GM’s Guide: Quests in Wilderness Campaigns


Quests are the beating heart of a wilderness campaign. Each quest is an adventure of some kind (and see the Art of Adventures for advice on how to make those). One might be a mystery to track down a killer monster lurking the wilderness, another might be a dungeon crawl to root out goblin raiders hiding out in an abandoned dwarven mine, a third might be a wilderness journey through dangerous lands to reach the lair of a young dragon menacing the area. In addition to being written up as regular adventures such as you might find in any campaign structure, each quest also has a type relevant to its use on the campaign map.

Static Quests

Static quests are the most basic kind of quest. A static quest does not move around or affect other quests nearby. It boosts the threat level of the region by one, and that is it. The more of your quests are static quests, the more predictable the map will be. On the one hand, this means that the campaign will have less time pressure and fewer surprises, but on the other hand, it means you’re less likely to accidentally set up a spawner chain that drowns the players in orcs before they can get their boots of elvenkind on.

Spawner Quests

After static quests, these are the most common kind of quest in a wilderness campaign. Every wilderness campaign needs some of them to work. A spawner quest comes with a die size, and at the end of every strategic turn, every spawner quest that hasn’t been cleared rolls its associated die. On a 1, it spawns a new quest. These quests represent villains who are actively trying to conquer the entire campaign area, whether that’s a necromancer lord raising up undead armies or a hobgoblin captain marching on the Kingdom of Generica.

A spawner quest will produce one new quest on a number of turns equal to half its value plus 0.5, or in other words, a d6 spawner will produce a new quest every 3.5 turns, a d8 every 4.5 turns, and so on. This means that even a tiny d4 spawner can be quite sluggish compared to PCs actively trying to clear the region out, especially if they’re willing to forego a long rest between quests, but small spawners can still fill up regions alarmingly quickly if players aren’t paying attention. A d4 spawner produces a new quest every 2.5 turns, which means if it’s on the other side of a large-ish map (say, about a dozen regions for a roughly year-long campaign in real time) from the party’s starting region it’ll manage to pop out one quest before the party reaches the region at all even if they make an immediate beeline for it. It means that clearing out the average region (containing 2.5 quests) will allow the spawner to pop out a new quest. As such, a small spawner is a constant pressure on the party when they’re trying to solve other problems, but is unlikely to constantly regenerate quests the party thought they had solved once they’ve focused their attention on dealing with the problem. Larger spawners, a d6 or even d8, put less pressure but still represent a threat that can’t be ignored forever. Particularly on big maps, d6 or d8 spawners make for good problems that grow slowly, but steadily. They’re best used when paired with either threats that are supposed to be secondary to your faster spawners or else threats that are more dangerous as individual quests. For example, fire and frost giants are a pretty big threat to a low level campaign, so giving a fire giant general a d8 spawner turns him into a threat that produces few quests, but each quest is extremely dangerous. He doesn’t cover much ground, but once he’s taken a position, he will be very hard to dislodge.

Creating spawned quests can be tricky. You have no idea how many quests will ultimately be spawned. You don’t want your players to run through near-identical goblin caves three times while fighting the goblin warlord, but you also don’t want to design a quest about recapturing a town from goblin invaders that never gets used because the players decided to head for that spawner first and it never got rolling before they took it out. Spawners tend to be high priority targets for the party, so it’s always possible that one will be removed before spawning anything.

The easiest solution for this is to create schroedinger’s adventure. Now, we certainly do not approve of using schroedinger’s adventure to stealth railroad players by picking up whatever adventure you wanted them to complete next and dropping it in front of wherever they’ve decided to go. However, a similar concept can be helpful to spawned quest design. If the party makes a beeline for the goblin king spawner and clears it before it can ever spawn the goblin dungeon, you can use that same dungeon layout for the skeleton dungeon that the necromancer spawner popped out while they were dealing with the goblins.

Another approach is to define four quests for each region, each quest representing some strategic location or person of interest, from the first quest being a remote outpost for the forces of evil to raid from to the fourth quest being the conquest of the region’s market town, and in between you can have them occupy mithril mines or drive loggers and hunters from the forests. Now it doesn’t matter which spawner specifically ends up capturing the mines and overrunning the market town. Whichever one happens to fill up the region first is the one whose mooks are lying around when the party gets around to dealing with them, but the layout, plot hook, and friendly NPCs are the same. If the spawners all answer to the same dark lord, you can even have some mini-bosses be the same regardless of what spawner ended up populating the region with quests. The dark lord can send an erinyes to lead a dungeon regardless of whether the dark fey or the ice cult end up being the ones who provide the fodder troops for that dungeon.

