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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

Narrative Questing (or Why are my 100 rabid badgers wearing waterproof tights?)

Posted by cmagoun Monday July 2 2007 at 1:48PM
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I had thought to title this post something clever like "100 Rabid Badgers", or for you CoH lovers, "Why Aren't My Tights Waterproof?"  and then after hooking you with my awesome title, I would start in on some even MORE clever spoof on your standard mmo questing text and then after that, I would start in on a really cool, innovative idea for spicing up mmo quests.


And then the caffeine wore off... and I realized that I had rewritten the clever bits 6 times and they still sounded decidedly UNclever.


In any case, we all know by now that questing is an integral part of most mmos. It gives players short/mid-term goals and provides level-up activities other than repetitive grinding. Personally, I enjoy questing and try to avoid games without a good questing mechanism.


The problem is that questing itself is often repetitive and grindy. You have variations on "Kill 100 Rabid Badgers", "Bring Useless Widget to Stationary and Lifeless NPC", "Kill an Inane Amount of Wildlife Creatures Until You Collect 10 Sinewy Tendons" and so on. This is better than grinding, but let's face it, it isn't that much better.


I have been thinking for some time now about how game designers might bring together static, scripted and random elements together to make crpg (and mmo) quests more story-like. Tell me what you think about this:


So, let's say we are talking to the quest-giving NPC and he asks us to travel into the woods, locate a goblin lair, kill the leader and retrieve his ring. I am pretty sure we all know how this type of quest works in most games. In the Narrative System, the code that creates this quest also breaks it up into a number of "decision points", each representing a possible complication, or twist in the standard formula.


So, when we accept the quest, the engine rolls a die to determine what happens to us while we are traveling to the lair (right now, I am assuming we are playing a game with a lot of instanced dungeons). Most likely, nothing interesting happens. However, some of the results might cause us difficulty on the way:

  1. The goblins know we are coming and set up a large number of nasty traps near the entrance to their lair. The engine spawns a set of trap panels that damage those who walk over them. Certain skills and powers will allow us to see and disarm the traps, or mitigate their effects. Worse still, the goblins inside the dungeon instance will be ready for us and have a greatly increased aggro radius.
  2. Another group wants the goblin's ring and has sent a group of thugs to get it. This group will come upon the players as they approach the entrance to the dungeon. This group could be random, or it could come from one of the player's "history lists" (we'll talk about that a bit later).
  3. The NPC was mistaken as to the whereabouts of the lair. The players will have to search for the lair, or use certain skills/powers (some type of tracking or divination) to find it.
  4. The goblins are not alerted to our presence, but are wary and have posted a watch. A large group of goblin spawns are outside the lair. If we can manage to get past them without being engaged (or without being engaged for a certain length of time), then we have entered the lair stealthily and get some kind of surprise bonus. If we are engaged, the goblins inside will be alerted and have an increased aggro radius.

Once we are inside, we clear our way to the leader. Again, the system rolls a die. Many of the results do nothing to the leader encounter, but some results change it:

  1. The leader is protected by a powerful ogre minion in addition to his normal guard.
  2. The leader's ring makes him immune to certain type of attacks/powers. His immunities would be based on powers the group member have. Once they enter combat, the players would have to quickly assess the situation (messages about his immunities would pop up) and change tactics to survive the encounter.
  3. Once combat is engaged, the leader begs the players for his life (ending the combat and making the goblin host temporarily immune) because:
    1. He wants to offer the players double what they are being paid by the quest NPC to let him live. Players would get bonus cash and experience, but suffer faction changes with the NPCs in question. Of course, they can choose to complete their original contract, in which case the battle starts again.
    2. He no longer has the ring. He can tell the players where to find it if they spare him. The ring has been taken by another NPC group (chosen out of someone's "history") and players will have to get to another instanced dungeon and take out this second group to obtain their prize.
  4. The dungeon is pretty quiet as we motor through, but as we enter the final room, there is a huge battle between the goblins and another NPC faction. Players have to navigate through the mess, fighting continuously (though the enemies would likely be weakened from their ongoing battle), to get to the leader and slay him.

Once we return to the quest NPC, he could give us the reward and send us on our way, or give us another follow-up quest based on the complications of the first quest. So, if an NPC group stole the ring, the players could be sent to exact retribution for the quest NPC. If the goblin leader was protected by an ogre, the group could be sent to hire ogre mercenaries for the quest NPC... and so on.


