Recently, I discovered that Neverwinter had been ported to the Playstation 4. You know, Neverwinter? The massively multiplayer online RPG set in Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition’s actually very cool Neverwinter setting. Basically, it was an MMORPG barely anybody played in an underappreciated setting everyone forgot about released just in time for the table-top rule system it was based on to die. So, yeah. Now is the time to port that sucker to other platforms.
To be fair, it had almost nothing to do with actual D&D 4E. And that’s something I will NEVER understand. Why is it whenever they try to come out with a D&D video game, they never think to do turn-based, Tactics style combat? You know, like from Final Fantasy Tactics or X-Com, two games everyone in the world f$&%ing LOVED!? DOESN’T TURN BASED, TACTICS-STYLE COMBAT JUST SEEM LIKE A PERFECT FIT FOR THE D&D GAME?! Figure out how to do that fast paced and online and you’re f$&%ing golden. Stop with this action MMO crap. Or worse, that godawful hybrid crap where you can MAKE IT turn based by slamming the pause button every nanosecond. Yes, Black Isle made good games, but that was bulls$&%. Of course, for all I know, Sword Coast Legends has turn-based tactical style combat. I wouldn’t know. I never played it. And based on the sales, neither has anyone else. Wark wark.
But I digress. The reason I bring it up is because of the NPCs. You know, all those people standing around with glowing exclamation points (or whatever) over their heads? You click on them, you get to read six paragraphs of expository text, and then they tell you to go to such and such a place and murder all the dudes or collect all the things there. There’s enough text in the goddamned quest-giver NPCs to write six f$%&ing novels. And yet – if you’re like me – you never read any of that s$&%, right? I mean, me, I start off trying to read it. “Lord Neverwinter had the crown safely hidden away in the vaults of the Nine. But Lord Nasher Alogondre opposes him and he wants the crown. Go to the Vaults of the Nine and protect the Crown of Neverwinter.” But eventually, all I see is “blah blah blah blah there’s the dungeon entrance, keep killing things until the quest says it’s over, bye.”
Now, there are many reasons why MMOs use this style of quest delivery, most of which have to do with the nature and limitations of the medium. But that doesn’t make it any less dull as s$&%. The thing is, some of the quests are actually pretty interesting. F$&%, World of Warcraft actually has some pretty deep story/quest lines that you’d never know about because, by the time you find them, you’ve stopped reading quest giver text.
And this is the whole point of today’s article. Because we’ve been talking about NPCs as components of adventure, right? And before that, we talked about how motivation is one of the three essential components of a good adventure. So, we’re going to explore two related types of NPCs: Quest Givers and Patrons.
Quest Givers and Patrons
I’ve been trying to break down NPCs into broad types based on their function in the game: including both mechanical and story function? Right? That’s how we got to the Tagalong. Well, now I’m adding two more closely related classifications: Quest Givers and Patrons. Both serve the same basic purpose in an adventure. They set the players and their characters on the adventure. Basically, if you think of every adventure like a dungeon (and you SHOULD), the Quest Giver and the Patron are the door to the dungeon. Or rather, they are the first ROOM in the dungeon. If you want to get really technical. And I ALWAYS do.
For now, I’m just going to use the name Quest Giver. We’ll come back to Patrons in a minute because Patrons are just Quest Givers Plus. I don’t feel like typing “Quest Givers and Patrons” over and over in the discussion of the basic nature of Quest Givers and Patrons. So, when you see Quest Givers, you should read “Quest Givers and Patrons,” okay?
Now, if you’ve played a lot of video games or run a lot of published modules, you could be forgiven for thinking the Quest Giver is of minor importance. Basically, the good ole QG is just a thing you click on for some brief exposition and then you get to play the real game. It’s just a human mask you put over a text crawl or some box text. But forgiveness isn’t in my vocabulary. Knock it the f$&% off. You know better than that. Cut it the f$&% out right f$&%ing now. Quest Givers aren’t just exposition vehicles.
First of all, we’ve already discussed the idea that an adventure consists of three basic components: motivation, resolution, and structure. Everything else is just a pile of scenes that get played out. Structure shows how the scenes fit together. Motivation provides a reason to play the adventure for both the players and their characters. And resolution provides closure, ending the story and setting the stage for the next story.
