Running the Sandbox: Finding the Quest

Intro

So here I am now writing the 3rd piece in what was supposed to be a one-off explanation of a useful game concept. I guess I have more to say about this than I originally thought.

Once again we must go back to the first piece in this series wherein I discuss the shift from ‘Reactive Questing’ toward ‘Proactive Questing’ within a sandbox campaign. In the piece I give an example of what this might look like, but I felt this critical transition could use some expanding upon.

Essentially, at this point in a campaign and from there onwards all quests will be ‘sought’ rather than ‘delivered’ (found ‘proactively’ rather than ‘reactively’). What does that seeking actually look like, though? That’s what I hope to elucidate in this piece.

Let us begin.

The Hook

In the first piece of this series I discuss the ‘Core Drives’ of characters in sandbox games and how they should have one or more that behoves them to go out into the world and actively seek something. This needs to be something like ‘I want to repair this magical heirloom sword my grandfather gave me’ or ‘I want to kill the man who murdered my parents’. It’s the wider ‘endgame’ motivation for that character’s arc.

This Core Drive is the fleshy fish mouth in which we will lay our hook. In a Dwarven settlement known for its fine smithing someone mentions a legendary swordsmith who recently left to travel east. The guy who wants to get his sword reforged hears that and goes ‘When we have the time, I should head east and see if I can find that swordsmith…’.

Now our hook is laid out, and during the shift from ‘Reactive’ to ‘Proactive’ this hook will have the chance to be followed up on.

But now the party needs to actually follow that hook. They need to pull on the thread and see where it goes.

They need to Find the Quest.

The Three Act Structure

I’m firmly of the belief that a good quest follows the traditional three-act structure. That’s something I’ll maybe expand upon in another piece, but for now there’s a particular part we need to focus on.

A Hook is an elevator pitch. Between the delivery of the Hook and the beginning of the Quest (and the start of Act 1) comes an extremely important section: The Prologue.

Finding the Quest is entirely prologue. It’s a bridge from whatever we were doing to whatever we’re about to do narratively speaking. If the last story arc was a heist and the next one is going to be a murder-mystery we need something that’s going to shift us naturally between those two things.

So while we’re travelling east to track down our swordsmith we’re slowly introducing the players to the cultures, peoples and environments they’ll be immersed within, and we also introduce them into what this arc will be from a thematic, narrative and structural standpoint. If it’s going to be a hack-and-slash ‘Do a bunch of fetch-quests for the swordsmith’ kind of deal then have the party facing trouble on the road from hostile wildlife, and have NPCs they meet mention the rare resources that can be found in the local area by those brave enough to face the environment. If the arc is going to be a ‘Missing person case’ thing (perhaps the swordsmith made enemies and is on the run) then the party should slowly be introduced to increasing complexity and uncertainty as they probe NPCs for information about the swordsmith.

So we’ve well-established now the idea of ‘Finding the Quest’ being about having hooks in place and creating ‘bridging pieces’ to get us from the Hook to the ‘Start of the Quest’. There’s a little bit more to this still though…

Finding The Unknown Quest

There’s another kind of Proactive quest that doesn’t necessarily hinge on character motivation. Sometimes the party is at a loose end as is just looking for something interesting to sink their teeth into.

This provides us a lot of freedom as DMs, because we can put just about any hook we want in front of the party, but in equal measure it poses a challenge because we have to present those hooks organically. If the party hears about a high-level treasure hoard guarded by an ancient dragon by overhearing some bumpkin peasants in a backwater town eventually they’re going to wonder why these simple folk who live in the ass-end of nowhere seem to know so much. If the players are going to hear about the dragon’s hoard they need to be at the university where a famed dragon scholar has a professorship. If they’re going to hear about an expedition to a mysterious set of recently-discovered islands they need to be at the port town the expedition is leaving from.

