Whether you want to or not, at some point in your DnD campaign you are going to send your party out on a fetch quest. These are mired in tropes and bad MMORPG stereotypes, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Most of the things your players do are fetch quests dressed up as something else. Today we’re going to look at how to design a fetch quest that doesn’t suck.
What is a Fetch Quest?
All fetch quests follow the same formula: go to the source of something, obtain it, bring it back to the quest giver. You see these used in video games a lot, especially MMOs, where you’re tasked with collecting 100 or so items and bringing them back for a reward. These can be on a sliding scale of fun to an extremely grind. Now that we know what a fetch quest is, let’s look at the difference between a good and bad one.
What Makes a Bad Fetch Quest?
Obviously the goal is to make a good fetch quest and not a bad one. In this particular case, we can learn a lot about how to design these adventures by listing what you should avoid. A bad fetch quest has the following traits:
- Repetitive – No one likes doing things over and over with no variation
- Menial – Heroes shouldn’t be doing regular people chores
- Unrewarding – The payoff needs to be worth the effort
- Random – Time spent waiting for a rare drop feels wasted
It seems obvious that you shouldn’t do these things, but it’s easy to fall into these design habits. A terrible quest might have your heroes sheering 100 sheep, looking for a rare and random type of wool that will help them make a bigger backpack. Not only does that not sound heroic, there’s no reason a farmer shouldn’t be doing that and selling your heroes the upgrade. Don’t do this to your players.
What Makes a Good Fetch Quest?
If you want to make a good fetch quest, you need to avoid the traits of a bad fetch quest. This means that a good fetch quest will have these traits instead:
- Varied – The quest will change or evolve with each step
- Skilled – The quest will be difficult and require heroic help
- Rewarding – Completing the quest is worth it and/or progresses the story line
- Deliberate – The players will know what they are attempting to do and have a clear, non-random path forward
These guidelines work especially well when put together to form your quest. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up with a great fetch quest, following these principles will help in the creation of richer side quests.
How to Make Fetch Quests Better
We’ve looked at the good and the bad, but we haven’t talked about construction. If you really want your fetch quest to shine, you need to build one that’s compelling, challenging, and balanced. A great fetch quest is one that makes a story worth telling. Let’s break down the parts of the quest and talk about how to improve each.
Parts of a Fetch Quest
The following parts will be in each fetch quest:
- The Request – Where the quest begins
- The Item – What are your players fetching
- The Journey – Where do they need to go
- Obtaining the Item – What challenges necessitate a hero’s help
- The Return – Traveling back
- The Reward – The point of the whole thing in the first place
Designing the Request
A fetch quest follows a lot of the same rules that normal session design would except that it has a more set game play loop. You can use the fact that the fetch quest is so straightforward as a way to set up your adventure’s main hook. When introducing the request, your players can get a lot of information up front from the quest giver. This will allow them to plan ahead. Your quest giver could be anyone, but they should have adequate information for the players to get started. A good request is specific about the item, the journey, how to obtain it, and what they can expect as a reward.
When writing the request, you’ll be planning the plot and story of this session all up front. Since so much information goes into it, you need to know the whole story once it’s given and be able to answer a few basic questions:
- Why should your players care?
- Why can’t the person making the request go do it?
- What exactly are they looking for?
- Where is it located?
The questions will act as an outline for the quest and your players will likely ask some variation of all of these. If you’re making your fetch quest story relevant rather than a one shot, you can use the quest as a means to move your team towards their ultimate goal. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Someone in your party died. To resurrect them, the temple cleric needs a specific ingredient for a spell. This item is found in a dragon’s cave high in the mountains.
- The Big Bad is invulnerable to normal weapons, but a blacksmith can forge a special blade that will hurt them. The materials required to do so must be mined from a meteor guarded by strange metallic creatures.
- The players need to cross a cursed river, but the ferryman won’t take them across unless they return his stolen idol. He tells them he cannot leave his cursed boat, but tells the group where the thieving creature can be found.
Each of these examples establish why the group cares, why heroes are needed, what they are getting, and where to find it. Despite their lack of detail, these examples highlight the main points in the guidelines. The whole quest is laid out right away and your players get to decide then and there if they’re going to do it.
