Have we mentioned before that players can do the unexpected? Well, we probably have not said it enough. Sometimes they come at challenges with unexpected solutions, forcing you to quickly determine a difficulty and requirements. Sometimes they want to try unexpected uses of their character abilities, forcing you to make an immediate rules call. And sometimes they want to go on a completely unexpected side quest.
Today we are talking mostly to GMs, although there’s nothing secret that players aren’t allowed to know. We want to offer some tips to prep your tool kits so that you can handle the most common side quests that characters embark on. That way, instead of railroading them with a NO you can keep your game on track and still make it fun for everyone!
Yes, the GM should enjoy their game as well.
Most players will want to spend their rewards or trade in old equipment for new toys. While some systems will have players shop between sessions, most games benefit greatly from having an exciting shopping trip. Shopkeepers are easy to make into reoccurring characters, and the haggling/searching interactions can feel very rewarding to a lot of players. Plus you can easily work some plot exposition into a shopping trip as customer gossip or a talkative clerk.
Make a list of different shop categories that are appropriate for your campaign world: weapons, armor, magical/tech items, transportation, mundane goods, etc. Jot down a couple of interesting items in each category that would be level-appropriate rewards. If the system you are using has prices and sample items definitely take advantage of that. You don’t need a fully stocked shop for each category. Just a couple items and a general idea of what they sell so you are ready if a PC decides to visit.
When making a shopkeeper NPC on the fly, use whatever methods you normally use for random NPCs (hopefully you have a list of names somewhere). Remember that every shopkeeper’s motivation is to sell their stuff. They may have different reasons and methods, but everyone runs a shop as a business to sell. Add a quirk, such as a distinct adjective or a fun voice, and players will easily remember this NPC.
Do keep in mind that shopping trips need to be SHORT side quests. An entire session of shopping is going to be boring for someone in your group (probably everyone). Limit each PC to just 1 check for each action: haggling, searching, socializing, and appraising. If things start to drag, throw in a random event that will tie back into your story line (such as a member of the cult the party is tracking attempting to shoplift).
Sight Seeing Exploration
Players can often decide to go somewhere you simply had not expected or even imagined. Maybe they latched onto a detail in your description of the area and want to further examine it. Or sometimes players have something they want their characters to experience (searching for elf cities or alien ruins). And sometimes we forget a character’s backstory might become important (I grew up in this city. I want to see what’s changed!)
For the players, these side quests are always about discovery. They want to explore, to learn, and to be surprised by what they find. If it is just one player wanting to go off on a random tangent, the rest of the players will typically talk them out of it. But if the whole party is invested, then you have an appreciation for the world you have created that you really do want to reward.
Making at least one random generic map before your first session will give you a head start, and every time you have to use a random generic map in a session try to replace it with 2 new ones before your next session. Your first map should be something you could expect the party to find in your first session. I personally tend to make this a building shape and repurpose it as a ruin or fort or mobile defense platform as needed.
In order to make a map GENERIC, you only put the mechanical details in and leave the flavor for improvisation. Put in some traps or hazards or a random encounter. You can make them lava pits or acid pits as is appropriate for when you bring it out. Generic maps only need to be 4-6 “rooms” each and should be versatile. Make a generic building that could be a shop or a home. Make a generic ship that could be civilian or military. Make a generic dungeon that could be a ruined temple or a pirate base.
Exploration side quests are very easy to let spin out of control, as one discovery leads to exploring for another, and then another, and so on. Try to make sure that the big discovery rewards lead back to your main plot. For example, the group could discover a map of a location you want them to explore or treasure that they need to return to civilization to spend.
The Lure of the Shinies
Shopping trips are often about social interaction, and exploration time is more about encountering the unexpected. But sometimes players want something very specific, and they decide to go and get it. Stealing a ship, finding a legendary sword, obtaining redemption for a crime, or hunting down a hated foe; these are side quests that a party will take up when they make their own goals.
If this is a side quest of opportunity (the PCs see it and they want it), you can probably limit this side quest to a short detour. Use one of your spare maps and place the shiny they are seeking in the room farthest from the entrances.
If obtaining the shiny is too challenging (or interesting) for a single encounter or skill check, then ask yourself why it is so. What makes their goal so hard to achieve? Then what might help them achieve their goal? If the players have some ideas already (which you will overhear thanks to table talking), favor their answers.
Once you have a means to aid obtaining the shiny, stall with a side quest of your own to obtain that means. Send them exploring or shopping or negotiating and keep them going until the end of that session. Then you have time before your next session to work out the rest of the quest. And by work out, I really mean work it into the main story line you are running for your campaign.
If a long-term shiny quest comes up, then it will absorb several sessions’ worth of attention. You really do not want to have that sort of thing happen outside of your campaign story, so find ways to make it a part of your campaign. Tie in important NPCs and factions. Use locations you planned to have the party visit anyway. Adjust the plot to accommodate the shiny. That way, when the shiny is achieved, the party does not have to decide if going back after all this time is worth it.
We mentioned GM tool kits in our Questions and Failed Answers blog a little while back. Most of us learn about prep through experience, which makes it VERY difficult for a GM starting out to manage their first few sessions. If you are a new GM, or thinking about trying to run a game, we hope some of these thoughts help you out a bit.
If you find a system that works better for you, we won’t be offended if you choose to ignore our advice. Especially if you never tell us you are ignoring our advice, because then we’ll never know and remain blissfully ignorant.
If you do have some advice on how to handle player generated side quests, help us out and share your experience!