As for the mysterious "History Lists" mentioned above, I think it would be a neat idea to keep tabs on the various NPCs and factions the players come across on their travels. When it comes time to choose a random enemy for an ambush, this list is consulted. So, when the player takes a quest against the Dark Brotherhood, the game will make it likely that the Brotherhood will show up to harass the player in future quests and events.


The goal is to break up the monotony of repeated questing by throwing these twists in and making each quest more like a mini-story. Instead of "go, kill, rinse, repeat", you get more of "We traveled to the goblin lair, only to find the Dark Brotherhood had gotten there before us. We followed the sounds of battle to the Goblin Chief's lair, only to find a massive battle raging..."


In any case, I have to get back to work. Leave a comment and tell me what you think... thanks.

melektaus writes:

Problem is, the players will probably abandon and re-take the quest until the easiest probable scenario turns up instead of trying to experience the scenario that has been randomed to them. And if this is not possible in the game mechanics theyll flock the forums talking about how unfair it is that one group just went and took the ring in 10 mins while they had to fight for hours and demand revamping the quest and equalize all possible outcomes. By now the designers would go crazy...

Tue Jul 03 2007 3:10AM Report
Livaet writes:

You've made a good stab at one of the standing, tough to solve problems with MMOs. From the designer's perspective, the game mechanics really throw good quest design for a loop. Multiplayer worlds have a real dilemma in implementing customised scenarios like these.

For instance, what happens when your rogue is heading toward that [instanced] lair and another player /group makes it outside first or already happens to be in the vicinity? From your first list, #2, for the sake of discussion we'll say that another group arrives to the lair before you and kills the group of NPC thugs. Now you don't have to - woot! - so next time, being the sneaky rogue you are, just get close enough to spawn the group, then wait for someone else to happen along and kill them.  Baboom -  non-instanced quest mechanics depend to a large extent on other players.

Instancing is already used (to different degrees, from lightly to heavily) in many MMOs just to get around this problem of someone else "stealing/ruining" a quest and/or players exploiting the system.

I like the "History List" idea and I've seen some attempts in coming MMOs. As a player, I would love to see customised player (story) lines, particularly because I'm neither a die-hard RPGer nor a tireless grinder, but a true gamer girl none the less.

Thanks for a well thought-through, innovative list .

Tue Jul 03 2007 4:09AM Report
sfranklin17 writes:

I agree with melektaus, a random system like this would just make players complain about how "unfair" the system is. Now, if players could somehow control the options, and the subsequent rewards, that's a different story. CoH has something like this in their reputation system - a hero playing on Heroic level has easier missions, but they're worth smaller XP; a hero playing on Relentless level has tougher missions, but worth more XP.

What I'd like to see is this sort of simple difficulty-level system expanded, similar to what cmagoun suggests. When I'm on the easy setting, the goblin is always in the spot the NPC suggests, he never has extra guards, etc. When I'm on a harder setting, he'll have one or more "extra" abilities/guards/etc., he may be in a different locations, and so on.

And by the way, games that use instances typically tie the instance to a player. So in response to Liveat's comment, the designers can pretty easily prevent "stealing" another player's instance. That's assuming they want to prevent it, of course. Games like WoW that use instances only for large dungeons would have to rethink how the normal quests work, while games like CoH that use instances for almost everything already have it in place.

Tue Jul 03 2007 8:36AM Report
cmagoun writes:

First thing, thanks for posting your comments. I enjoy discussions like this.

melektaus: This is a very good point. MMO players suffer from a bit of cognitive dissonance here. On one hand, lots of players would agree that the simple "FedEx" quests currently seen in most games are pretty boring and they long for something better. On the other hand, if that something better includes more work for them, then they complain.

What if the quest rewards increased with each complication? Each of the random options I listed would come with additional rewards. These could be from drops or mini-rewards that come after each complication is tackled, or the original quest NPC could give the increased reward at the end for "a job well done."

Livaet: I see your point, but I don't necessarily see the example you posted as a big problem. A little "spill-over" of the customized quest into the non-instanced world is OK in my mind. If group 1 is willing to spawn an ambush and then allow group 2 to come and kill it, so be it. They have taken on a decreased risk, but paid in time waiting for someone to happen upon "their" mobs.

Also, harkening back to melektaus' concern, if each complication was to be rewarded, it is possible that this spawn's leader had a decent chance to drop a nice item. If players knew that this chance existed, it would give them some incentive to battle their own custom spawns.

