Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 7, 2012
So while much of what I’d like to talk about today applies to any kind of simple “quest” in a computer role-playing game, I’d like to direct your attention to the overused “Fedex,” “fetch,” or “courier” quest type. If you haven’t heard them referred to by those names, you’ve probably still played them. At their core, you meet an NPC who says something along the lines of: “Hi, stranger! I’m too busy to deliver this package to some dude on the outskirts of town / in another town, could you deliver this to him? He’ll pay you for it so you don’t have to come back to me for the reward, which would be far more realistic but is not Fun Game Design(tm). KTHNXBAI!” Whereupon you travel / search for the recipient, possibly in the course of other travels, hand over the delivery (or recite the message), get a reward, and… you are done.
Yeah, this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about this. Probably won’t be the last, either. But hopefully I’ll be able to offer some solid ideas here today, rather than just kvetching.
It all started out – by my best recollection, at least – with Might & Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. Some wizard wanted you to deliver a scroll to another wizard in another city. Cool, huh? It was really the launch pad for a whole series of quests for your ultimate adventure, but it served some decent purposes. It pushed you out to explore new cities, to find and talk to other NPCs, and to get on with the game. Used sparingly and in this fashion, I don’t really have a problem with it.
As a designer, there’s a lot to like about these kinds of quests. It’s a good introductory quest for beginning players to get them used to the most basic of activities – movement and navigation, and maybe consulting the automap and quest journal. Also, as an introductory quest, it puts the player character in their place as a nobody running lame errands before they become a world-saving superbeing. It gets them introduced to other NPCs. It makes use of painstakingly crafted environments in town, causing the player to run around admiring the scenery while trying to figure out which building houses their contact. It can push the player out into the world, moving out of their comfort zone to make their delivery. And – perhaps most importantly – it is generally pretty dang easy to script up in any RPG system, making it a brain-dead simple way to add “filler” content to pad out a game. And as a player, they are an easy source of money and experience.
But they are also as boring as hell.
It’s okay to have a quest start with what appears to be a “simple” courier quest. I mean, in a way, the entire plot of Fallout: New Vegas was a twist on a courier quest gone wrong. That whole part was buried in backstory before the game begins, but one way of looking at it was that it was a giant subversion of the trope. The plot of the classic “cyberpunk” novel Snow Crash begins with two Fedex style objectives colliding with each other – a pizza delivery guy and a high-tech skateboarding courier. And there are plenty of examples in RPGs where a straightforward courier quest blossoms into something far more interesting.
But not often enough.
I’m not going to name names, but I was playing through a fairly recent (and overall, very good) European RPG this week and stumbled across this kind of quest again, and I was somewhat surprised by my own reaction to it. Apparently, I’m developing some kind of gag reflex, probably developed over the course of a few MMORPG sessions in the past. If I have, I hope it serves me well in the future so I don’t end up making throwing anything quite that straightforward and boring in my games.
I understand why they are there. When you are working with scripting code, it’s surprising how so much boils down a few very simple interactions. So much of gameplay ends up being some variant of some very basic interactions. Kill Actor X. Wound Actor X to Level Y. Protect Actor X. Talk to X when Flag Y is set. Use Item Y with Actor X, or when Item Y is in your inventory. The latter is your basic Fed Ex quest element. But using it in something close to its raw, unadulterated form is lame and trite. It’s all about wrapping these basic elements in a dramatic and interesting story, after all – a pregenerated story of the designer’s creation, or one that develops organically that the player creates by his own actions and those of the game world and its inhabitants, or ideally a combination of both.
Let’s look at ways to make this simple quest element more interesting, shall we? While I’m focusing on Fedex style quests, these ideas can be applied to pretty much any of the classic (and, unfortunately, overused and unexciting) quest tropes found in computer RPGs.
1. The Disguise: This is still the same basic Fed Ex quest, but dressed up in a more interesting costume. This gives the basic quest some interesting and dramatic flavor, while leaving the basic substance of the quest alone. Maybe it’s something besides a message or package. Maybe the recipient needs a spell cast upon them, or for them, or needs medicine. Maybe the quest-giver is dying, begging for help from the player with their final breath. It’s all about context.
2. The Twist: The delivery is still the core of the quest, but it’s not that simple. There may be a trick to acquiring it so it can be delivered. It may cause the player some problems while it is in her possession – restricting movement, preventing rest, whatever. Maybe the delivery is a person who must be delivered safely (thus making this an ‘escort’ quest). Maybe it’s not so much a delivery as bait to lure the recipient somewhere. Maybe the player is hunted for as long as he has the item in his possession, or it’s illegal and he has to avoid detection from the police or town guard. Maybe the intended recipient is dead, and the player has to figure out what to do with it next.
3. The Chain: The item delivery element of the quest is just one step in a larger chain of activities.
4. The Choice: Can we have interesting decisions beyond deciding whether or not to make the delivery? Maybe even beyond the choice of to whom we deliver the package? Particularly if said decisions have durable (if not necessarily major) consequences?
5. The Subversion: In this case, what starts as a simple deliver X to Y quest has more than just a twist, but is actually turned on its head in some way. Maybe the recipient is unwilling, and the item must be stealthily or forcefully delivered to their possession (this was done in an early Thieves’ Guild quest in Skyrim). Maybe the delivery is a red herring for some larger plotline. Maybe some other adventure delivers an item to YOU, and expects payment, and you don’t have a friggin’ clue what to do with it. Maybe what starts as a simple fedex quest explodes into a comedy of errors that is both amusing and dramatic at once.
6. The Constraint: Some other criteria has to be fulfilled when you make the delivery in order to succeed. A simple (but usually annoying) example would be a time limit. But maybe the recipient has to be at full health when he receives it. Maybe you have to be at half-health or worse (for some reason) when you deliver it. Maybe you have to be in disguise. Maybe the recipient has to be in disguise. Maybe it can only be delivered at night (another possibly annoying constraint). Maybe you can’t have another item of some kind in your possession at the same time, but you have to somehow deliver both items at once.
7. The Outside-The-Box Alternative: There are many more ways to accomplish the objectives met by a simple Fedex quest than its basic, overused form. Authors of fiction and dice-and-paper adventures don’t have to think about the constraints of standard game interactions, flags, or other scripting issues. That gives them a considerable amount of freedom to come up with alternative methods of propelling the adventure along. Sure, they fall into ruts as well – all the time – but we do have a rich legacy of ideas to draw from. Designers can mine back-issues of Dungeon Magazine or Fantasy / Sci-Fi short stories for ideas and then figure out how to do something similar in an interactive, computer-moderated environment. Knights of the Dinner Table has a regular feature containing several plot-seed / quest seed ideas that break from the norm. These are all great sources for ideas – or at least getting the creative juices flowing so the designer isn’t just repeating variations of what has been seen in other CRPGs.
And naturally, several of these ideas can and should be combined. As I said, some games are doing this. I know of one particularly awesome game in particular that I believe does a pretty good job at it. And fortunately it’s not alone. But designers do need to work at it to make their quests more exciting. After all, the reason we’re playing an RPG in the first place is for some excitement and adventure, right? Shouldn’t these things lurk in even the most mundane activities in your game?
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