Community Soapbox: Why Fetch Quests Must Go, or “Don’t Order Me Around, I Can Kill All Of You”

Skyrim (via Dead End Thrills)

By on November 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Nemesis_22 joins us with the first of our Community Soapbox articles! If you’re interested in submitting a soapbox article, check here for more information. Mild spoilers for Skyrim may follow.

As I grow older, more jaundiced and fatter around the middle, I find that there is still one tried and true method to RPG games which never, ever, seems to die the death it so richly deserves: fetch quests.

You know the ones I mean – Some pitiful specimen calls out to you as you draw near them in some ratbag village, and goes, ‘You there, heavily armoured fellow whose destiny it is to save the world from terrible evils, kill me some insignificant rats/crabs/bugs and I’ll reward you with yet more shinies!’ And lo and behold, you find yourself doing it. And hating it. Or at least, you would be hating it if you were not obsessed with the reward you are going to get at the end, you greedy sod.

Because, let’s face it: This isn’t the world saving earth shattering quest you were hoping for. In fact, it will probably pop up while you are trying to stop a big bad evil guy from actually shattering the earth and killing all those puppies you swore to protect, or whatever it is that motivates your character. And for some daft, daft reason, you’ll pause in your mission of utmost importance to go kill a few rats and hand in their tails for a pitiful sum of money.

Why are they even there? That’s easy enough to answer — Fetch quests are padding. Games put them into RPGs to make them seem much, much larger than they really are. It’s a classic mixture – put in the right amount of awesome, give it volume with fatty horribleness that isn’t good for you, and people will eat that stuff right up.

Kingdoms of Fetchquestalur

A perfect example in recent memory was Kingdoms of Amalur. The fact that it was once an MMO is painfully obvious, as within minutes, you are not so much encountering fetch quests as much as being actively assaulted by them. In the face. With a spiky club marked ‘FTCH KWESTZ HEAR’. The game has so much of it, in fact, that despite its huge size it never feels anything more than purely exhaustive. Run here, do this, get paltry reward, just to get one step closer to doing things that actually matter, while the BBEG waits patiently waving a hand saying ‘don’t worry, no rush’.

An RPG, more than anything else, is (usually) supposed to do one thing: make you feel like a big damn hero, and make your character an engine of destruction

And that right there, is the problem I have with fetch quests, much, much more so than the fact that they tend to be horribly boring. They don’t matter. They don’t feel important, usually because they are precisely that. And by doing them, you lower yourself. You are degrading your character. If you want your character to feel like the big goddamn hero that they are, you are going to have trouble achieving that by making them go and catch butterflies.

An RPG, more than anything else, is (usually) supposed to do one thing: make you feel like a big damn hero, and make your character an engine of destruction that makes bad guys wet their pants and go running back to mummy. So why do they insist, over and over again, to make you a little errand boy in order to be rewarded?

I can understand that the spirit of altruism and general kindness is important, and teaches humility, which is good in a hero, but honestly, would you have the temerity to walk up to the most powerful individual you’ve ever seen and say, ‘Hey, you. Get out there and do some task I’m too lazy or inept to do for me. Kthnxbai?’ I don’t believe you would. I know I wouldn’t say much more except ‘Oh god, please don’t hurt me’ while trying to run.

Kingdoms of Amalur was a prime example of this. So is every single MMO since they first began, but they are also a game where you are just a face in the crowd, never a person in charge (except nominally through a guild). Knights of The Old Republic did a good job of making them sound more important than they actually were – the wording was shifted to make it sound less like a fetch quest, and more like you were the ultimate last resort to getting the solution fixed. After a few hundred of these scenarios the effect wore a little thin, but the effort was there.

But no game in my recent memory was a worse offender than Skyrim.

Oh, Skyrim

“Surely not!”, comes the hue and cry. “It is an open world game! You don’t even ‘have’ to do the fetch quests! There’s no limit to what you can do!” Lies. Why, you ask? It is a bit of a tricky one to answer, but most of it comes down not so much to the fact there are fetch quests, but instead, by the way the NPC’s treat you in the game.

