Side Quests Are Lazy. There, I said it.

The side quest is a venerable RPG staple. It's an excursion off the main plot that is supposed to provide an opportunity for players to dig deeper into a story, or investigate something interesting. Side quests and side encounters are provided in published modules to give the DM some flexibility in running an adventure where more encounters might be desirable. 20111107-214343.jpg

For a home game, a discerning DM should strive for a little bit more.

D&D is a game about heroic adventure. The players should be in a story where they play the roles of powerful heroes who face great danger and save the day. Every challenge presented by the adventure should reinforce this. "Traditional" side quests don't pass this test, because they often fall into a few different variations of the fetch quest and by their design are intended to be optional. Optional isn't heroic. Fetching isn't fantasy. Running an errand isn't an adventure.

It's a cliche, but "getting more than you bargained for" is pretty much the very definition of adventure. Luring the players in with the promise of dealing with a troublesome enemy, sought-after loot, or quirky character interaction is standard fare. After the appetizer that is the "main" mission of the side-trek, you can spring a surprise or complication that ties into main objectives. Players really like "discovering" secret motivations and hidden enemies. Springing complications on them allows them to make meaningful choices and take ownership of the story.

Here are a couple of side quest complications that pass the heroic storytelling test and keep your game on track

The simple mission that goes wrong: Players are heroes who can vanquish just about any enemy and overcome just about any obstacle. They're used to winning. A fun twist on the standard side mission is when the objective is missing or ends up being more trouble than it's worth. Maybe a setup, maybe a mistake, maybe someone else got there first. Whether the party talks their way out, fights their way out, or sneaks their way around, getting out of trouble can introduce hooks to the next main quest - the players will feel like they had quite an impact on the world wh

A rescue that turns into an escort mission Players who make the "side-trek" to rescue innocents from peril instinctively form a connection to them. Maybe a caravan's armed guard was killed in an attack, or the ranger broke his leg and needs to be taken back to his outpost. If you have the rescued npcs "on their way" to a player objective, you have all the benefits of a palate-cleansing side quest without causing your story to grind to a halt. New companions are always a good investment for a discerning DM - they always pay off later!

The Loot That Should Not Be Players love loot. Hoo-boy do they ever. So what if they find something Terrible in the basement where they're cleaning out the rats? Maybe something that leads them right into your Main Plot? Yes. Yes indeed.

"You break it, you buy it" If you have players who like to kick doors down and roll initiative, adding consequences to these actions and sticking to them will not only bring about interesting roleplaying and plot opportunities, but will also up the stakes for future situations down the road. Players love when their PC's actions change the game world - that's what interactive storytelling is all about. Let those chickens come home to roost! Have the constable come down to the Battered Scabbard after the bar brawl. Better yet, have the Evil Constable come down. You know, the one who is involved in your main plot?

Making the game exciting and fun for your players doesn't have to be this huge mega plot with railroad tracks. You can do side quests to show variety, but at the same time hook them in for more. They'll feel powerful and clever, and come back for more. Isn't that the whole point?

And nobody had to fetch anything.

Using Hooks to Discover Player Motivation

In the first act of a story, you meet the hero and the adversary, and discover the quest. In a cooperative storytelling game like D&D, however, the players provide a significant part of the story. Player motivations are hard to anticipate even for a discerning DM. I try to structure the beginnings of my home game's adventures specifically to gather information about player motivations.

Here is a plot breakdown of the beginning of a recent adventure in my home game:

Siege of Fallcrest - Session 1 (6 hours) ACT ONE Hook: Fallcrest besieged by Orcs Hook: Fallcrest contains party's rival/enemy Hook: Patron requests party to get her troops out of the doomed city Call to Adventure: Patron wants heroes to run the blockade, and lead out the patron's mercenaries before the city falls Obstacle: The city is surrounded by an undefeatable army of Orcs!

Act One of Siege of Fallcrest isn't trying to do anything fancy. There are three hooks delivered by a Herald, in this case a letter from a patron who has just given the party a gift and expects them to do a favor for her. In starting any adventure, I try to test the players as much as possible by giving them a lot of reasons to do something, and see what they respond to. With the above setup, I learn 3 pieces of information for free about the players' expectations and motivations, by sussing out answers to the following 3 questions:

1. Is the party motivated by the plight of innocents? They have never been to Fallcrest, this is the first they have heard of the city outside of a few casual mentions. 2. How much do they hate their rival? Will they go out of the way to get him? 3. How do the players see their relationship with their new Patron?

It's amazing how much players will tell you if you just listen to them discuss their options. Because the threat of orcs is insurmountable, the party incurs serious risk by undertaking this quest, and the discussion ranges from the tactical to the philosophical. To capture the players' thoughts, I write in my notepad the pieces of information I provided, and then write in later what I learn from the players:

1. Fallcrest will fall soon to an Orcish siege The party is seriously concerned about a whole town dying of starvation and Orcs taking over 2. The party's rival was recently sent there for punishment The party is curious about their rival but only want to see justice done 3. The party's new patron wants them to do a mission there The party feels strongly that they are obliged to their patron and should undertake this quest for her

That's a full exposition! We can move right on to the action now, the point of no return where the heroes are fully committed! But look what storytelling ammunition we learned from them.

External Motivation: To fulfill an obligation to a patron Internal Motivation: To see that justice is done and that good triumphs Not that interested in: Revenge

These are core beliefs that you can challenge later on in act 2; Items that you would have prepared but now don't have to; Elements to maximize in the next session. For example, when the party got into the city, I emphasized the human misery of people in squalid conditions starving in the streets. The players were so moved that they gave up healing surges voluntarily to help the sick. And the rival? I didn't mention him again and the party didn't ask.

The absolute best thing about this technique is that every step of the way, the players make meaningful choices and don't feel railroaded. They get a menu of options which includes "do something else". (Of course, a discerning DM would stack the deck to include at least one irresistible option) I've found time and time again that players are more concerned with choosing the "why", rather than the "what". They expect adventure and danger, but if they can choose the terms, they own the outcome.

To read the writeup of this session, click here to go to the Adventure Log post on Obsidian Portal.