Aids In Running Quests


In an effort to make running quests as easy as possible, here is a basic quest format, plus a few minor variations, plus some links to further aid in designing quests quickly. The goal of this page is to help potential runners of quests to throw together quests quickly and easily, with as little strain as possible.

Dungeon Master Links

Links to a variety of sites to provide tools and inspirations for those wishing to run quests. These are just tossed out in no particular order - feel free to add your own to the bottom of the list.

The NPC Wiki Sorted by CR.
Dingle's NPC Generator
Birched's NPC Generator
The Creature Catalog - Using the links near the top, you can access updated versions of many monsters from previous editions.
RPTools - Many potentially useful programs are found here.
Shattered Fractine - A Spelljammer resource, has lots of potentially useful monsters.
Spelljammer 3rd Edition - Another Spelljammer resource with more monsters.
FLGS's NPC Compendium.
D20 NPC Wiki
Finished Maps
DM's Familiar - An interesting and useful program, if you want to pay for it. Handy demo version also available.
Instant Dungeon Generator
Monster Advancer - A site for generating and then modifying monsters and NPCs.
One Sentence NPC Generator
Classic 'Behind The Screen'

Elements of a Quest

A quest will have the following basic elements to it:

Setting: Where the quest will take place. This can be literally anywhere on or attached to the world of Therafim. Naturally, this is a lot of space to deal with, so it is usually easier to just think of a general setting that you like, and then look for where that setting might play out on the world map.
Plot Hook: Why is the party where they are? How did they get there? Do they have a specific mission or are things less structured? Are they in this place willingly or unwillingly?
NPCs: Friendly or not, who might the party encounter in this area? Will these encounters guide the party, or are they just there for roleplaying opportunities?
Challenges: What encounters are in the area? What traps or natural perils might the party encounter?
The Wrapup: What determines when the quest is over? How will the party return to their normal lives? What additional roleplaying opportunties might your quest bring to them now that it has ended?

Additional Storytelling Ideas

These are some advanced elements of storytelling and plot designing that bear some thought. They are not essential to running quests, but they can add additional interest. Many of these are derived from Werewolf: Storyteller's Guide and the Exalted core book, both put out by White Wolf Games. Bear in mind, of course, that quests do not necessarily have to be so complicated as the rules below would have one believe. Running simple quests is perfectly acceptable, and often quite fun.

Never Forget!
Here are some things that no decent DM should ever, ever, ever forget.

  • The game is for fun! If you or your players are not enjoying what is going on, then something is seriously wrong. Either things need to change, and fast, or else people need to go somewhere else.
  • The players and their characters are at the center of the story. Yes, this is very egotistical, and it is a tremendous temptation to try and humble the players by deliberately setting them up for something. Resist the temptation, however. They are supposed to feel good about themselves, to feel powerful and important and useful and needed. That is why being a DM is such a vital role in the lives of so many people: you give them a chance to experience vicarious sensations that we all need, to some degree, just like we need food and drink and air and sleep and love. But see the next two rules.
  • Do not overshadow the player characters. Yes, you have cool NPCs. Yes, you have a cool story. But if you are focusing so much on the NPCs or the story of your quest that the PCs are being neglected, or getting lost, or losing interest, then you are not doing your job as a DM right.
  • Challenge the players. Part of the fun of games is the challenge factor. There is something uniquely satisfying about facing a balanced challenge, and then overcoming it. But at the same time, there can be a sensation of great frustration that comes if a challenge is too great, or too confusing, or too based upon sheer luck. Even if that challenge is overcome, this frustration can continue, and spoil the fun for everyone.
  • Surprise the players. Though most challenges should be fair and balanced and normal, it is fine to sometimes shake things up a little, just to ensure the players do not get complacent. This can often be done simply by sending old challenges at the characters with new appearances, or in new surroundings. Keep the players guessing, and they will always want more.
  • Consequences. Yes, what the characters do will have consequences. That is only fair and right, and it forces players and characters to develop, which can be a very good thing. But at the same time, part of roleplaying is living out fantasy, and this often includes a lack of consequences. Consider the balance of these two elements as you run quests and roleplay, as it will vary by person.
  • Keep your cool. Don't get upset or too excited. A poker face can be your best defense as a DM, and can seriously mess with your players, as they have trouble figuring out what you're thinking, and what might be thrown at them next. Besides this, it also helps players to keep cool. Some light humor can also help to keep tensions down, and friendly banter is often needed, especially if players start to get a little too deep into the fantasy, and need to pull back a little, or else are about to start a conflict with each other.
  • Listen. This is the last rule, and perhaps the most important. It helps to just listen to what your players want, what they need, and then to adjust your gaming style accordingly, while adding your own unique twist to things. The skill of active listening is a vital one, not just for running quests, but for all social interaction. This shows players that you care about them, and helps to ensure that they will keep coming back.

