What makes a good quest?

Many RPGs (role-playing games), especially computer RPGs, emphasize quests. In fact, one computer game, EverQuest, even has “quest” in its name. Often completing quests is one of the main ways to for characters to advance. There are other ways to advance, but often the other ways are repetitive and tedious and amount to little more than wandering around and killing whatever monsters the character encounters. The term used to refer to that kind of repetitive and tedious activity is “grinding”.

Quests are not supposed to be repetitive and tedious, but unfortunately they often are, and they end up just being another kind of grind: kill 10 goblins, kill 10 gnolls, kill 10 orcs, etc. True, quests usually have some kind of story, but reading the stories isn’t necessary for completing the quests, so they are often ignored. Rather than reading a quest story and looking for clues in the game world, players often search the Web for information about the quest, leaving a beautiful, immersive game world for a third-party web site cluttered with advertisements.

Is there a way to make quests more interesting and fun? I like to think so. But before I get into that, I’m going to define the target by looking at what makes a good quest.

A good quest system provides variety: a variety of quests and (perhaps more importantly) a variety of ways to achieve quests. That means that there are interesting decisions for the player to make. I’m not talking about decisions like “Should I use my +5 axe of decapitation or my +5 sword of walloping?” I’m talking about “Do I kill the guard, disable it, bribe it, sneak past it, or try to find another way in?” Do I try to cross the mountain pass in a blizzard or go through the mines that are full of monsters. (Okay, that’s not my idea, but it is my idea of an interesting decision.)

Good quests are challenging. That means that failure is possible, but there’s a big difference between “challenging” and “hard”. A quest can be hard to complete because it requires the player to make more than one attempt, but if each attempt is the same except for the outcome of simulated die rolls, then the quest isn’t challenging, it’s just hard. It’s a grind. With a challenging quest, there might be only one attempt. That means that failure is that much more painful but success is that much more sweet.

Adding story elements to quests is a way to make quests better. A player won’t care about a character that he or she sees once when getting the quest and again when completing the quest, especially when no information about that character is necessary for the quest. On the other hand if a player character interacts a character from time to time, and hears stories and rumors about that character, and needs information about the character to complete the quest, then it’s a different story. The player will pay more attention to the character and is more likely to care about what happens to the character. Characters are one story element that can make quests better. Other story elements that can make quests better are pacing, timing, drama, and narrative tension.

Good quests draw players deeper into the game world instead of encouraging them to go on a scavenger hunt on the Web. And, completing a quest makes a difference in the world, even if it’s a small one. A change that lasts longer than the respawn timer of the quest monsters.

Is it possible to make good quests? Of course. Then why aren’t there good quests in EverQuest? There are some good ones, but a lot of them are so-so or ho-hum because of the time and expense that creating good quests requires.

Is it possible to reduce the time and expense required to make good quests? Stay tuned…

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