When originaly write this I had taken a vacation from work the week prior. To paraphrase from Office Space; I did nothing, and it was everything I dreamed it could be. Some might say that I wasted the opportunity, by not traveling, or doing copious amounts of home improvement work, but I didn't take time off from one form of work just to do other work. It makes me wonder why adventurers put up with side quests. Here's a life and limb threatening adventure that will do nothing to help you vanquish the evil overlord. Nah, I'm good, I like my +4 sword thanks...
Issue #15: Take a Vacation, Do a Side Quest
So there you are, on the trail of the artifact that will help you kill the evil lich, or tracking down the only shadow-runner to ever survive contact with an AI in digital combat, or ... well, any number of "main quest-y type things." You arrive in a new town, new planet, or new airport (hey, not every game has teleportation and space ships). You think, "OK, now we just have to find this guy and get the goods," but the GM says, "You see a child, perhaps five years old, looking alone and scared. What do you do?"
Yeah, you just stepped into a side quest, and there isn't a stick or a garden hose that will help you scrape or wash it off. Your hero, all corded thews of muscle or arcane cosmic power, sees the child and you get sucked in, no save required (sorry rogues). Next thing you know you're tracking down a kidnapped mother, or locating some long lost temple. You might even be enjoying it, and you do get some experience at least, right?
The question then is why can't the side-quest feed back into the main quest? I don't mean the "go fetch" kind of side-quest either; I mean something less obvious, and more optional.
GMs have a tough job, and sometimes they need more time to prepare for the next big download of plot and XPs. Side quests came out of this need to stall. It's easy to grab a handful of goblins, robots, or a ready made villain with a penchant for calendar themed crimes and seven (or twelve) thematic minions, and toss together a quick side mission, something unrelated to the story, that buys the GM a week or two of extra prep and keeps the players from forming a brute squad. As games and gamers get more sophisticated though, the transparent charm of the simple side quest can begin to tarnish. "OH, John isn't ready for this week's game so I guess we're gonna hack up a bunch of gobbos again." Ouch. Player groups lucky enough to have multiple GM class people can avoid this by having multiple games running in parallel, but not all are so lucky.
So what can a GM do? Use call backs. That is have an NPC or a piece of loot from a prior side quest take a larger roll in the main plot. The NPC that the heroes assisted turns out to have a key item or information for them. The magic thingamabob they got off an earlier side villain turns out to be a rare and powerful artifact with a one use power which will aid the heroes greatly. The (nearly) inescapable prison the characters were in (and maybe escaped from) turns out to be the perfect holding place for a major baddy. The sky's the limit really, perhaps the annoying chant that an insane ork shaman wouldn't stop muttering is a protection spell against the evil mage the party must face...
The reward need not be obvious, and in fact, the more obscure is often better. Call backs are also not something to use for every side quest, but occasional use will let your players know that a side quest isn't always just an excuse to buy more time, nor always a way to provide a "concealed bonus" to the group.
Have you ever used call backs as GM? How were they recieved? As a player has your GM ever done this, and if so did it make you appreciate his efforts more?