Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
 
Quests in Dungeons & Dragons

DM: "The stranger in the tavern tells you of a ruin full of treasures to the north of town. What do you do?"
Players: "We go south!"


One of the developments in modern MMORPGs was the idea that the player should always be on a quest, or several, so he would never be lost for ideas on where to go next. Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition introduced that idea into D&D rules, but most of the official adventures I've seem don't actually use the concept. That is probably because those adventures are very linear already, and if you have a dungeon full of monsters you don't really need a quest to tell players what to do.

DM: "You found the sword Excalibur that King Arthur asked you to retrieve. He is waiting for you in Camelot, north of here. What do you do?"
Players: "We go south!"


A completely scripted and linear D&D adventure is a bad adventure. Much of the interest of pen & paper roleplaying is that the story is not completely predetermined, but evolves from the interaction between the players and the dungeon master. If the players come up with a great solution on how to infiltrate the keep instead of attacking it, great! But of course that leaves the risk of the players derailing whatever the dungeon master has prepared. And quests are a great way for the DM to let the players know where they are supposed to go, without actually forcing them.

Most likely your game world is full of interesting places, monsters, and treasures. Thus the mere existence of a dungeon full of treasures isn't motivation enough for the players to go there. Of course you can railroad the players to end up at the dungeon entrance regardless of whether they go north or south. But your players probably won't appreciate. Thus it is better to not only deliver them some story hook of why they should go to that dungeon and retrieve some item, but at the same time give them a piece of paper with a big heading: QUEST, a short description of what they should do, and an xp reward. Formulate item retrieval quests as "bring back" rather than "find", and the players might actually turn in the item they were supposed to look for instead of just keeping it.

Not all quests have to be solved. Some might even end up being impossible to finish, or two quests might contradict each other. Or the players might decide that even with a quest reward they aren't interested in that particular story line. But in general a quest gives both a clear enough signal, and a good motivation to players to not completely mess up whatever the DM has prepared. If your players constantly refuse all your stories and quests, it is probably time for "rock falls, everyone dies" anyway.

One other reason I like quests for is that they provide a convenient game mechanic for giving xp for non-combat activities. Next play session the characters in my group will finish the level 0 adventure, and build their level 1 characters. So I'm in the process of writing an adventure for level 1 for them, using a mix of pre-made adventures and own ideas. And unlike the official adventures I don't want them to be in combat all the time, but have a 50:50 mix of combat and non-combat encounters. Quests that give xp for let's say solving a murder mystery put the roleplaying encounters on the same reward level as the combat encounters, so players don't just simply go for combat all the time because it gives the best rewards. In the part of the adventure I've written up to now, which should get the players from level 1 to level 2, half of the xp are from combat, and the other half from quests, one major and two minor ones. That is more than the xp for quests foreseen in the Dungeon Masters Guide, but according to the DMG a minor quest gives less xp than a minor combat, and a major quest less xp than a major combat, and that is not how I want to run my campaign.
Comments:
So funny Tobold, this post describes my experience in TOR tonight Exactly!

I landed in Tatooine finally (yeah, i'm slow I know) and saw a giant sandcrawler in the distance south of Anchorhead. What an awesome sight!

So yeah, everything said go north but I ran south. And exhaustion killed me straight away! I hadn't died from an elite mob all night!

So I logged off and read read your blog. Would you mind calling Bioware and telling them their rpg is broken please?
 
For some time now reading through your posts on PnP playing I had these flashback of how fun it was to play with friends in the attic. But this post blew it completely.

Preparing a 'quest' object for the players is so much derived from MMOs - I don't remember ever using a structurized 'quest' for any of the adventures.

With PnP it was always a story about some people. Some of them were PCs and some of them were NPCs, but all of these were doing stuff and had a purpose for what they're doing and that was what spun the story and pushed it forward. If the players did anything at all, expected or not, it was easy to go forward because the NPCs had their own motivation to do stuff, so changing the story on the fly was always easy. And players were able to decide what their current goal (or 'quest') is based on the party's common needs.
 
In our DnD4e group we don't award XP at all. PCs gain a level when the DM says so. Easier to fit level changes to story chapters. Stops gaming the system, farming boars just for the XP. Been doing it that way for years, since 3e or so.
 
XP can be awarded for a host of activities: travelling to new places, using skills to overcome challenges, bonuses for in-character roleplay, etc. The Rolemaster system inspired most of that list btw.

But as GM you are in control of the pace of the campaign and the pace of leveling. Unlike in MMOs usually XP allocation is a black box activity, you award the total amount for the sesson/adventure to each character without the need of a breakdown or explanation.

I should disclaim that I do not know D&D 4's take on this but in other editions and rule systems that's how it works. Of course arbritrarily assigning XP to dictate the number of sessions to level is perhaps open to extreme, but XP awards certainly shouldn't be a slave to a combat-heavy system.

An example of a game I ran in the early D20 days, it was a combat light campaign so I awarded XP for skill use, inginuity and RP and almost nothing for combat.
 
When I was very young (about 5) me and my sister developed a kind of activity. It consisted of me telling her what a fictional character did in an imaginary world and then her telling me the same. We didn't have any rules and not really any combat. We stopped doing this when we were about 7-8 years old.

Many years later (was about 16) I found out about D&D and table top RPGs.
I always found it stupid to rely on any script. You can perfectly make up a story on-the-fly. I've since then been a GM many times and never used a script or many rules at all. Everything get's handled according to common sense. The is little gameplay, but lots of decision making and creative thinking going on on all sides. And of course laughing..

I still think that those companies who sell scripts for adventures and 'rules' rip off the customer. You just don't need any of this for a great evening.
 
