4e Excerpt: The Quest’s the Thing

In the last excerpt for this week, “The Quest’s the Thing,” Wizards talks about questing in the new Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

This is another area in which gamism has been enshrined in the place of a realistic game world, and also where they had a laudable design goal that they then screwed the pooch on in implementation. The two repeated themes of 4e, sadly.

Let’s take a look. Putting in quest XP, and not as an afterthought as in previous editions? OK, cool, I’m with you! They talk about some of the bad directions XP took in the past – treasure value as XP (first edition), mini story awards (second edition), and roleplaying awards. I’m down with the first two, but the complaint about “it’s not fair” on the roleplaying rewards is commie crap. I don’t have a problem differentially rewarding players in my games. Sleep on the couch and screw around? Less XP for you. Act in character and interact with the story in interesting ways? More XP for you. Refusing to accept the difference and not allowing for a way to reward/disincent RP “dumbs down” the game and provides negative overall incentive for groups to roleplay.

But that’s not a big deal to me. Here’s the big deal. They only allude to it in this excerpt but I heard more about it on the ENWorld boards a couple months ago. Here’s the danger quote.

“Quests also serve as the DM’s dangling carrot. Not only do they say “fun lies this way,” now they also point to rewards with some amount of transparency. People like to have an idea of the rewards they will get for tasks… or at least the minimum rewards. Your players are no different. Quests are a way in which they’ll have a basic idea of the minimum rewards for what they do, and they’ll appreciate it.”

What they mean here is “handing out quest cards,” just like in World of Warcraft. You take the quest, and you get an ‘agreement’ about exactly what you’ll get by accomplishing it. “Return Joe the Merchant to Sandpoint, and get 200 gold,” for example.

What a blow to roleplaying, to interesting twisty stories, to realism!

With this, the players get a sense of entitlement.  No need to negotiate the reward.  If the client betrays them, they point at their “contract” like you’ve ripped them off personally.  But worse, they lose discretion in what to do and how to do it.  “Oh, you didn’t do the exact thing the quest card said, sorry…”   Activities aren’t valuable if they don’t activate a clause in the quests; at best it’s “grinding” (the WoW term for going out and killing monsters for XP outside the bounds of a quest).  PCs start to evaluate quests solely on the basis of the written reward.  All necessary evils in WoW but gratuitous evils in D&D.

Now, I get frustrated like anyone else in campaigns where the DM goes with the usual “person wants you to go on a life-risking quest for no real reason and refuses to specify any pay/reward.” But the way to handle that is tactically with in game roleplay and strategically with DM advice. If, in the game, I don’t feel like the quest is worthwhile to my character, I say “nope!” If I don’t trust the person making the offer, I make them pay some up front or otherwise mitigate that. And you just say “Dungeon Masters – when creating a plot hook, make it something the characters would actually take. Remember that even though PCs are adrenaline junkies they aren’t going to work for some stranger just because he asks. Even if they’re do-gooders they will want to know that they are actually helping out the cause of good in a meaningful way. If they’re mercenaries, they’ll want to have the expectation that they’ll be fairly rewarded.” Et cetera.

Is this “guaranteed quest reward” system how any sword and sorcery stories – or plots from other other cinematic genres – work? No. In fact, usually the promised “payday” in stories is just a false goal – you’re meant to decide that you shouldn’t give that artifact to the evil king after all, or the guy contracting you betrays you kicking off the real plot, or any number of other things. Can you name any fantasy movie ever that works this way, or reputable fantasy novel (D&D fiction doesn’t count as reputable)? Not Conan, not Kull, not Lord of the Rings, not any Narnia tale, not Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser…

I don’t dislike WoW – I have a level 67 priest myself. But WoW has to work in certain ways to facilitate the MMO environment and the limitations of computers. Putting this garbage into D&D degrades the experience. If you are removing the elements that make a tabletop RPG world a real, living, breathing place with real-world complexities and personalities, then you are removing what makes tabletop better. If I want to play Diablo I’ll do it on line, thanks. “Frag” is an entertaining diversion but it’s inferior to actually playing a FPS. Are they going to make D&D 4e no more rich and compelling than the computer RPGs? Because if so, only the retarded folks are going to keep playing the tabletop version.

5 responses to “4e Excerpt: The Quest’s the Thing

  1. Well said.

    In addition, there’s the danger of a newbie DM learning that that’s how you design adventures. While us more experienced DMs know how to design a proper adventure without being constrained by something like that, a game master new to the game might well inadvertently teach himself to only think within a very small box. If one gets in that habit, the adventures will soon become repetitive, dull, and lacking in surprise.

  2. Yeah. Some people excuse this by saying “Well, experienced DMs can ignore it!” But a) rules I have to ignore suck and b) you’re right, it trains new people a specific way such that they won’t have the skills to ignore it. My greatest fear is being roped into a “by the book” 4e game; it would be like one long D&D Minis battle.

  3. Totally agree with this post. Quests can be one of the worst parts of WOW; a shopping list is not a story. I don’t have a problem writing down adventure hooks on a card and giving it to the players if they need help focusing, but turning it into a contract… it damages what tabletop is best at, improvisation and an open dynamic world.

  4. I still thing that there is plenty of influence from Heroquest
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HeroQuest_(board_game) with an ample dose of WoW. The biggest problem I keep seeing is stupid rules and set ups that are continually answered by saying the “experienced GM’s will ignore it.” Screams bad meta-game choices in the design.

  5. Pilgrimize says : I absolutely agree with this !

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