Anyone who’s played any edition of Dungeons & Dragons or its derivatives are familiar with the concept of the side quest. Whether generated through a random encounter roll, the need for members of the group to kill some time because Regina and Claude couldn’t make the session, or the GM simply noting that the players are ill-equipped or lack enough experience to move forward, side quests provide a means for the player characters to gain a bit of experience and possibly a new item or two before continuing with the main adventure. Such side quests are usually unrelated to the adventure at hand and, under convention conditions, probably would be excised.
A few days ago, my wife was in a car accident (she’s okay, thank God!). It happened early in the morning and, prior to her phone call, I thought I had my entire day mapped out. That phone call changed everything, and it continues to affect us as we became a one-car family overnight during a busy holiday season. Being the gamer and Gnome that I am, I wondered how to work this into an article! It occurred to me that while life is full of such unanticipated surprises and while they’d add a lot to a campaign, players tend to feel persecuted (or worse, railroaded) if such things impede them over the course of an adventure.
That got me thinking about treating unanticipated, or coincidental, complications as side quests. In other words, what if the complication, in addition to impeding the PCs, also granted them benefits in terms of experience points, new equipment, clues, etc.? Players would be more likely to appreciate something random (indeed, they may look forward to it!) if they stood to gain from it as well. Here are a few examples.
- The characters stop at a convenience store or local eatery during the course of an investigation. Unfortunately, some criminals decide to rob the place while they are present, and there are children inside. While time is of the essence, the characters need to figure out how to defeat the criminals without resulting in bullets flying. For their efforts, the PCs are awarded extra XP.
- The characters are members of Star Patrol heading to a freighter’s assistance. It is under attack by unknown enemy vessels that seem impervious to blaster fire. As the characters jump through the star gate, another ship crashes into them. While the PCs scramble to keep their vessel from falling apart, they notice that the ship that hit them is one of those enemy vessels. The enemy ship is acting strangely, giving the PCs a clue on how to defeat them.
- A serious illness rips through the characters’ base of operations, leaving their agency short-staffed to deal with threats. Even minor threats are now major challenges and the XP offered is adjusted accordingly.
- The characters are on their way to a murder scene during a major thunderstorm. Just before they get to the house a bolt of lightning strikes it and burns the house to the ground. Depending on circumstances, the PCs either need to risk injury to secure crucial evidence or they may have to pursue the investigation without the best clues and evidence.
One area I would caution against using this technique with is offering crucial clues for an investigation. It’s okay if a coincidental clue speeds up an investigation, but if the players feel that they wouldn’t have solved the mystery without a random car accident or the murderer having an inconvenient fatal heart attack at the murder scene, then they are going to feel cheated.
So how about you? Have you ever used a coincidental complication to spice up an adventure? If so, how did it go? Did it ever backfire on you? Would you consider using this technique in future adventures?