Backlog Burnout: Quest

Quest, the first tabletop RPG from NYC-based The Adventure Guild, is an extremely exciting game to finally get my hands on. Everything about Quest, from its mechanics to presentation to the game’s website all the way back to the game’s (extremely Brooklyn) Kickstarter video speaks to a design philosophy of bringing new players into RPGs and creating a streamlined experience through minimalism. This can be quickly literally seen by flipping through the (gorgeous) rulebook and seeing how much the layout allows the text on the page to breathe with plenty of negative space, a start contrast to many RPG books which indulge in a sort of maximalist information design.

Flipping through Quest, the single most striking thing about its design is the near complete omission of, for lack of a better word, numbers. Despite clearly drawing on the tradition of fantasy RPGs going back to Dungeons and Dragons, Quest completely lacks stats. Dice rolls are unencumbered by any sort of modifiers: you roll 1d20, 20 is a triumphant success, 11-19 is a modest success, 6-10 is a conditional success, 2-5 is a failure, and 1 is a catastrophic failure. That’s it for literally every dice roll in the game.

Most of what one might consider the “standard” items on a character sheet are either completely omitted or streamlined. Characters just start out with 10 HP, period. A quick rest can top you off to half HP, a night’s rest can put you back at max. There’s no money: all items are either trivial enough for you to just get whenever you’re in town, or important/rare enough for you to have to barter for them. Abilities, magical or otherwise, draw from a pool of Adventure Points which players get at the end of a session but also can earn as a GM metacurrency for good roleplay, solving a tricky puzzle, accomplishing a goal, or just being a good table presence. Your inventory is 12 things that can reasonably fit on your person, no concern for encumbrance mechanics or weight calculation, just, 12 things.

The meat of what makes up a Quest character are abilities obtained from the role selected for the character (logically equivalent to a class in D&D). Each role’s abilities are categorized into 5ish learning paths, which usually have 3-5 abilities per path. Abilities in a learning path must be learned in a certain sequence (the third ability in a path can only be learned after you learn the second, which can only be learned after you learn the first), but you are free to take abilities from multiple paths. You create a character with 6 abilities to start with, then you gain a new one at the end of every session. There are no experience points, in what I think is an extremely good move (XP systems, in my experience, are the first things jettisoned from a system in actual play, in favor of narrative-based advancement rewards).

Looking through the abilities is where a lot of Quest‘s minimalism and dismissal of numbers comes to light, and where the spoils of that design philosophy come through. So many advancement systems in RPGs are rife with obnoxious, incremental enhancements to a character, choices that give a character +10% to this or a +3 modifier to that. In Quest, there is nothing to increment, so these sorts of choices in character development literally aren’t an option. As best I can tell, not a single effect or item in the game grants a modifier to dice rolls, either. Almost every single advancement a character can make details a new action that the character can take in the fiction, a whole new problem-solving avenue unlocked for them. Even the Fighter, whipping boy of the genre and notorious landfill for minor statistical buffs in other, bulkier RPGs, gets a whole slew of new abilities, and the Fighter’s increased aptitude in combat is represented by automatic successes for attack roles rather than statistical boons.

One of my (few and small) gripes with Quest are the few times it does bring calculation or detailed resource management into the rules, because with so little math in the entire game it makes the few bastions of hard number-tracking stick out all the more. A few abilities are given durations in real time (rather than more abstract measurements like “scene” or “fight”), some down to minutes, and I can only imagine players immediately bickering about how many hits they can sneak into the one minute an enemy is stunned or frozen, a dispute that the rules can’t adjudicate since little else in the game is given a duration in real time. Similarly, many of the Doctor’s abilities only work on the toughest class of enemies when they are below 20% health, which I can only imagine playing out in one of three ways:

  1. The Doctor just has to guess when the enemy is down to 1/5 life, risking whiffing the ability and wasting the AP if they guess wrong
  2. The Doctor has to nag the GM after every bit of damage to see precisely when they can use all their cool powers
  3. The GM has to commit to announcing any time a boss character drops beneath 20% health, either out of character or by weaving it into the narration in a manner that still reads as “Yeah he’s beneath the threshold”

Option 3 seems like the clear winner to me, and I wonder why the game didn’t commit to its no-number-crunching design and steer players away from terrible options 1 and 2 by codifying it in the rules, perhaps with a “Bloodied” state a la 4E which is declared by the GM.

