Crafting Personal RPG Quests

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by Tom Verreault

The quest is not only a staple of role playing games but also of fantasy literature, folk and fairy tales as well other forms of story-telling like television and movies. Modern storytelling has morphed the quest to suit its needs. Traditionally, the quest has been a hero’s journey that is only accomplished after great difficulty and exertion but in some online role playing games a quest is little more than killing 10 rats and returning for a paltry reward.

In one sense a RPG campaign or a module adventure can be viewed as a quest. It is a hero’s journey that takes time, exertion and may involve travel. It is, however, shared by the group and it is not the individual hero’s journey. There exist multitudes of advice and guides on writing adventures, modules, and campaigns so this article will focus on the individual quest for RPG characters. In particular for science fiction RPG characters but the principles here are valid for fantasy and other genres as well.

The elements of a quest are the hero, his desire/goal, the journey, and the reward. The hero is crafted by the player and is the player character. I suppose that a non-player character companion of the player characters could have an individual quest but it would be largely for plot hooks as the focus of the game is the player characters.

The Hero and his Desire

Since these characters are the creation of the players, a good referee will ask the players at the time of PC creation what their goals and desires are for their characters. For the quest to be more than a simple business contract of do X and get paid Y, the player has to want or desire the quest for his character.  Player input is crucial to this.

For example a player in a table top Star Frontiers game I ran expressed a desire for his character to have mentalism powers (psionics) at character creation. I took note and made provision for that in the first adventure and explained that it would happen in the course of the adventure. The character encountered telepathic land octopi that invited him to participate in a mystical ceremony. This was the catalyst for emergent mentalism powers but the quest would be the full player control of these powers as they were to be emerging during the course of the campaign. I knew the player would enjoy pursuing this quest simply because I had asked.

The best time to find out what a player’s desires are for his character is during character creation but the question can be posed at any time. To preserve an element of mystery I would recommend presenting players with a brief questionnaire at character creation:

  1. Write a secret about your character that no one else knows.
  2. Name an NPC form the characters past and write a paragraph about his or her relationship to your character.
  3. Name your character’s biggest fear, if any.
  4. Write 2-3 earnest desires of you character for his life.

The above questions are great material for a referee to guide the direction of a campaign but also provide a basis for crafting a quest. The NPC can be used at some point to provide a clue. The PC’s fear or secret can be worked into part of the challenge to resolve the quest – forcing the PC into a situation where he must face his fear or own his secret. Remember, nothing will work so well for a quest than the one the player tells you he wants.

Finally, if you’re stumped by the answers from your players, you can suggest some personal quests:  restoring the honor of one’s clan, discovering the real identity of one’s mother, becoming an ace fighter pilot, and etc. If a game is established, a quest can be introduced through role play between an NPC and a PC. If the NPC is asking for help, it’s up to the player to say yes or no. In this case the player is given a choice to accept the quest. If a group is into role play the referee can role play with the player at character creation playing the above player created NPC and talking to the character about their desires. Take careful notes of the conversation.

The goal of the quest can be anything. Common goals in RPG quests are money, power, a title, an item, rescuing a person, and sometimes personal fulfillment.  The motivation should be personal to the character involved. Lots of people desire money but why does this character desire money?  Lots of people desire to own their own space ship (or some other McGuffin) but why does this character have that desire or is it a desire for a specific ship? These are questions the player must give input on but the referee will be plotting the journey the PC will travel to fulfill their quest. The personal fulfillment goal has the greatest scope for story telling but is probably under used.

Example: A PC’s brother who disappeared and was branded a criminal by the government. The PC desires to clear his brother’s name and find him. After many adventures he pieces together the clues that his brother had joined a pirate band to rescue the love of his life. When the PC storms the pirate stronghold he discovers the grave of his brother. It is bittersweet, he’s learned the truth, brought his brother’s body home, but has failed to prove his innocence. He’s left like a tragic Sir Lancelot who failed in his quest. Yet after the funeral service the undertaker or coroner gives the PC the personal effects taken from the body and among them is a picture of a woman with a child that looks exactly like his brother. The PC has just learned that he is an uncle and the quest is on again.

There is so much storytelling potential there and the quest leads to actual adventure sessions to handle storming the pirate strong hold.

Television series now use the personal quest in their storytelling. Each week there is a primary story that unfolds but somewhere toward the end of the episode a little detail about a main character’s personal quest is revealed. Sometimes you are more interested in what is going to be revealed about the main character or their personal quest then the challenge of the week that they are resolving. It’s not uncommon for the personal quest to become the problem of the week particularly for the season closer or opener.

It’s actually possible for multiple characters to have the same goal with individually different motivations. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy adds party members to her quest by suggesting that the wizard that she is questing for may be able to help them with their individual goals. I like to refer to that as the Oz quest. It might be very satisfying to allow for multiple quests by the player characters and as things reach a culmination only then do the players realize that their individual quests are intertwined. Such a quest should end with a big satisfying bang and not the “ignore that man behind the curtain” ending of The Wizard of OZ. An Oz quest will be a lot of work but, done right, it will end a campaign or series of campaigns in a very memorable way.

The Romanticism of the Middle Ages focused on the travel aspect in a quest because the purpose of the storyteller was to showcase exotic locales. This plays well with a star hopping RPG like Star Frontiers where the scope of the game is often to visit many planets in a sector of space. This type of individual quest is also not just a journey in space, but in time as it is primarily intended to be a backdrop over the course of one or more campaigns. It is, of course, possible for the journey to take place all in one city or location if the goal of the quest so dictates. More importantly it can also be a chance for the referee to paint with a broad brush and introduce exotic locales in his game. 

