emphasis on exploration related logistics. I remember spreadsheet upon sheet for 1E adventuring parties tracking food, water, etc. Sadly, once casters reach level X, various needs become irrelevant. Create Water? Create Food? Heck, at some levels, you even get Airy Water (create Air). Once the cleric has Create Food & Water the fiddly starvation rules are goneskies. Likewise, "Knock" makes rogues fairly irrelevant for many tasks.
Up next: some ideas to address these issues.