Excerpts Archive | 5/16/2008
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Excerpts: The Quest’s the Thing
4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

Earlier, we looked at the quest rewards, but what of the quests themselves? In today’s preview, R&D’s Stephen Radney-MacFarland explains the philosophy behind Quest XP… and why every character will want to earn some!


Everyone knows that in Dungeons & Dragons you earn experience points to gain levels. Heck, even people who have never played D&D know this— it’s become so ingrained in the pop-culture idea of the game and its mechanic has replicated itself with great frequency into the realm of digital games. But just how you gain XP has evolved since the game’s inception, and with 4th Edition it’s continued to evolve. One of the biggest evolutions in 4th Edition D&D is the inclusion of quest XP rewards.

Now, I can hear the old timers quibble: “Come on, Stephen, quest XP is nothing new, I’ve been doing it for years.” And if you quibble thusly, you’d be right. Almost every D&D campaign out there grants a bit of bonus XP for completing story objectives, and this has been going since the first time a gamer lifted a d20 and stared at it in glossy-eyed wonder. The big difference between 4th Edition and older D&D editions is that we designed it into the game; it’s not just an afterthought, an ad hoc idea, or a suggested house rule. We actually took into account that people already do this, then gave better guidelines on how to do it well, and crafted the numbers behind character advancement with quests in mind.

Dungeons & Dragons is both a combat game and a storytelling game. Fighting foul beasts and despicable villains is fun. The grand majority of pages in our rulebooks give you the means and the toys you need to play that part of the game. Storytelling by its nature is more fluid, more natural; it has few (if any) hard and fast rules, but many guidelines and points of advice. While D&D abounds with levels, powers, shifts, opportunity attacks, effects that push, ongoing damage, and grabs, it also features heroes (or, soft-hearted scoundrels) who take chances to achieve goals that we can only dream of doing and in ways that are only as boundless as our imagination. It’s purely in the realm of action adventure. And when action and story fuse perfectly, it’s gaming ambrosia—the perfect way to spend an afternoon with friends.

Quest XP, and the idea of quests as benchmarks for rewards in a larger sense (the story chapter ends where characters gain a pile of rewards in the form of XP, treasure, favors, titles, castles, whatever) is a rare, evocative, satisfying, and natural way for those two aspects of the game to talk to one another directly.

Quests also serve as the DM’s dangling carrot. Not only do they say “fun lies this way,” now they also point to rewards with some amount of transparency. People like to have an idea of the rewards they will get for tasks… or at least the minimum rewards. Your players are no different. Quests are a way in which they’ll have a basic idea of the minimum rewards for what they do, and they’ll appreciate it. You’ll find this very handy if you create a more sandbox approach to quests. Throw a few of them out there, and see which ones they bite at. Using quests in this manner allows you to make your world seem larger than it really is, and let your players make more choices for their characters, encouraging them to invest themselves even further in your creation.

XP Evolutionary Dead Ends

Quest XP is one of the newest evolutions in how PCs gain experience in D&D, but it didn’t get to this point without some other experience point ideas dying off. Let’s take a quick look at three XP evolutionary dead ends that got us where we are today.

Treasure Worth = XP

Isn’t treasure supposed to be its own reward? The problem in early D&D is that it wasn’t. In fact you couldn’t do a whole lot with treasure except for accumulate it and gain XP from it. That’s right; you gained XP just for picking up a gold piece. To be fair, how much you gained was based on how much challenge the treasure’s guardian represented, but a simpler method is to place the challenge XP fully in the guardian (in 4th Edition, this means the monsters, traps, hazards, or skill challenge) and let wealth be the reward wealth is by its very nature—purchasing power.

The Teeny, Tiny, Micro Story Reward

Back in my early days of the RPGA (2nd Edition AD&D), we used to get “story rewards” for the craziest things. Did you talk to the mayor? Gain 10 XP! Did you pick the flower that the mayor told you not to pick? 15 XP! Did you buy a pickle from the vendor on the Avenue of Swords? 25 XP! These story rewards were so pointless, small, and absolutely endemic that you would spend large chunks of the adventure talking to everyone you could just so you would get them all. These ideas were prevalent in a period of time where writers wanted to write wacky guess-what-the-writer-is-thinking stories, not sword and sorcery action stories, and pulled the PCs along a long line of encounters as “helpful” benchmarks. The problem was that it didn’t feel like D&D. This was especially true when you played through adventures based on the lyrics of 70’s pop songs or adventure where you got to play characters that were magic items, children, or furniture (I’m not joking).

