A worthy Quest

I’ve been talking about the idea that a campaign in an RPG can be either following the entire adventuring life of the player characters, or be an episodic series of their greatest adventures. Though I’ve run all my previous campaigns in the “life story” style and all the games I’ve played where either this or one-shots, I am actually much more fond of the later one. Part of it is because most of my campaigns are short and never make it to a grand finale and I really want more opportunities to run adventures for Big Damn Heroes for a change. But I think in a campaign that is driven by events and developments in the game world, as opposed byfighting and treasure huting in isolated dungeons, it’s actually a more effective approach.

A common issue many people have with “epic” campaigns and adventure paths, is that no-name 1st level characters rise to be the most poweful people in the world in just a few months or even weeks, while NPCs supposedly take decades or centuries to get there. It works better in action movies, where an Average Joe only needs an extraordinary crisis to unleash the fighting beast that has always been sleeping inside him, and lots of videogames of the RPG genre make the samemistake, as they want to show off all the sweet high level abilities offered by the source material in a single story. Two games that handled this aspect reasonably well are Mass Effect, where you you start as an elite veteran and unlock new abilities over time only for gameplay reasons, and Dragon Age 2, which does follow the episodic format and has almost 4 different stories from various moments over a 10 year period.

In the context of a campaign, Mass Effect would be a case of starting at a high level with few increases of character strength, while Dragon Age 2 only shows the moments in the characters life where they made significant increases in experience and power. For myself, I’ve made the descision of following the episodic approach, skipping over all the uneventful patrols of the roads and borders, and explorations of dungeons that turned out to be empty. But what kinds of adventures are actually worth telling?

One term I’ve actually not heard in reference to pen and paper games is “the quest”. Videogames use it as a generic term for any objective, no matter how big or small. Delivering a pie to the old lady down the road goes into the quest log, right next to the search for an ancient relic and the creation of an army to invade hell itself. In a more stricter sense of the word, a quest is a grand, long, and usually very important endeavor that is the whole reason the heroes have set out from their homes. The search for the Holy Grail is the classic quest. There’s also the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom, the 12 Labors of Heracles, the search for the Golden Fleece, freeing the realm of King Hrothgar from the monster Grendel, and restoring the rightful king of Kuru on the throne in the Mahabharata. These are all quests worthy of great heroes, and stories worth of being retold for centuries. That time some people went poking around in some cave that was inhabited by orcs and goblins out of boredom not so much. Since I want my players to see all the cool things in my setting, encounter the villains and fight the awesome battles, and just generally experience the “Story Now!”, adventures should be prepared from the start to develop into an actual quest in the first session. Often it’s a good idea to start with a seemingly ordinary day like all the others, which usually get skipped over because nothing interesting happens. But not this day. But again, we want the “Story Now!”, not after four hours of mucking around with no idea why we’re playing this out, so try to establish the overall goal reasonably quickly. Not knowing what is going on isn’t too bad as a player, as long as you at least know why you should care about any of this.

So when preparing a new adventure, what kinds of task make a worthy quest for the game to be centered on? I’ve come up with a list of 10 items, which I think covers most situations:

  1. Slay a monster: A very simple setup. There is a monster, which is a threat to someone, and it needs to be dealt with. Complications arise from finding the monster in the first place and then discovering a way by which it can be defeated. And sometimes there might be better alternatives to fighting once more details about the creature and its motivation are revealed
  2. Defeat a villain: Another old classic. This time the threat comes from a thinking person that is much more dangerous because of his plans and plots then his own powers. With a few exceptions a villain is less difficult to fight, but much harder to reach.
  3. Defeat an enemy army: Here the threat comes not so much from a specific powerful leader, but from an overwhelming force of ordinary warriors. While taking out individual commanders can be of great help, they will be replaced and defeating a whole army requires quite different methods than taking out a main villain. Rather rare in fiction, since the personal fight between individuals on both sides often makes for better stories. But playing as generals in a larger campaigns or a group of commandos preparing everything for a final decisive battle can also be great fun.
  4. Take an enemy stronghold: The heroes goal is to assault an enemy stronghold, defeat the defenders, and claim it for their allies. There’s often an army behind them, but they can claim the day by creating the one breach their allies need to get inside. Or maybe find a way to get the defenders to capitulate.
  5. Avenge a crime: Surprisingly rare in adventure modules but very common in movies, as it requires a strong personal investment of the heroes. Simple revenge can be a motive, but this category also includes fugitive criminals, clearing the heroes names by finding the real perpetrator, or capturing a spy. Someone did something that can’t stand and the heroes need to catch him and see that punishment is delivered.
  6. Rescue a captive: Someone has been kidnapped, captured, or simply disappeared. It’s up to the PCs to find them and return them safely.
  7. Retrieve a relic: Something invaluable of great importance has been taken. It can not be replaced and it’s the heroes task to find it and bring it back, or there will be grave consequences ahead. In addition to religious objects, items of ceremonial or diplomatic importance, or objects critical for a magical defense also are of significant relevance to make them worthy of a quest.
  8. Find an artifact: Unlike the relic, this artifact hasn’t been taken, but has just now been discovered. It’s an item that provides significant boons to whomever possesses it, so there is a great competition for it. But those who can successfully claim it will gain great recognition and wealth. It’s similar to any other treasure, but unlike gold, jewels, and common magic items, this is unique and famous (or will soon be).
  9. Break a curse: A permanent supernatural affliction is plaguing a land or a group of people. The heroes have to discover its source and find a way to end it. It can manifest in the form of dangerous creatures, but they can’t be removed by slaying them as long as their source has not been dealt with.
  10. Escape from a trap: It might seem rather unheroic at first that the heroes fell into this trap in the first place. But the obstacles they have to overcome to free themselves are still worthy of legend. Nobody should survive this and if the heroes have been trapped by their enemies, they will see who will have the last laugh.

