Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quest Heresy

The inclusion of quests in D&D 4e was considered by some to be a nod to MMO design (one of many) but the reality has been far different. Quests tend to exist to provide alternate or extra rewards, but I have never seen them used the way they are in MMOs. That is to say, in the average MMO, a player has many quests going at once, perhaps dozens at a time, and they approach them in the order they see fit.

Historically, I haven't thought this to much of a bad thing because, frankly, most MMO quests were pretty lame. Pointless errands and requests to kill a dozen members of the monster species of the moment were the order of the day. But my thinking has been slowly changing, in large part as a result of how good a job Blizzard is doing with the role of quests in the recent Cataclysm expansion to World of Warcraft.

There is something really appealling to me in the bite-sized nature of MMO quests. Part of it is the player-directed element - you pursue the ones that interest you - but another part hinges on the size of it. You can knock out a bunch of these in a single "session", a prospect that's almost inconceivable in tabletop.

I end up wondering how much of that is habit and how much is necessity. Certain things make for concrete limits. Many MMO quests would fail to pass the smell test at the table. A "Kill 10" quest would be basically dull and stupid in that context. Similarly, RPG combats tend to be harder and more involved, so quests that depend on too many encounters are going to slog a bit.

I think back sometimes to the adventure board. Some folks may remember this as a staple of campaigns, where there was a board in town where the wanted posters went up. The idea was that there were several threads that the players might pursue if they were so inclined, but the assumption was that each such thread was a full bore adventure, not a side task. But why not?

As I think about it, I think the biggest barrier is the idea that small tasks and small rewards are less "heroic" than big payouts, but that doesn't withstand much scrutiny. Lots of studies out there illustrate that we respond really, really well to small, regular rewards that are directly related to our activity rather than deferred rewards (which become emotionally disconnected) even if the deferred rewards are larger. Lots of RPGs support this, this with more immediate payouts (in XP, action points, fate points or the like) so is it too much o a stretch ot have the setting support it as well?

Maybe. I'm still thinking. But that's a big step up from "no chance in hell."


  1. Here's one way I handed a "kill 10" quest: A necromancer raied the skeletons of 12 dwarven chieftains to do his bidding and they eventually wandered off. The quest was to return the bones to rest.

    Here's the real quest: each skeleton went in a different direction: some of these require research to figure out (2 or 3 were taken over by a rival necromancer..), some of them are random encounters ("a dwarf skeleton was seen recently in the vicinity of the old swamp..") With each incremental kill the party gets closer to the reward. The main point is: the quest lasts multiple sessions, is not mandatory, and is something that can always be running along in the background. It's great to have 3 (or 6 or 12) quests running at the same time, because (Upside) at that point adventures become self-directed. The party might decide to follow up on skeleton hunting or it might decide to put some effort into other quests like "finding the old teleport circle" or "making peace with the treants" at that point.. Downside is that you have to prepare these quests to a degree. You can prepare them incrementally and just provide 1 or 2 or 4 per session alongside the regular adventure and pretty soon you will have a bunch.

    Works for games other than D&D too, obviously.

  2. There is something really appalling to me...

    Any chance you meant "appealing"?

  3. I like what pseckler13 said. I'd also say that Quests can be used to fill Magic Users' and alchemists' sacks of Material Components.

    Shopkeeper: "I'd love to sell you some Elfsbane for your poison, but I'm all out. I was supposed to get a shipment, but it never showed. Maybe you could pick some of your own? There's probably someone around here that could show you a good patch."

    So then your quest becomes an encounter using your outdoorsy skills to find a suitable patch and harvest it, or a search for someone who has those skills. Throw in a small twist like "a patch that used to be there isn't anymore and you need to find a new one" or "the only patch nearby is deep in enemy/creature/etc territoy. How can we get to it safely?"

    Or maybe you make the quest into "kill enough other magic users to steal their elfsbane." ;-p

  4. It's also interesting how Dragon Age: Origins uses quests as a way of signalling what kind of game you're interested in having. You start out having random encounters on the road, but if you signed up for the "rescue refugees" quest, you can run into refugees on the road instead. When I signed up for "destroy the circle of maleficarum," a forest clearing that was guarded by a couple random ogres the first time I went there contained a chanting cabal of maleficarum isntead (the ogres killed me and I never went back for them, so I got to see both monster groups).

  5. I think minor little quests are an important element of a sandbox world, especially one which features low-level adventurers, and the GM should have a variety of such ideas available at call. They needn't be full fledged adventures, although if mishandled by the players they can become one.*

    You don't get this freedom of movement (and therefore have a need for these minor quests), when you are in a world where the gamemaster has a strong idea of the story that they would like to tell, or where the characters are powerful enough to begin substantially affecting the warp and weft of the campaign world.

    [* The "quest" I remember most fondly involved obtaining a vial or arsenic (unbeknown to me it was the first part of a much larger quest to create a lich). However it turned into doing a chain of favours for various people (including Demogorgon at the end [you have to love old school random encounter tables combined with our players ability to grovel magnificently]). The fun thing was we actually did keep our word and performed the chain in reverse (even though it would have been trivial to take a shortcut with it).]


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