Sunday, August 28, 2016

DF Felltower: No Quests!

I've talked about keeping my Sunday beer-and-pretzels, hack-and-slash game exactly that - beer-and-pretzels, hack-and-slash.

I've talked about campaign creep, too, and how I avoid that.

Part of this is, no quests.

No quests!

There is a wizard in my campaign named Black Jans. He/she/it has a mysterious nature, a tower that appears and disappears from Stericksburg seemingly randomly (actually randomly - I roll dice for appearance), and strange servants.

Black Jans buys weird items, can enchant anything in one week for twice the cost (violating all sorts of rules about economics and how enchantment works), and provides a good excuse for the market of Stericksburg accepting cursed items and blacklisted books for cash.

We also have a big church that can perform Resurrection and cast Remove Curse, a bevy of nobles, cultists the players have clashed with (and even, once, arranged a deal with), and guilds of every stripe needed to justify in-town rolls.

Occasionally, though, the players wonder - does Black Jans have anything he/she/it needs done in the dungeon? Does the Thieves' Guild have any quests for us? Can we ask the church if they have sometime they want done in the dungeon in exchange for money?

My answer to all of these is, basically, NO.

If the answer becomes yes, then the game shifts from a player-driven sandbox to a GM-driven sandbox.

It's one thing for people to offer special rewards - way, way, way back early in the game one noble offered to pay more than the cash value of good from one of the draugr for its return. Prince Vlashkalabash the III of Cashamash has a reward out for finding and giving unto him Gram, the dragon-slaying sword. Sometimes people offer a bounty for specific goods or items.

Those are okay because the PCs can act on them or not. They're just bait from me, the GM, to the players, to incentivize certain activities or to up the potential awards from those actions. Or to hint that certain things exist. Or to put up a choice - do they keep Gram when they find it again, or sell it for a fortune?

But once the PCs can go to town and start asking around for quests, then it's really up to me, the GM, what they should do in the dungeon. Its an easy out from making your own plans and decisions to saying, hey, GM, tell us what to do. Even if that's not what is intended, it is inevitable it will happen.

After all, quests will come with additional awards. Or come with punishments for not doing them. This limits your actions and gives an incentive to seek them out. Why make your own plans and own decisions when someone in town can tell you what to do, possibly tell you things you didn't know, and then give you extra money for getting it done?

Failure - which is fairly common - means complications. Those complications must be town-centered since the quest origin is town-centered. That means town suddenly acquires more depth because the PCs are having trouble in the dungeon. Social relationships in town acquire more depth with failure. Say Black Jans sends you on a quest and you fail. Either services in town end, or you have to avoid town, or you have to make up for it with another quest. What if - and this has happened in games I've run before - the PCs fail or just find out it's harder than they thought and demand more support or more loot? Social relationships in town deepen or end. Town becomes more important.

You can still seek sponsors and find people and propose special awards, if you're confident of your skill roll results. But you are generally better off doing your own thing. No one helps you for free, and that is not only realistic but helps drive player-centered play.

And yes, you can find people in the dungeon and do things for them. You can ask them what to do. Because any complications that result from this are directly impacting the fun part of play (the dungeon). Bad results from success or failure impact the PCs in the play area. The players dealing with those consequences are all within the play area. Doing favors for Faction A and killing off Faction B has consequences when Faction A isn't your friend anymore.

That's why "No Quests!" is an important part of keeping my game beer-and-pretzels, hack-and-slash, and a player-centered megadungeon sandbox.


  1. I can see the appeal of avoiding complication. Your campaign has gone on five years now (!), so 65 sessions worth of "relationship growth" would be very hard to manage.

    When I hung out over at Campaign Builder's Guild way back when, someone there managed to have a 20-odd year old campaign (started with I think AD&D 1 and the rules morphed into something completely unrecognizable, using bell curves and dice dividers). They did not do this, and trying to even acquaint yourself with 20 years of story is just something else.

    Now I find myself wondering just how Mega this Mega-dungeon is if 65 sessions hasn't run it dry!

    1. Well, here's a campaign that's been running nearly nine years, with 87 more-or-less monthly sessions. Yeah, lots of relationship-building, and it's complex, but it's by far the most enjoyable game I've ever run.

    2. Oh jeeze. Closest I have ever come is a sort of twoish year thing that - maybe - had fourteen sessions. Wasn't enjoyable. I had one good RPer with a difficult character for me to properly RP back (blogged on that once), a generic quick-fingers thief that could have been well RP'd if the guy's personality hadn't more-or-less been absorbed by his then-girlfriend, who ran a woman-warrior (unusual for the setting) out questing to become knighted (which I was all on board for but her RPing wasn't very good and she actually seemed to take it a little personally when someone challenged the idea of a female warrior in-game).

      Unfortunately only one player (the difficult character guy) made much attempt to really learn GURPS, so that coupled with 2/3 of the group being very flat characters and real life issues lead to it just kind of falling apart.

      I've been meaning to digitize all those things...

    3. You can certainly have a long-run campaign with lots of developing relationships, depth, and enjoyment derived from them.

      DF Felltower is not that game.

      Which is pretty much the point - not that X or Y is bad, just that X or Y doesn't fit into this game.

  2. I really like "no quests". But it requires players capable of providing their own agency. Some players need a hint.

    There's a spectrum. On one end, the PCs have a Duty and take direct orders from an NPC. On the other, there's a total hexcrawl sandbox with no particular place to go, no quest bonus XP, etc. A megadungeon sandbox is somewhere in the middle -- go where you want, but the interesting stuff is in this particular dungeon.

    While I like the total sandbox in theory, in practice I find it easier to design an adventure if I know which way the PCs are headed. So I tend to provide some hooks. If someone is offering rewards for {a particular orc leader's head / books from a buried library / Slaad eggs}, that doesn't force the PCs to do anything in particular. But it gives them a nudge. They're still freelancing, but with some possible motivations besides just looting the dungeon.

    The real question is whether to give bonus XP for doing certain plot-related things. If you do, those things are now quests, whether you call them that in-game or not. If you don't, you have a real sandbox.

    1. This is where rumors and a quest-divorced XP system shine.

      The rumors provide a continuous stream of potentially actionable information, hints, nudges, and spurs for action.

      The XP system is divorced from quests, so the PCs still have to drive themselves towards the activities that give XP - in my case, looting with a minor in exploration.

  3. At that point the quests you've offered are little different from additional rumors. There's a particular sword down there worth cash money to a certain NPC is just flavor text for a specific treasure horde. It doesn't really matter if the treasure is worth X gold because a specific NPC wants it or because it consists of X gold pieces - the in-game effect is the same.

    1. Well, the in-game effect at the end is the same, assuming you follow through. A sword worth X gold and a treasure worth X gold are only equal if you sell them both. The sword might get used. The gold might be too heavy to carry. Etc. Those details are dungeon-centric, though, where a quest is more town-centric.


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