This is where I get my players to essentially meet me half way. I won’t just put the hooks in front of them, they have to seek them out. A lot of that is, essentially, travelling. It’s up to you how you want to do this. Maybe the whole party wanders together from town to town and you have them do little ‘Thing of the Week’ bit-quests each session in each place they end up while they also drum up rumours. Maybe you’ll have an interlude-like session where each character heads off somewhere to see if they can pick up on anything interesting before regrouping two in-game weeks later.

At any rate, if the aim here is to have players be proactive in their questing then we should actually have them being proactive. We shouldn’t always dangle the hooks in front of them wherever it is they are just because. We have an opportunity here to get our players even more invested and immersed in the world. We should take it. Essentially we’re ‘de-gamifying’ the questfinding process.

Those Other Two Pillars

Finding the Quest comes almost exclusively under the ‘Exploration’ and ‘Roleplay’ pillars of the game. It might not be exploration in the ‘make a survival check to avoid being lost’ kind of way, and so it may feel more abstract, but it is the part of the game that is more about moving through the world, going to new places, and getting involved in the more granular things about a location. The ‘conflict’ (if there is any) is purely narrative rather than expressed through combat mechanics.

But I daresay this does often leave us with a lack of opportunities to roll dice, and honestly rolling dice is generally pretty fun (or rather, interacting with mechanics to create meaningful outcomes is fun). We can’t do everything on the purely descriptive, narrative layer of the game. We need to have some gamified outcomes. Indeed, we need some actual gameplay.

So how do we roll dice when Finding the Quest?

Rumours, Journeys, Tasks

We can break the process of Finding the Quest into three broad categories of experiences. As the title might have suggested, these are ‘Rumours’, ‘Journeys’ and ‘Tasks’. Let’s break down what each is, what it does in terms of getting the party closer to having an ‘active quest’, and how it gives opportunities for actual gameplay.

Rumours

Rumours are pretty self-explanatory. If anything DMs often over-rely on rumours to lay out hooks or get the party on the path of a certain quest. The party will overhear some interesting nugget of information, have their curiosity piqued, and choose to follow up on it.

The following-up is where the gameplay happens. If the party is sat in a tavern and overhear that the peasants intend on revolting against the king and helping his brother get on the throne then the Bard might sidle over and go “Hey so I heard you’re plotting a revolution. What’s the deal with this king?”. We will have a roleplay segment where the party (or certain members of the party) will learn more and insert themselves into the unfolding narrative. There will be opportunities abound to have the party make checks (probably Charisma-based ones) to coax information out of these peasants and otherwise get them on-side and favourable to the party.

All pretty straightforward. We know what rumours are and how to use them.

Journeys

Journeys are the simple act of travelling from place to place. This will almost always have the effect of bringing us physically closer to wherever the quest is happening (possibly as a result of following-up on a rumour, as it happens).

Journeys are where we usually tend to skim over things with narrative sections and ‘travel montages’. We’re more than welcome to do this if we want, but we’re not getting the most out of our journeys if that’s what we do every time.

The way to introduce gameplay into a journey is, at its core, to introduce complications. Let’s say the party is travelling with a wagon train of merchants. A storm rolls in and a number of wagons get damaged. Now the party has to figure out how to help get the wagons repaired so they can continue. That may be something as simple as prompting the Artificer to make a check using their Smith’s Tools and determining how many days it will take to be on the move again based on the result. But there’s opportunity for more.

Remember when we discussed how ‘Finding the Quest’ is where we transition from one place and mode of gameplay to the next? Complications on journeys are great ways to make this transition occur. Instead of just making a check the party is prompted by the Wagonmaster to travel to a town about a day away and negotiate for some spare parts. Upon arriving the party finds they have to ingratiate themselves with odd customs, and since most people here speak Draconic the Dragonborn Barbarian is going to have to do most of the talking rather than the Bard. They have their (rocky) negotiations with the local merchants (or perhaps resort to stealing from them when negotiations break down) and return to the wagon train. Now when they arrive at their eventual destination they’ve already had a bit of a taste of what this arc will be like. The Barbarian is going to be the ‘Face’ (or someone else is going to have to learn Draconic), there are rigid customs the party will have to navigate, the whole approach to roleplay will be different. They’re ready now to start the ‘Political Intrigue’ quest that will take place here.