Bunker Quests

You will want some way to prevent players from just making a tour of the realm and popping off spawners before mopping up their spawned quests, and that is why most spawned quests should be bunker quests. A bunker quest fortifies another quest, usually the quest that spawned them, adding more and/or harder monsters or otherwise increasing the difficulty. This encourages players to clear out the spawned quests before taking on the villain masterminding the invasion in the spawner, while still leaving the option open to go for the throat, especially if the spawner is threatening to overrun a region the players don’t want to lose.

Jumper Quests

A jumper quest “jumps” into another quest to take it over instead of dying. This type of quest is most typically also a spawner quest, and usually has the power to jump into any of its spawned quests when defeated. An example of a jumper quest would be an orc horde invading a region because they’re running away from something nastier. They’re a spawner quest and probably have a d4 spawn die, but unlike with a standard orc invasion, killing their war chief won’t scatter them back to their homeland. Instead, whenever the spawner quest is located and killed, it jumps into another orc quest anywhere on the map. The threat isn’t ended until each and every orc quest has been cleared (and in this case, convincing the orcs to turn around and help you fight the thing that chased them out of your homelands might clear the quest as readily as just killing all the orcs).

Lazy Spawner Quests

A variant of the spawner is the lazy spawner. The lazy spawner stops spawning quests after its own region is hostile. This means that quests will spill out into neighboring regions until they’re border, but no further. Lazy spawners are handy because they can be added to any region and they’ll never result in accidentally overwhelming the players. Unlike regular spawners, there’s a hard cap on how much of the map they can cover, so you can place them all over the place, give them all d4s, hook them up to as many supply quests as you want, and they’ll never end up drowning the entire world because they stop spawning after filling up the local area.

A nasty version of the lazy spawner is a lazy spawner who spawns other, non-lazy spawner quests. This allows for a dark lord who can make armies infuriatingly fast because he’s pumping out lieutenants who themselves raise armies to raise Hell. If the spawned quests of both the dark lord and his spawner lieutenants are bunker quests that fortify both the lieutenant that spawned them and the dark lord himself, he can be practically invulnerable unless most of his armies are wiped out. This is a good way to have a single villain who can come to threaten most of the map. Give the players a bunch of static quests near their starting area to keep them busy while the BBEG creates a vast tide of evil. By making the BBEG a lazy spawner, you can guarantee he won’t create so many spawners that the heroes become unable to keep up with the number of quests being spawned even when focusing their attention on them, while at the same time making the BBEG capable of growing an army extremely quickly.

A similar variant is to have the BBEG begin rolling to replace a spawner lieutenant as soon as they’re cleared. Like a regular lazy spawner, the BBEG only replaces lieutenants up to a certain number (perhaps making sure he always has an undead lieutenant, a greenskins lieutenant, a diabolic lieutenant, etc.), but unlike a regular lazy spawner, he’ll start rolling to replace lieutenants whenever and wherever they go down, even if his personal Mordor is still fully stocked with quests.

Sleeper Quests

A sleeper quest does not contribute to region threat. A subset of them (you might call them comatose quests) never wake up, and are basically just a plain old adventure hook leading to a regular old adventure that doesn’t have any impact on the campaign map at all. Most of the time, though, a sleeper quest can be woken up after a certain number of turns or after a certain event occurs or sometimes based on a roll of the die, like a spawner quest that only spawns itself. Once woken, the sleeper quest becomes another quest type. An example of a sleeper quest might be a hibernating dragon who wakes up and begins ravaging the countryside after a certain amount of time, or who might awaken when his brother is killed and come for revenge. Another example might be an ancient evil, wounded and recovering, who eventually wakes up to become a spawner quest.

Supply Quests

A supply quest can be particularly nasty. They are attached to a spawner quest (though not necessarily in the same location) and supply it with some kind of resource, literal or abstract, which allows the spawner quest to spawn faster. Each supply quest attached to a spawner quest expands the range that spawner quest spawns by 1. So, a spawner quest with two supply quests attached spawns on a roll of 1-3 on whatever their spawn die is (if it’s a d4, they’ll be spawning quests more often than not).