A Quest Giver touches not one, but TWO of those super important components. First, the Quest Giver essentially provides the motivation for the adventure. Second, the Quest Giver is part of a scene. And that scene is the place where the structure starts. The Quest Giver is both the reason for the adventure and the entry point into the adventure.
But an adventure doesn’t have to start with a Quest Giver NPC, right? An adventure can start lots of ways. The PCs can find an old treasure map, for example. That map provides a player motive (explore the wilderness, find cool stuff, and decipher an ancient map), a character motive (treasure), and an entry point (wherever the map starts). Or it can start with a scene like a noble getting assassinated on the street. That provides a player motive (holy s$&%, an assassination just went down right in front of you and now you get to chase down and kill that assassin and find out why that happened), a character motive (greater good, protect social order, earn a reward), and an entry point (dumba$&, the assassin is running away right f$&%ing now, go chase him or her or it).
Why don’t you start the assassination plot with a note? Why don’t you start the treasure hunt with a chase? It’s because HOW you start the adventure helps set the tone of the adventure. The assassination plot is going to be exciting. It’s going to be a race against time. Something urgent is going to go down. Another assassination. And important political vote. A rebellion or a civil war. The PCs have to hit the ground running because that’s what the adventure is going to be about. The treasure map is essentially an ancient puzzle, the first in a series of puzzles and obstacles, with a prize at the end. In essence, starting the adventure with the right scene helps drive home the player motivation. “This is going to be exciting and desperate and action packed” is a great promise to make to players who like that sort of urgent, desperate intrigue. “Think this through, you’ll need your brain to figure out this adventure and get the prize” is a great promise for players who like to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles.
Well, a Quest Giver is just another method for starting off an adventure. And it allows you to set a particular tone. It allows you to establish something about the game you’re about to run. And we know NPCs do one thing better than any other game element: they humanize the game, they bring it to life, they add dramatic weight to the game. In other words, NPCs add a human face to the game.
If your NPC Quest Giver is just a bunch of boxed text delivered through an NPC mouthpiece, you’re f$&%ing up. You’re ruining the first f$&%ing scene of the game. The one that is SUPPOSED to set the tone and provide the drive for the whole adventure. And that turns your adventure into one long string of disconnected scenes.
You know how people complain about how grindy MMOs are and how there’s no story to them? That’s because the important story, the context, the heart, the emotion, that’s all buried in text boxes. Strip that s$&% away and all you have is an endless string of “kill X number of creature Y and collect component Z.”
The Exemplary Quest Giver
So, how do you create a GOOD Quest Giver? Well, honestly, you already mostly know the answer to this question because you read my s$&% and pay attention. And if you don’t, that’s your own f$&%ing fault. So I don’t even have to explain, do I?
All right. Fine. I’ll spell it out. Because some of the fine details are where things get truly interesting.
Remember how I said “don’t run the game, run the NPCs?” And by that, I meant, figure out what the NPCs in the scene want and then take the role of the NPC in the scene and play it out? Well, that’s how you do a Quest Giver. Assuming you know the resolution or goal of the adventure, you need to figure out who in the world wants that goal accomplished. More important, you need to figure out why they want that goal accomplished. Farmers desperately want the orcs to stop raiding their farms. The king wants to secure a trade agreement with the insular elves. The merchant wants his stuff back that got stolen. The captain of the watch wants to find the mole that has been feeding the rebels information. The rebels want to capture the shipment of weapons headed for the garrison.
Whoever it is who wants the thing, that’s your Quest Giver.
Next, you need to figure out WHY they want the thing accomplished. The farmers will starve and die, along with the rest of the villagers, if the orcs aren’t stopped. The king is facing a threat of invasion and thinks the elves might make good allies and a trade agreement is a good start. And so on.
But sometimes, that presents other questions. Why doesn’t the king send a diplomat? Why the PCs? Maybe the PCs are great heroes? Maybe there are elf PCs he feels will grease the wheels? Maybe he doesn’t trust his court because he knows there’s a spy and if the spy is the diplomat, he’ll scuttle the deal? Maybe the merchant is asking help from the PCs because there’s an illegal thing hidden in his shipment of goods and he doesn’t want the king’s guards finding it. Maybe the rebels aren’t actually after the weapon shipment. Maybe that’s just a distraction for their real plan and the PCs are expendable.
