How much are fantasies shaped by an invisible box around us? Are we free to dream boundlessly or are we hemmed in by the things which inspire us?
Here’s an experiment. Think of a druid. You know the kind: loves a bit of nature, possibly changes into a bear. What’s the biggest, flashiest ability you can think of for them? Think, like, level 120 druid in World of Warcraft and then multiply it by 10. What can you do? Take a moment. Really let your mind run free.
Does what you’re thinking of sound anything like this? “You become the seed for a new world. When you cast it, your body dissipates in radiant light, becoming a cascading wave of energy that transforms the planet you are on. Casting this spell consumes your life forever; you can never be brought back.” I bet it doesn’t.
How about this for a kind of paladin? “You project yourself past all realities and glimpse a place outside time and space – into The Beyond. Here, you may seek and find a single truth by posing a question to eternity itself.”
Or this for a healer? “You touch a creature without self-awareness and bestow them with the bitter gift of selfhood … The target of the spell falls unconscious for the next minute as their body rapidly experiences 1 million years of evolution toward self-awareness. The evolutionary process alters the animal’s physical features and capabilities in ways you may not expect.”
Would you ever have come up with anything like that?
These are legendary abilities from a game called Quest, a pen-and-paper RPG released last year that does things a little differently. Look again at those abilities: do you notice anything? There’s a common theme. It’s that none of them have anything to do with combat. There’s no mention anywhere of damage. How often do you see that? What you see instead are the beginnings of stories. An animal rapidly humanised; a world regrown but the end of your life; a powerful truth revealed. In every case I want to know either what happens next or what came before, and that’s what Quest does: provokes stories.
It’s not just in the legendary abilities. Story-hooks, or sparks, are everywhere in Quest. They’re woven into the fabric of the game. Take the Magician’s spell for a bouncy ball. It ricochets around for a minute gaining pace with every bounce, not hitting living things but crashing into everything else. “The ball’s reign of terror shatters pottery, glass, light furniture and most other fragile things in your scene.” What good is a spell like but to make a story more entertaining? What good is being able to conjure an aurora in the sky or put a spirit in someone’s mind if not to tell a tale?
Better yet are abilities which require your role-play involvement, because as we tend to say, the more you put in, the more you get out. If you’re an Invoker, a kind of Paladin, you can take yourself off during quiet moments to slip away to an astral plane to speak to higher wisdoms about how you’re doing. And you actually have to have a conversation with them – you, the player. Or if you’re a Ranger you can dish out proverbs, folk songs and myths to affect people in varying ways, but you actually have to perform them at the table in order to do so.
But you’re never left alone in the spotlight by Quest. The makers of the game know it’s nerve-wracking to perform in front of friends so Quest always provides a crutch to lean on. You can pinch proverbs and lyrics and monologues from pop culture and use them in the game if you want, and where you have to create your own, there are step-by-step instructions for doing so. Character creation is a good example of this. You’re not just told to come up with a bit of a story for your character, you’re given a template with blank spaces to fill out.
“My name is (name) (pronouns). I’m (age) years old and stand (height) tall. I’m the party’s (role). When people see me, they first notice my (distinctive features). I wear (style) and move with (style). I’m from (home) where my people are known for (community). I believe in (ideal), but my (flaw) side can get in my way. I dream of (dream). I carry… (inventory).”
You could have a head of tentacles or a knee-length beard. You might be wearing a boned bodice and bumble around with no sense of space. Your home could be a city in the mist where your people are known for inventing the future, and perhaps it’s the pursuit of pleasure you’re after, the joy of being alive, although maybe this sometimes leads you down the wrong path. “That dark alley looks like fun. I’ll be back in a bit.” And what do you dream of I wonder? Maybe sparking an idea that transforms the world. These are all examples given in the book – there are pages of them.
It’s clever because what Quest is doing right at the beginning, whether you realise it or not, is coaxing you in. It’s making you complicit in putting on a bit of makeup and costume, and thinking about the objectives you need to embody a character.
This desire to fuel role-playing and trigger imagination is what frees Quest in a way I’ve rarely felt in other games. I felt a similar kind of excitement years ago reading a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. I was entranced by the boundless power available with Epic character levels which begin after 20. By level 40, you’re practically a god. “You can do what?!” my mind was saying. I didn’t even really need to play the game, I was quite happy crashing around in my imagination.
But Quest feels like it goes a step further, as though in shaking off the weight of rules and complications, it’s able to exist more naturally there, in the mind. Its abilities aren’t based on calculations but what ifs, like they originate in the same unhindered place a child pulls ideas from. You know, it’s a pity I can’t see a way for abilities like these to work in video games, these worlds of numbers and calculation, because if they could, I wonder how liberating they would be.
Nevertheless, Quest does already exist as a game and I am absolutely hell-bent on running it. I’ve never done anything like that before by the way, lead a tabletop campaign, but I feel like I can manage it with Quest. It’s designed for people like me who don’t have much experience. Our friends at Dicebreaker (I hope you remember Johnny Chiodini) reckon it could even be the “definitive” beginner RPG.
I’m excited. I’m excited to take people I love to a place I think I’ll love, and fire in them the imagination fired in me. What will come out of it I wonder? Who can tell? The story isn’t only up to me.