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


#1

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?


#2

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


#3

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.


#4

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.


#5

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?