Any good adventure will give your hero a sense of personal growth and accomplishment, but what about something more tangible? Think of the rewards one could earn: sparkling jewels, enchanted weapons, or just great stacks of cash. This concept of “quest rewards” is very common in video games and TTRPGs, but it’s a lot more complicated in a scripted story. Why’s that? We’ll tell you!
Generously transcribed by Suzanne. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: Now as a reward for reaching episode 430, we each get a precious treasure. Chris, you get an enchanted red pen that slays all contrivances.
Chris: Oh yeah!
Oren: Wes, you get a pile of gold and jewels, which may or may not have a thematic greed curse upon them.
Wes: It matters not. I can die knowing that this treasure is mine.
Oren: For me, I get the satisfaction of a job well done.
Wes: The best reward of all.
Oren: The real treasure was the podcast all along. [Laughter] So this topic was born out of me thinking about video games and tabletop roleplaying games and looking at the fact that quest rewards are basically standard for those genres and thinking that they probably got that from written stories, but then realizing that that’s kind of an odd topic in written stories. In a video game, it’s like, yay, I completed a mission. I got 5,000 monies and a new gun. Woo! But if you do that in a written or filmed or otherwise non-interactive story, it seems a little weird. But there are still rewards that characters get, so I wanted to figure out what was going on with that. What’s the deal?
Chris: We’re not gamifying our stories. We still do have rewards.
Oren: Yeah, I’ve had some clients who definitely had a story I think critics would have described as feeling video gamey because the character went and did some difficult stuff and then at the end found a chest or something with a cool item in it.
Chris: That felt kind of random, like this doesn’t come out of the narrative, it just, oh, there happens to be a treasure chest here.
Oren: It’s sort of like the random encounter feeling you get when your character’s just walking along and then suddenly, whoa, bandits! Whoa, okay, we’re fighting bandits now. All right. Okay, bandit fight done. Moving on.
Chris: It’s like, we don’t have story structure. Oh, wait, I’m supposed to have an exciting moment now. Random attack!
Oren: And for this, I think it’s like I’m supposed to have something satisfying at the end of a quest of some kind and I don’t have that. So instead, cool sword! So I thought that would be kind of interesting. I can think of stories both older and more modern where at least something that looks like a quest reward is still part of it and the resemblance starts to get fuzzier the further out on the sandwich discourse grid you go because you have the really obvious stuff like if you go back to the Hobbit, Bilbo is going on this adventure with the dwarves for some cash. He’s gonna get some cash money and he does. He gets some cash money at the end. And then in a more modern story, we have Din Djarin who gets bounties and also gets cash. Those are kind of a literal interpretation of a quest reward. And then you have things where the character maybe wasn’t like promised that if he did this thing but still gets a cool thing at the end of a story like Rand getting his super powerful magic sword in one of the Wheel of Time books at the end. A sword so powerful that in the next book he had to get rid of it because he was too strong.[Laughter]
Wes: I also kind of like the quest rewards that are like, I’m giving you this with the understanding that you are going to go do this thing. It’s like the pre-reward. Like when Beowulf goes off to slay Grendel’s mother, this guy gives him Hrunting, the sword. It’s like, here, use this.
Chris: It’s dangerous to go it alone. Take this.
Wes: But of course then that sword fails him, but then he finds a giant sword amongst Grendel’s mother’s lair and then uses the giant sword to slay. So he gets a double quest reward there. Getting that key item right in the video game moment that is way stronger than anything that you had previously.
Chris: Yeah, there are pre-quest treasures usually given by a mentor or something in preparation for the quest. But that happens in video games too, right? Not just in prose or non-interactive works?
Oren: It does, but not with the same regularity. In video games and in classic D&D style RPGs, you expect to get some kind of tangible reward at the end of a quest that will make your numbers higher, basically. And of course, this is a big generalization. There are video games that don’t do this. It depends on the medium. But it’s common enough that when I talk about quest rewards in video games, everyone knows what I’m talking about.
Chris: Right. But I’m just being like, getting treasure without doing something first. I’m just thinking about Link and his little village that he often starts out in. Does he have to do anything to get his first sword and shield?
Oren: Depends on the game. But yes, usually you get something to start you with. But I would say in video games, that’s not more common than it is in prose stories. I think the reason is that they serve the same function, which is either a way to explain why the character can do the thing that they need to do. It’s like, well, now you have a cool thing that you didn’t have before. Plus, a bit of novelty and wish fulfillment where the brand new weapon that they have now is more interesting than if they just started the story with this sword that they’ve always had.