Now, let us get one thing straight. When I created my character in Skyrim, I made him to be a ‘good guy’ from the outset. Ulric The Sorrower was supposed to stride the world like a colossus, righting wrongs, saving the world and fixing the problems everyone was facing. And by the end, he did. Mostly. He was an absolute, undeniable titan of a fellow, able to take on entire hordes of enemies and swat them down with contempt. At level 60 or something, he’s a one-man wrecking machine who can fight, and win, against enemies that most would quail and flee from. He was capable of entirely ungodly amounts of carnage with sword, shield, magic and shouts. Everyone knows he’s the Dragonborn, a mythical super hero who has the power to shape nations.

So why the hell does some git sitting on his backside on a made-up pseudo-throne think he can tell him what to do? And don’t, whatever you do, get me started on the Daedra. I ended up selling Ulric’s soul without even realising it to so many different Daedra that when he dies, they’ll spend eternity over arguing who gets which piece of him, but man, even the nice ones were far from being actually ‘nice’. They usually hovered somewhere around ‘jerk’ to much more unmentionable levels of obnoxious arrogance.

Everyone in Skyrim acts like this. They don’t quail in the presence of a being who can turn a 100 foot long flying lizard into nothing more than his newest pair of handsome scaled leather shoes. It’s pretty common actually – people seem to have no instinct of self preservation in the way they deal with this walking terror. They give him orders, they see nothing more than a vassal for their self-entitled wishes. Tiberius Septim, the first emperor, was a Dragonborn! These are not people to mess with! And yet every single person you encounter treats you like some sort of muppet. Tolerated, ordered about, but never really accepted. Even the guards think they can push you around (‘no lollygagging’) instead of behaving like they should against a person who can single-handedly depopulate a city, which is either outright fear or respect. The amount of people and creatures that Ulric actually killed is something like ten times the actual number of normal NPC’s in the entire game. And yet some schmuck who cannot even hold a sword right tries to push him around.

It doesn’t even make sense

The thing that really tore it for me in Skyrim was the faction quests. You had two choices to side with – the Imperials or the Stormcloaks. I considered my options seriously, and for a while, I thought I should side with the Stormcloaks. After all, the Dominion are a pack of jerks who can choke on my battleaxe, and I would happily butcher them by the hundreds. In fact I did exactly that. Skyrim ran red with arrogant xenophobic jerk blood.

But then two facts reared their head. Firstly, the Queen is not that bad a person at all. General Tulius is a dyed-in-the-wool moron however, and treated me just like every other noble know it all. And second, no one is a bigger jerk in this game than Ulfric Stormcloak. The guy is a monumental nitwit. He’s thrown his nation into civil war, killed his king, and gone to war against a force that is just a buffer for an even bigger force just behind that. Basically, Skyrim is in big, big trouble and a very real danger of being stomped into the mud by the Dominion, just so he can get power. And that’s it. The complete breadth and extent of his motivation. He’s a greedy, power hungry war monger with no real motivation beyond what he can get for himself. If he wasn’t, he would have formed an alliance with his king and thrown the Imperials out together. But no, his first plan was to kill the king, and thus, make himself prime candidate to take the throne, by slaughtering the people he claims to stand for. The Queen herself said the king was amenable to Ulfric’s ideas, but the jackass killed his most powerful potential ally instead out of sheer greed. How could anyone follow such a twit?

I ended up choosing neither side in the conflict. Not the Imperials, because they are basically working for the Dominion, and I hated those guys (it was so very mutual). And not the Stormcloaks, because then I’d be helping a man I outright despised as a greedy, self serving swine who had gotten hundreds of his people he professed to care for killed out of his own ambition. I was hoping against hope that, in the end, I would be able to settle the conflict between them my way.

And finally, my chance came. I got to be the mediator between the two parties, deciding who got what at the negotiating table in order to secure both peace and a means to stop Alduin. Finally they were taking me seriously!


Or so I thought. What I actually got in the end was everyone thinking I was the biggest loser in the kingdom, as I burbled and blundered my way through verbal choices that sounded like they came from a half wit. At no point did the character try and steer things themselves, they simply repeated proposals from one side or the other like a moronic automaton, and in doing so, everyone got mad at him. Far from being the one who united them, the hatreds remained as strong as ever, and now, they both hated me just as much as they outright loathed each other.