Still, your point is valid as there are many games where instances are used only sparingly. That would make a lot of my ideas difficult to implement. I will think about a similar system in a non-instanced game.

sfranklin17: I think tying complications to a difficulty slider is a good idea. Even just a checkbox "Complicate Quests" might work for those who don't want the added hassle. Still, much like CoH, if the rewards are good enough, I think most will want to try a more difficult quest.

Thanks again everyone...

Tue Jul 03 2007 9:00AM Report
neschria writes:

First, the beginning of your entry made me LOL. You and FatGamer are my favorite MMORPG.COM bloggers. Anyway, you've got some interesting ideas there.

I had been thinking that it might be interesting to have a game where tasks were generated to meet the needs for resources of your town or faction-- so if you gather 12 radishes, that's 12 more points of seige defense for your town, for instance. It would mean more of the same, annoying, menial tasks, but they would (hopefully) feel like you were participating in whatever faction you'd chosen, even if you aren't out there fighting when the siege starts. Changing the reward structure could make the whole task feel a lot less pointless.

I think that it might be interesting to see a game where epic quests can be given to many people but only finished by one (or by one group or guild). Many people can look for the Holy Grail, but only one person, or one group of companions, can actually find it. Having a large number of quests pre-written/scripted that require figuring things out (from real clues, not obtuse riddles) that can only be done once would be really labor intensive, and that's probably an idea only suited for a smaller community game that places high value on RP. Add some random possible encounters along the way, and you have something unpredictable and spoiler-proof. In theory, anyway.

Wed Jul 04 2007 12:05PM Report
Livaet writes:

Nice, this turned into a good discussion.

I like the difficulty setting that sfranklin proposes, and it works nicely in CoH - the difficulty level is set for the one with the mission. They incorporate subbosses at relentless for instance, and it can certainly be 'surprise surprise'. Plus I can do the same instance at different levels by joining different groups with the same mission.

What I would like to see more of though is not knowing what type of mission it will be before you walk in the door - that is, a few more 'protect' or 'rescue' missions and not just annihilate. I think it's possible to vary bosses, subbosses, even the baddies, but it would be interesting to not always be able to predict how the mission/quest will go down.

My point with instancing is that a lot of games have already tried to different degrees to incorporate cmagoun's ideas - CoH/CoV, DDO, Guild Wars are three. At least instancing allows them to make a stab at giving us better quest content that isn't repetitive.  I personally think DDO went a little overboard but Guild Wars does it nicely.  In general I think personalised content requires personalised areas, even if as cmagoun points out some overflow into the central areas doesn't hurt anything.

I would love by the way for quests to be solvable in different ways, providing different rewards based on how 'well' or 'sneakily' they were completed. Say rescuing the dame without killing her guards gives a better reward than wiping them all out. It would also be nice if the player's storyline helped dictate the type of solution that was appropriate and gave a foundation for future quest-types. If I'm an imperial soldier stationed at the castle and my job is to work my way up in the ranks to infiltrate the King's guard, probably massive extermination sessions a'la 'Leon (The Professional in the US)' isn't very appropriate, while sneaking in the back way would probably work better.

I really think you're onto something here.


Thu Jul 05 2007 5:37AM Report
cmagoun writes:

nes: Thanks for the kind comments. I think your point is valid; part of the problem with questing is the fact that there are very few long-term, large-scale goals to work towards and thus, questing just becomes a slightly different form of grinding.

Think of writs in EQ2. These are simply kill X quests, but when you are part of a guild, the guild gains status when you complete them. This simple addition makes the quest grind a little less tedious. I hate kill X quests, but would happily perform writs because they benefitted the long-term goals of my guild. More importantly, guild groups would form to mass-grind writs and the guild leaders would often have contests pertaining to completing writs. All of these side-effects of attaching additional meaning to quest completion build community and make the repetitive seem more meaningful.

An illusion perhaps, but a powerful one. See my previous article on the Campaign System for more ideas along these lines.

I also like your idea of epic-scale quests that can only be solved by a single individual or guild. Mind you, I can't imagine that this would fly in the modern, theme-park style MMOs, but that just shows how lame our favorite games have become :)

Livaet: I have to be careful promoting instancing, since I think a lot of games are overly instanced. GW and DDO turned me off because they are too instanced. At least in my mind, heavy instancing erodes the community. Teaming becomes less about friends and more about "one-quest stands". Still, to provide a more personalized experience, instances are currently all we have right now.

As for your idea about quests being solved in different ways, it is a very good thought. The question being, how would you implement it. I have a couple of thoughts, though I have to admit, I am not sure how good they are. I will attempt a post or two in a couple of days.

