Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Bears, bears, bears in Dungeons & Dragons

I made my name as a MMORPG blogger. But these days I am more interested in pen & paper roleplaying games, having grown bored of the MMO games that innovate rather slowly. But while most people consider pen & paper and online roleplaying games to be very different genres, I do think there is a lot of overlap here. Both kind of games can run into the same kind of problems, and the solutions that were found for one kind can sometimes even be applied to the other.

One recent example is my Gardmore Abbey campaign, where in the first session I had a problem which reminded me of WAR's infamous bears, bears, bears story: If you run a sandbox game where players can freely move everywhere, and there are locations where they can get a quest, and other locations where they can fulfill the quest, you can have a problem if the players find the quest target before finding the quest giver.

Paul Barnett proposed to solve that problem in Warhammer Online by having the game remember what monsters you killed. So if you went through an area full of bears and killed a lot of them and THEN found the guy who had the bear killing quest, the quest giver would reward you instead of asking you to go back and do it again. In the end only an extremely limited version of this was ever implemented in WAR, and it was still very possible to be sent back by a quest giver to kill the same mobs again that you already killed on the way to him.

In my Dungeons & Dragons campaign there are various quests and quest givers for the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure. And they are designed to not all appear at the same time. So the idea was to give the players the "scout the abbey" quest that made them explore the lower parts of the abbey first. And once they came back from that to report their findings, they would have met Sir Oakley, who was to tell them about a secret staircase to the upper part of the abbey, and giving them the "purify the temple" quest. Only that my players decided to not take one of the several options to enter the abbey from the front side, and went to the back of the hill in the very first session.

Now I could have stuck to the book. I could have given the players some chance to find the secret staircase, in which case they would have gone up and risked getting into the fight in the temple before receiving the quest. Once they would have come back to Winterhaven, meeting Sir Oakley with his quest would have worked rather less well: "Whaddya mean you want us to go up the same staircase again and escort you to the temple we already plundered?". But this is where the pen & paper game's secret weapon comes into play: A human DM is a lot more flexible than a computer. So while the players were approaching the back of the abbey, I had them encounter Sir Oakley there, making camp near the foot of the hills. Problem solved, the players got the quest before fulfilling it.

This flexibility is something which MMORPGs are still moving towards slowly. You can in some games already have location-based quests, where you get the quest not in some quest hub far away, but you get the quest the moment you arrive at the location where you can do it. But in a MMORPG a quest tends to be either one or the other: If a quest has been set up to be given if you arrive at a location, you don't get the same quest at a quest hub any more. That negates the primary purpose of quests, which is getting players to go places. My pen & paper game solution of moving the quest giver to where he is needed is not something that I've seen in a MMORPG yet, as those tend to be rather too static for such a flexible solution.

I would just have had them chased away by lots of bears.
Quote of the day to Gerry.
While that is indeed "flexible," isn't it also technically railroading? "All roads lead to the adventure I planned." I'm not saying that that is a necessarily a bad thing - DM & players typically have to be cooperative on some level for a campaign to take place at all - but I'm not entirely sure whether flexibility is the term I would use to describe it.

As for other MMOs, actually quite a few are using similar methods, at least occasionally. WoW has had follow-up quests that you automatically get in the field since Cataclysm; you could also get a "kill 10 wolves" quest after killing the first one in certain areas. GW2's Hearts are technically all flexible insofar as the "quest giver" activates any time you are near the area/mobs. And while I never played The Secret World, I thought I heard about getting quests via cell phone, e.g. without having to interact with a specific person.
@Azuriel - Not so much railroading since it is still a believable hook.

It would be pretty bad though if for some reason the party decided to ignore the abbey altogether and travel to some circle of hell out of the blue then find Sir Oakley waiting for them there to give them a quest that leads back to the abbey! Now THAT's railroading! :P
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