So, instead of being the big damn hero of Skyrim, I ended up being the single most reviled individual in the entire world for doing the right thing. The game lifted me up from my role of menial labourer to become, for one shining moment, the guy that people listened to. And for that, he limped through the dialogue and became viewed lower than dirt. Even the Blades turned against me when I refused their petulant request to kill a certain ancient dragon because of crimes done in the past. By that token, with the crimes I had committed in the name of the greater good, they’d have tried to kill me not long after (note – they said this after saying they were sworn to serve the Dragonborn and protect them. Did they forget who their boss is supposed to be?).

The way it should have gone

If I had a choice, I would have done it differently. Very, very differently. I would have flown in on the back of Ohdaviing to Ulfric’s city, and slapped some sense into him. If he refused, I would have Storm Call’d and Fus Roh Dah’d his city into rubble. I would have sworn my allegiance to the Queen, a person who genuinely seemed like a real decent person, and told Tulius he had two choices – with me and Skyrim, or against me personally. If I told him this on the back of a mighty, massive dragon, do you think he would argue? Like hell. And then I’d have stormed out of Skyrim with a big army of Nords and Imperials, and given the Dominion such a kicking they would have been hurting generations later.

After all, who would argue with me? I’m the goddamn Dragonborn. But apparently, being the fabled hero to save the world from a creature known as the World Eater is something equivalent to being a janitor. Out of sight, out of mind, cleaning out the trash and being told to do menial tasks.

What I figured out, in the end, is that the entirety of Skyrim is one very cleverly veiled fetch quest, as you run around to the whims of another, never taking command. Designed to make sure you never rise above, you remain a prisoner from the very first moment you open your eyes on the execution cart. No matter how high you rise up, you are never seen for what you are – a true hero – and remain, forevermore, languishing in the mire of forgettability along with every other nameless soul to lift a sword in the name of a lord who does not care anything about you, except for what they can get out of you. That, right there, is the utter embodiment of what a fetch quest is – doing something beneath the doing of another for menial reward, something I understand a lot of people do for an actual job in the real world, but they sure as hell don’t need it when they are pretending to be a big damn hero. That is what real life is for. And I hope one day, RPG games learn to keep this aspect of real life well out of their genre.

Skyrim screenshots via the fantastic Dead End Thrills.

23 comments (Leave your own)

Totally agree.

It makes some sense at a lower level, but it’s a game mechanic that has become SO entrenched it’s become a meme. The concept can be played out well, and some games certainly handle it better than others.

There’s a true difference between “there’s two score skeletons out there stalking the village, please help us Hero” to “bring me 20 skeleton thigh bones”. The problem is, it’s been done so many times that even if it’s executed with story and resonance, it’s *feels* the same.


Yep. It’s actually obvious how much shorter an RPG becomes once they get removed. ME3 streamlined them down to being minor asides rather than actual quests – ‘hey, I couldn’t help but be rude and eavesdrop, have this vitally important thing’ – but they were incidental, so they could pass unnoticed. As a result, ME3 felt like the shortest game in the series, as opposed to the first one which had a LOT of hours poured into it.

Ralph Wiggum

Borderlands 1 & 2 are another culprit. Everyone on Pandora looks up to me as the feared Vault Hunter who will bring down the evil Hyperion Corporation. Yet instead of being asked to lead the resistance into battle, I’m sent on pointless fetch quests so that the town doctor can do god knows what with random creature parts . It’s even worse when you have a maxed out character and you get none of the XP benefit and money means nothing.

And don’t me started on stupid little side achievements fetching collectibles in some random part of the map. I’m looking at you, Uncharted series.


Dead on. TBH RPG’s as a genre are entrenched and in a state of non-evolvement close to devolving. I have a lot of ideas how to solve that problem, but they require lots of money and I ain’t working for EA :D


Wow this whole article feels like something I could of written. I feel like I owe you an upvote or something.


If I could make sweet love to you without it being weird that I’m a guy I would. A really well written article. I read it twice in succession just to take in the awesomeness.

