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RPG Design: Seven Ways to Fix Boring Quests

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?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Citrine said,

    Nice post and spot on!
    As you say, a fedex quest is a simple and basic mechanic, but can be more than simple and basic. It just takes some effort on the designer’s part not to make it stale and boring. Not always easy but something we should all strive for. 🙂

  • Groboclown said,

    I’ve usually referred to these courier quests as “gopher” quests, because the NPCs tell you to gopher this, then gopher that.

  • Groboclown said,

    Although, upon further reflection, I’d say that the gopher quests are different, and are more like the World of Warcraft “bring me 10 plebotenums,” whereas the courier are “go there.” Both are annoying, but they are distinctly different.

    You bring up the other bane of most gamers – the escort quest. Reviled mostly due to the player now having to deal with the computer AI controlling the NPC, making the machinery of the program apparent and pulling the player out of the experience. I still want to see a nod to the player on this one having an in-game character tell you that you must provide a “service” to “escort” people.

  • Eric said,

    Or, you can just not use fetch quests at all.

    I’ll be honest, I’ve done my own game creation before and the temptation to fill your game with these is great, especially be cause so many big-name titles do it (even ones we worship for good narrative, like Planescape). But, the other part of me says that these quests are lame, stupid, boring, narratively bankrupt and, perhaps worst of all, effectively comes down to admitting “yeah, I guess I can’t come up with anything better.”

    When you get right down to it, finishing quests in RPGs is basically about a) killing something b) solving a puzzle c) getting A to B or d) talking to someone. It’s the context and the combinations of these elements that make things interesting. If you simply take one part of that and build a quest out of it, you have something that is, generally, not fun to play.

    When you are able to combine multiple elements, though, you have interesting quest design. Maybe you need to convince someone you’re right for the job, take the item somewhere, fight a guardian at the location, and cast a spell when you’re done, then make a decision affecting the outcome. This is more difficult and takes a lot more time, but it’s far more fulfilling content and doesn’t really take any longer than a half-dozen fetch quests would. Quality over quantity and all that.

    I’m also a huge fan of quests that lead to other quests or influence other events. A FedEx quest can be just that, but when your action or inaction can affect the plot or lead to different gameplay experiences, that is interesting. The Witcher does this to great effect – the game is chock full of this sort of thing but it ends up having a compelling narrative because your FedExing never takes place inside a vacuum.

    Often taking the “easy” way out isn’t really easier and doesn’t make your game any better. Playing Mass Effect 3 (and Dragon Age 2 a month or two ago), there are a ton of “quests” that are literally just “find an item in some container and take it to some NPC.” No interesting dialogue, no interaction, just pressing the use key. Heck, Dragon Age 2 even goes as far as to intentionally placing A and B as far away from each other as possible to drag things out even more, and forces you to return to the same places again and again. That is not fun and it is not fulfilling, but with all the work creating those unique assets, scripting everything, writing the dialogue etc. you could have made another far more interesting quest that players would remember and care about – and it would probably take them just as long to complete as well.

  • hexagonstar said,

    I’ve came across two lame fedex quests just two days ago in Skyrim. They were part of how to get the house in Riften. I thought why did they even put these quests in?! Fillers indeed. Luckliy there are many brilliant quests in Skyrim, too.

    As a good rule, quests – no matter what type are – usually are becoming more interesting if they involve some good plot twists that make them drive into a completely different direction than the player had imagined.

    Like in Oblivion when you did the later part in the Dark Brotherhood quest where you receive assassination missions at dead drop locations and … *SPOILER WARNING* … at one point Lucien Lachance comes out of nowhere and intercepts you just after a mission to tell you that the later contracts weren’t from him and that there’s a traitor in the DB and the recent victims were all DB members. At that moment I was like “WTH!!”

    Good old DB quests, How I enjoyed them! Good to see that Skyrim continued this trend.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I really don’t like fetch/fedex quests, but I much prefer them to escort ones.

    It’s perfectly acceptable to have standard fetch quests and similar for low-level characters (like Candlekeep in BG1), as a way for you to learn about the world by interacting with it’s inhabitants.

    Once you’ve moved on from that learning phase, the only reason you should be doing a courier quest is if it makes sense with regards to the greater game. For example, being told to retrieve a golden idol from a jungle temple full of ancient (and yet still working) traps is perfectly fine for an experienced adventurer/party (especially if you get ambushed once you leave the temple by a rival adventurer). Anyone asking you to deliver a letter for 10gp when you’re richer than Croesus is just plain insulting.

  • Xenovore said,

    Personally, I don’t really mind filler quests, as long as they don’t constitute the entirety of a game’s quests. There’s certainly a place for them; they can provide additional resources or information, i.e. things that could be helpful but not necessarily required. Yeah, if I can glean a quick 10 gp by dropping off a letter on my way to some other destination, I’ll do it. Of course, as Andy_Panthro said, that might be a complete waste of time and energy if I’m already wealthy. (In which case, just skip it, no big deal. …Unless it’s forced, but then that means it must be important, which makes it interesting again.)

    But I think any game quest can become less worth-while, “filler” or not. It’s impossible to make every single quest be meaningful to all experience levels (or professions, for that matter). It’s particularly noticeable in Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, because there are so many quests, it’s easy to miss a lot of them, and by the time you find them, you’re likely to have out-leveled some of them. (It happens to me all the time: “Oh, that might have been cool… 10 levels ago.”)

    And if you go too far the other way, trying to make every quest meaningful, then you run the risk of “railroading” the player, forcing them to play along instead of making their own choices.

    It also depends on how invested/immersed a player is in the world. For example, if you’re friends with Bart the butcher, you might spend time hunting and bringing back meat for him — basically just performing “filler” quests — even though there are more lucrative ways to spend your time.

  • Xenovore said,

    Oh, regarding escort quests:

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; the issues usually come down to poor design and poor AI. E.g. the NPC walks too slow, or walks too fast, or goes and gets himself killed, or doesn’t do what the player tells him to, or gets stuck on stuff, etc. These are all relatively easy problems to solve. I just think most designers/AI programmers are too lazy to solve them!

    I can easily imagine an escort quest where the NPC is actually helpful, does what the player tells him to do, stays with the player (unless told otherwise), engages in witty dialogue, can defend themselves, can defend the player, etc.

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    I’d love an escort quest that was so well made, you would want the NPC to stay with you for the rest of the game.

    Having a variety of ways to complete a quest is generally the best way to make filler quests less of a problem (or the ability to ignore them completely, and not have them in your journal forever).

  • True to Design: What I’m Reading « Managing the Game said,

    […] RPG Design: Seven Ways to Fix Boring Quests: http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=4028 […]

  • Xenovore said,

    @Andy: Agreed!