The Roleplaying Reward

I’ve seen a lot of games (both in early RPGA and home games) that gave XP for good roleplaying. By good roleplaying do I mean the quality of your character acting? The problem with the roleplaying reward is this: You’re almost always going to give out the maximum to everyone at the table. Why? Because telling someone that they didn’t do a good job of roleplaying in a game where everyone is there to have fun seems overly judgmental, can create hurt feelings, and is… well… just downright crappy. It’s also so very meta and arbitrary that it begs questions about other forms of bonus XP. Why not give similar bonus XP for rule knowledge? Playing well with others? Bringing the most snacks?
--Stephen Radney-MacFarland





Quests are the fundamental story framework of an adventure—the reason the characters want to participate in it. They’re the reason an adventure exists, and they indicate what the characters need to do to solve the situation the adventure presents.

The simplest adventures revolve around a single quest, usually one that gives everyone in the party a motivation to pursue it. More complex adventures involve multiple quests, including quests related to individual characters’ goals or quests that conflict with each other, presenting characters with interesting choices about which goals to pursue.

Using Basic Quest Seeds

When you’re devising a simple adventure, one to three basic seeds are enough to get you started. A classic dungeon adventure uses three: The characters set out to explore a dangerous place, defeat the monsters inside, and take the treasure they find. One simple quest can be enough, such as a quest to slay a dragon.

You can combine any number of basic seeds to create a more multifaceted adventure. The more seeds you throw in the mix, the more intricate your adventure will be. You might add timing elements to one or more of the seeds to create more depth in your adventure.

Once you have your seed or seeds, you can start getting specific. Go back and answer the questions in “Components of an Adventure” on page 100, keeping your quest seeds in mind. Again, you don’t need to follow any particular order. You might come up with a set of monsters you want to use first, you might invent a cool place or item, or you might choose a seed or three. You can then use Chapter 4 and the “Adventure Setting” section of this chapter to help flesh out your adventure.

Major Quests

Major quests define the fundamental reasons that characters are involved. They are the central goals of an adventure. A single major quest is enough to define an adventure, but a complex adventure might involve a number of different quests. A major quest should be important to every member of the party, and completing it should define success in the adventure. Achieving a major quest usually means either that the adventure is over, or that the characters have successfully completed a major chapter in the unfolding plot.

Don’t be shy about letting the players know what their quests are. Give the players an obvious goal, possibly a known villain to go after, and a clear course to get to their destination. That avoids searching for the fun—aimless wandering, arguing about trivial choices, and staring across the table because the players don’t know what to do next. You can fiddle with using another secret villain or other less obvious courses, but one obvious path for adventure that is not wrong or fake should exist. You can count on the unpredictability of player actions to keep things interesting even in the simplest of adventure plots.

Thinking in terms of quests helps focus the adventure solidly where it belongs: on the player characters. An adventure isn’t something that can unfold without their involvement. A plot or an event can unfold without the characters’ involvement, but not an adventure. An adventure begins when the characters get involved, when they have a reason to participate and a goal to accomplish. Quests give them that.

Minor Quests

Minor quests are the subplots of an adventure, complications or wrinkles in the overall story. The characters might complete them along the way toward finishing a major quest, or they might tie up the loose ends of minor quests after they’ve finished the major quest.

Often, minor quests matter primarily to a particular character or perhaps a subset of the party. Such quests might be related to a character’s background, a player goal, or the ongoing events in the campaign relevant to one or more characters. These quests still matter to the party overall. This game is a cooperative game, and everyone shares the rewards for completing a quest. Just make sure that the whole group has fun completing minor quests tied to a single character.

Sometimes minor quests come up as sidelines to the main plot of the adventure. For example, say the characters learn in town that a prisoner has escaped from the local jail. That has nothing to do with the main quest. It pales in importance next to the hobgoblin raids that have been plundering caravans and seizing people for slaves. However, when the characters find and free some of the hobgoblins’ slaves, the escaped prisoner is among them. Do they make sure he gets back to the jail? Do they accept his promise to go straight—and his offer of a treasure map—and let him go free? Do they believe his protestations of innocence and try to help him find the real criminal? Any of these goals can launch a side quest, but clearly the characters can’t pursue all of them. This situation gives them the opportunity to roleplay and make interesting choices, adding richness and depth to the game.


Be sure to return Monday for a look at minions!
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