The review that I’m writing today came about somewhat out of the blue. When people started discussing alternatives to Dungeons and Dragons, one game was mentioned a lot. Quest is a game about playing archetypal characters in fantasy adventures, with simple rules and a clear variety of options.
There are various reasons that people have cited for exploring the game. Commentary has ranged from the game being a good game for beginners, the game being less prone to harmful fantasy tropes, and the game being well suited for streaming.
That means that while I wanted to go into this fresh, I’ve already run into a lot of opinions about the game online. I’ll just cite upfront that while I’m trying to engage this with fresh eyes, it’s been hard to avoid any opinions on the subject.
Style and Substance
A lot of the commentary about this game is about its presentation, and it does have a unique form factor. While I am basing this review on the PDF, which is what I currently own, I have taken some time to look at the components of the physical game.
In addition to the book, there are decks available, including a Core Deck, Creature Deck, and a Treasure Deck. Most of the mechanics of the game don’t require the decks, but there are a few references to using the cards as, well, cards.
The PDF version of the product has separate files for the book, character and world profiles, a character worksheet, a combined version of the character profile and worksheet, and PDFs for the Core Deck, Creature Deck, and Treasure Deck. The PDF of the book is 155 pages, with a credits page and a Table of Contents. There are full color, full-page images between sections of the book, as well as illustrations on many pages throughout.
The formatting of the book shifts all the way up to four columns, but with the whitespace and formatting used, this doesn’t get as confusing as it would otherwise seem. In fact, the whitespace and room to breathe in the book makes it very easy to engage with the text.
The book has a very simple, intentionally focused structure. It’s broken up into the “how to play” section, “creating a character” section, then “abilities and equipment,” and finally, “for the guide.” These sections are introduced conversationally on the index page.
While the information contained in the Core Deck and the Treasure Deck are both contained within, only the basic creature rules are presented in the book itself, along with the definitions of various traits. The actual example creatures are present only on the cards in the Creature Deck.
Each of the chapters has a summary at the beginning showing the estimated amount of time it will take to read through the chapter.
“First, We’ll Teach You How to Play the Game”
This section introduces the core conceits of the game. It is presenting a fantasy world that is highly magical, but less technologically advanced than our world. Beyond this description, the assumptions of the game are largely expressed by the explanations of various elements within the text later in the book.
The game itself uses a d20, and in addition to this, it presents other requirements and suggested items for gameplay. This is written in a manner that makes it clear this is addressing an audience that may not be familiar with any kind of roleplaying text.
The resolution results on the d20 break down into ranges that include Catastrophe, Failure, Tough Choice, Success, and Triumph.
This section introduces the idea of scene framing, character actions, and when to roll dice to make a scene more interesting. It also lays out the concept of distances, generally using four broad categories. Characters track their health with hit points, with the greatest danger to characters being taking damage after already running out of hit points. All characters start with the same number of hit points, and your maximum hit points don’t change over time.
Characters get Adventure Points that they can use to trigger their special abilities, and each character starts with six special abilities. As they progress, they can gain more special abilities to add to this list of talents. There is no wealth in the game. Characters are assumed to be able to get subsistence level items, and anything else involves trading items that the character already has. Like hit points, there are a set number of slots that any character has for carrying gear, which isn’t affected by anything else in the game.
There are two pages of rules grouped under “Be Good to Each Other,” split roughly between guidelines for participating in the game and respecting other players at the table. Safety oriented guidelines involve respecting boundaries and asking for consent when interacting with other characters, while “content” guidelines involve making intent clear and separating meta-knowledge from character knowledge.
The rules are friendly and approachable, but it’s worth noting that example encounters involve fighting a bear, and there are multiple pictures of characters getting into fights and using weapons against animals. That’s no worse than any other roleplaying game, but these examples, especially given the lack of setting description and assumption, do flavor the concepts of what the game can be used to model.
“Second, You’ll Create A Unique Character with a Backstory, a Dream, and a Role to Play.”
The very first page of the character creation section involves answering a questionnaire style character sheet asking about the character’s traits, including what the character’s people are known for, what they believe in, and what their dreams are. This comes before roles, special abilities, or anything mechanical.
There are no ancestries in the game, and anything resembling ancestry or species is addressed with various suggested options for the character’s appearance and cultural traits for which the people are known.
All the items for which there is a question on the character sheet have extensive examples provided in this chapter. While players may have a clearer idea of what they want their character to look like, it can be helpful to have example ideals, flaws, and dreams.
“Third, You’ll Prepare Your Character With Special Abilities and Equipment.”
Each character has a role, and those roles include the following:
Some of these roles are straightforward, and others have their own nuance in Quest. Invokers almost hearken back to the 4th edition D&D class of the same name, being a class interested in belief and ideals that gets some “smiting” ability. The Doctor is a mix of Dr. Frankenstein and Necromancer tropes. The Magician is the illusion based spellcaster, while the Wizard is more of the magical “general practitioner.”
The spy is interesting, in that some of its abilities are what you might expect from a rogue or an assassin archetype, but it also leans heavily into a magical version of a gadget wielding spy, borrowing more from modern archetypes.
Gear is simple in the game, in many cases serving as narrative permission to engage the fiction in a specific manner, but much of the gear is flavored to have some kind of useful enchantment upon it. The magical elements do infuse the setting with a feeling that magic is a common thing. For example, adventurers have the option of magical ropes that coil themselves, candles that never burn down, flutes that can signal only friendly creatures, and communication devices in the form of amulets, as examples.
The character roles allow characters to pick special abilities from individual paths. These paths function like a simplified talent tree that players may be familiar with from other roleplaying games or video games. You can pick up the starting options for multiple paths, but you can only pick up additional talents in the order prescribed by the path, without skipping the steps in between.
Many of these abilities have simple resolutions. For example, disarm requires you to spend an Adventure Point to declare that you disarm an opponent. Other abilities give you an alternate set of outcomes for the normal Catastrophe, Failure, Tough Choice, Success, and Triumph results, often making the individual beneficial tiers more effective.
In addition to having multiple paths for each role, each role has a special path referred to as “Legendary.” These abilities don’t need to be taken in any specific order, and they are only available to characters when the Guide has determined that the adventure that the group has just completed was especially momentous.
These are also resolved simply but may grant narrative permission to do major things in the campaign world. These Legendary abilities are flavored by the role. For example, rangers can become friends to all animals, or pick up the ability to wipe out all minions in a scene at the cost of some adventure points. Naturalists, on the other hand, can effectively set loose the Genesis Wave from Wrath of Khan, but without killing the people and animals as the world is rewritten.
Even beyond the Legendary abilities, some Special Abilities have some wild swings to their resolution, doing amazing things, and then have drastic, violent downsides on a low roll.
Some elements feel odd to me as they interact with the game’s assumptions. For example, some abilities require a character to pay for something to be done, but that can only be done by giving up an item in the character’s inventory, because barter is the only form of transaction in the game. Some abilities within the Spy role feel like they push the narrative of the setting in a very specific direction, introducing the ability to “clone” magical amulets used for communication like modern cell phones. This isn’t bad, it just means that there are setting elements that creep into the game from the expression of game rules, rather than being explicitly stated.
“Finally, If You’re the Guide, We’ll Teach You How to Run the Game.”
The guide section has another section that discusses player safety and boundaries. It also introduces the concept of the Stop Sign, which is one of the cards included in the Core Deck. The stop sign functions much like an “X-card”, which is a signal to stop and reevaluate a potentially uncomfortable element introduced into the game.
The World Profile is a “fill in the blank” form that is similar to the character sheet questionnaire. Much like the player section, this section also has many examples for starting areas, regions, and basic descriptions, and the general hopes and fears of people in the setting. There is also a set of examples for opening adventure hooks.
The thought process for framing scenes is examined, with steps to resolving scenes framed as distinct boxes that break down those topics. There are summary elements like this for both clues and challenges.
The d20 is never modified. Without abilities being triggered which often remove any randomizer, the d20 resolution always has the same distribution. While some of the suggested complications involve a character being counterattacked, Guide controlled characters still roll a d20 to resolve their actions.
Non-Player Characters have three basic templates, Commoners, Minions, and Bosses. This determines their hit points and the damage of their attacks. Various abilities mentioned in the “roles” section either don’t work on bosses or work differently based on how many hit points the boss has remaining. In addition to the base hit points and damage, NPCs also have features, which modify the character, meaning they may be immune to some kinds of damage, they might be bigger than normal (and thus have more hit points and do more damage), or they might gain hit points when they cause damage.
Turn structure is very simple. If NPCs ambush the player characters, they go first, then the players go. Otherwise, the players all take their turns, then the NPCs take their turns.
There is also a way to measure combat difficulty that involves measuring the hit points and damage potential of the opponents to create a relative threat of the NPCs in the scene. This is a very simple equation, although I would say that in many cases, Quest’s rules aren’t really “balanced,” and there is a lot that characters can do that isn’t predefined.
The section also addresses what first sessions should look like, how to wrap up sessions, and long-term play. In general, characters can gain more Adventure Points based on roleplaying, and get more Adventure Points each session. Characters can pick up a new special ability at the end of an adventure. There is very little bookkeeping involved.
There are also “Advanced Rules,” that involve modifying the rate of character growth, the number of Adventure Points awarded, and allowing characters to pick up special abilities as quirks of how the character has advanced.
The final section of the book addresses the wide range of items available in the game. Treasure has a rarity (which is often used for the barter system in the game) and may give narrative permission to do something useful. A treasure may have a number listed by an ability that allows a special ability associated with the item to be triggered.
Despite the whimsical tone, and the example of the open-ended magical nature of the world, the sample combat is a party barging in on a group of goblins playing cards and murdering them. It feels like a bit of tonal dissonance with some of the other elements presented in the game.
Success Reading this book really makes me want to take it for a test drive. There is a nice mix of traditional fantasy tropes, adjacent supernatural tropes, and wider modern fantasy concepts that tickles the imagination.
The book is a joy to read, with artwork that matches the tone of the text, and it unfolds at a comfortable pace. The number of special abilities allows for a ton of customization when making characters, and the number of NPC traits gives the Guide a solid base for building interesting challenges. It feels like you could explain the game concepts to a group and be up and running a game very quickly.
There is some tonal dissonance between a few examples, that seems to call back to the older days of dungeon raiding fantasy, and the more open-ended exploring portrayed in most of the book. There are very few places where the cards are used in the rules as cards (i.e. using a random draw), but there are so few instances of this that it feels off when it does come up. There are some open-ended examples of awarding extra Adventure Points that hearken back to “reward people that are more outgoing” rules, which I don’t always think benefit a group. The simple and engaging explanations get players up to speed quickly, but it feels like a more in-depth “advanced” section would have been welcomed.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Reading this book really makes me want to take it for a test drive. There is a nice mix of traditional fantasy tropes, adjacent supernatural tropes, and wider modern fantasy concepts that tickles the imagination. I just wish there were a few more guidelines about what this game wants you to do with it. I’m a little concerned about rolls always being random, but I also want to see what that feels like.
This feels like a beautiful, well-polished experiment in storytelling, and I want to engage in that experiment. I’m not sure it’s as widely applicable as a fantasy gaming “solution” as it may seem at first pass.
What are some of your favorite fantasy games that both use and subvert tropes? How much explicit setting explanation do you want in your RPG rules? What kind of examples do you like in a rules section? We are looking forward to hearing from you in the comments below. Thanks!
On 8/12/2020, The Adventure Guild released digital edition 1.5, which changes the example combat that I mentioned regarding the goblins, changed some potentially ableist terminology in some of the abilities, and clarified the importance of using care with any kind of agency denying ability. I wanted to make sure to give The Adventure Guild credit for these changes of content, although I am leaving the initial comments in the review, especially since the first run of the print copy will still have the original examples and terminology.