Plot:Design:Side Quests

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In this section we deal with plot elements not directly connected to the main storyline. We find out how they differ from the main plot and how they can be designed.

Differences

The name itself says it all: side quests are additional tasks players may accomplish beside the main plot, and as such they are completely optional. While success or failure in their completion will have no direct effect on the main plot, artifacts, skills and experience gained in side quests can often greatly simplify parts thereof.

The main plot must allow any player to solve it in some way or another, whereas side quests don’t have this restriction. Therefore, they can be tailored much better to individual characters and styles of playing. Some players might simply find a side quest unavailable to them, while others would have no chance to complete it. Failing a side quest is without dire consequences though; a player may miss out on a nice item or such, but she can still continue the game. The main plot on the other hand mustn’t contain any such dead ends.

Further, side quests are usually quite short and self-contained parts of the game that aren’t related to the plot in any way. As such they can be viewed as stories within the story. In most cases, these side quests are independent from each other, but from time to time the availability of a certain side quest can be based on the successful conclusion of previous ones (or even on a certain level of progress in the main plot). Other side quests might mutually exclude each other.

In most cases, side quests have some kind of reward at their end, be it some spell or fighting feat, an expensive or unique item, or just lots of experience. As such, side quests help players to prepare for the various challenges of the main plot. In addition they should also reveal additional information about game world and NPCs.

Types

In general there are three basic types of side quests.

  • The classic one is certainly the odd errand necessary to gain the help of some NPC, to receive training or a special item. Here it is the player wanting something, and the only way to get it is doing the NPC a favour. These side quests can differ considerably in length and difficulty, but they are usually quite straightforward, with a well-known goal and few key points. Still, we should make sure that there are different ways to complete these errands, including the possibility to deceive or trick the NPC.
  • Another type of side quests are NPCs that seek help from the player. Here it is up to the player to accept or reject, as the reward is often unknown beforehand. Those requests for help can range anywhere between good and evil, may include stealing and killing but also recovering lost items or mediating between hostile parties. Quests of this type can become quite complex, and are often harder to spot and to solve than the classic ones. It should be fairly easy to devise different ways to complete or fail in such a quest.
  • And last but not least, there are those side quests that don’t involve NPCs at all. This can be a hidden cave or ruin for the player to explore, valuable items that can be gathered from various places and everything else that requires the player’s initiative without any further instruction. Those quests usually involve puzzle solving, exploring and possibly combat, while the others also require a certain amount of talking.

All three types have in common that they may provide the player with means that aid her in the main plot.

Design

Unlike the main plot, side quests offer much more freedom to the designer. That also means they can be much more diverse than the rest of the plot, which needs to suit all types of players. Side quests can range from simple and straightforward to difficult and complex, can put the emphasis on either exploring, fighting, talking, solving puzzles or any combination of these. They can require the player to have certain talents, equipment or alignment, or be open to - and completable by - all players. They can be funny, dead earnest or just plain silly. Although side quests differ considerably from the main plot line in terms of design, there shouldn’t be large differences in terms of gameplay. A player shouldn’t get the feeling that she can skip a side quest, just because it is “a bloody side quest”. If possible, they should appear as important and pressing as the next task of the main plot.

When designing side quests, one should try to avoid repetition. No two side quests should be alike, and they should also differ from elements of the main plot. Most of them should consist of more than just killing that character or recovering this item. Some may be specially designed for good or evil characters, others might seem good but turn out rather bad. For a difference, NPCs could even try to deceive the player.

Further, the outcome of a side quest may have some influence on other quests, either unlocking or disabling them. They can change the player’s standing with the various factions. They can even have an influence on the main plot. Special items or spells gained in side quests might help at certain points, as would do friendly NPCs and factions, while angered NPCs could force the player to chose a different path to get on with the main plot.

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