Agon includes a quick and painless way to get a quest started: a god descends from Olympus and says “hey, you, go do this thing!” (well, technically three things and you pick which one to do first) That’s excellent if you are doing a pick-up game and want to get straight to the action. But for a long-term game — the Agon campaign — it’s sheer buzz-death. A total passion killer.
Here are some other ways to do quests without killing the love.
The game starts off with normal human action: the heroes are in the court of a king, or attending the great games, fighting a war, ship-wrecked on a lonely isle, etc. Events unfold, people do stuff and the heroes just go about their business as they please, being brave and seeking glory.
Somewhere along the way the quest is revealed, emerging from the events in the game or the things the heroes do. The heroes trespass in a crumbling ruin and anger the goddess of the dawn, who won’t be appeased until her idol is returned to its rightful place. A long night of drinking in the king’s hall leads to bold words and brash oaths to slay the monstrous bull that ravages the fields.
Once the quest has been revealed, a god may or may not appear to cement the deal (see the Silent Gods below). As the heroes sleep off their hang-overs a glowing apparition of Athena rouses them from their sleep to declare that Zeus wills them to complete this task and slay the bull — or is it just a dream?
Spend strife as normal before the quest is revealed, but take it out of the budget for the actual quest. An alternative is to add a “discover the quest” objective and give yourself more strife accordingly.
Instead of an episodic game where each quest is independent, string a bunch of quests together under one overarching mega-quest spread out across multiple games. Bring back the three pieces of the panoply of Apollo spread far across the earth, slay the five heroes who sacked Thebes, etc.
Usually one agency (god or mortal) sends the heroes on all the sub-quests. They might be thematically related (like the examples above) or they might be very different tasks, only related because the same person is sending the heroes to do them (like the labors of Hercules). Depending on the premise failing one quest might end the whole quest chain.
The heroes should know they are doing a quest chain, but they might not know what all the tasks are when they start — they might just learn each new task when they finish the last one. It is probably wise to let the heroes know how many tasks they need to complete from the start. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get a sense of the scope and every quest is a “jeez, how many more are there!” game.
Create and spend strife just like normal for each individual quest. Alternately you could save strife you didn’t spend in each quest and carry it forward to the next quest in the chain — be careful or else you’ll wind up with astronomical strife for the last quest.
Somewhere up there in the clouds of Mount Olympus, the gods want the heroes to complete the quest. They want to see the monster slain or the rash king laid low for his hasty words. And they want to see the heroes do it. But that doesn’t mean they are going to show themselves. They are going to sit up in the heavens and watch, empowering the heroes when they spend their Divine Favor but otherwise just kicking back and watching. What’s the point of being a god and having heroes if you have to do everything yourself?
The heroes start off with a mission, but it comes from a mortal agency, not a god. It could be a task put before them by a king, or an oracle they’ve sworn to fulfill to save their city-state, whatever. Getting the mission might be in the past, something read out as part of the introduction, or it can be something that happens early in the game (like the Emerging Quest described above).
Mechanically it’s not really different from the method in the book (you still get an oath from the god that favors the quest), but it’s a big difference in roleplaying: Athena isn’t in your face telling you what to do, you aren’t “on a mission from god.”
A mortal quest also opens up the door for a lot more player free will — defying the gods is a big step, but defying mortals is fair game. What if you hate the king you’re on the quest for? Maybe you’ll complete the quest as sworn but find a way to twist the intent to screw him over. The king demanded you bring the head of the medusa to him, but he didn’t say anything about not waving it in his face, turning him into stone, and slaughtering his city.
A quest is what one god wants to happen. But what if another god wants something else to happen and the heroes are forced to choose which god they obey? Hera wants the boy slain, but Zeus wants him taken safely to the queen of the Amazons.
Each god’s desires are usually in direct opposition, making it impossible to satisfy both and forcing heroes to choose sides and suffer the consequences. No matter how incompatible you think the goals are, clever players might find ways to surprise you and wriggle through some loophole, fulfilling both quests. To which I say, huzzah! That’s good gaming. Odysseus would be proud.
A really good conflicted quest would be crafted so that the heroes’ choice isn’t set in stone until the bitter end — they should be able to complete several objectives without having to pick sides. Once they take steps that absolutely support one goal and defy the other it’s pretty much a straight quest. Cruel Antagonists will also look for ways to make both goals appealing or unappealing at different stages of the quest. Sure slaying the monster sounded like the better choice, but then like the Beast of Kolkoris you meet him and find out he’s a guilt-ridden philosopher king with a crying wife clinging to his knees.
A combination of a few things above. You have been given a mortal quest that you appear to be fulfilling, but secretly the gods have appeared and given you conflicting goals. The king wants you to bring back the sacred apples, but the gods have told you to first pierce them with the fangs of the hydra, so the king will be killed when he eats them.
It’s different from the Conflicted Quest in that the decision is pretty much assumed: unless you reject the quest you’re going to be following the god’s objectives, not the mortal’s. Mechanically if you did fulfill the mortal quest and defy the gods it counts as both a quest win (take normal rewards, earn a Fate) and a quest reject (earn another Fate).
There’s lots of room for high drama, particularly if the mortal the heroes are betraying is likable or a sworn ally, not an enemy or some random jerk.
There’s a prophecy and the heroes are trying to fulfill it. Unfortunately like most good oracles the literal meaning can interpreted a few different ways. Which interpretation is the right one? What is the real goal of the quest?
Part of the heroes’ quest is to feel their way along and figure out the real meaning of the prophecy. It could be a real heartbreaker where the heroes think for most of the quest that they are intended to save a city, only to figure out at the last moment that the vague “it’s people safe behind wooden walls” didn’t mean the city walls would stand, it meant they were going to flee with the few remaining survivors by ship (the prophesied wooden walls).
A good prophecy quest should include lots of people along the way throwing out their own interpretations of the prophecy, just to stir things up and make the heroes look at the words in different ways. Kings and other heroes might take rash actions based on their own optimistic reading of the oracle, sweeping the heroes up in tragic events.
Mixing it up like this means that not only do the heroes think about what they’re doing inside the quest, they think about the meaning of the quest as a whole and their place in the world. They’re participants in an unfolding story instead of just following some god’s irresistible orders.
I present each of these types separately, but really you can blend them together in different degrees to create new and strange things. A king sends the heroes to bring back all the pieces of the panoply of Apollo (seven labors quest) thinking he will have impregnable armor, but Athena has told the heroes to give the final assembled armor to the king’s usurper son instead (ulterior motive quest), while Apollo demands his armor be destroyed in the mountain of fire since the hero he once gave it to is dead and no other mortal deserves it (conflicted quest).