Designing the Item
What your players are going after deserves a careful creation process. If your players are going to spend a lot of time looking for something, it needs to be clear what it is and why it’s valuable. Don’t just send them out to find any ol’ Macguffin. In our earlier examples, we have players seeking ingredients, materials, and a trinket. When we describe these objects, there needs to be something important about them or your players may not get very immersed. In the case of ingredients, you should describe why something is rare and valuable. If it’s a plant, describe how it grows and why it’s hard to cultivate. Give it a full description and make sure your players will know it when they see it ( you describe it to them again later when they discover it). While you could have the players go look for any old thing, the point of a fetch quest is the specificity. If the items are common, then the quest makes no sense.
Getting to the item in question is the main part of your adventure, but not the penultimate point. You can make the journey as long or as short as you like, but the length and difficulty of the journey should be roughly proportional to the reward at the end. A small fetch quest might fit into a one shot and have modest rewards, but a larger fetch quest might span multiple sessions and reward the players with plot critical items for the story. Regardless of which direct you take things that balance should be maintained.
A typical fetch quest journey is comprised of three pieces: travel, encounters, and searching. The travel section overlaps with your encounters in many cases where player will fight monsters or deal with difficulties along the way. The DMG does a good job talking about traveling and navigation starting on page 106. As for encounters, these don’t need to be quest relevant. While traveling players may run into all sorts of trouble and your fetch quest can be a good backdrop of getting to know the dangers of an area.
Searching, the last part of the journey is when the players are trying to find the item they’re questing for. This might entail getting to a specific location or even sifting through other things, but it should not be discounted. Your players should be given the chance to Find what they are a looking for, rather than just walk up and have it sitting there. The search makes their efforts seem more actionable and can be a rewarding experience for your players when they draw close to the end. Imagine having your players sift through a dragons hoard for a single cursed coin, finding that will take skill and planning and the reward will feel worth it!
Obtaining the Item
How your players obtain the item is part of the fetch quest. This could be through combat, following careful instructions, or solving a puzzle. The worst type of fetch quest is one where the item is just handed to them after a long, treacherous journey. If you really want your players to feel that quest it worth it, there needs to be some challenge to obtaining the item once they find it. Depending on how you want to set up your quest, this is also the part where you can add a lot of tension by putting a condition for failure. If your players need to gather a rare flower that’s guarded by fire breathing monsters, there’s a chance it could get destroyed. This might create some disgruntled adventurers, but it would tell a good story. If you design things thoughtfully, your players will see a chance for failure, and work hard to rise to that challenge. Success feels better when the possibility for failure seems present.
The return trip is completely optional. Backtracking is not for everybody and that’s understandable. If you decide to design a return trip that is not a montage, you should try to add a few interesting features. One of the best ways to build interest when backtracking is to change up the familiar with new challenges. Maybe the item your bringing back attracts monsters. Perhaps the path back was made more treacherous by a storm. These little changes can help make the trip back a new part of the quest rather than a recounting of the same spots your party has already been.
The reward concludes the quest. This is the last opportunity to engage with this story. Sometimes you’ll want to add more details or reveal certain narratives at the end, but make sure they are relevant. Your reward will need to have been something that was worth the danger of the quest. If it’s just a pile of gold, no one will really care. But if the reasoning for the quest was sound, the reward will be relevant to both your players and the story and make the whole trip seem worthwhile. Even information or narrative can be rewarding in their own right. Also, remember that no matter how funny it may be, never make the make the reward “the friends you found along the way” or anything like that. Your players will kill you.
Subverting the Fetch Quest
Sometimes you want to make your quest more interesting by adding a twist at the end. The item your players bring back might lead to them being double-crossed. The quest giver might be long gone when they get back, having stolen something from the group. You could even subvert the quest before the end by having the main quest object already taken by someone else. This is great if done for narrative reasons, as it opens new plot lines and creates good tension. But if you don’t plan to follow it up or make it important, your players will feel cheated and could be quite upset.
Fetch quests don’t have to be terrible. With a little work, you can polish up a simple story into a compelling narrative that hooks into your campaign and drives things forward. If you’re looking for an idea for your next session, give a fetch quest a try. We can all fight to turn the bad stereotypes of fetch quest around! Happy DMing.