To run any sort of quest or story effectively, organization is key. Thus, right from the start, you are going to need to remember this critical point: you need goals! What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want the characters to go through? What do you want the players to experience? Know these things before you begin, and you will have a clear objective in mind as you develop everything else. Many of the things here work for writing stories as well as running quests.

  • The Outline: It is usually a good idea to write up a very basic sketch of what will happen in a story. Know from the start what the beginning will be, and what the ending will be. In the case of quests and storylines, of course, it is a good idea to have two or three possible endings, just in case. Jot down some ideas for encounters, and why the party might meet them. Perhaps find some links to images of scenes that the party might see. Once you have a general idea of what you are doing, then you can start adding flesh
  • Introduction and Conclusion: These are two sides of the same coin. In order to begin well, you must know what the endings may be, so designing these two together is a good idea. Write down a few tentative quest titles, what you expect the characters to accomplish if they succeed, and what might occur if they fail (if they don't die, that is, which is also a perfectly normal conclusion).
  • Climax: The party is going to meet something exciting somewhere in the quest. This is often called the "boss monster," from computer games, if it is an encounter. However, it can just as easily be a hazard, natural or artificial, perhaps a major point of exposition, or entering an interesting locale after many trials. Whatever the climax might be, it is a good idea to know what needs to happen for the party to have succeeded on their quest, so that they can move to the conclusion, be it good or ill.
  • Body: This is all the stuff in between Introduction, Climax, and Conclusion. Most of the body of a quest remains undefined, and is made up as things go along. It is a good idea, however, to have a few plot hooks thrown into this zone of the quest, to ensure that the party is guided (not railroaded, when possible) towards the climax and conclusion.
  • Flexibility and Fun: Sometimes the desires of the DM and the desires of the players simply do not mesh quite right. So be willing to change your plans if that seems to work better. The point of playing is to have fun, after all, and so that should be your primary goal, both for you and for your players.
  • The End?: Yes, sometimes it is all right just to end. As you might have noticed, sequels are usually (though admittedly not always) of lesser quality than the original, whether in books or movies. At a certain point, while it is fun to run additional quests in a certain theme, or a series of interconnected quests, it is vital that one always remember that, as much as people might love a story, all good things must come to an end. That way, we can better savor them.

The Cycle of the Sorcerer
These are five stages many characters (not just mages) must pass through in order to achieve their ultimate potential. The stages can take a wide variety of forms, not all of them positive in nature. Thus, agents of evil also go through similar awakenings to paladins bowing before the gods.

  • Dawn (Humility): The apprentice discovers that life is not as it seemed, and is forced to face personal weakness. Through experiences or education, the apprentice learns that there is more that needs to be learned, and power that must be gained.
  • Zenith (The Mentor): Brought into a teachable state, the apprentice seeks out or is found by a master. This master gives the apprentice a chance to learn and develop, and shows the apprentice the best path to enlightenment.
  • Twilight (In the Wilderness): The apprentice sets out to gain experience, and to put into practice what was taught by the master. In this process of gaining experience, the apprentice will experiment, test the rules, and discover what works and what does not through practical means.
  • Night (Meeting Darkest Fear): Leaving the safety of the master's care also means that, eventually, the apprentice will be exposed to the very thing that the apprentice most fears, or some other terror, great weakness, or character flaw.
  • Eclipse (Life-Altering Choice): Confronted with this challenge, the apprentice must then make a choice of how to deal with the darkest fear. The choice that the apprentice makes will reveal the apprentice's true character at this stage. Once this is revealed to the apprentice, the apprentice can then choose to learn from the experience, and return to the Dawn of humility and teachability, or else enter a static state, unable to progress until humility comes, either by choice or compulsion.

