Dungeons and Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla of the role-playing game world. For what is arguably such a small slice of the space (swords and sorcery fantasy), D&D is utterly dominant, commanding a plurality of the hobby’s mind and market share (and that’s a majority if you count all games which are direct derivatives, like Pathfinder and many OSR games). For this reason, when someone lists “overtake D&D” as one of their design goals, even if it’s just part of a Twitter thread, your ears perk up. Indeed, TC Sottek did post those words, in that order, on Twitter. But people are listening. TC Sottek is the designer of Quest.
Quest was released in late February of this year, with Kickstarter rewards distributed earlier (as usual). It is a game that aims squarely across the bow of D&D, but not by working like D&D and its close derivatives like Pathfinder and 13th Age do. Quest, design-wise, has more in common with PbtA games and slim OSR games like The Black Hack, Knave, and Maze Rats in terms of its relationship to rules and play. Where Quest differs (and indeed, the place where it is markedly superior) is in layout and document design. Quest is intended to be easy to read, easy to play, and easy to adapt. The game has grown in popularity recently, which has garnered a degree of skepticism from the rest of the Indie RPG community. That said, from all I’ve read, Sottek ran a Kickstarter campaign, garnered an average number of backers (the Kickstarter for Dream Askew/Dream Apart kicked off in the same month and had more backers than Quest did), and then went and designed a good game. Let’s take a look.
I’ll start straight off by saying that Quest is not a D&D killer; it’s simply not designed that way. Quest has no attributes or skills. Quest actually has no modifiers to rolls whatsoever. Quest is built around a five-tiered die result, and then two permission-granting elements, special abilities and items. The dice mechanic is clearly inspired by PbtA, though it puts a D&D table culture spin on it by using a d20 and then tacking a critical hit (or Triumph) above the success and a critical miss (or Catastrophe) below the failure. Overall your chance of success of some sort on any given die roll is 75%, which is important when neither special abilities nor items modify said die roll. Special abilities are granted by Roles, of which there are eight; each role doesn’t map exactly to a D&D class but they don’t wander far from character archetypes common to this genre of game. Items that are tracked in the game are, with the exception of basic weapons and a set of lockpicks, all interesting and unusual. The rules explicitly state that mundane items shouldn’t be tracked; a challenge which prevents characters from getting food or medical supplies should be addressed as just that, a challenge, rather than a shopping trip. As the only inventory being tracked is interesting items, the only inventory mechanic is that each character has 12 slots. Simple, and better than encumbrance limits.
What’s important about both special abilities and items is that they define something that characters are allowed to do, and it’s essential to the tone of the game that all of these things are interesting and magical right from the beginning. This is especially useful to note for the special abilities, which are the only mode of mechanical differentiation for each Role. Each character starts with six special abilities, and they get to choose from among five “learning paths” with between three and five abilities each. This both means there’s some immediate flexibility with how the character starts as well as room for the character to grow and change through play. While I’ve recently been discussing how advancement isn’t necessary for RPGs, it is de rigueur for this sort of fantasy and having a vision of a character “advancing” is part of the appeal of D&D and D&D-adjacent games. The default rate of advancement for Quest is one new ability for each session of play, which would max out a character at between the 15-20 session mark.
The way that powers and spotlight are managed in the game is through a mechanic called Adventure Points. Each character starts with 10 Adventure Points (AP) and will earn at least five per session, with no ceiling. Most special abilities have an AP cost, ranging between 1 and 7; each role typically only has one or two early-game special abilities without a cost. My thought whenever I see a mechanic like this is that players will hoard points; this is mitigated somewhat both by the ubiquity of AP-driven special abilities as well as the fact that most special abilities don’t require a die roll. To help balance cool abilities without relying on dice, there are a number of scaled abilities which have different effects based on what sort of enemy you’re facing. The enemies are divided up into Commoners, Minions, and Bosses, and monster construction is taking one of those three templates and adding ‘features’ to it until it represents the monster you have in mind. Speaking of monsters, combat is fairly straightforward. Unarmed attacks do one damage, basic weapons do two damage. Only special abilities and magic items do more. As such, there isn’t much in the way of rules for combat beyond making sure everyone goes in a round; to be fair, without attributes or skills there’s no way to calculate an initiative rating anyway.