Chris: You could do a little mini obstacle in the village to give your hero their first sword if you wanted to. But I think in many stories that’s not what the story is about. We have other things to spend time on. There’s your sword of basic slang so that you can get on with your journey.
Wes: Even the gifting process can say something a little bit, even if the thing isn’t particularly special. Like when Aragorn gets Narsil and he’s just like, here’s the sword for your station. Oh, cool sword. Does it do anything? No. It doesn’t. But this is a sign of how I trust you and I sanction you on your quest. Something like that. But Sting glows when Orcs are near. That seems more useful. This sword doesn’t do anything.
Oren: Yeah, but it’s like a long sword and Sting is a short sword, so it does an extra 1.5 damage on average per swing.
Wes: Ah, key.[Laughter]
I like in the movies too, when Frodo gets from Galadriel the Light of Eärendil, this little container full of something. He’s like, uh, what?
Oren: Galadriel, why did you give me this?
Wes: Two movies later, it comes in handy. It’s like, you gave me a fragile vase full of water? Cool. Thank you.
Chris: It will light dark places, Wes.
Wes: Oh, right. Yes, but like, is that a metaphor, Galadriel?[Laughter]
Chris: Is this like the reward is the friends we made along the way kind of thing?
Wes: Yes. [Laughter] Obviously, we know Tolkien loved his epics and that like higher person of station gifting the person going on the quest something cool, I think plays into like the whole lineage of items and their stories and why that’s important to say this thing that I’m giving you has gone by many names, but always done these very things. And now you guys know that it is once again, this item that is also going on the quest and that gives it a special story significance, at least in epics. And we don’t really write epics anymore for good reasons.
Chris: Right. But if you go on a quest and you have the sword that some famous person used to slay some giant monster, that makes it feel significant.
Oren: Nowadays, I feel like if a quest starts and they make a really big deal out of the sword they’re giving you at the beginning, I’m like, that sword’s gonna break, isn’t it?[Laughter]
The lesson is going to be that the sword didn’t matter. That’s the only reason to make a big deal out of the sword they give you in the opening chapter. It could be a lesson right there, like Taran, when he gets his first sword at the beginning of I think it’s the Book of Three when he has to head out to find Arawn and Dallben is like, here’s a sword and Taran’s like, what does it do? And Dallben’s like, it stabs people. What do you want from me?
Wes: It’s a normal sword, you assistant pig keeper. Bringing up the Book of Three is a good example of how at the end of that book, each of Taran’s party members, they all get a quest reward. That’s kind of fun. I mean, the best one is obviously Gurgi’s bag of never-ending food or whatever it’s called.
Oren: I love his wallet of never-ending food.
Wes: Wallet of never-ending food. That’s the best quest reward.
Oren: That’s actually the version of the quest reward that I think is underappreciated, perhaps, by modern writers, just because that’s a fun bit of wish fulfillment at the end of the quest, and you don’t usually want to use that as the main stakes. If you’re using a quest reward as the stakes, you need to think about everything the stakes need. Like, what bad thing will happen if I don’t get this? Because readers care more about a bad thing that will happen than a cool, nice thing that you might get. But if you already have stakes, and you’ve got those all sorted, then a cool reward at the end is a lot of fun, and Gurgi’s wallet shows exactly the way to do it. It’s cool, it has a neat function, it’s novel, it’s kind of unique, it serves a specific need that the character has.
Chris: It suits Gurgi.
Oren: Yeah, it suits Gurgi.
Chris: The other thing that’s really useful about that is that it is logistically useful in books down the line, because now it’s like, oh, the heroes are in a bunch of trouble. Geez, how are they getting food? They’ve been out in the wilderness for weeks. Oh wait, we have Gurgi’s wallet, so I don’t have to explain how they got food for traveling. That’s super useful to have. But also, it’s not like, broken. It’s not overpowered.
Wes: That’s a good point. If the quest rewards happen in the resolution of the story, if you are working on a series, they can show up later. Maybe have a bigger part in another story.
Oren: Just try to do better than whatever it was Eilonwy got. Like a pin or something? I think it did eventually have some random effect later that wasn’t really important, but I was like, oh right, yeah, I guess she had that pin. Everyone else got something cool, and Eilonwy got a pin. Not even like a super cool-looking pin.
Wes: I remember like, Doli’s reward was, sure, you can turn invisible, but it’s gonna hurt.
