[This post contains mid-sized spoilers for the video game Breath of the Wild and the RPG adventure In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe]
Your quest is to awaken the slumbering elf king by bringing him the fairy stone. To do that, you must journey to the ancient shrine of Cernunnos, now controlled by orcs deep within their dark, industrial colony. You get behind enemy lines, sneak past orc armies, kill some scouts, steal their maps, and locate the shrine. Once at the shrine, you have a dungeon to clear out. There's a sequence of rooms you discover, soon finding the fairy stone. It's locked behind the Hart Gate, an ornate lattice fence shaped like a stag. You'll need a series of keys, each one hanging from a branch of its antlers so you can unlock the gate. That means exploring the maze of trials and secrets throughout the shrine. In each room of the shrine, there's monsters and orc patrols, puzzles and riddles, traps and hazards, secret treasures, imprisoned civilians to free, and weird magic stuff to play with.
Room < Dungeon < Hexcrawl
The above adventure doesn't exist. But the broad strokes are familiar. All adventures are a sequence of tasks. But the way those tasks are organized goes a long way in shaping the whole thing. There's a hierarchy. Every room of the dungeon presents a short-term task. You start a combat encounter with some orcs, and for the next stretch of playtime that is the task you are performing. But those are all contained in the context of the dungeon task, which you're also performing simultaneously. It's not just a series of arbitrary, disconnected episodes. There's a through line tying it together. Collect the keys to unlock the gate and get the MacGuffin. That's a mid-term task you began when you entered the dungeon and which you completed after finishing a bunch of the rooms. But the dungeon is not the full story. It's also a piece of a greater context. Doing the dungeon is just the last task in the hexcrawl. Getting to the dungeon was a series of tasks, as is getting back from the dungeon. All of those hexcrawl tasks, with the dungeon task in the middle, comprise a long-term task. And it's that long-term task that is the true "quest."
Quests are like onions. Or ogres.
Gameplay can frame one specific task layer as being the "focus." That's what the players think of as the "main thing" they're doing. Every task below that is mentally conceived of merely as steps in the process of that focus task. Tasks above that are... maybe rendered a bit irrelevant or nebulous. That's not to say that the focus task should therefore always be the highest-level one, though. Put a pin in that for now.
The important takeaway is that the layer of focus is the most load-bearing. It has to be the juiciest layer. Tasks on layers above and below that are given permission to be a bit more shallow. For example: combat. If you're playing a tactical skirmish game, where combat is the primary activity defining play, then the combat better be fucking good. You really want it to be saucy and delicious. But I'm used to playing old school dungeon crawlers. They tend to have pretty shallow combat. The crunch is simple and doesn't pull much weight in spicing up the fight. There's not much support or encouragement for constructing really creative and interesting fight scenarios. In fact, they're more likely to actively discourage that kind of prep. Yet combat is undeniably a part of the game, and one which features in most sessions of play. So does that mean that the combat just... sucks? It's half-assed and disappointing?
Well, no. I don't think so. Because when I play those games, the task I'm usually focused on is the greater dungeoncrawl itself. Each fight is a sub-task making up the crawl. They don't need to each be particularly mind-blowing. No single fight is load-bearing. By making each fight pretty good, sprinkled among a variety of other pretty good sub-tasks, the focus task of the dungeon itself can become greater than the sum of its parts.
All of this is on my mind because I'm finally playing Breath of the Wild for the first time. Yeah yeah I know. I don't play video games much. A couple months ago I finally played Metroid Dread, and the last game I had played before that was like 3+ years ago. ANYWAY, let's talk about BotW.
While most people agree that the game is a masterpiece, it is also subject to lots and lots and lots of criticisms. I know I have my own list of complaints. But something I hear a lot is that people don't like the combat. They call it shallow, even saying it's worse than the swordplay in Twilight Princess. And like, I can see that. But it doesn't bother me. "It gets old fast, you'll be sick of it soon." Maybe that's true, but currently I'm a bit skeptical. Because I've not really wanted anything more out of it. Almost every last fight has merely been a sub-task for me.
I play in roughly two-hour chunks. Each session, I pick a focus task. It's usually either: 1) get to the next town, 2) get to the next stable, 3) get to the next tower, 4) do all the shrines in a region, or 5) something completely different. Thus far, each of those has proven to be a task of generally-equivalent weight. A big goal that'll drive play for around 2 hours. Every single thing that happens along the way is just a sub-task in the process of that major task. Here are some common sub-tasks that usually define the major task:
- Planning a route
- Acquiring the gear I'll need (e.g. a torch, a big leaf to generate wind, the right clothing, a certain arrow type, etc.)