Or maybe the arc will be hack-n-slash, and the complication is that the road is rife with bandits and while the wagontrain is stuck in place for a few days being repaired the party is going to have to defend it by night from raiders and hostile wildlife. You get the picture.

Tasks

Tasks are the most clear category of ‘Quest-finding thing’ but are in another way the most complicated, because often they occur as a part of the other two categories. Indeed we can conceptualise the ‘Defend the wagontrain from bandits’ section of the Journey as a Task.

At their core, though, Tasks are ways to advance the party’s standing with critical NPCs before they can ‘Start’ the quest (or indeed sometimes before they can even fish for rumours).

Let’s give an example of what we mean. Maybe the quest will be ‘Overthrow the King’, the party caught the hook via a rumour, now to fully earn the trust of the peasantfolk they have to convene with the Thieves’ Guild, who in turn require that the party rob a noble’s manor as a ‘rite of passage’. Now we have a Task, and that task is ‘Burgle a house’. Gameplay ensues as the Bard distracts the guards, the Rogue sneaks in through the second-story window and the Wizard casts spells masking the criminal activity.

Or perhaps this is done in reverse. The party rolls into town and the barbarian, who is an up-and-coming bareknuckle boxer, heads straight to the local fighting ring. He wins a couple of flashy bouts (which is gameplay, probably in the form of short combats) and as a result ingratiates himself with the club’s members. He sits and drinks with them after the fight and they fill him in on all the town’s gossip. That’s how the party picks up the rumour about the peasant uprising.

A Fish In A Sea Of Hooks

So this brings us all the way now to what I think is the most important idea in all of this. We’ve broken down how to execute the transition from hook to quest, but with a sandbox we shouldn’t think in terms of single hooks and ensuing questlines. In reality the world should be alive with dozens of things the party can get involved in happening at any given time.

So I lay out tons of hooks. Because of the lead time from ‘Pick up Hook’ to ‘Start Quest’ we have enough time to flesh things out as we go. We don’t need to have fully worked-out quests for every single hook in our world, we can just have a hook and an idea for a cool quest or location. We drop the ‘newly discovered islands’ rumour somewhere, and if the party picks up that hook then during the voyage we work on exactly what it is the party will do at said islands. Maybe there’s a clan of Dragonborn there trying to awaken what they believe to be their slumbering ancestor, but is in reality an imprisoned Aboleth that will wreak havoc on the world. As DMs we now have a couple of weeks to create important NPCs and locations, set up the events taking place on the island, and get all that nitty-gritty stuff done and ready for the party to arrive.

Anyway, this is all to say that the world should be filled to the brim with hooks. Big hooks, small hooks, vague hooks, explicit hooks, all kinds of hooks. Hell sometimes the major reward for quests in my campaigns is a hook for another quest. I do this especially often with ‘Character Quests’. Maybe they find their long-lost father, but in so doing the question of why he left in the first place is raised and remains unanswered. That’ll be a hook for another quest down the line…

Conclusion

So that’s Finding the Quest. It’s one of those things that seems so implicit to many, but in formalising it we can first of all elevate those who are newer to running D&D and secondly find fresh inspiration ourselves in something we already felt so familiar with. I constantly go back to these tenets when I run my sandbox campaigns.

At this point I’ve chalked myself up to this being an intermittent ongoing series. I definitely have more to say on the topic. Watch this space.

And if you liked this piece then please consider Supporting me on Patreon! The support I get from there is becoming a big part of what allows me to keep dedicating so much time to this and keeps the content here free for everyone.

Thanks for reading!

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