On Campaign Design Patterns II

A Quest isn't a design pattern. It's a definition, but because it's complicated and needs discussion, we're going to treat it like one.

Quest: A task accomplished by the players for a reward.
Design and Scope: A quest is the basic unit of gameplay. It is something that must be accomplished that provides some reward for the players.
Use: The quest is ubiquitous. All game action is driven by reward and quests formalize and increase the default rewards gained from playing the game such as character experience and player fun.
Consequences: Player driven quests are the most engaging quests. Dictates enforced from kings and geased by wizards are the most frustrating.

Quest Fan (or Array): giving players 2 or more quests simultaneously.

Design and Scope: The creation of the quest fan is to give players meaningful options. The problem with the quest fan is making sure the quests are meaningful. If it's just a list of quests and the order you complete them doesn't affect the other quests or the rest of the game, it's effectively a linear sequence. The quest fan is effective when completing one task means you can't finish or complete another. The quest fan is very effective when the order in which you complete the tasks opens and closes different options based on how they are completed.
Role playing is not a video game you can complete 100%. When you run a game that way, the game becomes tedious.

Use: This is common to anyone who's ever played an older bioware game. You have a start quest, then you reach a base, from which you have three quests you can complete in any order before you can advance the plot. In a video game, it's fine because the purpose of choosing a quest is to play the video game.
A classic example of a quest fan is the three-pronged quest in S2, White Plume Mountain. Characters are tasked with retrieving three weapons that have disappeared, each in a different location in the adventure and each with a different clue. There is a minimal amount of interaction between the three quests, each following a different direction in the dungeon and only affecting each other prong in the most direct way (i.e. slain guards remain slain). There is some interaction based on the order in which the players leave, retrieving wave last can cause the players to exit via the geyser, allowing them to avoid Nix and Nox and Keraptis's recruiting attempts. 

Consequences: Using a quest fan allows players to meet their own needs during play, based on what type of gameplay they are interested in. It allows the Dungeon Master to then alter play based on the choices of the player characters. Simply having a list of tasks to complete that do nothing but reward you doesn't work as well in a tabletop game and certainly doesn't leverage the strength of infinite play available from a live human Dungeon Master.
If you have a selection of quests available and the order you complete them in is irrelevant, it's might as well be a linear sequence pattern. No action the players take can affect the outcomes of the quest fan, they are just a list of tasks that can be completed in any order.
This is why "Retrieve all parts of the Rod of Seven Parts" are such bad campaign ideas. It's removing all the meaningful choice from the players. That doesn't mean such a quest can't be done in a good way. Pirates of Dark Water had such a quest, and it seemed like it was going to be tedious. From the very first in that show, the treasures rarely stayed with Ren for very long. Sometimes captured by Bloth, sometimes stolen. At the end of every show, there was a possibility that they had to acquire the treasures by some means other than simply heading to the next location the compass indicated. Also, the show moved at a very brisk pace. In 21 episodes (six months of play) 8 of 13 treasures were acquired. An entire campaign could be handled in 9 months, which is about the reasonable outer limit for a single quest or goal.
An extremely effective way to use the Quest Fan is to mix the quests with some time structure. If you give the players 3 quests, whenever they complete the first one, the other two get worse by some significant margin. This simple pattern of having unattended things grow more complicated, naturally leads into an organic campaign that drives creative play as the players struggle to put out or control multiple fires at the same time.

Grapevine: A pattern for characters to acquire tangentially related background information, quests, and world flavor. 

Design and Scope: This is a method such as a local news sheet, bulletin board, town crier, or rumor mill that provides quests and information to the players.

Use: Chris Kutalik provides an excellent example here on his blog about how he uses this design pattern to not only help provide cohesion to the campaign experience, but also to further his ends as Dungeon Master. His article talks about providing plot hooks, quests, background information, and flavor.
I'm quite fond of literally bulletin boards being in towns, created as physical artifacts I can hand my players. Not only can I then have plot hooks, but I get to use the best techniques of Craigslist and classified ad posters.
This is by no means a new technique. The most classic use of the grapevine pattern is the vintage rumor list. Examples can be found in any classic module, many also include grapevine patterns from a variety of sources, the church, thieves guild, quartermasters posting bounties, etc.
The grapevine pattern is a pristine opportunity for driving complex rumors that engage players in play through multiple dimensions. You can use the grapevine pattern to extend rumors to function as foreshadowing as I talk about here. Here I talk about using the grapevine pattern to create campaign mysteries and adventure.

Consequences: The largest consequence is the amount of time such a technique can require. Even going through weekly and writing a news brief on four or five items or two or three sentences each is going to require about 30 minutes, as well as the creative energy before hand. There's quite a list of standard options (such as bounties for bandits, missing people, looking for monster lairs), but the downside is that those are standard options.
However grapevines can rapidly expand play in a very natural way, which eases your work on the backend. The results are entirely driven by player activity and because you're writing the grapevine, it dovetails into the adventure you've prepared.

Hack & Slash 


  1. What you say here makes perfect sense. My problem is coming up with good quest fans. Could you provide some detailed examples from past campaigns?


    1. Literally any time the character's have more than one semi-related or less objective at the same time.

    2. OK then let me add some context to my question. In my sandbox-ish campaign I have explained to the players several situations to allow them to choose where and what they would like to do. At the same time I'd like to add plots and machinations of villain NPCs that are going on in the background, and which the PCs may or may not become involved in.

      It's these NPCs plots that I have problems creating. And I guess I incorrectly inferred those were what you were discussing in this post. My apologies. Any good resources out there?


  2. One of the things I do not like about traditional role-playing is that the systems are designed simply to reward players by slaying monsters and counting coins. The definition of "quest" highlights this idea. For my game, I have dispensed with this reward structure and put in place one that rewards players on the spot for taking actions, even if they fail. This has worked well for me and puts the focus of the game on initiating actions and the playing in the moment.

  3. Not a criticism, but I wish we had a better word for these tasks than "Quest". To me, a Quest is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime, world-shaking event, like the Quest for the Holy Grail or the destruction of the One Ring. I just don't see "escort this person across the wilderness" or "kill ten goblins" (the WoW-style "quests") as being that epic, and I can't see Frodo looking over the chasm in Mount Doom, pulling a sheet out of his pocket, ticking "Destroy Ring" off, and then setting off to find the Golden Fleece.
    Unfortunately, I don't know of a better term, either.


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