Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Epic Quest

The center point of fantasy literature has always focused on a quest. The quest archetype is very, very old and it tends to follow a structure similar to opera. First there is the declaration, followed by the journey with a distinct curve of tone, meaning that it begins on a high tone, moves lower and the peaks at the end. Finally the quest ends with the completion of the original declaration. This archetype is an easy one to follow for larp but there are, as always, pitfalls and recommendations that can be made. Here are a few that I thought of, then we can talk about what you guys think in the comments.

First and most importantly, the epic quest should be targeted. It is almost impossible to have a truly epic quest that is one size fits all. Target a group, target a race, target an individual. Pick something or someone and gear the quest towards them. This is important for several reasons for starters we do not all play the same game. Some players want their epic in the form of roleplay and description, some want it in the form of fights a good epic quest will contain both of those elements but the weighting will be different for different types of players. Targeting the plot also insures that the maximum number of people can be entertained by the modules designed for the quest, when you target a group, you know roughly how many people will be on each module allowing you to allocate NPC resources appropriately.

The second thing that I would like to point out is the concept of tone curve. If a series of modules is just several grinders linked together with a common enemy, it will fail to achieve its maximum player impact. The first module in a quest should be a victory, not just any victory but a decisive victory. This will set the tone on a high note and cement the interest of the players. Depending upon the number of modules the curve downwards can occur over one or several modules bottoming out on one specific one where something major happens. My thoughts have shifted recently one the bottoming out of the tone curve. I used to think that this module should be a defeat, but that seems to lack impact, my current feeling is that it is best to kill a permanent NPC or to have a major roleplay event go very badly. The reason that these things have more impact is very simple, defeat in larp is more frustrating than sad, roleplay or the loss of a contact that has developed over time can be sad. After the bottoming out of the tone curve the ascent back to the climax begins ending in the climax itself which is the completion of the declaration. The reasoning for this is a matter of perspective, it is far easier to see a bright light in the dark, the difference between the high and the low tones will make the quests emotional impact much higher.

The third point that I would like to make is one that I struggle with but it is important and I am working on it. The quest should have a permanent impact on the game world. The enemy that was defeated should never return, the castle that was torn down should not be rebuilt and the army that was scattered should never reform. Players gauge the success of an event by what things they accomplished, it is frustrating to players to have something that they viewed as an accomplishment turned into a new problem. Big bad guys can last for several seasons but the modules for their defeat should be predetermined and once they are defeated, they should be gone.

So those are my thoughts, what do you guys think?


  1. Mark Henry ~MariusJuly 7, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    Sounds on the money.

    The only thing that I have to add is near the climax barely winning or losing makes it all the more epic, either way.

  2. 1. Plots don't have to be targeted.

    I actually prefer quests that aren't targeted. Epic quests should not be set in stone and might be modified to fit the people that end up getting it, but targeting can lead to favoritism, especially if it's a quest that's going to take up a lot of time.

    Great example of an un-targeted, no specific quest: Lord of the Rings

    2. Tone Curve

    I'm going to have to disagree with most of what you said, other than the fact that bad things are important for good story-telling.

    If you want to put a loss in a plotline, at least give the players a choice. You can save X and let the bad guy get away with Y, or you can stop Y at the cost of X. A loss is a loss, and while the loss of a contact might be sad for a stick jock, losses of those contacts (with no hope of saving) for a roleplaying oriented player is just as frustrating, if not more frustrating than a defeat in a module. Losing a fight is a death. Losing a contact could mean losing a years worth of work attaining that contact.

    You can also make the bad thing happen to the setting rather than the players. Negative impacts that don't actually target players. A king dies. An allied faction becomes an enemy. Trade ends with one group. Hitting one person's contact makes the epic quest especially touching for them, but may mean nothing to others.

    Finally, you can make the loss a sacrifice. If a person makes the decision to give up something important to them, they'll have a great story to tell, others will see it, and people will be changed. If you take something away from them where they had no chance of saving it, they'll just feel like a pawn and might have OOG resentment for not having control over their surroundings.

    3. Impact

    While removing enemies is an extremely important part of impact, it's just not enough. Impact means that the setting is forever changed. The plot line of "Bad Guy shows up, bad guy gets killed" is not an impact. Return to the status quo is not impact. Changing the balance of power or cratering a town/country without ever looking back is impact.