And we’ll come back to this idea in a moment. Because this is how some of the best plot twists in your adventure can happen.
In short though, the first step to making a good Quest Giver is figuring out the person in the world who wants the thing, why they want the thing, and why the PCs are the people to do it. And then, instead of writing some boxed text wherein the king summons the PCs to his throne room and explains that he needs diplomatic envoys to visit the elves and secure a trade agreement and talking for ten minutes, instead of that crap, PLAY THE SCENE. BE THE KING. Because now you understand what the king wants and why it’s important. Now you – AS THE KING – can try to convince the PCs and the players to play the adventure.
And THAT makes the adventure more human. And it also makes the players feel like their choices and interactions with the world matter.
And THAT is why you use an NPC to start an adventure in the first place.
When Motives Align and When They Don’t
Now, a lot of times, the NPC won’t have a hard time convincing the PCs to do the thing. That’s because one of the basic assumptions of D&D is that the PCs will go on adventures that the GM designs or purchases. And as long as the adventure seems fun and it isn’t absolutely outrageous (“Master Paladin, our city has far too little food, so we need you to go on a murder spree and kill all of the orphans so we have more food for actual people”), the players will find a way to make their PCs go along with it. That generally happens because the NPC’s motives and the PCs motives are pretty close together.
And that makes sense. Once the PCs have enough of a reputation that people are willing to seek them out and ask for their help, the NPCs of the world pretty much know what the PCs are about. The King won’t ask the Paladin to help with a population reduction scheme any more than the rebels will ask a bunch of foreign mercenaries to do charity work.
That means the opening scene will play out pretty smoothly. And that’s fine. The GM plays the NPC, the players place the PCs, they have a quick conversation about what needs to be done and why, and the heroes go off on their adventure. Even if things go that way, it’s still a much better game than reading box text because it still draws the players into the world and introduces a human element into the game. That’s totally fine. And eighty percent of your adventures should start off that way. After all, the opening scene is still just one scene. All it does it set the stage for the adventure.
Sometimes, you might create an NPC whose motives are quite different from those of the PCs. The NPC might care about things the PCs don’t. Or the NPC might want things the PCs don’t want at all. And that is when Quest Givers get SUPER INTERESTING.
Now, I’m not talking about Traitors and Betrayers. That’s a whole different type of NPC. Ultimately, Quest Givers are there to start the adventure with a human face and set the heroes on their way. I just mean that sometimes, you have an NPC who says “this is what I want and this is why I want it” and the PCs might say “and why do WE care about that?” There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to purposely set that up. Some players get off on that crap.
In those cases, the opening scene with the Quest Giver plays out more like an encounter. Except, it’s a reverse encounter. You – the GM – and your NPC have a goal to accomplish and the players – and their PCs – objections are the obstacles you have to overcome. And the NPC – and by extension you – have to figure out how to overcome that. You might have to bribe the PCs with something they do want. You might have to convince them that what you want also helps them get what they want. You might have to resort to nefarious tactics like blackmail or deception. And that sets up some very interesting scenes later.
Once you’ve started an adventure on false pretenses, you’ve created another layer of possible resolution. The PCs might discover the ulterior or hidden motive. And then they might have to decide what to do about that. Or they might never realize something else was going on. And, in that case, it might have consequences later on. And if the players discover later than an NPC they did some work for hired them under false pretenses, that makes the world feel alive.
For example, imagine the merchant is a smuggler. Inside bags of grain, he’s smuggling components for illegal magic, like necromancy. His shipment gets waylaid by bandits. He asks the PCs to retrieve the shipment. He doesn’t want to involve the proper authorities lest his scheme be uncovered. And he figures that, if the PCs do discover the crime, he can buy them off. But he’s not going to tell them outright about the smuggling and instead he just hopes they won’t discover that some of the grain sacks actually contain earth from the grave of a king or are made of powdered human bone or whatever.