Thank you Nemesis_22 for brightening up my already bright Friday.


this article. this article.. THIS ARTICLE has me agreeing in almost every thing typed down, if i had a inkling of literary prowess i would write down near the exact same thing. thank you sir for save me and half the other gamers out there that merely say this out loud to any unfortunate stander-by that would listen to us, unfortunately im still gonna play skyrim again and again, and still gonna hold back my sword every-time Ulfric opens up is self serving douche cockhole of a mouth. sorry bile levels are rising. thanks for the good read.


its true, but i still love skyrim lol i can’t let all that was said in this article slide because the game is just too much fun :p


Well said, annoys the crap out of me in most RPGs.

I am hoping soon someone overhauls Skyrim’s quests and make the NPC dialogue suit the character that you are playing. A Mortal with the soul of a Dragon who could genocide every city on the map, instead of some wuss who needs to be told what to do.

It really is jarring to be the Thane of every hold, Leader of the Mages, Champions, Theives, Dark Brotherhood and a Vampire Lord with the ability to plunge the world into Darkness at any time with his trusty bow and still be asked to deliver a love letter to some tart, two doors down from the guy who wants her.


Wow, you have put into words what i have been feeling about mmo’s for a while now.

Very well written article.

Unfortunately, until we can significantly improve npc AI to properly mimic people, there’s nothing that can be done to properly fix this.


Great piece of writing, agree on this 100%. That said, the sad thing is it’s the fetch-quest thing that seems to grab the completionist the most. Must….collect….rat-tales….for….random…unintelligent…quest…GAH!


Excellent article (as said above). The side quests in Skyrim likewise got to me – so much so that I have placed the game on an indefinite pause after getting about halfway through the game. Had me hooked for a while, now I’m just bored with it.


Great prose and agreat reflection on the purpose of ‘FTCH KWESTZs’ – thoroughly enjoyed it :P


Try Guild Wars 2. The quest system flows so well that you don’t even feel like you are on a quest.


You do, though…

Guild Wars 2 personifies the fetch quest mentality.

You just fetch rabbits and pumpkins.

Darth Teddy Bear

Excellent article that pretty much sums up the issue.

I do not believe you mentioned it, me being a slow reader and all, but the situation will never disappear until the game mechanics whereby you must do these inane, repetitive and main story irrelevant quests to improve you character to a point just to be able to actually complete the main story exists.

Sadly that will not happen as that would require some smarts in the level designs that allowed completion at many character levels and/or skill sets and is why with sadness I stopped playing my favorite games of Fallout 3/New Vegas as I could see the point and is why I will not be buying Skyrim.

I hope this design philosophy changes before the genre becomes irrelevant.


I like to play open world RPGs (such as Skyrim) by exploring and doing side quests in towns as im there or exploring caves. However this often results in me not actually finishing the game (I sunk 300hrs into Oblivion across several characters and never did the main storyline) but I don’t care so long as I explore the entire world and feel like I live in it.


Skyrim is appalling. Despite trying to play as a kleptomaniac rogue, I think I had pretty much the same game experience as Ulric The Sorrower. The whole game was a series of missed opportunities tied together with pointless fetch quests, which seemed to require you travel to the other side of the provence for not apparent reason. It might not have been so bad if the world responded in some way to your actions, or if most of the npcs weren’t shallow morons, but no. The game is a shallow sandbox and if you lift the sand up in the air, it doesn’t even fall down again.


This is creepy… Are you in my head or something?

Recently my time spent in MMOs has been reduced to less than 2 hours a week. I’m burned out on fetching insect wings and bear gallbladders for some trivial reason. I’m burned out on randomly killing 10 wolves because some NPC with a “!” over his head said so.

I feel the MMO market has become so stale.. though I’m still keeping my hopes up for a certain title in the making “Citadel of Sorcery” where they promise to keep away from trivial tasks. Even outside of quests (which are much more involved than I’ve ever seen, if they deliver 1% of what they’re promising) when you track a group of monsters to kill them you are actually making a difference. Monsters are not just something that keeps popping into existence for no apparent reason, they actually have agendas, so buy killing this group I would – for example – be preventing an attack on a village which would otherwise be executed had I not interfered.

There is hoping and dreaming.. who knows maybe somewhere someday MMO games will wiggle out of this little box they were forced into.


Thanks for all the comments folks, glad you all seemed to like it! Much appreciated, and thanks to GoN’s crew for giving me a chance!

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