Default Actions: The Quest

The discussion of the core action in cyberpunk yesterday got me thinking about core actions and what it looks like to start from those in designing a game. It’s been interesting, and has cracked open a few old jars.

One of the first things I bumped my nose against is that there seems to be a lot of overlap between this idea and what have historically been held up as classic adventuring structures. The exactly list of these varies, but the dungeon crawl is only one of them (albeit the most prominent). Others include the quest, the escape, the delivery, the investigation and so on. At first, I thought I might be able to mine this list for ideas, but as I started to do so, it revealed that while these are related to core actions, they are at a slightly different layer of operations.

To use a concrete example, let’s look at the quest. It’s one of the most classic models for an arc (whether that arc is a few sessions or a whole campaign), and if you know that this is the model your game is going to follow, you can plan a lot of clever things. But by itself, it is not a lot of great guidance in terms of what the characters will actually be doing in a session. Looking for the grail, yes, but what actual actions does that turn into?[1]

If the character’s know where the object is, then the bulk of adventure is in getting there, and the primary action is just that – going in a straight line and (hopefully) encountering interesting things. Most likely, this ends up following the “New Town, New Trouble” model that is a staple of television shows from The A Team to Avatar: the Last Airbender. So the action is – come to town, encounter an obstacle which (physically, morally or otherwise) will keep you from proceeding, overcome it, and move on.

If the character’s don’t know where the object is (as is more often the case) then it’s more likely to be the “Trail of Breadcrumbs”. You don’t know where the goal is, but you know where the next link in the chain may be. This plays out much like new town, new trouble, but rather than encountering obstacles to progress, there is usually some sort of problem around the breadcrumb (and pointer to the next breadcrumb).

This may seem like a very small difference. And it is – play is going to be pretty similar in both cases. But it becomes important when compared to the third approach, perhaps best described as “Let Them Figure it Out”. This is that awkward point in play where the GM has given a goal, but as players you have no real sense of how to act on it, so you flail about hitting streets or libraries hoping that something shakes loose. This can be fun if it’s the point of the game (Noir is full of these things) but it’s utterly frustrating when it’s a hurdle to actually doing anything. The difference is moving from the idea (The Quest) to the execution (what actions will this require?), and thinking about that transition before play starts.

More to come on this, I’m pretty sure.


  1. I’m defining action by a simple yardstick. If the GM doesn’t provide something immediate to react to, what is the thing the players can clearly see that their characters need to do next?  ↩

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