The call goes out. The adventurers answer. And so begins an epic tale of…killing 10 slimes and collecting 50GP.
Whether it’s saving the princess or getting the plot device, one thing is certain: Every character’s on a quest of some kind.
In any story, there needs to be a conflict. For that, there needs to be a problem that needs solving. And naturally, the problem must be special enough that one does not simply use a mundane solution any rational person can easily think of.
But in the midst of the most gripping sagas and interactive games, it can be easy to overlook that the proud tradition of a storied tale has its origins in the mists of time…and can seep into even the most mundane contexts.
Once Upon A Time…
In any story, there is bound to be a main quest. The primary plotline driving everything as a whole, whether it’s characters or the world around them. Once the world and its inhabitants are made, this is that bit which royally messes things up for some or all of them, prompting them to go fix it up. And, to paraphrase Tolkien, a mess so big as to be appalling and terrifying tends to make for a more memorable tale…and takes a greater deal of telling, anyway.
Nowadays, quests are associated with high fantasy and RPGs, probably because it’s an archaic word connected to myth, the days of yore when knights were still selfless and chivalrous instead of selfish thugs taxing their poor domains. Or in other words, when knights were Canadian instead of…pretty much anywhere else in the world. And in that light, whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, quests are expected to have high stakes: Stop the Demon Lord, uncover the prophecy of the Chosen One, redeem the family honour and fortune, destroy the doomsday device that could change the war.
But this isn’t just restricted to certain scales and genres. No matter how disproportionate it may seem, all that matters is its place as the engine of the plot: A problem big enough that it moves people to go out of their way to fix it. So in that light, the Dark Empire is of equal importance to the need to get rich and hook up with your ex. Though of course, Emperor Palpatine wouldn’t hesitate to fry the entire cast of The Great Gatsby.
Fantasy, historical, sci-fi, steampunk, romance, horror, drama, it’s all the same. A premise is offered, along with why and how it matters to those living through it. And whatever the subject itself, a pattern does tend to emerge:
- The world and the things about it are established, as well as the characters.
- A taste of what’s ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ is given, so that readers have an idea of the characters’ comfort zone…
- …out of which they are brutally and abruptly shoved as something happens to change it. Maybe their home gets burned down, or they discover a great mystery about their family. Maybe they just want to impress Emily Baker and take her to the prom. Whatever it is, it shakes them out of it and gives them a purpose, whether it’s to find something new or restore something old.
- Thus begins the quest. And through it, they will encounter trials and tribulations, people who will help or hinder them (or both!), growing and changing along the way until they are strong and wise enough to reach their journey’s end.
And so it goes, both in the ancient origins of the world and in the modern imagination. From the Greek equivalent of a Justice League team up looking for a golden fleece, to knights seeking the holiness of God through a Grail, to Harrison Ford looking for that Grail himself, it’s as simple as a carrot on a string or a harsh, hard stick to the rear taking the jackasses known as protagonists from point A to point B. Because even the ancient taleweavers knew that it was the struggle against odds for a greater goal that made for prime entertainment. And some stuff about the human condition and preservation of culture and history, but mostly the entertainment.
Just One More Thing-
But then again, what’s light without darkness? Anime without filler episodes? And quests without side quests? Because if any story gets big enough, something will have to fill in those spaces of the world, whether they’re on-screen or on-page or not.
Side quests are those fillers. Simple errands that usually don’t take long to finish, often with little impact on the larger plot. The Main Quest? Get the Ring to Mount Doom and throw it into the fires. Side Quests? Finding edible herbs to season the rabbit you caught.
These may seem like a modern invention given the whole association with RPGs. And certainly, the ones modern audiences are used to by now, be they in a videogame or set by an enterprising Dungeon Master, were implemented to fit entertainment that got more interactive. Like it or not, a gamer tends to have a poor attention span and needs a reason to be engaged. Playing for the plot aside, most gamers taking the time to personally try and go through a story want to feel achievement in their efforts. So naturally, game designers give them reasons to hit things and get paid, all while getting pats on the back constantly affirming them.
Killing 5 bears, collecting 30 pieces of firewood, or delivering a message were more than just ways to kill time: They highlight game mechanics, show aspiring adventurers the world, and are often sign posts leading them from one point to the next one they need to be at. And they were often placed along the way rather than out of one’s way so that questing on the side could be done: Those bears, of course, were found in the (harvestable) woods the party has to cross in order to reach the town where the message is delivered…which turns out to be where the next part of the story takes place.
So certainly, a modern side quest is both a way to fill out a world and to engage a player. And, also, to hide absurdly powerful items behind deceptively stupid minigames. Because ‘heroes’ will gladly ransack someone’s home for a single potion, but heaven forbid they take the time to do the gardening mission which will reveal the hint of Excalibur’s true location.
But curiously, side quests aren’t just a modern invention; they’ve been around since the days of myth as well!
After all, mythology fits the bill of a large setting and cosmology with a ginormous cast. And whether it’s Greek, Norse, Indian, Chinese, or even the freaking Jungle Book, these tales will eventually reach a critical mass where the poets will sit down and say “And here is a tale that happened BETWEEN the beginning and the end.” That’s right, the dreaded jump-the-shark practice of a Midquel…was milked by bards in mankind’s earliest centuries.
And much like their modern counterparts, they tend to achieve the same purpose: Extending the story for an audience that wants it, while showing off more of the world behind it. And of course, sometimes it’s just something as simple as a fond wish to return to those times and see their favourite characters in action once again. Unless, of course, there’s some OTHER more subtle and profound subtext behind that time Thor dressed in drag to crash a wedding to rescue his hammer.
But while each of those tales certainly holds a revered and beloved place in the collection of great, memorable stories…at the end of the day, one can also argue that they’re just not related to the main plot. A main plot which would go something like “Uncover the Loki Conspiracy And Stop Ragnarok” or “Face Shere Khan And Come To Terms With The Past”. Bawdy, goofy stories of gods in drag and evicting monkey vagrants are all well and good, but at the end of the day…they don’t really do anything to move the plot or the characters.
But then again, that’s going by the conceit that every piece of writing needs to serve a specific purpose at all times. When really, it’s just as important to have fun with writing and simply create for the sheer joy of it. And yes, that includes coming up with a farcical adventure where characters end up swapping bodies or genders just to see them squirm.
And while some quests may seem less important than others, at the end of the day, that really depends on where a character is standing at the time. A galactic emperor will think nothing of snuffing out a billion lives in an instant, but even one of those lives could be a protagonist in their own life trying to navigate the hurdles of love. And Thor doesn’t give two hoots about whether identity fraud and cross-dressing are meaningful character development; he just really wants his hammer, and he really wants to crack the skulls that took it in a tale of cunning and brutality that would make for a perfect drinking song.
And so it goes with modern RPGs: Main Characters hardly blink at 5 bears, but to the townsfolk, those 5 bears gone means one more section of the forest they can harvest from. And more prominently, a party member’s personal issues might have absolutely nothing to do with the big Evil Empire, but it matters to them that they’re being forced into a loveless marriage and need their allies to wreck a wedding (as one does).
And at the end of the day, for all the plot twists and epic stakes that give a story its movement, it’s only completed when interacting with the foundation: characters. And each character is someone with their own tale, each with its own connections (or lack thereof) with the main plot, each one telling readers more about who they are and the world around them.
Everyone’s the hero of their own tale. And that idea is a good basis for building a world and creating characters with real meat to them.