- Clearing enemy camps on the path
- Planning and executing a tricky climb
- Getting to some high ground so I can either 1) glide down to somewhere else on my route, or 2) get a good view so I can plan a previously-undecided piece of my route
- Fighting off random encounters
- Meeting NPCs along the way and talking to them
- Fighting off Yiga Clan bitches
- Stumbling upon a Hinox or something and either fighting it or running
- Doing a single shrine quest (i.e. those shrines where the whole trial is literally just unlocking them, not any puzzle inside. Those tend to be a bit meaty)
Even shrines are just sub-tasks within a session. That's why it doesn't bother me that they aren't full-length traditional Zelda dungeons. Because no one shrine is the focus task, they have permission to be a bit shallow. And I really mean that. I love them. So far, they're like my favorite part of the game, despite being a bit simple and easy.
I will admit that if the only focus tasks I had were the first 4 examples I gave, that might get a bit stale after awhile. But that 5th category has had plenty of entries. I spent one session just doing my first Divine Beast. Getting there, clearing it out, and fighting the boss was a good mid-sized task that was equivalent in weight to what it usually takes for me to, say, reach a region tower and activate it. Equal weight, but much more interesting and cool just because of novelty. I spent another session just reaching the Great Deku Tree. My most recent one was getting to the top of Lanayru mountain, finding a fucking dragon there, and freeing the dragon of its corruption (possibly the single coolest session I've had yet). My next session or two might be clearing more shrines or activating another tower, but I'm actually thinking after that I want to spend a session doing a little expedition into Hyrule Castle just to take a peek. I've heard tons of rumors about it, got some good tips about a few secret entrances, and am curious to see what I'll find if I go in just a few rooms. And that's a task I know will be intensive enough to eat up a good 2 hours (hell, just sneaking past the Guardians will be bad enough...).
A few years ago I ran the excellent In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe by Jacob Fleming. It's an old-school adventure, very vanilla fantasy, good for low-to-mid level play. It's a hexcrawl of a mountainous wilderness region called the Gemthrone Valley, which is rumored to be filled with precious gems, ancient ruins, and an undead curse. The adventure comes with some maps and contains 9 dungeons and 5 settlements. Sounds pretty standard, right?
But there was something that really struck me about it. See, this is actually a bit of a weird format to publish an adventure. Most OSR folks will just publish, y'know, dungeons. A product of this length and price might ordinarily be a medium-sized dungeon or a collection of mini-dungeons. And somewhere near the beginning, under a heading that says something like "how to use this book," it'll advise you to slot this dungeon somewhere in your existing campaign as you see fit. Pretty standard advice in the old school scene is to make your own wilderness region and then populate it with a bunch of short adventures you've collected (1-page dungeons, Trilemma Adventures, Wyvern Songs, Dyson Logos maps, etc.).
So why wasn't this adventure just the dungeons, rumor tables, and maybe settlements? Why must they be set within this specific wilderness region with this specific map? Well, because the dungeons aren't the adventure. The whole region is the adventure.
- NPCs have quests and rumors which require you to accomplish tasks throughout the whole valley.
- The region has three ancient statues, each of which has a slate of mysterious symbols. The players can decipher the symbols and realize that, between the three slates, they have a full alphabet. With that, they can translate ancient writing found in all sorts of places in the valley.
- The dungeons feature repeated tricks and traps, because they were all built by the same primordial race.
- There are big rare orange magic gems found throughout the valley, which are used to activate and unlock ancient devices in the dungeons.
- Everyone likes a dungeon with some history you learn from environmental storytelling. But in this adventure, no single dungeon contains enough lore to fully understand what's going on. Only by visiting a bunch of dungeons will you accumulate enough lore to understand them all.
Each dungeon is really small, taking up a single page or maybe a 2-page spread. Not much room for depth. They aren't big enough to feature many Jaquaysing techniques. They aren't big enough to lead up to a boss fight at the end. They aren't big enough to have a gimmick that's explored thoroughly. But that's fine! You won't be spending multiple sessions on any of these dungeons. More likely, you'll do an entire dungeon in less than the length of a single session. Maybe you can even clear out two of them. They're all just sub-tasks comprising the focus task of the valley itself. The valley is greater than the sum of its parts.
In a way, you can think of each little dungeon as just being one huge dungeon that's been carved into chunks, each one scattered throughout the region. And the non-dungeon sites in the valley, like the settlements, statues, the lake, some key ridges, and so on are all also meaty sub-tasks that tie together the whole experience.