So, the PCs might take the job. And then, in the course of the adventure, they might discover that the grain isn’t grain at all. They might identify it. And, if so, they can decide what to do: confront the merchant, take a bribe for their silence, go to the authorities, destroy the shipment, whatever. But if they don’t identify it, the adventure is just nice and straightforward. They kill the bandits, return the “grain,” get paid and move on. But now you have this neat little world detail that works like an ace in the hole. Imagine what happens if, three adventures later, the PCs are breaking up a necromancy cult and they discover magical reagents contained in grain sacks marked with that merchant’s symbol. And suddenly those inconsistences make sense. They realize they were used and lied to. They wonder what might have happened if they’d opened the sacks. Either way, the game feels more complex, more interconnected, and more alive.
So, misaligned motived between Quest Givers and the PCs are very powerful. Because the NPC has to work to convince the PCs to take the job, it makes that opening scene deeper and more interesting. And it creates more possibilities for the resolution of the adventure. And it creates potential future complications and possibilities.
But don’t get too excited yet. Because we have to talk about trust issues. And we’ll come back to those. Don’t worry about it for now.
Winning Over the PCs
Once you decide that a Quest Giver has misaligned motives and you understand the QG’s motives and reasons and general plan, now you have a challenge on your hands. You have to play out the scene and actually convince the PCs to take on the adventure (or something close to it, like perhaps the PCs get so suspicious they decide to create their own adventure out of investigating the QQ – that happens). But to do that, you need to figure out a few more things. Specifically, you have to figure out what resources the Quest Giver has to convince the PCs and just what the quest is worth to the Quest Giver.
For example, the merchant above has money and he has stuff. He’s probably willing to pay the PCs a good amount of coin or he might offer equipment or discounts or contact with other merchants. He might even have access to illicit goods. These are all things he can use to bribe the PCs.
But bribes aren’t the only way to get the PCs to do things. Smart NPCs can appeal to emotions or ideals. “Sure, you don’t care about my grain, but the bandits are stealing from everyone and if you rout them, everyone wins and the king might reward you too.” “Please, I don’t care about the grain, but I was also supposed to receive medicinal herbs for a plague that has swept through the puppy orphanage! Think of the orphaned puppies!” Smart NPCs might have information about the PCs that the PCs don’t want getting out.
And, of course, NPCs can also lie. And the PCs might even try to catch them in lies. You might use Deception and Bluff mechanics or the players might just figure things out. “Wait, you’re willing to pay us 200 gold to recover sacks of grain that are worth 20 gold at most, what are you really up to?” And then you – as the NPC – have to figure out how the NPC responds.
Trust Issues and F$&%ed Up Adventures
Now, misaligned motives and the scenes they create can make for some very deep adventures. But, they should be pretty rare. You can’t start most of your adventures off that way. And there’s two reasons for that. First of all, you’ve introduced an element of uncertainty into the first scene of your adventure. And there’s a chance the PCs – and the players – might walk away from the adventure if they can’t be convinced. And not just because of lies and false pretenses. Imagine the group of lawful-good holy warriors asked to basically scout an old mine so a merchant can reopen it. The PCs feel their time is better served doing more good than just reopening a mine. And the NPC can’t convince them that the mine might have evil or monsters or ghosts and he can’t pay enough of a donation to their favorite charity to win them over. It DOES happen.
And when that happens, you have no adventure.
The other issue is trust. See, no matter how you slice it, you – the GM – are the brain behind all of the NPCs in the world. And the players know it. It’s part of the structure of the game. If too many NPCs are up to too many things and there are too many false pretenses and lies flying around in your game, the players will stop trusting the NPCs. All of the NPCs. Every last one. They become paranoid.
Now, sometimes that’s okay. That might be exactly what you are going for. I ran a game that was set in a city of greedy merchants and pirates and merchant princes. It was almost lawless and the law that did exist was corrupt. The PCs were basically mercenary explorers plundering the wilderness. In that setting, no one took anything at face value and the lack of trust became a feature. But most games can’t function that way.
So too many misaligned motives can damage your game. They are fun occasionally and add depth to the game once in a while, but they should be used sparingly.