  3. What do you disagree with about the concept of tone curve? That is a pretty standard thing in the archetype. Always darkest before the dawn and all that.

  4. I disagreed with your concept of what are acceptable failure modes.

  5. I intended the "major roleplay event" to incorporate all setting changes. Killing a permanent NPC is just one way to do that. I understand that can be frustrating the goal is to make it poignant and most importantly there should always be a chance of success. I did not intend that the failure be completely unavoidable, that should never happen in a game.

  6. Great post...

    I like the term "tone curve"... You're correct in that a plotline consisting of a series of victories is less engaging (emotionally, dramatically) than a story fraught with peril. The key is that this is interactive theater - if the outcomes are fixed, it's only interactive on the surface, the story is actually frozen.

    Those feelings of despair don't have to originate from failure though... When Luke's friends were captured in Cloud City, it wasn't his fault in the slightest. But it still gave him the motivation and sense of urgency he needed to take his Jedi training into his own hands and confront Vader.

  7. That is an excellent point Dan. Tone curve was from a fantasy literature course I took in college so I cannot take credit for it.

  8. As a point about targeting, it can get really frustrating when the people you target don't show up. As all plot people learn, you've got to make your main things flexible and be able to hook to multiple people in case that happens. People get burned out, out of money, or busy irl through no fault of the plot people, and it's good to be prepared for that. Also, agree on the favortism - be careful who you target. Personal plot is a great way to give players you like a little more attention while not taking time away from the "main" plot or town plot. Main plot that involves one PC usually tends to result in resentment, unless it's worked in with some subtlety (a fae plot shouldn't only allow the fae chosen guy to do things, though he can be a main contact and have important plot points). I don't go to a game to watch someone else get all the cool rp and plot moments and go on mods they tell me to because it's important to them, I come to have some of those myself. We all pay to play, so even if it makes total sense for the fae champion to be the epic hero, plot can't do it exactly like in the books, they've got to spread the love around or risk other people getting disgruntled. Every player wants to be cool in their own way, so every player wants to have a moment of being a hero :) And by "hero" I don't necessarily mean slaying the dragon, it could also be finding an epic spell, negotiating a tricky alliance, or sneaking into an enemy encampment. Different types of players want different types of moments, so it's good to work those in too.

  9. re: Targeting- Storytime!

    Once upon a time, there was a game where certain players were known for being "superstars"-- the coolest fighters, most dramatic roleplayers, and the most fun to run stuff for. And so the staff members wrote plotlines in which those superstars were the heroes, and the superstar players had fun, though they sometimes felt forced to take the leading role. The other 80% of the players felt overshadowed and grumpy.

    Until one day, some of the players from that game decided to make a game of their own. This game would be different-- there would be no targeted plot, only IG reactions to IG actions. Challenges would be 100% objective, and the most skilled, pro-active, and clever players would rise to the top, earning their leadership roles through their actions. The staff held themselves to the strictest standards of fairness and objectivity.

    But lo, the same thing happened, and the other 80% still felt overshadowed and cheated! Though the staff had made every effort to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety, still the cries of "unfair!" and "favoritism!" rang out. It seemed that oligarchy by merit didn't look much different from oligarchy by appointment, and the person on the losing end never trusted the judge.

    Anyway, my point is that targeting can be a means to spread the love around. Bad targeting forces or prohibits involvement, but good targeting offers chances, opportunities or motivations for multiple players to get invested in a story, and creates chances for each of them to step up when it is appropriate. Sure, you never want to have your entire plotline reliant on the presence of one PC or her/his actions, but targeting doesn't necessarily mean that.

    And Bill, LoTR was totally hooked by Frodo's character history (inheriting artifact from NPC family member). He didn't have to take the actions that he did, but he was targeted with the opportunity for involvement, as was his hobbit team, by proxy. But like all good targeting, that still left plenty of room for other people to do epic things.

  10. Maybe he was targeted, but it was nepotism. He only got the quest because he and his dad were friends with Gandalf.

    Gandalf was, of course, a confederate NPC with a yes I can card.