This is the stuff that spans the campaign, not just a single adventure arc. This is the thing we pinned up earlier. If you have layers of tasks, and the focus task isn't the highest layer, then how does that affect the way that players view the higher layers? I suspect it'll render them a bit nebulous feeling. Just like sub-tasks, super-tasks have a bit of their weight taken away.
In Breath of the Wild, I can think of three big super-tasks I have going on. 1) Clear out all 4 divine beasts, 2) get the motherfuckin' Master Sword babeeee, and 3) defeat Ganon.
If the focus task is the medium-length goals I spend about 2 hours on (e.g. activate a tower, clear a bunch of shrines, get to the next town, etc.), then I think the Divine Beasts super-task and the Master Sword super-task are each one layer above that, whereas the Ganon super-task is two layers above.
The thought of defeating all four divine beasts isn't exactly urgent. It's not like it's on my to-do list and I plan to to cross it off in one simple stroke. From the very beginning of the game, I conceptualized it as basically being the major arc of the whole game. I anticipate my playthrough being defined by 4 big phases, one for each beast. So mentally, I split it up into four mid-sized tasks. And even those are just going to be four tasks amid a long series of a few dozen other mid-sized tasks. Likewise, now that I've discovered the Master Sword and what it's gunna take to prove my worth, I can break that super-task down into mid-sized focus tasks. Once I found it, I needed to collect 5 more hearts to pull it out. 5 hearts is 20 shrines. I can do about 4 or 5 shrines in 2 hours if that's my focus task. And I've already done that once since finding the sword, so I have about 3 or 4 more sessions of pure shrine-hunting to do for me to complete the super-task of getting the sword.
Meanwhile, there's the super-super-task of defeating Ganon. That is not even on my fucking radar yet. It's so far off, so unachievable in my feeble hands (did I mention I really really suck at this game? I fucking suck at this game y'all). So I never really think about it. It doesn't carry any weight. It may even be at the detriment of the game as a whole! NPCs will talk about the urgency of needing to defeat Ganon ASAP and their words fall so flat. It feels irrelevant to my priorities, even though it's technically at the top of the hierarchy.
A front is defined by a cast of key figures, the stakes of what they're trying to achieve and how that'll change the world, and the 1-4 major "dangers" which they have at their disposal to accomplish those stakes. The dangers belong to different types, have their own methods of evil, and have their own advancing progression towards dastardly sub-goals. So if the front is "Undead Forces" then it may have the dangers of "zombie army," "raven spies," "death knight," and "ancient gate to the netherworld."
Then, there are two levels of front: "adventure fronts" and "campaign fronts." A campaign front is structured the same way, but each of its 1-4 dangers is itself an adventure front. So the Undead Forces might just be one danger in the greater campaign front of the Dark Lord, where another danger is a corrupt government (sub-dangers including the evil royal guard, the head of the church, and the royal bank) and a dragon under his thumb (sub-dangers include the dragon's kobold followers, its magic artifact at the center of its hoard, and worsening earthquakes affecting the region as the dragon grows more violent in its lair).
An adventure front is a single plot arc lasting, let's say, 2-6 sessions. Each session, the players should be able to tackle and maybe overcome one of its dangers. Have some buffer room on either end for research, story developments, and a nice boss fight where the players can finish off the front. Then, the campaign as a whole is just a sequence of defeating 3-4 adventure fronts, all leading up to the big bad evil guy boss fight at the end.
I'm no fan of Dungeon World, but I'll admit that sounds like a fucking awesome formula for high fantasy adventure.
But the thing which I think might be most brilliant about this concept of "nested tasks" is how it aids the GM in prioritizing their creative energy. It tells you what layer of content to put the most juice into. I haven't run Dungeon World, but I suspect that the adventure front is the focus task during play. The dangers of the adventure front are each sub-tasks and the campaign front is the super-task. Therefore, feel free to make the adventure front's dangers a bit simple and one-note. They're only supposed to fuel about one session's worth of play. Likewise, the campaign front doesn't have to be completely cohesive or interesting. It's too big for the players to keep in focus all at once. It'll take so many sessions to complete that it's hard to maintain the urgency of defeating it the whole time. Hell, it'll last so long that it's unlikely for the players to even remember a lot of the key details and lore tied to the campaign front across the whole campaign. Make it shallow and give them generous reminders of the "main plot" for the series on the rare occasion that it rears its head again. It's the middle layer, the adventure front, that you want to make really compelling.
Being able to identify the focus layer in a stack of nested tasks is, I suspect, a really valuable skill that I'm only just now becoming well aware of.