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The Quest-Giver

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On May 27, 2009 @ 7:02 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 11 Comments

I seek adventurers such as yourselves...Just about every game has a variant on the quest-giver, whether it’s the infamous Mr. Johnson, the team’s commanding officer, a local political leader, or even the mysterious figure hanging out with all the loner rangers in the darkest corner of the tavern. Whether he’s just what he appears to be, or the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg, the quest-giver can be a handy figure to have around.

Quest-givers can define a mission, including such details as scope, expected opposition, victory conditions, and reward for success, all without breaking verisimilitude. They can also drop hints and rumors (or solid intelligence), and even offer advice for those who may need it. And like any NPC, the quest-giver can lead the party down the convoluted path of intrigue.

Assuming you’re the kind of GM who could use such a friendly fellow (or lass), here are a few tips:

  • Quest-givers are people, too! If the party offends Madame Donner de Quete, then let her get offended! It’s so much easier to find another way to get the party on track than to pretend that the Madame is not offended at the party’s antics. (Unless, of course, the party is the only way for her to achieve her very important goals, in which case she might be willing to let a few things slide.)
  • Quest-givers can be road signs, information kiosks, local color, retail establishments, employers, fences, etc. Any NPC can be a quest-giver, so don’t limit yourself to those in positions of authority. 
  • Unless the situation calls for it, try to avoid turning the quest-giver into a press gang or a railroad conductor. There are better ways to engage your group than the use of force.
  • Either make sure that someone is taking notes during the Giving of the Quest, or be prepared for the party to screw things up. On second thought, you should already be prepared for the party to screw things up, regardless. But at least be prepared for misremembered or unremembered conversations, forgotten details, etc. If necessary, jot the pertinent details on an index card and hand it to the players. 

Like many icons of the hobby, quest-givers are not necessary to a good game. A self-motivated group of players may take offense at the presumption that they can’t find their way into trouble. And many of the newer games neither need nor want something commonly associated with computer RPGs.

But just because it’s not for everyone, don’t be afraid to embrace the iconic quest-giver. He’s a handy guy to have around.

Do you have a different take on the quest-giver? Or perhaps some other skill to add to the repertoire? Sound off and share the wealth…

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Quest-Giver"

#1 Comment By Ameron On May 27, 2009 @ 7:28 am

The quest-giver is indeed a tried and true steple of my D&D games. But for some reason my PCs never want to take the task presented by the first quest-giver. So I have to resort to a second quest-giver who wants the opposite of the first one. For examples if the first quest-giver explains that a valuable item has been stolen and that there is a reward for its return my PCs won’t be interested. But when a second quest-giver tells them that he’s not interested in the item but wants the thieves captured and punished suddenly the PCs are interested. And if I’d switched the order of these two quest-givers they’d go the other way. It’s a strange group dynamic that I’ve learned to count on.

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On May 27, 2009 @ 9:33 am

@Ameron – That’s bizarre! Way to identify player quirks and roll with them, though!

In general, I don’t like “quest-givers” much, but obviously they need to be used. I try to “backdoor” my quest-giving by asking players what their characters care about, and then putting it in danger. If someone’s little brother or beloved or whatever is threatened, then that person is still the quest-giver, but it’s not a matter of “Hi, I’ve never met you before but I have a need of some kind of arcane service that only a warrior/vampire/demigod/cowboy of your quality can undertake!”

Some of my favorite games are those that build quest-giving right into the mechanics. Check out With Great Power and Dogs in the Vineyard for two of my favorite examples. Honourable mention also goes to any game that tricks your players into making up their own quests, such as Houses of the Blooded and Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies.

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On May 27, 2009 @ 9:35 am

And now I want to run a game with demigod vampire warrior-cowboys.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On May 27, 2009 @ 11:40 am

The suggestion to let them be people is very handy, and is a huge help to making the world feel realistic. If the quest giver doesn’t put up with insults and say “I guess I’ll look for another group of sell swords”, it might help the players realize how obnoxious their characters look in the world.

I like quest givers in quest/delve based games. Your advice about mixing up the form of quest giver (rumors, fences, information booths, etc.) is also good to keep in mind.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 27, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

I have to add… The picture is mine. I saw that guy handing out quests at Scarborough Faire (outside Waxahachie, Texas). The scene completely inspired this article.

Sadly, it was a hot day, and I had wife and child in tow, and didn’t pursue any of the quests. :(

#6 Comment By Rafe On May 27, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

Like many icons of the hobby, quest-givers are not necessary to a good game. A self-motivated group of players may take offense at the presumption that they can’t find their way into trouble.

