I’ve been playing pen and paper games for years now. Like, since single digits. And like any longstanding relationship, certain things get old. You notice after a while that events tend to play out along familiar lines. Quests become an algorithm of interchangeable struggles and well-worn tropes. You find new legos, but you’re still using them to build the same houses, boats and cars, you’ve always been building; your adventures start fitting into neatly established categories with neatly established beats and trials.
Over the years however, I’ve noticed some specific types of quests or quest-features that don’t really fit into a category on their own, at least not one I know of. I’m not saying a quest like this doesn’t have category, but it lacks the dependencies that often back us into one. We could call them a sub-category, a feature you can overlay freely over the story you’re trying to tell, that suggests new directions to take through your quest but does not necessarily dominate (or even tie into) the basic storytelling.
This type of quest I like to call the Backtracking Reward. This is a quest-type you see in digital games all the time, with notable examples in everything from Doom and Resident Evil to literally every metroidvania game ever. However, pen-and-paper gameplay conventions open this quest to many unique possibilities. Imagine your group of adventurers enter a Casino and you have to check your weapons before you can head to the gaming floor. One of your group scores well on their perception check and notices something behind the counter- someone has checked in some heavy duty weaponry. We’re talking ancient, high-powered, enchanted weapons; archaic materials, legendary former owners, weird spell effects, the whole deal. You want these.
Now, this discovery has nothing to do with the quest you’re on. Nothing at all. But it has for sure now become the goal for your adventurers. Here is where the backtracking comes in. You can't steal the stuff now. You have to apprehend someone from inside the casino. They will bail before you can find them if you kick off security. So now you have to proceed through the casino, get your mark, then get back out while stealing those magical weapons.
Someone in your group brings something up. “What if whoever owns those weapons leaves before we can get back?” Well hell, do you leave a sentry at the entrance now to keep an eye out? Do you split up to find to find your mark faster but weaken the team if the shit hits the fan?
And that’s all assuming your players decide to cooperate, which any experienced game master can tell you will never happen. This is what makes this quest ideal for pen-and-paper gaming, it has the potential to pit players against one another and the game master without leaving the game master’s control. Just remember to have a few backups in place to punish them if your adventurers decide to go for it; know where their mark will flee to if they spook him, who will protect the weapons, what happens to the weapons in the breach? As always, don’t be afraid of killing players, they’re just NPCs with people controlling them. And if anyone questions you, you look them in the eye and tell them to roll the dice.
That's why I love the Backtracking Reward. It completely turns what seemed like a simple quest on its head. It adds just enough spice to what could be perceived as a mundane quest, without diminishing the importance of the quest itself. It can turn a simple A->B exchange into a branching, nuanced, memorable adventure.
So you can have that one for free reader. Be creative. The Backtracking Reward is very versatile and can be put into almost any scenario.
Let me know in the comments below how you include the Backtracking Reward into your own quests!