What the Quest Giver Knows
So, you’ve figured out who wants the adventure done, why they want the adventure, and how they can convince the PCs to do the adventure. You’re ready to play that person as a living, breathing human being in the world of your game. But that’s only half the job of the Quest Giver. The other half is providing an entry point into the structure of the game. After all, the Quest Giver is just an element of the first scene of your game. Basically, the Quest Giver is a person who IS the first scene of the adventure. And that means the Quest Giver has to point the PCs to the first scenes in the game. In addition, the Quest Giver might be able to provide information and context for the adventure. Remember, the Quest Giver is still essentially just an element of exposition.
The Quest Giver should be able to point the PCs in one or more directions to start the adventure, depending on the structure of the adventure. The QG might provide directions to the door of the dungeon. Or the QG might provide three different leads the PCs might follow in their investigation. Basically, once you write the adventure, find the starting points of your structure and have the Quest Giver point to them. Simple, right?
By the same token, you can shove any background information that helps make sense of the adventure into the Quest Giver’s head and spew it out of the NPCs mouth during the scene. The King might explain why the relationship with the elves is so tense. The rebels will have a live of grievances against the government. The farmers might know a lot about the ferocious orcs who keep torching their fields.
The Quest Giver should volunteer any and all information that is vital to making the adventure happen. Don’t rely on the PCs – and the idiot players – to ask relevant questions to get them started. They will overlook important things and end up stuck. If there is something the PCs NEED to know (like where the door to the dungeon is) tell them outright. And if you plan to make finding that information a challenge, tell the PCs how to start the challenge (like how the dead hero explorer Parco Molo discovered the location of the ancient ruins and died with that secret and that his journal was buried with him in his tomb). Any other information that is merely context or background or just fun facts? That s$&% you can hold back until the players ask. That will reward them for interacting with little bonuses.
And that’s honestly it. That’s how you handle a Quest Giver. Figure out who they are, why they want the adventure done, how they will convince the PCs to do it, what resources they have to convince the PCs, what information they will volunteer, and what extra information they can give up. If you have all of that, you have the first scene of your game in a fun-to-interact-with, living, breathing representation of how alive and human and real your game world is.
All that remains is to discuss the Super Quest Givers that are Patrons.
Quest Givers Amped Up to Eleven
Most Quest Givers are bit players. If your D&D game was a TV show, they’d be the guest stars. They’d be the folks with (one episode) listed next to the character name on IMDB. But smart GMs are always looking for a way to bring back a guest star for another appearance. This week’s Quest Giver might be next week’s Informant, or last week’s Merchant. Recurring characters are a staple of drawing the players into the world and bringing it to life. It means the players get to know as a real place.
In essence, a Patron is simply a recurring Quest Giver. I hesitate to use the word Employer, though. Because there’s actually two different subtypes of Patron: Accidental Patrons and Employer Patrons. Most GMs don’t think of Accidental Patrons as Patrons at all. But I do. Because they have the same issues as Employer Patrons. And I’m way smarter than most GMs. So let’s get into it.
An Accidental Patron is a Quest Giver who keeps coming back to the PCs with more work. Basically, they are just a recurring Quest Giver. From a story standpoint, it makes sense that once the PCs do a good job for a Quest Giver, that NPC will come back to them with more work later. They can get stuff done. The PCs aren’t technically employees or servants or retainers of the Accidental Patron. They still do other work too. It’s just that this particular Quest Giver shows up every so often with another job.
Accidental Patrons have all of the benefits of a recurring NPC. The players get to know them and get tricked into thinking the world is a real thing with a life of its own. But they also streamline the Quest Giving scene. As the players get to know the Accidental Patron, the Accidental Patron doesn’t have to work as hard to sell the adventure. Through familiarity, it reaches the point where the GM can start the scene with “your old friend, Bob, shows up at your door” and then the players say “okay, Bob, what’s the job this time?” But, the nice thing is, that abbreviation doesn’t come at the cost of immersion and engagement like a quick two-sentence bit of boxed text does. Because that abbreviation comes from familiarity and immersion. It feels natural, an outgrowth of the relationship. It shows the level of comfort the players have achieved in the world.
A party can have lots of Accidental Patrons. I’ve run campaigns filled with Accidental Patrons. For one example, there was a city filled with guilds and organizations and the party would do different jobs for the different guilds on a regular basis. Over time, they tended to favor certain organizations over others and their representatives became a handful of Accidental Patrons that assigned about 90% of the adventures.
