Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted veer from the main adventure to explore side quests in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Side quests in 5E D&D emerged as a discussion topic a while back during the old Saturday live chat and following newsletter. (If you’re interested in either of those, they found a home together on the website here.) When I look back at that now it becomes clear to me my approach to games changed considerably, as a player and Game Master. Side quests in tabletop roleplaying games present as good an opportunity as any to revisit some ideas. At one time RPG side quests formed the bulk of a campaign but if I’m honest now these adventures without direct bearing on the primary goal feel like distractions. Have I turned the corner from exalting side quests to avoiding them? Let’s get into it and find out.
Side quests are a risky proposition for RPGs
For as long as I’ve played and enjoyed RPGs the idea of a long running, deep and immersive campaign represented the pinnacle of gaming goals. Starting with fledgling adventurers, exploring the wider world and eventually other planes, dimensions and planets in pursuit of an epic objective was the best and ultimate way to play an RPG.
But you know what? I’ve practically never completed a campaign, either as a player or GM. Groups fizzle, GMs experience burn out or new games begin and the old ones get forgotten. These circumstances say more about me than the actual games of course though nevertheless this is my experience. Perhaps side quests are the culprit or at least a significant factor.
A recent post here on the site examined the balance between verisimilitude in an RPG against the fact they’re still games. If you’re interested reading more about it check out the post here. As this relates to RPG side quests specifically, I’m beginning to wonder if my enthusiasm and encouragement for them could stand to be toned down a bit. I’m giving myself permission to sometimes let players know the game I prepared doesn’t include the direction they wish to go.
Whenever I am the GM for a game I strive to make player agency a priority. My role as GM is to help the players tell the story of their characters and I want them to really get a sense their character lives and exists in our shared imaginary world. Everything that happens during a game session contributes to the emerging narrative, and character motivated side quests indicate players take ownership of how stories develop.
Taking a campaign in new directions inspired by side quests with no direct bearing on the main story certainly very often produces fun and interesting results. It also puts unexpected pressure on a GM. It does for me anyway, and I suspect no small number of readers here too. I recently started running a 5E D&D campaign and during our session zero players indicated they were interested in giants. Great! I’d just read The Secret History of Giants and got a ton of ideas from it to incorporate into the campaign.
Our campaign began and the party encountered an adventure hook related to giants right from the start. They promptly ignored the plight of folks arriving in their town after escaping a hill giant who attacked their village. The party became more interested in meeting NPCs, starting a cookie baking challenge and learning about a reclusive wizard in town. All of these activities lead to side quests, which lead to lots of GM improvisation and then a campaign fizzle when players lost the threads of the quests they themselves pursued. After the last of a string of side quests they’d undertaken, the players wondered aloud why they undertook them and expressed confusion over the details as well as great mistrust for the impromptu quest giver providing the adventures.
These experiences, along with dedicating effort into expanding my RPG habits beyond 5E D&D, changed my approach to gaming entirely. Maybe sometime the old pie in the sky desire for a long term campaign will resurface but for the present I’m more interested in running — and playing — much shorter and more practical games. If I play Tales from the Loop I set out to play one of the mysteries included in the rule book, not all four interconnected mysteries. When I ran Ghosts of Saltmarsh I expected to get through Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and maybe Danger at Dunwater (spoiler: never even started the second adventure). Once I get my copy of Vaesen I’ll be happy to play The Song of the Falling Star but I have no illusions of experiencing all four mysteries included with the game. Even when I play 5E D&D I do not expect a campaign to continue past the first session. It’s just the way RPGs go for me these days.
All of these examples are meant to illustrate the risk side quests represent in RPGs. We live in a time of unprecedented abundance of games and gamers contributing to healthy growth and development of the hobby we all love, and frankly there’s not enough time in my life to enjoy even a fraction of what’s out there. Since foregoing pipe dreams of experiencing long, robust campaigns the pendulum for me swung the other way and now I approach RPGs in small, manageable chunks one session at a time.
Even with this new perspective I cannot help but encourage players to pursue side quests (maybe not as often but I still wholeheartedly advocate player agency). It’s just that now I limit my view of a campaign to maybe one more session after the current one. The holy city of Elturel probably won’t get saved, adventurers likely will never leave Barovia or defeat Strahd, the Lost Mine of Phandelver never gets found and the Dragon of Icespire Peak can go on living it up on said peak. Characters in these campaigns accomplish goals, gain levels and earn treasure but their payoffs come more in the form of personal victories or group objectives and not Big Important Campaign Quests.
Of course there are countless gamers and RPG groups playing and completely long campaigns like any of the published ones I mentioned or their own homebrew material, side quests included. My perspective on the matter again is more informed by me and people I game with than the games themselves but if any of these anecdotes apply to you I hope this is helpful reading.
RPG side quests can absolutely contribute to amazing games and stories. All of the examples I shared were great group experiences, but for a while these scenarios were really frustrating for me. When I played Waterdeep: Dragon Heist I loved my character and the campaign, which we took in unusual directions like you do. But for all the fun we had the group never got past chapter 3 of the adventure. After playing about ten sessions (2-3 hours each) our characters developed distinct personalities, goals, motivations and relationships…but we never did the thing! If I’m honest I recall most of the players forgot what the actual campaign goals were completely.
So this is where I’ll leave you to consider side quests in your RPG experiences. Do they add new dimensions to your campaigns or derail them beyond recognition? Can they do both, or do your campaigns fizzle out before the GM and players can refocus themselves? What’s the sweet spot for side quests? I’m still trying to figure this out. In the meantime I’m going to continue playing 5E D&D and trying other games in smaller chunks. Maybe someday I’ll get to run or be part of a long term RPG campaign and in the meantime I’ll consider every session a one shot. These games might consist entirely of character side quests or (my preference) taking the adventure hooks given by the GM and finding a way to incorporate character development within that context. How about you?