Thursday, November 22, 2012

Variants – Milestone Quest System

You may remember in previous blogs my complaints about systems where feats are granted to players on a regular basis, and are used, generally, to min-max various character builds in those systems. But I don’t object to special abilities being gained by characters, I just object to players being able to pick from a cafeteria list for these options.

The crux (IMNSHO) of a campaign is how the characters interact within the campaign. When players design builds for their characters, using feats as one of the building blocks, they are not really connected to the campaign as a whole. Rather, they are building their characters in a vacuum, which can lead to all sorts of problems.

So any system which has characters acquiring special abilities should allow for them to do it within the confines of the greater campaign, so that these abilities are added organically, as the result of the choices that characters make, rather than the choices that players make.

This is the reason for a system that I call Milestone Quests. These aren't formal quests in the game itself, but rather a simple mechanic for gaining non class-related special abilities.

A character may gain a special ability when they accomplish a major goal. A ‘major goal’ varies by level, being composed of a number of Milestones equal to the level of the character when the Quest is initiated. A Milestone is a simple, specific goal that can be accomplished during the course of a single session of play.

Here’s an example. For a third level Quest, a character needs to complete three Milestones. As his village has been torched by a dragon, the character desires to find a dragon slaying magic weapon. The character already has clue that such a weapon may be found at the tomb of a long-dead dragon slayer. For the first milestone, the character cleans out the dungeon-tomb and find parts of the magic weapon. Then, he must re-forge the weapon to recreate it, which requires another adventure. Finally, he journeys to an ancient library, where after defeating various undead librarians, he learns the secret of the weapon, which allows him access to the anti-dragon magic of the weapon. After all three Milestones have been completed he gains a +2 attack bonus against dragons as a permanent character ability, separate from the weapon itself.

As you can see, the gain of permanent character ability matches (roughly) the power level of a feat, and was earned by accomplishing tasks within the campaign. The referee decides the exact details of the ability, and the character simply expresses a desire in a general way (I am looking to get better at fighting dragons) and takes actions which would lead to such an end.

All this is very casually dealt with during play. I’ll turn to a player, and ask, “Does your character have a quest for this level? What is it?” I’ll then talk it through with the player, just asking in general how he or she thinks the character would accomplish the task.

Here’s another sample. The character in question is a third level fighter.

Ref: So what’s your quest for this level?

Player: I don’t know, I hadn't thought about it yet.

Ref: Didn't Josiah (the character in question) say he wanted to learn to fight with two weapons?

Player: Yeah, that would be cool.

Ref: Well Josiah has heard of dueling masters who fight with a sword and dagger. They supposed to train students in the City-State of the Invincible Overlord.

Player: That hell-hole! I don’t want my character going anywhere near that place! Are there any other ways to learn the skill?

Ref: Well, you might ask a bard or a sage, if you don’t know any other rumors.

Player: Fred’s character is a bard. Hey Fred, does your bard know where to get two-weapon fighting?

Fred: My dear Josiah, if one seeks to advance oneself in the art of combat, I, Turin the bard, advise you to seek out those masters of the dueling art in the City-Sta...

Player: I don’t wanna go there! Anyplace else you know of?

After a quick lore check, the Referee tells Fred: You know of an ancient manual, Hanko’s Fechtbuch, which contains the secret of two-weapon fighting. You think it might be buried in the ruins of Ostval, which is on the Skandik coast.

Fred relates this (in character, of course) to Josiah’s player.

Player: Great, so that’s my Quest for this level.

Ref: OK, but you need three milestones to achieve a Quest at your level. So, in addition, you will have to get the Fechtbuch translated, and then you will also have to learn how to read, or get someone to read it to you.

Player: Fine, whatever (eyes the bard). How far is it to Ostval?

I want to stress that this is not some hard and fast rule, but rather more of a guideline. It’s framework for introducing a way of integrating the character with the campaign, while rewarding a character for working with the environment. If, for reasons of suspense, you don’t wish to negotiate all of the milestones ahead of time, that’s fine, but I would resist ‘springing’ a Quest on a player with their input. This, as much as humanly possible, should be a player-directed activity. A player should never be forced into this sort of Quest, as I am defining the term.

The abilities granted by a Quest should be in the 3.5 feat range, getting a little bit better as you go up in levels. Here are some guidelines:

1: +1 attack, leather which allows an elf to cast spells while wearing it.

2: +2 save vs. some specific circumstance.

3: +2 Attack vs. specific target type.

4: Ability to attack ghost or other incorporeal, 3/day

5: At about this level, the benefits should top out, and stay consistent, because at this level you leave the power scope encompassed by feats, and enter the level of minor magic items.

Next time: Where have all the Magic Items gone?


  1. I could also see this working perfectly well in place of the standard XP system/level increases.

  2. Yes, and I have known plenty of GMs who have used (roughly) this same system for just what you mention. For myself, I really like XP = GP and the effects that has on player behavior, so I'll stick to that for gaining levels.