There are two schools of thought regarding side quests. The first insists that parties shouldn’t split up, period. Where one character goes, the others must follow. (That must get really tricky when the rogue needs to infiltrate an organization, only to be foiled by the clanking of the fighter’s armor.)
The second school of thought, of which I am a card-carrying member, believes that side quests aren’t just fun – they’re often useful and sometimes they’re downright necessary. Here, then, are some tips for using side quests in your game and keeping the experience positive for everyone involved.
When to Use Side Quests
There are plenty of situations that call for side quests. The most common reason is for PC development. Maybe you have a paladin who wants to go on a quest for his god. Or maybe you have a rogue who wants to climb the ranks in her guild. Or maybe you’ve got a fighter who wants to commission a legendary weapon, but who must first gather the necessary components of that weapon. Meanwhile, the rest of the party wants to keep pursuing the central plot. You can use a side quest to make everyone happy.
Sometimes players have commitments that keep them away from the gaming table. If you’ve got one or two players who really want to game, instead of canceling the session due to low turnout, you can take the players you have and send them on a side quest.
Finally, if you want to add more role-play to your game, side quests are a great way to do it. They’re great tools for character development and they present lots of role-play opportunities in a more intimate dynamic.
How to Use Side Quests
You can send PCs on a side quest any time the party splits up. You can run side quests as extra sessions in between games, or use an assistant DM to run the rest of the group while you handle the side quest (or vice versa).
You can also frame side quests within dream sequences. Just be sure to make the dream sequence meaningful in some way. Perhaps the dreamer(s) can learn valuable information about themselves, their task, or their enemies. Or maybe they can receive a message from a higher power, or discover the location of a lost item. Dreams can be powerful plot vehicles, so give the dreamers some sort of tangible benefit. Otherwise, the players might feel like their time was wasted.
A Word of Caution
Most importantly, you don’t want to give your side-questing players unfair advantages. This will only cause drama and make it seem like you’re playing favorites. Giving the side questors unique insights is one thing, when done in moderation. Giving them the Vorpal Axe of Godslaying +25 is something else entirely. Take care to keep things balanced for all your players.
From Side Quest to Plot Element
Side quests that prove to be fun and challenging can be incorporated into your larger campaign. This is easiest for sandbox-style games, but with a little planning, you can tack them on to linear games as well.
How do you feel about side quests? Do you love them or loathe them?