Side quests are so profoundly common in Dungeons and Dragons that they have a way of almost becoming the whole game. Side quests are any quest that deviates from the main plot of the campaign. Some are small fetch quests, others are giant, multi-part stories all their own.
When you’re a DM, side quests will often end up taking up nearly as much of your planning time as the main story itself. A side quest offers you and your players a chance to take a break, try stuff out, and recharge a bit before dropping back into serious plots. In this article we’ll explore what side quests are, how to use them, and how to create some with a bit more depth.
Anatomy of a DnD Side Quest
Side quests are simply any session that is optional to the players. In DnD side quests make up a great deal of player chosen paths as opposed to the semi-railroaded main plot. While they can easily be large, overarching stories themselves, side quests often share a few main traits.
Typical Side Quests:
- Are short, typically 1 session missions
- Are completely optional
- Do not affect the main story line
- Are not high risk/lethal
- Provide players long term benefits (XP, Gold, Items)
Even with these prototypical features for a side quest, you can see there’s still only a loose framework in place, just like making a regular story driven quest. The only major difference is its scope and involvement in the overarching story. With this in mind, remember that these are simply ways to think about sections of your game and this level of naming and categorizing quests only serves to help you think about how to use them in your campaign.
Types of Side Quests
There are only so many types of quests. Our definitions are based loosely around established terminology borrowed from the gaming industry as a whole, but they work for this just the same.
The seven basic types of quests are:
- Fetch Quests – The players must obtain some sort of item, material, or individual.
- Kill Quests – The players must go kill something.
- Escort Quests – The players take an NPC somewhere while keeping them safe.
- Delivery Quests – The players deliver a non-NPC object somewhere safe.
- Push The Button Quests – The players go do something like activate a magical stone, or complete a ritual.
- Mystery Quests – The players solve a problem through communication and gathering clues.
- Lore Quests – Some part of the story or world is explained through a journey or series of events.
These seven quests are not unique to side quests. They are the seven types of quests that exist in all Dungeons and Dragons. While there are other types of quests that occur, they are almost exclusively a hybrid of one of these seven.
Within these seven quests you can do almost anything. Once you are aware of the seven types of quests, it makes creating a quest so much simpler. Instead of scratching your head wondering what your players will do, roll a die, choose a quest type and apply it to their current surroundings. While the details of a side quest are a bit more complicated than that, knowing your basic quest types can frame out how to develop a side quest session for your players.
Why Have Side Quests?
Side quests are used for a few specific purposes in most DnD games. The most important thing that side quests do is provide the players with choice and some level autonomy. A good DM sets up a sandbox world for their players to play in, and this means having options for players. It could be a lost dungeon nearby, a gang of bandits blocking the road, or some missing livestock. All of these options give the players something to choose to do and make the world look much larger than it actually is.
In many cases side quests won’t actually get used due to their optional nature, and the players could simply miss or ignore them. However, when the players do take on side quests they also offer the players a chance to level up before going back the main story, give the DM time to prepare for main quest items, and further develop the world.
Games Without Side Quests
It is possible to run a game without side quests. These are typically games that are more dire and keep the players on a narrow track. While it would be possible for any game to be run this way, it’s worth noting that it’s more more difficult to do. A game without side quests is always on the main plot and can advance through story at an alarming rate.
Furthermore, the DM needs to be prepared for each session on the main plot and also needs to keep players within the bounds of the game. The difficulty is that players will tend to walk into side quests of their own making if you don’t provide hooks for them and this can leave you under prepared. Some good role playing and a bit of improv can handle this situation, but it can be challenging.
Creating Good Side Quests
Building a side quest is much like building any quest, plot, or campaign. The biggest difference in side quests are their scope. Typically a good side quest can be summed up in a sentence that encapsulates the core premise. There is no “real” definition here for how long a side quest is, but they are typically one to two session events.
When crafting a side quest, start by choosing a quest type or two and then assessing the area your players are in or will be in. If they’re in a town, side quests easily pop up with villagers that need help: fend of monsters, gather supplies, escort a caravan. All really basic stuff that makes classic and reliable missions for your players.
If your party is traveling, side quests are more environmental. A player comes down with an illness or they run into a mysterious creature.
Really the possibilities are endless. So what makes any of these good?
Good Side Quests Have Good NPCs and Settings
What makes for a good quest is the same as what makes for a good session in DnD. For side quests it is of particular importance that you spend more of your time on things like NPC interaction and location descriptions. NPCs will sell the quest, engage the players, and make the experience fit more nearly into a session. Your settings are what make the quest memorable and enjoyable.
A typical side quest is a lower threat level than your main story (because it’s disappointing dying while gathering flowers for a village versus fighting unspeakable evil). Because of this the encounters might be smaller and the real value comes in the set dressing, exploration, and conversational aspects of your side quest.
Bad Side Quests are Boring and Have No Reward
Players like to be rewarded for their effort. Side quests should be rewarding, but more than that they need to keep your players’ attention. A bad side quest is flat and straight to the point. If you have your players do something, give it some life. Don’t just throw some bandits at them, give the bandits a reason to be there. If you don’t add some dialog or interesting supporting elements to side quests they’ll end up feeling like manual labor.
Encounters for Side Quests
When planning encounters for a side quest you should keep them small. As a general rule of thumb you should take the challenge rating down a half step or two when putting them together. This will make them fit more neatly into the session and also allow you move the pacing forward more quickly.
Another thing worth doing is keeping the number of enemies smaller. Creature count is the number one time sink in encounters and if you expect your team to wrap things up in a single session you have to enable them to do so. If your side quest is going to be a longer one, it’s still worth trying to build up the role play elements of the quest rather than throwing everything into big grand encounters that would feel more in place in the main story arc.
Put Side Quests in Your Game
Let your players take in your world with a break from the main quest. Have them immerse themselves in everything your world has to offer with chances to explore and meet new NPCs.