Dungeon Mastering 101: Designing a Quest, Part 1

This is part 1 of a series of articles about designing quests. In it, we examine what is needed to make great adventures. Check out part 2 here!

The adventurers have gathered at the tavern for the evening. They’re about two pints into the night when an old man, his threadbare cloak and sun-tanned skin attesting to the rigours of his life, makes his way up to them. They’ve never met him before, but he has a promise of treasure for them if they can clear out an old mine that has become the home of some foul creatures.

Once upon a time, we all looked at this quest hook and didn’t think much of the cliché. Or necessarily that it was a cliché. After all, this is a world of magic and adventure; surely such a thing is a common occurrence. Did The Hobbit not begin much the same way, with Gandalf crashing Bilbo’s quiet life under The Hill with the rather firm proposition of an adventure?

For some, the reasons for setting off on a quest are secondary, just as the destination is merely the end of the journey and not its driving motivation. Given the chance to do something daring, they’ll leap into action with no questions asked. For others, it can become tedious and contrived to simply accept such quests without a more solid basis for motivation. Why would their character care about this anyway?

And if they do head off on this quest and it turns out to be a big cave full of goblins and a bugbear sitting on a modest pile of coins, what have they really accomplished? They’re a bit richer, but have they grown? Has their story progressed? Do the players feel fulfilled, or just temporarily triumphant?

Back in April 2018, the illustrious Chris Perkins, DM Extraordinaire, had an interview with D&D Beyond where he shared the three things essential for any successful D&D quest:

  • the characters and what motivates them
  • a place for the adventure to happen; and
  • a villain with goals that are believable

In this article, we will examine and provide some context to these three essential points and also touch on a fourth that we believe is important for making the quests memorable and keeping your players motivated to play.

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The Plot Hook

Central to the players accepting a quest is the issue of whether it is of any interest to them. While you can always give your players simple, you-found-this-note-on-the-job-board quests, the most engaging quests are always going to be ones that have a personal tie. This tie can be conditional, such as when a friendly NPC asks the party to look into something, or specific, such as when it’s directly tied to the backstory of a character.

A quest without a good plot hook is a quest that can be abandoned on a whim, usually as soon as the going gets tough. A quest with a good plot hook can push players to press on through a struggle. If you want your players to care about the goal of the adventure, that goal needs to be one that they are able to get behind or in which they are invested by their very nature.

Quest hooks are arguably the easiest part of a quest. Most of the time, you just have to convince one or two players that the adventure is worth their time. As soon as some of the party are hooked, the others are happy to contrive their reasons for joining in. Rare is the occasion where you have to trade the carrot for the stick; most of the time, players are simply happy to play.

The Location

For many adventures, the location is a dungeon. It’s just part of the game—it’s even in the name! But whether it’s a dungeon, a ruined castle, a mountain peak, a noble’s manor, or whatever, it needs to be a place in which the quest, or at least part of it, transpires. It’s pretty straightforward, and most of the time a DM doesn’t have to think too hard about it. But it is worth looking into what we typically consider when coming up with an adventure location.

The placement of the adventure really has a profound impact on the story and should suit the nature of it. It wouldn’t really make sense, after all, for a coven of evil hags to have their base of operations in the common room of a very popular tavern in the country’s most populous city. If your location is juxtaposed with the expectations for the antagonist, there should be a good reason for it. For example, maybe the hags have been masquerading as beautiful heiresses of an old money family who are slowly ensorcelling the most important members of the city’s high society in a long, ambitious plan to sow such discord that the kingdom collapses.

Some adventures feature numerous locations, while others are based around one specific location. As a general rule, the fewer locations you feature in an adventure, the more interesting they should be. A quest with a single location should occur in a particularly interesting place that has many unique features that add flavour to the adventure. Such ‘location-based’ adventures have a long history in D&D and continue to be among the most popular options. This is especially true of one-shot adventures, which are typically too focused to include a lot of plot and instead focus on a unique environment that challenges the exploration pillar of the game, with a healthy dose of combat for good measure.

The Villain

There’s an unspoken but almost universally followed rule about writing stories: the complexity of the villain should be directly proportional to the complexity of the plot. The players will not appreciate a villain who weaves masterful schemes that lead them down dark holes and across many miles all for the sake of a one-dimensional motivation, nor will they appreciate a villain whose grand ambitions are pursued with feeble execution. The goblin chief raiding small caravans on the road should be building wealth and power to declare himself the goblin king, not to prove himself the greatest servant of Maglubiyet so that he can become his avatar. Drama has to scale with the threat, and your villain needs to suit the threat encompassed by the events in the quest.

