A Wrinkle In Quest Design - Universal design principles for modding?

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?


Just my token thoughts, so take them as such. I think every quest could benefit from a wrinkle, but I don’ think every quest should have one.

Part of the benefit is unpredictability. And a wrinkle loses some of its benefit if applied to every single place it could be used. Even if a wide variety of actual wrinkles are used such that nothing comes close to even happening twice.

My favorite rule is with regards to my villains and specifically those that work for them. I like to put just enough humanity in them that you should feel a bit bad about steamrolling over them to get to the climactic scenes (I do like skewering my players on the sharp edges of moral dilemma). I don’t like spear carriers. Keep in mind I am a pen and paper DM and some of my thoughts may translate less to the medium of mod design.

And just because this is the best description of a spear carrier I have read:

"A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear. A spear carrier is the anonymous character cut down by the hero as he advances to save the menaced heroine. A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue. In a story, spear carriers never suddenly assert themselves by throwing their spears aside and saying, “I resign. I don’t want to be used.“ They are there to be used, either for atmosphere or as minor obstacles in the path of the hero. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers. We take no joy in being used and discarded.” - Alexei Panshin


As a player of RPGs and D&D (back in the day), I dislike the “Go-fetch-this-and-I-will-give-a-reward” type of quest. I think that side quests should either a) provide depth to the main quest or b) add depth to the environment. This means that a quest should feed the world that the player is in. Therefore a wrinkle in EVERY side quest is not necessary (in my opinion), unless it feeds the main story or the world of the story.


Another important function of the first few quests is to let players see how you expect them to interact with your environment. Are you putting descriptive text on objects or do they have to figure out their use by trial-and-error? Are conversation options about player choices, character skill points, or alignment? How generous are you with treasure? How tough are the fights? Are you using standard transitions or is a lot of travel done by conversation choices.

Use those first minor quests to introduce the player to the way your world works and the rest of the module will be more enjoyable and more immersive.


What sawdust37 said, i like quests that add to things or expand the gameworld. If I go on this sidequest do i discover thst the big bad evil is afraid of chickens, and I can summon one during the final battle to make it easier? Does this sidequest tie together some events/npcs elsewhere in the world?


The local baron hires the adventurers to clear out a castle occupied by orcs. This is the main quest. The standard way of doing this in NWN would be to march in and kill all the orcs.

Logical subquests can tie in to the main quest. For instance the party can decide they want to poison the stew being made in the castle kitchen. Why is this a sidequest: It does not directly solve the main quest, but it does aid their efforts. The poisoned stew makes the orcs sick, and the sickened condition makes them easier to kill.

Another example: the orcs have some caged wolves for hunting. The party decides they want to feed the wolves some meat and get their aid against the orcs. Now getting the wolves to go against their masters isn’t going to require just any meat, it’s going to require some premium steak. So the party decides to go to the local butcher to buy some steak.

Fortunately the butcher has some steak, which he will sell to the party, or, the butcher offers, trade for some owlbear meat, and it just so happens there is an owlbear in the woods near the orcs castle. It’s a sidequest if the party wants to do it.

Now “please go kill an x and bring a part back to me” is a pretty standard sidequest. So as the DM/builder let’s ask why the party is asked to bring back owlbear meat to the butcher.

Well, the butcher says he needs owlbear meat for his special recipe. Ok, why?

Well, the local nobles and merchants are gourmets, so they will pay lots of money for special meals.

Hmm… after successfully bringing back some owlbear meat, maybe the butcher will ask for other meats. So not only has the butcher has become a questgiver, you’ve established some background and personality for both the butcher (very good butcher, needs money) and the local nobles, they are gourmands, and given a reasoning for the basic “please go kill an x and bring a part back to me” sidequest.

The butcher requests various rarer (and harder to get) meats until finally requesting meat from an old red dragon!

Let’s ask why again. Why does it have to be a red dragon, and not a green dragon, which are weaker and easier to kill?

Well, the butcher explains, dragon meat takes on some aspects of the dragon breath, so green dragons, breathing poison, have poisonous meat. Blue dragons taste like electric eels (because electrical breath), etc. Red dragons, breathing fire, means their meat comes pre-cooked!