Now, Employer Patrons are a bit different because of how they happen and what they can do. But they aren’t different in terms of the issues you need to be aware of. An Employer Patron is a true employer. The PCs are generally assigned missions or adventures regularly by a specific NPC or group. The PCs might work for the King, for the Rebel Alliance, for a Mercenary Company, for an Adventuring Guild, or whatever. Now, someday, we will get around to talking about how organizations are like NPCs (and how they aren’t and how everyone f$&%s them up and how to do them well), but for right now we can read an organization as synonymous with an NPC considering the PCs usually get their jobs from a specific member of said organization who represents the organization.
An Employer Patron does everything that an Accidental Patron can do, except they also provide something else. They can provide structure and purpose to an entire campaign. In general, a campaign (or a portion of a campaign) that includes an Employer Patron becomes ABOUT that Patron. The Employer Patron becomes a defining feature for that part of the game. In fact, in most of the games I’ve run, the Employer Patron is part of the premise for the game and the players create their PCs knowing that the game will be about working for the Employer Patron. This is actually a great way to focus character generation for a campaign.
Patrons are immensely useful, however they occur. But there’s a couple of issues to keep in mind if you’re going to use a Patron of either kind. And that’s the topic we’ll end on.
Screen Time Equals Detail and Trust
As a general rule, the more time that any NPC spends in the game, the more the PCs will learn about them. And if there isn’t anything to learn, the NPC will feel bland and flat. The hopes and dreams and personality flaws of a merchant who sells the PCs a rope one time and never reappears in the game again? They don’t matter much. But the NPC who hangs out with the party for days? They are going to start to seem a little flat and bland and weird if all they have is a funny accent and a weird personality quirk. So, the general rule is “screen time equals details.”
Patrons, by their nature, keep reappearing in the story. And, as such, you need to have a good understanding of their personalities and goals and hopes and fears. They need to be well-developed, well-rounded characters. You have to know them inside and out. And portray them. And they have to have nuance. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about that up front. That is, you don’t have to fully detail EVERYTHING about a Patron from the get-go. Instead, you can add details over time. And nuances. And subtleties. And complexities. In that respect, it’s sort of like a player playing a PC. Over time, they learn more about the character and more details emerge. You just have to be careful to be mostly consistent.
The second issue is that the very nature of Patrons, ESPECIALLY Employer Patrons, makes it almost impossible to pull off misaligned motives. That is to say the PCs won’t continue to work for a Patron if their motives don’t line up. And, in a game centered around an Employer Patron, the PCs were probably created specifically to work with the Employer Patron. So it might not even be possible within the game.
That said, people’s motives change and grow over time. As more details get added to PCs and NPCs, it is possible for the PCs and their Accidental or Employer Patrons to start to diverge. This can actually create an interesting story arc and it can be used effectively if it’s done gradually and if it makes sense. The Patron shouldn’t just go bats$&% insane one day. The PCs might find themselves agreeing less and less with the Patron until they become uncomfortable and the Patron may have to work harder and harder to convince the PCs to keep working for them. In a game with Accidental Patrons, the result is usually just the PCs shifting to new Accidental Patrons or maybe growing beyond having Patrons at all. But in a game with an Employer Patron, gradual misalignment of motives can completely change the story. Which is awesome.
That said, the one thing that you want to be really careful of is trust issues. If the party discovers their Employer Patron has been evil and was using them all along, yeah, that makes for a shocking dramatic reveal, but it also creates INSTANT paranoia in the players. They are unlikely to ever trust an NPC again after such an outright betrayal. There’s a difference between Patrons and PCs drifting apart due to evolving views and an evolving story and discovering you’ve been working under false pretenses for years. However, if the game involves several Accidental Patrons, one of them can turn out to be a traitor or betrayer without breaking the game. Usually. It depends on the players.
The point is, though, that Patrons spend a lot of time on screen. And that means they need to become detailed, developed, and nuanced over time and that also means they are going to build up a lot of trust. And if that trust is ever broken, the players’ spirits are probably going to break with it. Proceed with caution.