There are many ways to make memorable villains for your campaign. They can be a foil to the protagonists (the player characters), a dark and twisted reflection of their ideals taken to unsavoury ends. They can be driven by a seemingly noble quest that demands terrible actions for its completion. They can be a subversion of an existing trope, or one that has been deconstructed to a sinister purpose.

A fallen angel, for example, could be a fantastic high-level villain with many possible goals that would seem appropriate; he could seek to return to the heavens—either by cleansing the world of sin by fire or by pursuing a plan that has a chance of achieving the same result (but he’s desperate enough to try anyway)—or he could seek to overthrow them by summoning an army of evil, assailing the metaphysical foundations of the Celestial Palace, or some other plot—or he may even seek to undo creation, unwilling to suffer the world to exist if he can’t dwell in paradise.

Just like the location can set the tone of an adventure, so can the villain. Barovia in Curse of Strahd is not a cheerful, sunny place because that would not suit the dark, brooding nature of its villain, the vampire Strahd von Zarovich.

Generally, a smiling vampire is not a good sign.

Now, these are all fairly straightforward and intuitive points. They are the solid groundwork needed for any quest. Or, as Chris Perkins puts it, “the legs upon which adventures stand”. What’s left to add to this mix that is a major ingredient in making an adventure that will really impress your players?

The Twist

If ever your players have complained about a quest being “straightforward” or “one dimensional”, it’s likely that you’ve neglected to expand the quest beyond the basic plot hook, neglected to push the story that extra little bit. This is the reason why fetch quests are so universally loathed; when there’s no plot aside from what is given up front, the whole thing seems very much like work. “Find the missing son of your favourite NPC” is a great plot hook, but uncovering that the child’s disappearance is part of a plot to sacrifice a number of innocents in an infernal ritual… that is a twist that makes the quest worthy of the talent of the adventurers.

And that’s really what it comes down to at the end of the day: why did the characters have to be involved? If a quest could be handled by the town guard, it really should be. There’s nothing wrong with having a quest hook that seems more appropriate for the guards to handle (insert “except that…” reason here), but the quest itself should develop into something more, something that the town guard would have not been properly equipped to handle, but which lies within the expertise of the characters. Otherwise, you risk your players feeling that they have wasted their time, that they are doing someone else’s work instead of setting themselves apart as heroes. The twist is the element that makes the quest worthy of the effort. Without it, your adventure runs the risk of feeling unimaginative at best, and tedious at worst.

Putting It All Together

While an adventure can stand on only three legs, it will be that much sturdier on four. While Chris Perkins is entirely correct that location, hook, and villain are needed to build a full adventure, the story itself risks falling flat if there’s no deeper development beyond the quest hook. For this reason, we recommend adding a fourth consideration: the twist. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering (in fact, sometimes a subtle twist will be most appreciated) but it should at least keep the players from thinking, “why are we even here?”

Once you master adding a twist to your adventures, your players will be that much more excited to play them.

Feature Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Do you have an experience with a fantastic plot twist? We’d love to hear it in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Dungeon Mastering 101: Designing a Quest, Part 1”

  1. New DM here, my group seemed to be less on the good side so I created a thieves guild under the town they started in. After defeating a wearat that has been terrorizing the guild they found out that the whole guild was wearats and they offered membership if one of the group became a wearat too

  2. You comment that the “adventurers in the tavern” is cliche, but then go on to talk about an adventure being a “quest” and having a good villain.

    Personally, I find whole the concept of a quest, villain, and treasure to be won cliche.

    While early dungeons had monsters “guarding” treasure, such treasure was often incidental, coming from fallen adventurers, etc. We shifted to the idea that the treasure would actually be protected, a la a dragon hoard, and then added in a “story” where the creature now somehow had to be defeated before it nefarious plans came to fruition.

    Now it seems the majority of adventures are these type of “kill the BBEG and keep their treasure” constructs.

    It doesn’t actually develop characters if their “development” requires their single-minded focus on “the next job.”

    The approach works OK for the Adventure Path style of adventure, since the PCs basically level out of the possibility of being the protagonists in the next AP.

    But it’s a cliche and poor approach to a campaign, where you follow the PCs through many adventures over many years of their lives, with real motivations and goals, rather than the DM/author trying to force a “goal that the heroes can’t refuse.” People just don’t generally accept or take on “quests.”

    I find it a terribly cliche and a lazy approach to DMing. It’s largely a necessary evil to published adventures since you are writing for PCs in games across the world. But most DMs are writing adventures to publish.

    Instead of trying to mimic published adventures, start with the characters. Let the players develop their characters and a reason for them to be together with or without concern for the potential adventure that beckons. Let the adventure grow organically from their PCs goals and motivations.

    As the DM, focus on hooks of all types, political, monster, criminal, mysterious locations, historical, mythological, etc. If that leads to a villain, then go with it. But more often than not, there will be no villain. No quest. Just adventures.

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