Structurally,these types of quest are not really that much different from any common adventure. The characters are still doing mostly the same thing they are always doing. The important diffence is the meaning that is given to these adventures. Going into a dungeon to explore it and discovering a big monster which is faught for its big treasure is just plain old dungeon crawling. Traveling to the same dungeon with the goal of finding the monster and slaying it, and then claiming its treasure as part of the reward can be a very different thing. Sure, as GM you are giving away the secret that there is a big monster in the dungeon which the players should be able to defeat if they play their cards correctly. It’s a bit of mystery being lost. But at the same time, the whole dungeon and all the creatures inside it are getting a good seasoning of context and meaning, than can make the overall experience all the more richer.

While I was thinking of categories and example works, I noticed that most of them actually check several boxes at once and not just a single one each. Most movies, books, games, and adventures that came to my mind even fall into three or more of them. For example, Alien is both a case of slaying the monster and escaping the trap. The Paizo adventure Flight of the Red Raven even covers slaying a monster, avenging a crime, recovering a relic, breaking a curse, and escaping a trap, which all become necessary deeds to complete your original goal.

2 thoughts on “A worthy Quest”

  1. To note, I almost always run what you describe as “epic” campaigns because I really value connectedness between sessions. It builds a storied tradition that begins to carry a lot of layered meaning after a few months of play.

    However, you raise an excellent point on “epic” campaigns when you describe how “1st level characters rise to be the most powerful people in just a few months or even weeks, while NPCs supposedly take decades or centuries to get there.” This is a problem I’ve definitely been grappling with.

    I don’t think the Mass Effect solution works for tabletop RPGs because you would have to start at high level. The Dragon Age 2 solution works, but then I don’t like to artificially confine a campaign into episodes. It reminds me of 4.0’s “per encounter” abilities which I despise. If you have other thoughts that refute my conclusions here, I’d like to hear them.

    My personal solution has to wait until next campaign. I’m making the next world 95%+ wilderness, sparsely populated, so that it takes them weeks or even months to get to their destinations (it’s also extremely low magic, so no teleport). They are also going to be dealing with tribal management (as leaders of a goblinoid tribe), such as their pastures and marriages, which can take weeks, months, or maybe even years to properly administrate.

    Obviously the tribal management isn’t for most campaigns where you want to battle 24/7, and the travel idea is restricted to a certain type of campaign world. But I think it’s a good idea to brainstorm ways to cause time to pass in week or month spans. For example, with my 95%+ wilderness idea, they also don’t have to worry about enemies getting a step up on them because the enemies also will take a very long time to travel.

    I wonder, do you have any other ways to rationalize why the players would want to advance weeks or months in the game, so as to fix this problem you describe of the PCs becoming all-powerful way too fast?

    1. If the players do have plans for specific things they want to do, they can of course do it any time. But that almost never is the case. Normally the adventure comes to the characters, not the other way round. And adventure does not always arrive three days after they have returned back to town. Weeks or even months may pass in which the characters just keep the outlying fields clear of dangerous beasts, make sure there are no bandits along the road, perform regular temple duties, fix broken bones and give herbs for minor ailments, and occasionally poke into holes that turn out to be just a big dent in a hill. I think it would actually be a waste of time to play all those scenes. When I start a session and the PCs are asked to escort a merchants cart to the next village, the players will of course know that this won’t be an uneventful trip and everyone makes it to their destination safely. There will be no surprise at all, when suddenly something bad happens, but that’s really a minor tradeoff. It happens everytime you watch a new episode of virtually every TV show.

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