I've never given xp for quests or for combat, or monsters killed or treasure looted.

Instead I take an approach very much like the point system in the English gameshow QI:

Play (characterisation?) need not be right or correct but merely interesting.

Instead of forcing the players to go north, give the players many different direction choices, each with a different "quest" - let the players decide what they want to do.
 
I used to be DM (or as we called it , Game Master) a lot in my youth, like 15 years or so ago. It wasn't DnD but a local Swedish game which I think was better designed for general adventuring, not just running through dungeons which let's face it DnD is. Or at least was back in the 1st and 2nd edition days.

Anyway, I know that I ran quite a few adventures which were store bought. But whether they were bought or home made I always used to improvise a lot. The ones I made myself I rarely prepared much more than the main plot, a few main antagonists and a rough outline of how I expected that the players would tackle everything. If I made maps they were usually large scale and rarely made maps of specific locations. I just made it up as we went.

I guess that kind of preparing isn't for everyone, and probably especially not for beginners. But the upside is that since you haven't prepared much your time isn't wasted if the players decide to go north instead of south. Just gently find reasons for them to turn around, or perhaps just move the objectives. Actually I don't think that I've ever had any large problems with that. Given enough incentives the players usually head roughly the right way anyway.

But I do in fact remember a few occasions where side quests happened because of sidetracking that were quite the success by themselves also. Specifically I once beefed up some goblins a lot because the players were so powerful so they ended up capturing them which then made the players have to escape the base. :)

One thing I can really recommend, let the players write journals as if they were writing it from the players perspective. We used to take turns writing the journal and it became a huge success. :) Hmm, I wonder if I still have my copy lying around somewhere...
 
In preparing my adventures, I spend a lot of time preparing maps and the combat encounters that will take place on these maps. If the players walk into a completely different direction, I can improvise a story there, but I won't have a well-prepared combat encounter on offer.

While I don't want to run a game only on combat, I would also not want to run a game only on talking. Combat is more structured, and everybody gets their turn. That has huge advantages for the less extroverted players, who risk to be shoved into the background in a less structured gameplay.
 
Combat is structured whether you're able to present the characters with the map or not.

It's you who wrote about using a chair in a barfight in a PnP-RPG and lack of this possibility in an MMO.
The map will not always include all the things really happen. Sure, visual aids are helpful, but then they're not. I remember trying to use miniatures to make combat more visual, but we ended up describing everything anyway. I think that problems with pushing players in the right direction should never exist - it's their characters that decide what to do and it's better for the GM not to be that prepared - it leaves much more field for improvisation and awesomness.

Also - rewarding players for kills? Nah. It was always a reward for the effects of their decisions. While decisions could never be judged as good/bad, the effects of these were easily measurable. And to be honest, each of us, when DMing, ended up giving approximately the same amount of XP for different stuff. If there was XP for combat, it was also rather for strategic decisions than for kills, and most of the time it was the same pool of XP for the whole encounter for everyone, with extras for any cunning/bold actions.
 
While running my campaigns, I found it a godsend to, instead of having quests to give the players, having players meet NPC's on quests. It is much easier to hook a player with a good character than a good quest. Just as Jimr9999us said, he headed towards the sand crawler, not the quest. Give players a quest to go to an old castle, they may or may not take it. Have them pass an old castle with a pack of wolves chasing an NPC into the castle, well, then the game is on.

Some times, it's even better if they never even interact with the PC that led them there. Once, I used a completely out of place object to drag my entire group into a murder-mystery type adventure.

Picture a road in a forest with a burned caravan, horse tracks suddenly disappearing after leading away a few feet, zombi-fied caravan survivors, and a gryphon feather. For five hours my group tracked down clue after clue, interrogating villagers, sneaking out documents of officials, and even a dungeon-delving expedition to get the final clue from a gnoll vampire, and being oddly puzzled it was the gnoll causing the issue, and the gryphon feather was just a massive red herring.

Think like the magician, misdirection and distraction almost always beats out any good mechanical marvel.
 
"There's something exciting north! What do you do?"
"We go south!"

Honestly, this is precisely why I design my sessions the way I do. I have overarching goals, but for the most part, I simply let the players decide what they want to explore. You're right, our game worlds are filled with interesting people and places, and if the players as a group would rather run around and interact with them, that's great! If you're going to use a "quest hub" kind of location in your game (a central village, etc), I can make no stronger suggestion than to have a "quest" (bait a hook) that makes them want to go talk to as many of the major players as possible. Put names to faces, start relationships, and then just sit back and see what happens. Often, the next "quest" becomes an obvious outcropping of the previous one, as messes need to be mopped up, others see and need similar help, or the players themselves seek out people they like to offer their services. In the end, all it takes is a swift change in the environment, and 100 new quests appear.

I kept my party in a single city for the most part of the start of my campaign. When things slowed down, I got them out of the city. When they came back, the city was in the midst of a war. Single environment changes make huge differences as PCs become comfortable, then have to adapt, then repeat the process over and over. It worked beautifully.

As for Xp, I know you're sticking to the system and probably can't use this, but I simply did away with Xp entirely in my game. For feats that require XP as a crafting material, I simply allowed player who took feats to slowly accrue "crafting points" on the side at a pretty steady rate, about what they could do without falling too far behind anyway. I simply set up story arcs and leveled them at the end. I tried to have 13 and 1/3 (the old 3.5 standard) encounters in that story arc, be they combat or noncombat encounters. The thing with many groups is that "combat" encounters can be turned into noncombat with the right approach, and vice versa, so why not just allow them to do what they think they should and reward them for dealing successfully with the encounter regardless? And if you're going to do that, why do you need XP at all? That's just me, though.
 
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