Another thing Quest does that I like a lot are the legendary abilities. Each role has a few of these, many of them world-altering powers, and they are explicitly inaccessible via traditional character progression. Instead, the game requires characters perform some sort of appropriate feat in-fiction that grants them this power, and I absolutely love this system. Tying character progression to an in-universe event that justifies that progression is an idea I’ve always adored, ever since AD&D required 11th level Druids go find and beat up one of the nine 12th level Druids out in the world in order to claim their rank and level up. It’s fun, it’s cool to do, and it gives players a built-in motivation that can be used by the GM to draw them into an adventure.

Another thing I noticed reading Quest was a lot more subtle. In a lot of RPGs, intentionally or not, I find that the character sheet usually ends up subconsciously dividing into two groups: there’s the soft character sheet, things like name, background, physical description, the bits that the rules don’t actually touch in any meaningful way but are important narratively, and there’s the hard character sheet, things like stats and skills and damage numbers, the things that the rules of the game interacts with directly. Generally, the soft character sheet tends to be something of an afterthought for a lot of players, something they fill in either at random, by half-heartedly scanning a random table, or maybe even filling in as the game goes.

Meanwhile, Quest kind of lacks the “hard” character sheet entirely. Essentially the only remnants of that part of the character sheet are the selection of a role and abilities. Other than that, your HP, your AP, your gear for the most part, are all set by the game. As a result, most of the choices you do get to make when making a Quest character are things that typically land on the “soft” character sheet: your appearance, your goal, your beliefs, your weaknesses. Filling out these aspects of your character gets a lot of real estate in the book, and the simple truth that filling out these aspects is most of the autonomy you get over the character during creation means that these aspects of the character feel far more important than in other games. It’s a clever trick, but these now feel like the heart of the character, the true identity of them, rather than the sort of narrative outfit covering up the character’s “true” being, a collection of numbers and stats that the game’s mechanics actually use.

Quest is an infinitely interesting game. It feels very different from a lot of other minimalist RPGs, such as those that self-categorize as in the OSR. In many ways, those games, games like The Black Hack, MÖRK BORG, or Maze Rats, feel like distillations of the classic D&D feel: eight stats are reduced to three, combat rules are simplified, equipment lists are shortened. Quest, on the other hand, is a straight reduction. Where other games are like D&D put on a rigorous diet and personal training regimen, Quest feels like a surgeon made some very careful cuts with a scalpel to remove every system the game could survive without, removing them entirely and returning their narrative function back to the act of raw storytelling. Going forward, I’d love to run Quest and actually see it in action, because I imagine it’s probably one of the purest storytelling experiences I could have with a game in my collection. I’m also curious to see if its minimalism can be applied in smaller doses; if specific subsystems of an RPG that risk becoming fiddly can be simply extracted from the design entirely, but still leave the core of the game relatively traditional. Also interesting to me would be what other games you could build from scratch with this sort of framework, games with extremely lightweight mechanics where character differentiation and ability mostly come from choosing from a veritable Costco of character options.

Oh, actually, one last note, Quest has an open license for creators to fiddle with Quest and make content for it, and in that license include a set of design guidelines that Quest was designed around, tips on how fiddling with specific parts of the rules will impact the game as a whole, and even a typography and style guide! Good stuff! More of this in games, please!

All very interesting indeed. Quest will happily stay in my collection, and I hope I get to run it someday soon.

Quest can be purchased directly from The Adventure Guild here.

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