The quest is a staple of gaming, whether video or tabletop. It encompasses all the necessary elements a player needs. It is a grand adventure, larger than life. It denotes a setting unlike our own, a fantastical world in which the player is of the strongest, most competent there is. It is an empowering feeling to know you are relied on by the common folk, terror to all the evil there is. Or evil yourself, if that’s the ticket for you. This article will focus more on the tabletop gaming world.
But the quest is not a simple, easy creation. A Dungeon Master can not simply say “There are Kobolds in the forest.” Even with the most clearly destructive and malevolent of enemies, there must be motivation, involvement, and flavour. Each encounter, whether at first level or twentieth, should be memorable. That stick-in-your-mind quality is what can separate a good DM from a great DM.
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So what goes into a great adventure, a memorable quest? Well, the first part you should always consider, and you probably have without knowing it, is the tone of the campaign or game you’re working on. If your campaign has mainly light and energetic, or even funny, an adventure to apprehend a psychotic and deranged serial killer is not appropriate (well, maybe, but be careful). Don’t just consider what your campaign has been up to this point, consider what it will be afterward. What is the next adventure going to be like? Think about jarring shifts in tone between adventures, shift gradually between feelings, whether between adventures/quests, or within the quest itself.
Once you know the tone of the adventure, move to the specific events and characters. The standard for D&D is thirteen encounters per level, and you should definitely know the leveling rate for whatever game you’re playing. Take a look at the area around your adventure. Where can the players go? Why would they go there? The answer to that first question should be anywhere. And while it can be hard, you have to avoid railroading them. That sounds easy, but it’s more tricky than we realize. For instance, you have zombies attack a town. The players don’t instantly know where the zombies have come from, but it’s a safe bet it’s the local cemetery, and most player know, at least experienced ones, that where there are zombies, there is magic. They prepare to fight a mage and head to the graveyard without even questioning a single villager. You may not have designed this to happen, but you didn’t design to avoid it. Avoid railroading at all costs, let the players feel like they’re in control, it’s an amazing feeling to impart.
Also, consistency. Don’t put Demons and Devils on the same team (in D&D) unless there’s a mighty good reason. If the enemy is a thieve’s guild, use thieves and thugs, not Druids, usually.
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So, you know what’s going to happen, where it’s happening, and all the ways it can happen, but you need to make sure it’s all interesting. Colourful characters can be hard to achieve, but a lot of it relies on the performance of the DM, or the potency of the writer. Be animated as an actor, use accents, mime actions, etc. It really makes the experience come alive for the players. In addition, you must be sure that you understand the motivations of the characters, especially whatever antagonist you’ve created. Real people are not evil for the sake of being evil, they have philosophies, visions, and purpose. Make sure you give them the respect that amount of thinking and work deserves.
So, when designing the events, you’ll always, always miss out on a choice the players make. They’ll go somewhere you find completely irrational, completely pointless, and you haven’t prepared anything for that locale. What do you do? Well, hopefully you know what this area is like, and rather than just telling the player’s they’re on the wrong track, you can improvise (a DM’s greatest skill) and guide the players back on track.
In video games, you take a look at what’s out there. Killing X amount of monster Y is all very well, but there is a world beyond that. Guild Wars 2 claims that there will be actual consequence to the quest actions, but the specifics begin to depend on players forming parties, which is of course a point of MMOs, but further limits the options of soloing players, a slightly unkind measure (I like to solo in MMOs, just a personal preference). So, beyond that, there is a challenge in finding something more to do. Maybe something like running a patrol with a troupe of guards if solo, or instead of the guards if in a party of five or more. This patrolling can fit several situations, like helping a farmer protect his farm, or protecting a group of refugees from traveling mercs. That’s just one idea that keeps within a simple setup, but switching up the nature of quests is very important. It can always get boring, fast.
So what else goes into a great adventure? Unique locations. A wizard’s tower is fine, but what if it’s half sunk into a swamp? What if that ruin is still a holy training ground for dwarven monks? You get the idea. It’s about varying on the clichés that renews the formula. Varying in the basic monsters makes them more memorable as well, giving an Ogre a huge jawbone to attack with is quite a bit better than your standard wooden club. A huge scar on the mouth, or a black mirrored helmet really make characters memorable. Awesome nicknames also help.
So, to give a great quest, you need to think it completely through. Try not to throw it together last minute, don’t look to published adventures too much. If there is something you can fin that inspires you, use it to no end. For instance, I take a ton of my inspiration in writing, in gaming, from random words I see around. For instance, just picking at random, a song title on my itunes: “Jaws of Heaven.” Instantly I see a whole campaign around that concept, about the world being swallowed by what the people thought was their heaven. Or “Becoming a Mystery” wherein the players can help an extremely talented thief and gain her as a friend, or they can try to capture her, and become legends themselves. Find your inspiration, work for it, let it work for you. That may sound ethereal and useless, but I promise it’s not.