Awhile back while I was working with C.A.S.T.L.E. on their Live action role-playing (larp) game. One of the things we lacked within all of our "towns" or game sites was a structured method for tackling quest creation and implementation. Now it depends on the type of larp because there are many types but I will be covering the common "campaign" style that a vast majority of American larps follow. This will be a collection on how I approached some encounters, and the methods I used to successfully entertain the players. While this is for Larps I strongly believe that some of the same mentalities involved could translate to level and quest design in digital games. Finding ways to build content dynamically through what players want is the future of all games.
One important thing to remember about Larps is that, in most cases, the attendance ratios of a game will be heaver on the Player Character (paying customers) than the Non-Player Characters (non-paying). This means that you need to be flexible as a designer because there may not be resources available at a moments notice. Another aspect to flexibility is the quest itself. Designing quests to rigidly follow a path set by the plot team is a recipe for failure. However designing them for potential outcomes, "The players may kill everyone" or "The players may save everyone" is easier to manage when they end up doing something you never thought of.
For example, when I am given a group of players to take into a "dungeon" I learn what they have come for and if there is any important components (npcs, questlines, etc that are critical story elements). If those resources are not available to me I don't turn them away. Instead I lead them in believing they are doing what they came for. However, that doesn't mean they will find what they are looking for on the first try. Instead of finding the chambers of an important figure underground they discover a pool of tar that mutates orcs into two headed orcs. They still get a sense of "discovery" which is key to success. We as humans love to uncover things and when we discover something, even something we did not intend on discovering, it is just as great if not better.
Once more, the above example was executed because I had 4 npcs available for a group of 10 veteran players. To be flexible I had to create moment to moment encounters by dynamically scaling the npcs health, damage, and spawn rate as the dungeon went on. This is something I explained to my NPCs before the encounter, setting up structure for how they should act or react to the players based on what the players may do. In the end the players expressed that this was fun, they didn't find what they were looking for, BUT they had many opportunities for role-play and combat throughout the encounter. You know you have succeeded when a player expresses that they blew through a lot of resources but they could care less because it was well spent. I have several other examples of this but I would like to keep on topic.
Moving into atmosphere we can find out that this is a tricky thing. The key here is to attempt to create a believable space. Sadly most larps do not have a budget or a large cavern underground. Instead we have to make due with tarps to build out "mod shacks" which act as our dungeons in most cases. One thing most larps do have are props, whether these be candles, chests, flowers, ribbons, etc. Instead of using these as "just clutter and set dressing" they can be used as components of the game. A ribbon can instantly become a collectible for the current quest, a chest could be hidden among the rubble for someone to find. Perhaps you have some fake bricks, a real fireplace (unlit), and a chest. Why not make that spot look like a cave in and within the rubble is a chest. Again, we come back to the sense of discovery that we as designers have control over. Even though we may not have the best equipment to get the job done it merely need to be believable. The players may question why there was a chest in the rubble, if they do then why not explore that avenue and start to hint at someone may have been in the cave in. Let the players help you write the story unfolding.
Lets look at another resourceful example. I once was approached at night by a group of 15. I had 2 npcs available, myself and one other. I decided to start up a quest line I had been pondering on for some time. I picked up a set of candles, a wireless speaker, and threw some dark robes on. I told the extra NPC to go out to a location in the woods that had an alter and benches. Set the speaker near a tree, set the candles at the alter and some near the seating, then lay on the alter. As the NPC set this up I began to walk with the players letting them speak to themselves in-game and picking up on what they were looking for. This group was just looking for mysterious things. When we approached the area I said "see those candles over there. You are standing here when you spot those candles. If you choose to investigate then how you approach this situation is up to you. If you choose to flee then run back to town." With that I walked down to the alter and said 3..2..1..game on!