Ok, so red dragon it is, but why does it have to be an old red dragon that’s all the way over in a corner of the map, when a younger one is less dangerous and not so far away. Well, the butcher explains, dragon meat takes on more and more of the breath effect as the dragon ages, so for example meat from a very young green dragon isn’t that poisonous, and as the green dragon ages the meat gets more and more poisonous. Red dragon meat gets more and more pre-cooked as the dragon ages, from dragon meat tartare all the way up to “well done” for ancient red dragons.

Congratulations, you the DM/Builder have now determined and explained to the players what dragon meat tastes like. That’s a whole lot of world detail based on a sidequest involving orcs and wolves that was tied to your main quest.

In fact, the butcher informs the party, someone with a good enough sense of taste can determine the age of the dragon just by tasting the meat, and the local baron has quite the sense of taste, so no faking old red dragon meat with the meat from a young one.

Hmm, that’s a lot of information you can get just by having a good enough sense of taste. Paladins and Clerics can Detect Evil, in DnD the evilness is an inherent property of the target, like flavor. Soooo, if you have good enough sense of taste, can you taste evil? Turns out you can! A sensitive enough palate can determine whether that dragon meat came from a good or evil dragon. So what other properties can you taste? Well it turns out just about anything, provided you have a good enough palate.

Ok then, what about the mystery in the party member’s background? I mean in every party there’s bound to be a party member that has some background mystery in their backstory, right? Could someone with sensitive enough taste resolve the mystery? Yes!

Well, yes, if your party member is willing to have a chunk of themselves eaten. And you have to find someone that would be willing to eat a chunk of human/elven etc flesh too. Someone like that is probably not going to be in any old town.

But fear not builder/DM, DnD has the ultimate town for eating human flesh where no one really bats an eye over it, Sigil! And it has a large cast of creatures who are more than willing to eat some human flesh, like say… a demon.

Ok, so the party needs to go to Sigil to find a demon willing to eat a chunk of flesh from a party member in order to get an answer to the secret from their past.

So what is a demon with an ultra-advanced sense of taste doing in Sigil? Why they are putting that sense of taste to good use as a renowned restaurant critic of course! With a side business of determining past histories via consuming a pound of flesh. In fact, since the demon is known for that, we’ve just named our demon the very appropriate name, “Pound-of-Flesh”. He’s quite polite about the whole process, despite the really sharp teeth, he even includes a regeneration potion to heal up the client as part of the price for his service. It does leave a nasty scar though, the price you pay for having a chunk of flesh bitten off by a demon. More secret secrets might even require some seasoning and a second bite to bring out the flavor of the secret. And rare seasonings mean another quest!

And that’s how some wolves wanting steak as a sidequest leads your party to Sigil to willingly let a demon eat a bite out of one of them.


Let’s check back in on our main quest for a minute.

The party has cleared the orcs out of the castle, but the evil cleric that was leading them has escaped, because plot reasons: the DM wants to keep the cleric around as the continuing villain/big bad evil guy. The party is now trying to hunt down the evil cleric as part of their main quest.

So back to our friend the butcher. He’s been having the party gather up some rare creature meat. In fact the party probably finished clearing the orcs out of the castle before our baker gave his final task of getting some delicious red dragon because lets face it, orcs are easier to take on than a dragon.

Let’s look at why he was having the party do these tasks. One, he’s certainly not going to be doing any dragon hunting himself, he’s a lowly commoner butcher, not a famous adventurer. Two, he said he was trying to earn some extra money.

Well, why was he trying to earn some extra money? It turns out his daughter is getting married! Class specific wedding participation sidequests for everyone! Yay for roleplaying! Yes, it would be a great honor for the butcher for the famous adventurer hero’s party cleric to officiate, the bard can perform, the wizard can create some illusionary or alchemical fireworks as entertainment, the fighter can do a demonstration or maybe give some lessons to the kids in attendance, or just intimidate some jealous suitor who tries to show up, and the rogue can work the room pickpocketing people. Yes, the party rogue will be working the room, everyone knows about it in advance. Much like playing basketball one on one with Michael Jordan, the guest know they are going to have their pockets picked, but they will have the enjoyment/amusement of trying to catch the famous hero rogue in the act!

Wow, that was fun, all the party members got their own sidequests there. No one really failed too badly even if they rolled a one.