I agree, but I take a slightly different spin: I think quest-givers are absolutely necessary. However, I personally think the most powerful quest-givers are the players themselves.

More typical, “a guy approaches your table in the tavern” sort of quest-givers are alright, on very rare occasion. I think I’d shoot myself, though, if that was the basis (and entirety!) of a GM’s plot/story introduction style.

#7 Comment By Razjah On May 27, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

I think that the quest giver is over used. I have used the quest giver in my campaign, the King then he handed over control of the PCs to a captain of the army who wanted nothing to do with people who bring a dragon to attack the city so the PCs got handed over to a lieutenant.

I prefer to only partially use the quest giver. Yes this person gives out the quest, but if he or she knew all the parts of the quest it would be done already. Instead someone comes to the party for help, but the PCs need to find more information before they tackle the problem.

I used “surprise” lycanthropes in a 4e campaign this way. The party was sent to clear out kobolds from a ruined outpost, but there were whispers of lycanthropes in the nearby woods. The PCs ignored that and got hit with a couple diseases, had no good cure methods, no silvered weapons, and were generally unprepared. After that they began to question more for information.

#8 Comment By LesInk On May 27, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

I was recently attempting a new type of quest giving system that unfortunately got caught short (this was in my evil campaign where in the same night I introduced the new quest system, the party turned on themselves, imploded, and ended the campaign). Therefore, I haven’t been able to test it out yet, but let me explain the premise.

This was a D&D 3.5 game and the players were getting tired of too many combats and limited ways to earn experience points. Therefore, I scoured through their player histories and current events and created 3 quest goals for each player with a xp reward (and in a couple of cases, a monetary reward due to who would pay them for it). I handed these directly to the players — no quest giver at all. Why? Because many of these quests were goals deemed ‘in character’. For example, one character was seeking to find a lost sword and besides getting the sword, I would give him a bonus xp reward.

But that’s an easy one — its an item. I also wanted to encourage role playing, so another player with an intense hatred of a specific enemy religious faction was given a quest to desecrate one of their holy sites for an xp reward. And another person had a secret quest to get membership in a less than popular enemy faction (which gave discounts on poison purchases as well as a one time xp reward).

To also be fair, I also gave them some blank cards and said, “If you don’t like these quests, feel free to propose some and I’ll assign an appropriate reward.” In this way, if I misunderstood their motivations, they could formally make a request that they knew would be meaningful to them. In fact, I was hoping they would start begging for all types of quests just so they would get rewards.

When my group gets past our current problem with SCORL (schedule conflicts of real life), I’ll return to using the system to see if I can refine it.

To summarize and better link to the above article, yes, many of these quest cards were planned to come from quest givers, but I wanted the players to make them up too.

#9 Comment By xero On May 27, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

Funny, I just took on the quest giver trope with a new monster on my blog.

#10 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

I must say first off that I was struck by the craziness of that photo. The dude is holding a sheet of paper with an image of a scroll on it … why don’t they print on sand-colored paper and roll the paper up into a scroll? Funky.

Anyway, I find that quest-givers create a chilling effect to player creativity. The players know that this is the night’s adventure, just as surely as if you outright told them. Players are bright. So they know that you have this adventure planned, maybe one or two others. But you obviously want them to go on this adventure.

So if they don’t bite, they’re stuck with nothing to do, or the choice of your other ideas. I hope you came to the table with multiple adventures.

Because of this they’re subtly railroaded into your adventure. Maybe your adventure is very loosely written, but they don’t really have a choice to take it or not. There isn’t anything else, as evidenced by the presence of the heavy-handed Quest Giver.

Now if your players can get creative and self motivated, and find their own adventures, and you can run them on the fly, that’s cool. Why the heck are you using a quest giver? It’s a crutch, like “You Meet In A Tavern”.

Finally if there’s a Quest Giver there’s usually some expectation of reward. Beware the reward! Players often expect increasing rewards for increasing risks, and eventually you’re playing a mission-based game (Hi Charley! Hello Angels!). How often was Indiana Jones, or John Carter, or Frodo Baggins, or Elric, or Tanis Half-Elven paid 300 GP to kill the owlbears? Avoid or subvert the trope because it’s a funky one.

#11 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

I like LesInk’s solution. I’d like to get my players to give me their long-term goals and I can seed those into the game world.

But I wouldn’t ever have a dude come up and say “Ho now, you look like the Chosen One who is looking fo your ancestral sword, here is a map and some rations and a rope because there will be a pit trap there.”

They’d need to figure out who they need to talk with and where they need to go to gather information about their own personal quests. I like it. I prefer when the players initiate their own adventures because they seem to have a greater stake in them.


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