There are a few universal principles I’ve been thinking about for a while now when it comes to modding. Nothing big, nothing fancy - just simple rules that I (personally) try to adhere to because I believe they always make an adventure better, no matter what kind of mod you’re aiming for.
And weirdly, the one I’m adhering to the most is the one that feels the most like common sense, but one that often seems to go missing both in mods and commercial games.
Every quest should come with a wrinkle.
One of the biggest and most unwelcome cliches in RPGs is the menial starter quest, where the player essentially runs to the destination and runs back. (Go fetch my Harvest Bow. Go clear the rats out of the cellar.)
It’s tedious for players, but for modders, this kind of mission can perform an important function. Not every sidequest should be a sweeping story arc. Sometimes a grounded, gentle, low-stakes quest at the start of the story helps to establish the humble start of the hero’s journey, and makes their progression feel all the more meaningful after that. So how do you make these smaller quests still feel memorable or satisfying, rather than A-to-B busywork before the real adventure begins?
I don’t believe every quest needs a big twist or plot drama to be meaningful, but I do believe every single quest, no matter how small, benefits by having a wrinkle planned into its design between receiving the mission and returning to the quest-giver - some kind of development that adjusts, disrupts or expands upon the initial premise.
This could take many forms:
- Opposition: The player encounters another faction that suggests an opposing way of solving the quest. (Example: the rats in the cellar turn out to be wererats, and ask the player to kill / negotiate with the landlord. Weirdly, this one has become a cliche in its own right.)
- Expansion: The player discovers an optional, possibly skill-based secondary route to resolve the problem. (Example: a character with Craft Alchemy can create some poison to avoid a fight with the rats.)
- Extension: The player encounters an unexpected antagonist that prolongs the quest (Example: the rats are already dead, and a hole in the cellar wall leads to a cave where something is lurking…)
- Signposting. The quest is as simple as it first appears, but it leads the player to a place where they can encounter a breadcrumb leading to another quest. (Example: by exploring the cellar, the player can find an old sword hilt, which can be taken to a blacksmith in town, who tells you she needs the blade to reassemble it…)
- Betrayal. This can be very simple or complex - the player arrives at their destination, to find that the quest-giver has tricked them or turned on them. (Example: the tavern-keeper has been robbing and murdering guests in the cellar with a vicious worg that’s kept below - and locks the door on you as soon as you descend, leaving you to fight your way out.)
Any other principles that people think can always be applied to modding - for quests, area-building, or encounter design?