Three Degrees of Horror
So you want to scare your party, huh? There are, of course, many different ways to do such a thing, most of which depend on the presentation of something that might otherwise be a fairly normal situation, at least for adventurers. So, how do you evoke a good scare in the party? Here are some degrees of horror, so that you can make your choices. Generally, it is a good idea to decide before you start what effect you would like to create, so that you can focus upon it; there is little worse than having an effect fall flat. But should things not go quite as planned, it is a good idea to have a backup to ratchet down to a lower level of horror, or perhaps ratchet up, depending on circumstances.

  • Splatter: The most primal and visceral of the three levels of horror, and also the easiest to evoke. Splatter requires almost no artistry save for an attention to detail (hence its frequent use in so-called horror features). The point of splatter is to face characters with a wrench to their gut, a moment when they can honestly say "That's gross!" and turn away in disgust, if only for a moment…or perhaps be too captivated by the gore to turn their heads. Ultraviolence and good descriptions are key to making splatter be a part of things, and, in small doses, it comprises a regular part of most adventuring. Eventually, through consistency throughout a quest, this will eventually begin tinging things in red for the players, which can create a sense that is at once horrific and also potentially liberating, as they work to stop the source of the carnage, or become a part of it.
  • Horror: That feeling that comes from a near-miss in traffic, from the drop of a roller coaster, or in the panicked flight from a machete-wielding psychopath are the essence of horror. Being faced with the sudden realization that their characters can die is almost always a shock to players, as real as the shocks that come from similar reminders of mortality in life. It is normal to suppress such thoughts, and so, when the illusion of invincibility is stripped away once more, it grates at our nerves, gets our blood pumping, and starts the adrenaline flowing for fight or flight. Once players start to really get into the roles of their characters, after being given opportunities for roleplaying and interaction with other characters, it is that much easier to drop the floor out from under the players with some horrific shock. In that moment, players forget the difference between them and their characters, and the threat to life feels, for just an instant, very real. This gives all the excitement of a horror movie or a roller coaster, and is not too difficult, depending on the imagination and expressiveness of the players involved. One nice thing about horror: it catches like yawning. So if one player is really feeling it, and expresses as much, it is very likely that other players will start to feel it as well in a chain reaction of horrific sensation.
  • Terror: Of the three layers of horror, terror is the most psychological, and hence the most deep-reaching and long-lasting. William Faulkner's classic short story A Rose for Emily is an excellent example of terror, a story where the full weight of the conclusion's consequences takes a while to hit, and when they do, it lingers in the heart and soul for a very long time thereafter. Perhaps the best way to induce horror is to abide by the old saw that "less is better." The imaginations of people are able to fill in far more ghastly details and awful conclusions than any storyteller ever could. In fact, the process of weaving very good terror is like making love, with lingering, soul-scarring terror as the climax for the very best terror. There must be a careful buildup - foreplay - the setting of the scene and its various elements, and a placement of characters with sufficient detail for the players to know what is going on, and who is doing what. Then, once all the elements are properly in place, it is simply a matter of riding the players, hard, until they realize that there is no escape except right through the middle, and they are forced to plunge into the very depths of their own souls' madness. At least for a little while. As always, moderation is key, or else terror soon turns into silliness, and so the best terror artists know to pull out just in time so that the audience - the players - are forced to fill in the awful, awful gaps themselves.

Mythic Elements

Here are some common mythic themes from real-world storytelling that can be put to good use in developing quests or thinking up quest ideas.

If you want to add some deeper, significant meaning to your stories and quests, you are going to have to master the art of metaphor. Think of overarching themes, of common elements and recurring events, and then look for their underlying meaning, at the most basic, primal level of human thought. The most basic symbolism to Dungeons & Dragons, for example, would be the elements of the title: dungeons and dragons. Entering a dungeon is more than just stepping into a subterranean world. It can also be an entrance into the unconscious of the characters, a trip on the border between magic and reality where all the rules are broken, a return to the womb that can open up dimensions of creative possibility, and more. Dragons are creatures of overwhelming power, steeped in a host of traditions, both good and bad. They are representations of our fears, our desires, and our sense of wonder. Whenever possible, try to have at least a general idea of the metaphors at play in your games, to better make active use of them in making a simple quest into something that can touch something within your players.