The McGuffin

The McGuffin is a word coined by film makers about the object of a hero’s quest. In the King Arthur legends it’s the Holy Grail. Alfred Hitchcock said in a crime story it’s the necklace and in a spy story it’s the papers but that the audience didn’t really care what it was exactly. George Lucas turned that on its head making the audience care about the McGuffin in Star Wars because it was R2D2 that had the Death Star plans locked away inside.

In an RPG quest there will be objects that are the focus of the quest. To a certain extent it doesn’t matter what they are but they need to matter to the characters in the story. This is another reason that you might give the player the questionnaire described above; the NPC they created can always become a McGuffin. It can be property or something intangible like honor.  If the player created it they may have an emotional investment in it and thus it makes the quest more memorable to them.

The Journey

The journey is the challenges the hero or PC faces before the resolution of the quest.  MMORPGs (massively multiplayer on-line role playing games) have introduced simple kill lists to the hero’s journey: kill 10 rats and 5 snakes. These are almost too simple for a table top, a play by post, or play by email RPG. However, the PC in the above example may decide that killing or bringing to justice the leaders of the pirate band that killed his brother is something he needs to do. At this point the PCs journey becomes a kill list. As a side note, the MMORPG convention of a kill list quest could be suitable material for an adventure hook:  a new zoo is being set up and it’s paying good money for live specimens or a Capellan Free Merchant was just at a planet where the latest fad is krik hide holsters for your laser gun so he’s offering money for fresh hides.

Other lists are to-do lists, visit locations lists, deliver lists, and collect lists. They are all simply variations on the theme. Each thing must be accomplished to advance the story one more step.  Eventually the quest will necessitate becoming the focus of the game session.  Especially if a quest is moving toward a resolution or even a mini resolution like the hero in our above example who recovers his brother’s remains and has a resolution only to discover that he has a nephew out there somewhere.  The pirate stronghold may have taken 2-3 game sessions to resolve but now the PC has a new mystery to unravel and not much for clues.  A puzzle of some sort may also be ideal for the hero’s journey. It could be as simple as map torn in pieces or something more elaborate.

The essential thing is that a personal quest should only be accomplished after much exertion and this is best simulated by allowing for small pieces or clues to the resolution of the quest to be discovered a little at a time each adventure. The best mechanic I would suggest is to allow for a few minutes time at the end of a game session for the clue discovery. If the clue discovery was at the beginning of a game session it would distract from the adventure at hand and perhaps confuse the players. Relegating quest clues to the final minutes of a game session gives a player something to think about after the game and perhaps makes them anticipate the next game session more.

Structuring the Journey

There are two basic structures: the laundry list and the linear flowchart. A laundry list is simply a list of things and can be done or collected in any order that once the whole list is complete the hero enters the Emerald City. The linear flowchart is a list of challenges or clues and each must be tackled in order before the hero moves on. Often the whole linear flowchart is only known to the referee and the PC is only aware of the challenge in front of him or perhaps only the next few challenges.

The laundry list structure is most suitable to kill list, collection list, or to-do and delivery list challenges. The linear flowchart is most suitable for self-realization and mystery type quests.

The Dark Lord

A dark lord or nemesis is a common troupe in quests.  Sauron in Lord of the Rings is famous in the annals of fantasy literature but Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars franchise are equally famous dark lords in the science fiction genre. In the Firefly/Serenity stories it’s the Blue Sun Corporation.

A dark lord provides a nemesis for the hero to oppose and defeat. He or she should be powerful and not easily defeated. A dark lord may remain secret for most of the quest  yet he provides some form and structure to the challenges facing the hero.

In the Star Frontiers setting there are already a few dark lords suggested in the setting material: the “Jabba the Hut” like Malthar and his criminal organization, CEO’s of misbehaving mega-corps, the Star Devil pirate leader, the leadership of the Family of One church and the ever inscrutable sathar or their agents. Other dark lords are implied with the cults and cadres material in the Zebulon’s Guide rules. A sathar dark lord will of necessity remain hidden and inscrutable to the PC but the referee should write up motivations and personality for him.

A dark lord is not absolutely necessary but since it is a frequent troupe in quest stories it is a tool that the referee should consider using.

Reaching the Emerald City

At some point the quest may conclude. As a resolution comes to a head, the referee will need to transition the game session from just another mission to a game session focused on the quest of one or more of the player characters. This should happen fairly naturally as the player will have solved a major clue and be chomping at the bit to finish the quest. In the case of an Oz quest where all the PCs have separate motivations that become entwined in the same resolution, it may be that this will be the climax of the campaign(s).

Not all quest end successfully. Some heroes fail like Lancelot. Some heroes succeed but die like Beowulf. Some heroes fail at the quest they desired but find some deeper personal understanding like Gilgamesh. Some heroes are on an endless quest like Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and never find a resolution. Be prepared for the player characters to not attain the golden success in their quests. We are talking about a role playing game with dice where many results can happen and often as not it is the unexpected result that occurs. Think about possible resolutions to a quest and prepare for them.  In my running example, the player never did find his brother alive which was certainly a possible expectation but the mini resolution of recovering the body led to an unexpected quest of finding the nephew.  The character has gone from a somber moment of burying his brother to discovering he has family.

Don’t be afraid to throw twists at the players. There is a deep truth to the famous Grecian urn that depicts a youth in pursuit of a maiden. For millennia she has remained just a little out of reach and he has remained just short of grasping the object of his desire.  To me this urn epitomizes desire and knowing that the young man will never get the girl leaves me feeling bittersweet about it every time I see a picture of that artifact. A TV/Hollywood ending is fine, but crafting a bittersweet ending might have more impact for the players.

One word of caution though: if you have crafted a big ending for the quest and the dice and game mechanics show a mind to kill the character then don’t allow for the quest to fail. A tragic hero is powerful; let the player character go out with a bang and the quest fulfilled.