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Coincidental Complications; or, Side Quests Broadly Applied

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.

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?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Coincidental Complications; or, Side Quests Broadly Applied"

#1 Comment By Rick Langtry On December 15, 2014 @ 9:54 am

Nice article. Yes, I have used side quests in most of the ways you have described. Complications are usually no different than complications which come up during the ‘normal’ module/adventure. However, using them for time filler often ends up not working as designed as everything takes longer than you ancticipate.

My side quests could provide more info about the adventure, but just as often they are just unrelated events and serve to remind the group that there is more going on in the world than just their priorities.

I also keep a list of character background/history and will often tie this side quests to some relevent piece of there character back story. Old friends or family in trouble, past debts or promises come due, an enemy or nemesis which they want to address, or just hit a hot button on that characters bias. Again – these can often take on a life of there own so be careful if you are seeking a one nighter.


#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 15, 2014 @ 10:25 am

I think regardless of any encounters the PCs might take while on a detour from the main adventure, it’s important, as you point out, for a GM to listen and watch carefully to what happens.

It’s not the encounter itself — but the takeaway. And the trick — as always — is the possibility that each player might gain something different from the sidetrek.

But once you identify those things, that’s where the fun begins. Now you have something you can riff off of and something the group can look back upon and identify as a pivotal (or funny) moment.

I think it’s sidetreked moments like this — more so than hyped up showdowns with the Big Bad — where flesh gets put on the bones of PC character development.

Good, thoughtful article, Walt.

#3 Comment By Darkechilde On December 15, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

I rarely, if ever, use randomly rolled encounters in an adventure – they often needlessly involve a threat or combat that makes no sense in the context of a larger picture – however, a planned encounter that seems like a coincidence – that’s very useful, and the players often don’t know the difference.

That said, many of my players are strongly story and NPC-interaction oriented, so, in the course of a session, they will often create their own side-quests and random encounters, just by talking to NPCs, and responding to some comment or story. These tend to be lots of fun, and bring a lot of color and long-term care to the campaigns.

#4 Comment By Philmagpie On December 16, 2014 @ 7:12 am

Hi Darkechilde,

You are absolutely right, the most interesting sidequests are the ones the Players take onto themselves. A Player who decides to instigate their own quest in aid of an NPC is far more engaged with both the quest and the setting.

Such a quest may require a little more improvisation by the GM, but it remains a sidequest. Yet, the degree of Player engagement is so much higher. I love it when my Players bring stories to the game in this way.

All the best

#5 Comment By Blackjack On December 15, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

I use side quests to enhance the richness of my game. They remind the PCs that they do not exist in a vacuum. While they are on pursuing one storyline there are still interesting things happening elsewhere, driven by other people or events.

Of course, the game would quickly descend into information overload if I tried to give them news about every possibly interesting thing, so I’m careful about which hooks I dangle in front of them. They’re almost always related to the PCs’ actions or interests. A few patterns are:

1. Consequences of past actions. A situation the group changed in previous adventure continues to evolve, possibly improving or possibly taking a bad turn.

2. Lead-in to what’s next. Often something that becomes central to the storyline later starts out as a minor or seemingly unrelated side story. When the group is paying attention to what’s happening on the edges they see these things– and have to decide which are meaningful and which are just distractions. As Troy noted above,

3. Character dilemmas. Sometimes a hook is at best tangentially related to the main storyline but it hooks one or more PCs because it’s an interesting moral or character-driven dilemma. Often these become part of the main plot because they define who the characters are and how they behave.

#6 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Faves: 2014-12-19 On December 20, 2014 @ 12:01 am

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