With just myself, some spooky sounds, and an NPC I was able to entertain these players for over 30 minutes. I used the atmosphere to set the mood, this was creepy, this was in the woods, and it was isolated from the town. The players approached and took seats as my creature was performing some vile act on the NPC who was screaming in pain. The players, not knowing what to do sat and watched, something I did not expect. When the creature turned to them they all froze. I walked slowly between the benches, sniffing, twitching. The players afraid to move continued to stay still. I began to feast upon one of them, as I whisper to her, "begin screaming as if I'm causing your worst nightmare to come to life." At last they spring to action and aid their friend; a fight ensues. Using the darkness and the forest I dashed around vanishing and appearing once more through the brush and I gave them a run for their money. The players thanked me for giving them one of the most interesting and entertaining encounter they have ever experienced. While other factors are at play this was mostly successful because of the atmosphere. If this had been day time, near the town where you could hear other players, or even with different monsters it may have been lackluster and less effective.
Last but not least we have the In-game reward side of quests. First, reward is important because reward does not need to come in the form of items and coins. Rewards can be so much more than that and recalling the previous two topics it depends on what the players are looking for. Do these players have a goal? If they seek information then why not reward them with information? Sometimes you know that players within the group have knowledge that others do not and even though they came to this cave to slay a manticore for its hide they discover more vital plans. Such as someone who has been breeding a horde of manticores and has recently left. At times resources may be low and it is ok to say "we don't have that," but always offer something else. Favors or even miscellaneous items such as chits/gems/trinkets can be enough to satisfy a player. Keep note of deals, offers, trades, and favors so the entire plot team can make use of these.
All too often the rewards are handed off as if the player is part of an online game. "Oh hey you completed the quest here is 20 gold," or "a chest appears before you." That is boring! That is detracting from the in-game mentality. Let me paint a picture as we move into the importance of in-game reward.
A player approaches the plot team asking for rewards. This could be anything but they are doing it with an out-of-game mentality. They know that you are a person that gives rewards, they know that if they come to you and ask for a quest or a "mod" they will get something. That does not add to the overall atmosphere of the game, and it can detract for everyone. As a quest designer we should always work our player's thoughts towards in-game. Here is an example:
Gregor walks up to a plot member directing some npcs.
Gregor: "I'm going adventuring for gold!"
Plot Member: "Oh, I would love gold too, good luck on your adventure."
Gregor: No, I mean I'm looking for trouble to get some gold coins.
Lumberyard Supervisor (Plot Member): "Looking for trouble? I think you came to the wrong place, I'm just directing these monkeys around to prep lumber for a house. If you are looking to fight someone I hear there is a fighting ring that opens up late at night, I think somewhere behind the tavern. (effectively established location, a character, and a future event of interest).
Gregor: Oh, I mean I would like to go look for something to fight right now and get some gold.
Lumberyard Supervisor: I think you should go ask the guards if they have seen any bandits, they may have a few bounties or event pay you directly for helping out. If you are looking to make some gold coins perhaps I can have you work for me? I'm in need of some muscle to move things around (these players would npc for some coins).
The above is an example of how the plot person can stay in-game and handle the situation of a player seeking rewards with an out-of-game mentality. The player will most likely convert into thinking about "what" they want to do in-game rather than seek "the rewards" from an outside perspective. It is important to note that there is a transition for both people involved. The plot member was just a plot member but quickly chose something that could act as a funnel for how to think. You should always be asking yourself, even in moments of rewarding players, how can I be in-character. What is the setting around me and how can I build out a better experience. You are in a world so use your brain power to define that world and establish tone and atmosphere.
Hopefully this has been helpful in some way! I believe that when designing quests in larp that one should attempt to have content developed before an event. However Larps are special in the fact that they are live and moment to moment no matter how you look at it. Sometimes an opportunity arises and as a designer you should take hold of it and deliver the biggest bang for the buck. It is important to be flexible, provide atmosphere, and keep rewards in-game. By doing this you can provide meaningful experiences and develop not only player interest but content that is guided by player feedback and desire.