Sites of Interest

Other metaphors of note:

  • The Hero's Journey: This is a story of personal transformation, and, in the process of transforming personally, the hero also transforms the world. Changing from childhood to adulthood is typical of the Hero's Journey, or innocence to maturity.
  • The Trickster: Opposing heroes are antiheroes, who often take the form of tricksters. Tricksters get ahead by mocking authority and breaking all the rules, exposing the hypocrisy and lies by which the strong dominate the weak, and turning social orders on their head in the process. Most of the time, tricksters also aid those that they disturb, and the upsetting of set patterns can be a way by which others find enlightenment.
  • Life, Death, and Rebirth: This is the concept of stasis and change in mythic form, and often finds its representation in myths about the changing of seasons. Fertility goddesses with their sacrificial consorts or children who are killed and then reborn are an archetype of this sort of story. Doomed heroes fighting and perhaps dying for a cause greater than themselves is typical of this sort of quest.
  • Cleansing Fire: Going further than the disruption of tricksters, this is the need, sometimes, for violence to cleanse the detritus of past ages. Birth, Life, and Death are all parts of the natural order, and sometimes the heroes must act as agents of cleansing fire, cutting down old, dead, evil things to clear the way for other things to take their place, be they good or evil.

Elements of Mythic Quests
As is common with all stories, there are stages of progression that can be easily identified. Quests also have these stages, as outlined above in basic form. Presented here are the more metaphorical versions of the stages of a story or quest, so that a DM can consider them in more symbolic detail.

  • Call to Adventure: What gets the attention of the characters? Why are they involved in the quest? Since adventure is a very unusual sort of activity, there generally need to be some significant reasons for this break in the normal routine, or else PCs would ignore that crazy old man in the corner and never leave the inn.
  • The Twilight World: This is the transition point between two worlds, the Point of No Return. On the one hand is the familiar world with all its daily routines. On the other is the world of adventure. This membrane between the two worlds, once breached, cannot be passed again until the quest has reached its completion. It is a good idea to drive home the otherness of the world of adventure, and the power of the decision to take the step beyond the Twilight World.
  • Guardian of Twilight: But that first step isn't as easy as one might think. There is almost always some sort of a guardian that stands as a first challenge to those who want to pass from Twilight into the realm of adventure. This is where the heroes prove themselves, or are driven back into normality if they are found wanting. This guardian might be an actual creature, or it might be some other sort of challenge. How the heroes get past the guardian is not really important, so long as they manage to get past. The Guardian of Twilight is at once a test of initial worthiness, and also a chance for heroes to demonstrate to others and to themselves what they can do.
  • The Testing: Throughout the course of an adventure, from start to finish, the heroes will be faced with challenges on all sides, and from all directions. These challenges are intended to prove the worth of the heroes beyond their first trial passing the Guardian of Twilight. Additionally, they also tend to focus on the weaknesses of heroes, either to exploit these weaknesses, to purge them from the heroes, or to turn the heroes to the side of the antagonists, should they prove too similar to those of the ones that they oppose. In order to achieve the best possible ending, heroes must overcome these trials, and to do that, they must conquer their weaknesses to the degree that they are tested, at least for the duration of the quest.
  • Phoenix from the Flames: Plunging into the realm of adventure, the heroes will be changed. They will face terrors and overcome obstacles, and in the process, they will also reap great rewards. In this process, they will lose their old selves, and be remade into something new and better suited for their new environment. In gaming, this means experience and treasure, besides the roleplaying opportunities that such adventures bring, as the players explore the depths of their characters' psyches and grow to understand their roles better.
  • The Return: After the adventure is complete, there must be a return home. This can be an adventure in itself, especially considering the locales in which quests may take place. Often this part of the story is skimmed over, however, which is perfectly acceptable, since by this point, the emotions and energy levels of all persons involved are likely almost drained. It is possible and often very satisfying to spring a final Guardian of Twilight on the heroes at this point, provided that the one running the quest has enough energy for it, and the players are game and not in a hurry to do other things. Depending on the quest, however, the Return can be the primary focus of the adventure, where escaping a situation takes more effort than getting into it in the first place.
  • Reintegration: Passing through the Twilight World once more, the heroes find it is easier to go back than it is to leave, as there is seldom a final Guardian of Twilight - though sometimes there is! (See The Return.) Adventures only achieve real importance if they are important to others, and so, as the heroes return to the world they left behind, it is important that they have a chance to roleplay out the importance of what was done, and share the story with others. The events of an adventure must be tied to the lives of others in some fashion (usually through roleplaying), or else they are meaningless. Note, it is very important that there be a return to the way things were, a return to normalcy, at the end of a story, if there is to be any sense of comfort and completion. If these things are not desired, then they can be discarded as needed, but it is not generally recommended.