In terms of rules…that’s pretty much it. This is light for any RPG, and the few rules that are included are what many people would consider “the good stuff”: cool abilities and cool items are still defined in the game, but with the sole exception of the roles themselves there is little gating between players and their choice of good stuff. Quest took a page from games like Troika and Electric Bastionland which are heavily defined by the unique characters they describe, and mixed that idea with the admittedly addictive formula of D&D class-and-level advancement. To hop on my favorite soapbox, Quest gets rid of a whole lot of RPG design truisms, but keeps the couple that the designer thinks are actually fun.
With all this talk of how light the system is, you may note the 155 page count and think that we’re seeing the most significant page count inflation this side of Mörk Borg. Indeed, Quest and Mörk Borg have something in common, which is deliberate design. While Mörk Borg is deliberately designed to be evocative and dreadful, Quest is deliberately designed to be an easy RPG to read, play, and run.
The first thing you notice about the Quest PDF is that it’s in landscape format. Given that the book is not in landscape format, it’s a fairly standard A5-sized book from what I can see from pictures (I only bought the PDF to review this), this means that the PDF and book versions are laid out differently. I wish more game publishers would do this, though I do concede its difficulty. Still, in a game like Quest the use of page-sized layout and whitespace for readability necessitates different strategies for a page in a book and a page on a monitor, and I’m glad that someone both realized this and put in the work for it.
Beyond the layout, which yes, is good, I want to point out the number of things integrated into the flow of the document. I love character creation, even though there’s basically no interfacing with the rules (choose a Role, that’s it). Character creation is essentially a Mad-Libs page but each entry gets a spread of ideas and jumping off points to help inspire players. I’d note here that D&D has nothing of this vein in character creation, so even without rules we’re still providing a better framework on which to build interesting characters.
The GMing advice is also well done. I wouldn’t call these frameworks original; in fact, I can see which games the designer is cribbing from pretty clearly. That said, it’s presented in a straightforward and understandable manner, and there are plenty of examples that can help even the most novice GM prep an adventure. The GM section includes frameworks for worldbuilding and player safety as well as the nitty-gritty of running a game, which makes it more complete than the analogous sections in many other games.
The last point I’d make about the document is not entirely independent of the rules, but was likely foreshadowed by my comparisons to Maze Rats and Mörk Borg. Quest is an OSR game at its heart. While much of the advice is directed towards creating narrative and compelling characters, Quest slots neatly in alongside many modern OSR games as a lightweight system which is intended as a final arbiter rather than narrative builder. I don’t doubt that the designer read and was inspired by a wide number of games, as I noted above I can see the fingerprints of quite a few. But when it comes down to it, Quest would run old D&D modules just fine. Looking at the first official campaign, The Reach, it’s clear that sandbox play should be quite compatible with the system as well. In an ironic twist, being willing to dispense with old standbys helped create a great old-school game.
I liked Quest. I do tend to like my games more robust, but then again in many ways I’m not the target market for this game (I don’t think anyone who has played GURPS for as long as I have is the target market). I will make an observation about the game’s burgeoning social media status: while the fact that the designer is the editor of an online publication can’t be ignored, what’s likely equally responsible for the game’s visibility as Sottek’s own marketing experience is the fact that it’s perfect for streaming. No math, lots of cool abilities still detailed, and fiction-forward character creation and GMing advice which translates well for audience-driven play. Now that I’ve read the game, I can say Quest isn’t going to upend any existing hierarchy, even with Wizards/Hasbro PR making unforced error after unforced error these days. That said, one need not start any revolutions to be successful, and I think that Quest’s combination of retaining the most interesting parts of D&D while making it simple and elegant is going to make the game quite successful indeed.
Quest is available from the Adventure Guild website at https://www.adventure.game/.