A supply quest attached to a d4 increases the spawn chance of any given roll from 25% to 50%, but attached to a d6, it increases the spawn rate from 16% (and change) to 33% (and change). That’s a 25 percentage point increase on the d4, but only a 17% (and change) increase on the d6. The same pattern continues with higher die sizes. The bigger the spawn die, the less drastic the supply quest’s effect is. So, while a supply quest attached to a d4 turns it into an urgent threat that produces quests nearly as quickly as PCs can clear them, a d12 requires two supply quests just to be as threatening as a regular d4 spawner. This is what supply quests are best used for, not making an already quick spawner into something so pressing that you’re almost (though admittedly not quite) railroading your players into focusing their full attention on it. A d10 spawner with a pair of supply quests is one that produces quests fairly rapidly and which can be hamstrung without being attacked directly, an approach that may be particularly attractive if, for example, the supply quests are much easier or much closer to the starting region than the main spawner. This can be used to build up a villain over time. He starts out putting pressure on the starting region, and after this initial invasion is thwarted by defeating his supply quests, he broods in his Mordorian fortress, impenetrable but with his armies largely exhausted for now.

Another way to use supply quests is to make them sleeper quests that wake up and attach themselves to a smaller spawn die if a certain trigger is pulled. Depending on the situation, this can make players reluctant to do something they’d otherwise like to. Maybe a sleeping supply quest will be awakened if any quest is cleared in a certain region, as malcontents within the local Mordor-alike rally around their dark overlord when meddling do-gooders come free their slaves and ruin their war machines in their own backyard. Maybe the dark overlord doesn’t know anyone is opposing him, and killing one of his lieutenants will alert him to the threat, causing him to get serious and start supplying the remaining lieutenants with more troops and treasure.

Warlord Quests

A warlord quest is a quest that can lead other quests as an intelligent antagonist. A warlord quest is mobile, obeying the same rules for movement speed as players. They’re usually mounted, which means they can travel extremely quickly across road networks, road networks that they may or may not destroy behind them by leaving behind enough quests to make the region dangerous and thus destroy its prosperity. Warlords can gather up any quests in the same region as them and drag them along with them, and they can bring any number of quests in the same region as them, ignoring the usual four quest limit. Quests left behind by a warlord resume normal behavior.

Warlord quests work best as sleeper quests who wake up in the lategame to direct remaining quests to actively fight back against the near-triumphant party. Once the party has claimed a solid 60% or so of the map as border or less threat, the remaining hostile areas – probably the ones inhabited by the most powerful enemies – go on the attack. Trade networks that the players have come to rely on are severed as the warlord leads monsters to empty out of Mordor and seize them. Strong points like fortification regions are ignored, while farmlands and ports that are lifeblood of the players’ military and economy are prioritized.

For a particularly nasty endgame, you can have multiple warlord quests spawn from nowhere with sizable hordes, attacking players who have already cleared most of the map as some kind of external invasion, a Mongol horde or extraplanar conquest. One warlord in particular is the leader and a lazy spawner, and will start rolling to replace any of the other spawner warlords in the horde, who are his lieutenants, if they should be cleared. The trigger for waking up the warlord (and optionally their horde) can be a specific number of strategic turns passing rather than the party having claimed a certain amount of land, and this is particularly effective if players now the doom clock is ticking in advance. Perhaps they’re sent to this land specifically to try and thwart the beachhead of an incoming diabolic invasion, still a few months out, or perhaps they keep hearing about this vast horde of monsters chewing through realms, first very distant ones and slowly drawing closer, over the course of the campaign, until finally they arrive on the map. Either way, it can help turn the final stages of a campaign that might otherwise feel like mop-up into a more thrilling conclusion.

Discovering Quests

In order to discover nearby quests, the party must roll an Investigation check at DC 10. If they succeed, they learn of whichever quest in the region is most obvious, at GM’s discretion. If they fail, they can’t try again in the same region until the next strategic turn. For every five points by which the party succeeds on the check, they learn of one more quest in the region or, if there are no more quests in the region, of one quest in a neighboring region. No amount of success on Investigation checks will yield results from regions that do not neighbor the region the check was made in. News just doesn’t travel that far. Exceptions may exist in certain cases for threats that are both very powerful, enough to be heard of even from very far away, and very old, such that there’s been enough time for news of them to reach lands weeks of travel away.

Every rule in a role playing game is subject to the fiction, but in this case in particular it’s worth noting that the party will often hear about quests without having rolled Investigation for it, just as a natural result of interacting with the world. If they have a personal audience with the king, that king is very likely to have a good grasp of what menaces plague his land and will happily divulge that information to anyone interested in helping. Defeating one threat might lead directly to the discovery of other, related threats while going through correspondence or interrogating prisoners. All of this is not only fine, but is usually preferable to the fairly mechanical process of just rolling Investigation and being told what’s going on nearby. The ability to find new quests just by rolling for them is a failsafe in case the party ever runs out of leads and needs to figure out what to do next, not prerequisite for having adventures.

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