Quests and Objectives

  • kentona
  • 01/30/2008 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part IV - Quests and Objectives

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing

Goals and the Nature of the Game

A virtual world might create the illusion of freedom in terms of choice and motion, but even in the most free-form CRPGs, a player's actions are limited by the amount of content that a game's designers are able to program

Let us say rather that RPGs offer either the illusion of choice where none exists, or at least the illusion of a meaningful choice when any decision has the same outcome as any of the other options.

A game's nature lies in having a goal that the player tries to reach by using given tools, techniques or procedures.

Quest: The Fundamental Unit

Ah, the Quest - an RPG's most basic element. Like the atoms that make up molecules, quests provide the fundamental unit out of which all game structure is built. Most story elements or plot points often boil down to a quest: 'Save the Kingdom' or 'Cross the Misty Mountains' or 'Destroy Lord Kurge'. Quests serve as goals for the player to complete which may or may not be in support of the larger problem the player is out to solve. Whatever the task, there should always be a good reason for why the player should expend effort on accomplishing a quest. Typically, this would be through an in-game reward such as gold, an item or whatnot, but could also be something out-of-game, such as a special achievement notification or a new cutscene or unrelated minigame. On a meta-level, quests can also provide a sense of accomplishment in the player - finishing a quest is like a virtual pat on the back.

In it's most simplistic definition, a quest is a task that the player may or may not have to complete before finishing the game. Breaking it down further, a quest traditionally has 3 stages:

Notification. The player learns what the situation is or what needs to be done. Often, they are also informed of the potential benefit for completing this task.
Process. The player engages in whatever activities are necessary to complete the task.
Reward. The player receives a reward for the tasks successful completion.

Of course, there are pitfalls to the typical, straightforward way of notifying the player, getting them to do the quest and then rewarding them properly. I will examine a couple of them here.

Information Flow Problem

Players have free will, and in interactive media you can't always count on players doing exactly what you expect them to. You may want them to first visit the King, wipe out the Bandits in the Evil Tower, and then go visit the Important Merchant to collect their Vorpal Sword +1. That's the ideal. Unfortunately, it's just as likely that the player will not bother to chat it up with the King, wipe out the Bandits in the Evil Tower anyway, and never learn of the Important Merchant's generosity.

The issue with the player never learning about the quest or reward is known as an information flow problem. Luckily, this problem is typically easy to fix. By providing multiple sources of key information, you increase the likelihood of the player being made aware of the quest and reward. Furthermore, it encourages the player to roam your world freely while still providing them the opportunity to experience everything in your game. Alternatively, you may also force the player to speak to key NPCs by injecting a cutscene. When a player enters the new Kingdom, temporarily hijack the game and instigate a conversation with the King. This fix isn't always feasible or desirable, but it is an option to consider.

  • Multiple sources of notification.
  • Forced notification.

Sequence Problem

Taking the previous example a bit further, it is entirely possible that the player will clear the Bandits out of the Evil Tower and then go directly Important Merchant for the Vorpal Sword +1 without bothering to talk to the King, since they knew about the quest already (often through an outside source such as a friend or walkthrough, or a previous playthrough of the game). But the Important Merchant won't give you the reward because the quest hadn't been initialized by the King. On a technicality, you must go all the way back to the King, get the quest, and then return to the Important Merchant so that he will finally know to give you the Vorpal Sword +1 that you've already rightfully earned! Talk about a sequence problem.

Even if the questgiver is the same as the rewardgiver, if you neglect to speak to them before completing the quest, often you'll find you will have to go through the dialogue that presents the (already completed) quest, accept the quest, and then immediately talk to the questgiver again just to get the reward, leading to awkward gaming moments such as this:

You: *initiate talk with King*

King: "O brave one! There is a fierce band of bandits roaming in the Evil Tower west of here! If you would only risk your life to clear them out, I will reward thee with this sword! Please be careful!"

You: *immediately initiate talk with King again*

King: "You have returned safely! And the Bandits are vanquished! Bravo! Here is the sword I promised."

By requiring that the player be told about the reward before they can receive it, the focus of the quest is unintentionally lost. It is the elimination of the Bandits and not the speaking to the King that is presumably the point of the experience. Thus, craft your quest around the task, not the notification. Do not make being notified of the quest a requirement for completing it. Alternatively, consider providing the reward immediately and automatically after the task is completed.

  • Focus on the task, not the notification.
  • Give the reward when the task is completed.

The Fundamental Concepts

Provide Real Benefit to the Avatar. Never send players off on a quest that does not directly benefit them in some way.

Give Proportional Rewards. The reward should be proportional to the risk posed by undertaking it. Make the quest worth the effort.

Maintain Forward Momentum. If possible, try to structure your quests so that they propel the player forward through the game. Avoid needless backtracking just so that the player can receive their reward or return to the main storyline. At the very least provide a shortcut for them to return to their previously visited locations.

Support the Story Line Attempt to make the quests support the game's larger theme so that the player feels as though their actions are relevant.

The Lazy Quest-o-matic

Having trouble coming up with that last quest needed to finish your game? Need a few diversionary sidequests and are fresh out of ideas? Then grab a normal six-sided die and start The Lazy Quest-o-matic. Make two rolls, and apply the results as below:

First Roll:
If Roll is: The action of the quest is to:
1 Liberate/Recover/Intercept
2 Destroy/Kill
3 Guard/Defend
4 Transport/Escort/Journey To
5 Create/Build/Summon
6 Gather Information About

Second Roll:
If Roll is: The object of the quest is to:
1 Item
3 Message/Data
4 Secret or Dangerous Location
5 Magical Equipment/Technology
6 Monster

Note for all the actions that there are contingencies separated by slashes. It would be pretty strange to Escort a Dangerous Location. You are, of course, not restricted to this list. Make your own list, or use a higher-numbered die. Or add a third die with a setting (cave/dungeon, forest, tower, temple, castle/village, swamp).

Disclaimer: This is a place to get a quest idea started. Overly randomized games tend to be disorganized and somewhat silly. Employ quests that are tied in to the problem and circumstances of your world.

Conclusion of Part IV

Always remember that the central point of quests is to provide entertainment. They should never take on the characteristics of chores that the player is forced to do simply because the designer ordered them to do it. Put interesting things out into your world for the player to do, and let them decide if and when they're ready to take the next step. And always ask yourself what real benefit the player will get out of completing the task.

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing