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Drawbacks with, and alternatives to, the plotted side quest system

Ghast from the TTRPGs capsule has a well-produced video up about his experience with creating adventures that he calls the “side quest system”.

One drawback I’ve found with this approach, with the “no matter which forest they go to, this will happen” and the “no matter when they return to the ale’s guild story, this will happen” approach, is that the DM gets a lot of responsibility for any opposition the player characters might end up fighting. This means responsibility for game balance, and if there’s a TPK (or if, conversely, the fight’s a total steamrolly breeze) it’s the DM’s fault. I’ve seen a lot of DM’s with this kind of setup end up fudging dice or monster stats or behavior on the fly because of this. (Or switch to a rule system where there aren’t any fights, like Cthulhu Dark or Archipelago.)

Additionally, with preset scenes and steps like “the spider queen is going to escape almost guaranteed” there’s not a lot of agency for the players to contribute to the story and there’s not a lot of tension about what could really happen. The DM knows what’s gonna happen. You end up with these branching paths and trying to cover all outcomes.

Instead, what I do now is maps. Maps, maps, maps. Most often location maps (but they can also be relationship “maps”, as in relationship graphs that the players can explore, like how in the movie Knives Out the detective is exploring who all the suspects are and how they relate to one another). But usually I like location maps. I have a lot of stuff on the map (“in this room there’s a spider-elf!”) and I also have a lot of stuff on the random encounter tables (“on a 21, there’s an elven prince getting robbed by [roll again]”).

When I first encountered text adventures as a child, I was smitten by them and I wanted to make them. I first thought that they worked like a choose-your-own-adventure book or a flowchart, like a movie script but with branching paths. And, some did. But I later found out that the best ones instead were based on maps and objects that you could navigate and interact with freely.

Yes, this is at the expense at more intentional storytelling. It forces me to think in terms of evocative moments, instead of in bigger arcs. But it’s so great because anything can happen. It feels like a living breathing world that I daydream about and want to return to. It also makes the players choices, both in game and when making their characters and interacting with the rules, the mechanics, the spells, the NPCs, the items, the traps, it makes all of that really matter and have a huge impact on what happens.