Getting Sidetracked IS the Quest – GM Tips

18 October 2022
Staying on side (quests), written by Richard Jansen-Parkes

Spare a thought, if you would, for the humble side quest.

Once upon a time, these casual little adventures, plucked from notice boards and the mouths of friendly barkeeps, were the lifeblood of a typical RPG campaign. They were a quick source of XP and gold that didn’t take much effort to prepare or run - the tabletop gaming equivalent of a quick sandwich to get you through the working day.

As our campaigns start to tend towards the cinematic and dramatic, however, it becomes harder and harder to find room to slot them into our games. While videogames may be happy to ignore the weirdness inherent in the Epic Heroes of Destiny leaving the world on the brink of the apocalypse while they grind up the best gear, we tend to expect a little more rationality to our tabletop campaigns.

As such, it just doesn’t feel right to send the party off on a griffon-hunting quest while the paladin’s father is being tortured by demons, no matter how shiny the loot might be. Similarly, we can’t reasonably expect our eccentric librarians and jaded mystics to let the encroaching tentacles of Cthulhu slide for a couple of weeks while they sort out a minor cult or two.

This is, honestly, a shame.


The Best of Quests

Side quests might not be the most important part of a campaign, but they still bring a whole pile of benefits to a game.

If nothing else, a solid side quest can earn its keep by giving the main drama room to breathe. No story can survive with its foot jammed hard on the accelerator at all times, and a quick jaunt into the wilderness to rescue someone’s missing dog or pick some herbs can add a little texture to proceedings.

Sure, it’s possible to achieve some of the same effects with downtime, but a sidequest can offer the same benefits (relaxation, room for characters to speak when things aren’t on fire) while still letting the players roll dice and show off combat skills.

Beyond this, a good sidequest can also work wonders when it comes to fleshing out the world. If you have a really cool idea for an underground warren filled with mole-folk, but the main plotline never really touches it, you can just throw the macguffin of the moment down there! Instantly, the players have a reason to explore and interact with all the great stuff you dreamed up.

These little adventures and mysteries can also shine a light on the ordinary people of your world – the ones who don’t have enough clout to deal with mighty heroes and brave starfighters on the regular, but who might scrape together a bit of cash to get a problem solved. This can help to ground more fantastical stories and give the bleaker and grittier ones a clear sign of just what the heroes are fighting to protect.

Finally, there’s also nothing in the rulebook stating that sidequests and the characters they contain have to stay relegated to the fringes of the story. The tiny village that hosts a monster hunt might be the site of a key battle later in the campaign, for example. Likewise, the cartographer who needed help gathering materials might prove to be an invaluable ally when the heroes realise they need to uncover an ancient map later on in the campaign.

Everything can be interconnected.


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Leaving Room

So we want more side quests. Great. But how do we get players to actually take them up?

Well, a large part of it is simply giving room for the party to go on them without it seeming absurd. Nobody is seriously going to consider a short little dungeon delve or escort request while the planet is in danger, but if they’re cooling their heels for a few days in any case…

In recent games, I’ve had players embark on sidequests and explore the world while waiting for vital letters to be delivered, or for specialist spell components to ferment. In an airship-themed campaign, there’s usually a few days’ wait while the captain finishes up their business in port and sources provisions for the next step of the journey.

This free time isn’t always devoted to questing, of course. Often, the players seize upon it for training, working on new gear, or just kicking back and relaxing. If the party are keen to push on with the story and are excitedly planning the next leg of the journey, those days can be waved away with a single sentence. However, if they’re looking for a bit of a break from the overarching narrative, there are always a few townsfolk in need of help and a few rumours circulating the taverns.


Power to the People

Ultimately, one of the greatest benefits of wedging side quests into your campaign is the freedom it offers. It gives players the chance to say yes and no to adventures without worrying overly about consequences coming back to bite them or upsetting a GM who spent three weeks planning an epic campaign.

They give players a chance to muck around for a bit and characters a chance to develop and grow. Their very meaninglessness is what gives them value.

Embrace the side quest lifestyle. 

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