Ok, back to the main quest. The party has tracked down the evil cleric to his dungeon hideout. The party stomps the baddies in the dungeon and our evil cleric escapes again, darn that DM. The party enters the chambers of the evil cleric, and discovers a handwritten letter from the evil cleric that hadn’t been sent before the party rudely interrupted!

Aha! A lead for our intrepid party. Maybe even a sidequest to track down the recipient of the letter! Sidequest! Hurray!

They hold it up to the shining light of the fighter’s sword and begin to read, “Hello Mr. Minor NPC Butcher, that exotic meat you tracked down and fed to the nobles worked as I planned…”

Err… WHAT THE HECK? The evil cleric was writing a letter to our friend the sidequest npc butcher? The guy who we held the wedding for his daughter. And the guy who we gathered all that meat for? And that meat we gathered was used as part of the evil cleric’s plot?

Our friend the butcher was secretly an evil cultist? Was he being forced to supply the meat against his will? We must go talk to him and find out!

The town butcher was a minor npc, a commoner butcher who has assigned some really generic “go kill x” quests and some wedding sidequests that seemed to the player like some throwaway amusement for them by the DM/Builder. But the town butcher and all his seemingly pointless sidequests got been tied back into the main plot. All of the sudden those forgettable sidequests have added greatly to the story.


I really like that, Kamal - and I think that development of ‘functional NPC in town who you were selling your junk to turns out to have wider significance’ is a particularly good one for CRPGs, because it gives the player a real sense of involvement in the twist, and because it disrupts the safety of the town hub.

I always really appreciated how Icewind Dale seeded the story of Jerrod’s Stone for the player to pick up on as they were exploring the quest hub, only to send them out to ever-more dramatic locations and dungeons, until…wham! The truly important plot element was the one you were strolling past to pick up healing potions all along.


Which brings us to main path vs side quests. :thinking:

Two broad ways to use a side quest:

  1. A means to help players get extra XP/gp/gear to make the main quest easier. Hard core players can choose to skip these. The corollary is that this type has to be designed to help the player who actually needs it. Rats-in-the-basement is the probably the most cliche’ version.

  2. “Color” or an added challenge for players who don’t mind reloading a hard fight or spending time solving some insane math puzzle. Here you can set the challenge so high only a power build can beat it or only certain maxed out class builds can beat the DC.

On more than one occasion I’ve hit what appears to be a confusion of what the quest was intended to accomplish in game terms. I sympathize with the builder here because it can be difficult to communicate the difference to players without sticking a sign at a fork in the road <<“EASY PATH ------ HARD PATH”>>

What do you folks do to signal players about what lies ahead without being too on-the-nose about it?

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I guess there are a few ways of signalling a challenge ahead without breaking the fourth wall, right? Off the top of my head…

  • Set dressing. This could be as unsubtle as piles of skulls littering an optional corridor leading down to a cave, or a bit more inventive (you’ve just fought your way through the troll lair, just about surviving, and further into the dungeon you discover the body of a troll that appears to have been recently slain, colossal bloodied footprints leading away into the ruins…)

  • Skill checks. Always my favourite, and in instances like these where you want to ensure the player gets the necessary information, you can cheat a little so that the check can almost always be passed with a sensible party, but the player still feels as if they’re being rewarded for their choices. (For instance, with an easy-ish Survival check, the PC can note that the droppings in the face of the cave belong to a mighty red dragon, but a ranger or druid companion can do the same…)

How did you feel about the ‘Recommended level’ prompts for the dungeons in Legacy of White Plume Mountain, GCoyote? Those were about as on-the-nose as it gets, and they do make the average player’s exploration more linear…but at the same time, I can’t deny they prevented the module from getting stuck with ‘area transition, get attacked, run back out, return to the Overland Map’ frustrations.


True, I’ve seen some fairly elegant use of skill checks, esp. Lore, Spot, Listen, & Survival.

LoWPM needed the overt difficulty labels on each area as there was literally nothing preventing a player from running to any point on the overland map at any time. The alternative would have been a much more structured plot sending the player to level appropriate challenges as in SoZ.

In Path of Evil on the overland map if the party passes skill checks when interacting with the placeable that lets them go to the map, they would get information on the intended ECL of the area, for example “you find extensive gnoll tracks in the area, ECL 6-8”. If they fail they don’t get the ECL information.