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Three of Five Keys: A Quest Design Pattern

by Mike on 3 May 2021

Consider a quest where the door to the infamous Black Vault requires five gemstone keys and an evil wizard seeks these five keys to open it. In this scenario, the characters need only acquire one key to end the entire quest for the villain. Grab a key, throw it into the ocean, and the villain's whole quest is over.

Flip the situation around and we still have the same problem. If the characters seek to open the door and the Cult of the Black Vault seeks to keep it closed, all the cult must do is destroy one key and the characters can't succeed.

This is the problem with all-or-nothing collection quests. Any one item falling into the wrong hands can break the entire quest. These quest models are fragile.

Instead, a slight change to this quest design makes the quest more flexible and provides a robust framework for stronger confrontations between villains and characters.

What if the vault door required only three of five keys to open instead of all of them? Now, instead of needing to find only one key to stop the evil wizard, the characters have to find three of them. The chase is on as the characters and the Cult of the Black Vault hunt for keys all over the land.

If you prefer a video on this topic, see my Three of Five Keys Youtube Video.

Requiring the Majority of Keys

We can fix collection quests like this by ensuring that the quest requires only the majority of items to complete the quest, not all of them. Maybe it's four of seven keys. Maybe it's five of nine. The more keys required, the longer the quest will take. Instead of an easy victory, characters may be traveling all over the world to acquire the majority of keys before the villains get them.

Often such collection quests include a moment where either the villains or the characters need to steal keys from the other. Instead of this being a requirement (when all keys are needed), now the results of such a heist can go either way and the whole quest isn't over should one side or the other succeed.

Requiring the majority of keys, instead of all of them, makes collection quests more robust and flexible. It gives us room for fun improvisation. Our carefully designed campaign won't fall apart when the characters get crafty and acquire a key we didn't expect. It gives us room to let the game go where it goes. We know that, whether a character or a villain acquires an item, more keys are needed to stop one side or the other.

When running quests where a number of items are required to complete the quest, ensure only the majority of items (three of five keys, four of seven keys, etc) are needed so the quest isn't over if one key falls into the wrong hands. This powerful quest design pattern gives you a durable quest model with great flexibility and lots of opportunities for a fun chase across a fantastic land.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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