Thanks again for the discussion

Thu Jul 05 2007 9:37AM Report
sfranklin17 writes:

I 100% support  what Livaet said about having alternative methods for mission/quest completion. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be very prevalent in the gaming worlds today. There are very few opportunities to do things in any way other than the most obvious. I'm sure there's good reason for this - the designers need to have some control over what we do and how we do it - but it's certainly an area for improvement.

I'm reminded of an example of this in City of Villains. There's a mission that requires you to take down two bosses, one Hero and one Archvillain. Clearly the intent was for the player to defeat both, in order, but it turned out that if you were careful, you could get them to attack one another. It was fairly tough to pull off, and you got less XP out of it in the end - but it was a nice alternative to the standard beatdown tactics. That loophole was closed pretty quickly by the developers, and it disappointed me, since it was one of the few times I've seen a real example of how different tactics could be used to complete mission goals.

Fri Jul 06 2007 4:22PM Report
Bopper writes:

You touched on some good points here. However I can imagine that implementing things like this would take a lot of development time and in the end the developers have a limited amount of resources they can commit to a game and a priority list of what they need done, so I can understand why there are so many "cookie-cutter" quests.

Now that I defended the developers somewhat, I do agree with you though :D I really liked the randomly generated missions in CoH and the fact that you could set the difficulty. It would be nice to see a mix of randomly generated quests/missions relating to instances along with more traditional quests.

The way in which they are presented could be changed, though. For example the way in which the level 1-20 gameplay experience was presented in Age of Conan, especially relating to the questing portion, was pretty great. This, however, takes a lot of development time, as you could see as soon as you left the "single-playe" portion of the game the quests went back to being the standard kind.

I would like to see quests that are longer and incorporate more of the lore and storyline of the game. Quests that make the player feel more involved. One good example of this are the Book quests in Lotro, which I personally enjoyed very much. Another similar example are the destiny quests in Age of Conan. Warhammer Online will also have similar long-term quests that look interesting.

I would also like to see more quests designed towards instances that can be completed in different difficulty levels, a one man version, a two/three man and a full group version, each with increasing difficulty level and rewards. This way you can basically re-use the same quest saving on development time and resources while still providing an incentive to do the same quest again but with more people.

Having quests that involve player choices is also a bit of a holy grail but also a little hard to pull off from a developer point of view. They had this in Tabula Rasa but it was more of a gimmick that just required you to click dialog choice a instead of b and resulted ina different reward and some different dialog as far as I know.

All in all I would like to see a little more instanced quests aimed at smaller groups, more "epic" quests that involved the player more over a period of time and maybe required the involvement of a guild (AQ40 scepter questline in WoW as an example), quests that require player choice and can be completed in different ways, as well as some "random" missions a la CoH to fill in the gaps.

I have seen some fun and inventive quests in WoW (the bombing runs, mini-games, group storyline quests) as well as in AoC and would like to see more of these in the future. Oh and more EQ2 collection quests, I loved those :D

Sat Aug 09 2008 8:43AM Report
cmagoun writes:

Bopper, I do realize that many of these ideas would be high on the development difficulty scale, though certainly less so than creating real emergent content. The actual narrative branching would be easy. The hard part would be 1. Creating the system to generate content on the fly (say if you needed to spawn a village being attacked, or a goblin camp) based on the quest branches and 2. dealing with the design consequences of such a system as in, how do you reconcile these quest branches with the generally static world of an MMO? But instancing is another discussion :)

Thanks for the comments... keep posting.

Mon Aug 11 2008 9:50AM Report
HumbleHobo writes: A static world demands that the content never change. Instancing is simply the only way to make dynamic content in a static world. That said, if you want dynamic content, you must have a dynamic world, and a content generator up to the task. No instnacing nessecary, and the world CHANGES for everyone. Development would be agonizing. Balance would be near impossible, but the mechanic would be superior to any MMO we've seen before. It all begins with a persistent, but NOT a permanent world. Thu Aug 14 2008 8:53PM Report
cmagoun writes:

Instancing is one answer of course... and I would be very happy if I saw some of this dynamic content in my CoX missions. The holy grail is the dynamic open world content like Hobo mentioned above.

I'm not sure we'll see this anytime in the foreseeable future because of the various coding and design issues that would appear... It is simply too much of a risk with very little potential payoff for most companies. More likely a few of the more established development houses will evolve some dynamic features into otherwise standard designs (take the idea of a "nemesis" in the upcoming CO, or some of the missions that are supposedly in Warhammer... I hope).

Thanks for the comments.

Mon Aug 18 2008 12:14PM Report writes:
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