Oren: Teach you to whine about not being invisible. [Laughter]
Chris: That is a good point though about the usefulness, because if your character gets an item part way through the story, whether that’s the end of book one or several chapters in, it does have to come into play later. Which can be an issue in the latest D&D movie. They spend a huge amount of time just trying to get one item, and then it doesn’t really matter. I mean, we could say it kind of barely matters a little, but it doesn’t matter in proportion to the amount of time they spend getting it.
Oren: But on the other hand, it gave me such joy whenever they slipped and called it the Helm of Dysfunction. So can we put a price tag on that, Chris?[Laughter]
Spoilers for the D&D movie, but as opposed to this random staff that they just happen to have. And it was a portal staff, and they basically use it to solve all of their problems going forward. It’s like, now we’re thinking with portals, and I’m like, is this a D&D item? I don’t remember this in any of the magic item guides that I’ve read.
Chris: Yeah, it’s like, why didn’t you spend your whole quest trying to get that item? That would have worked a lot better.
Oren: Because we needed it earlier to get them out of a bunch of other situations we didn’t know how to get them out of.
Chris: Yeah… On the other hand though, if you do have a section of your plot, and you realize that you could just take it out and it wouldn’t make a difference, adding an item that matters later can be a way of making that section of the story matter. So let’s say you do have a random quest that your hero goes on, and they don’t meet their objective and then they just go back to normal. And you’re like, okay, well, they just failed and nothing happened. So that thing they did doesn’t matter, but you really like it. Maybe they will, while they’re doing the thing that they ultimately fail at, also happen to find something important that they then use so that section of the story still matters.
Oren: Yeah, that can be very handy.
Chris: I also think rewards are useful for balancing karma. If the hero worked really hard, especially if they suffered a lot, we want to see them rewarded for that. And it plays not just a quest, but like other important struggles. For instance, if you have a coming of age story about a young hero, and that hero goes through their first battle, you would expect that to be a very difficult experience. So usually there will be something that comes out of that battle. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be an item, though. Or friendship was the reward. Oftentimes I think rewards are just leveling the hero up, especially when it’s a young hero. So they might get a new title. The example that I can think of that comes to mind is in Eragon in book two, we learn that he now has the title of Shadeslayer because he defeated the Shade at the end of book one.
Oren: Oh, well, good for him.
Chris: Right? Eragon is funny in some places, but that part is appropriate. It’s like, hey, you got some candy. People think you’re cool. They call you Shadeslayer now. And that’s your reward for going through that struggle and succeeding.
Oren: Well, they’d better call him Shadeslayer… or die.
Oren: That sort of use of quest rewards can also be very handy, especially in a story where the character was laboring for a particularly selfless set of stakes. Like if they were really trying to help other people a lot, they can feel like they deserve a little extra. And it’s better to give them a magic sword than to have someone fall in love with them as a reward in most cases.
Chris: Oh, no.[Laughter]
Oren: Or just give them someone as a spouse now, as used to be the tradition. I was looking for stories that had examples of this, so I checked out TV Tropes and it was like, okay, there’s like a couple of animes and some movies and some fantasy books and like fairy tales. And I opened that one and it’s like, oh, look at this long list of fairy tales. It’s like, man, how many of these are like a guy getting a wife under very shady circumstances? And the answer was more than I was comfortable with.
Chris: Yep, there’s a lot of fairy tales like that. Now, to be clear, I think it’s okay for your hero to become really cool and do something cool and someone likes them afterwards. And that can in a way be a reward, but that’s very different from if you defeat the dragon, you get the princess’s hand in marriage.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, having your hero become someone more romantically interesting, I think is fine. The issue is when they haven’t really done that, but now someone is way into them and it feels like you’re just giving them a prize. Long way of saying I agree.
Wes: Shrek did a pretty good job with that. There are all these motivations happening. Shrek wants to go do this reward just to get everybody kicked out of his swamp. And Lord Farquaad is sending him on a quest to get the reward of a wife and he’s the bad guy, so it’s a bad thing to want. But then Shrek does the dragon quest, but then after that develops a relationship with Fiona. There was time for that romance to happen. So even though he and Donkey did rescue her from the tower, it’s just a little different enough from our standard fairy tales for sure.
Chris: That’s an interesting example because they definitely invoke the trope without actually doing it too much because after he rescues Fiona, she does expect that he’s going to be this prince she’s going to marry. Now later we find out that what she’s hoping for is if she has this handsome prince and true love’s kiss or whatever kisses him, then she won’t become an ogre anymore. That’s what she’s actually hoping for. But what it appears is that he rescues her and then she’s like, oh yeah, that means we’re getting hitched, right? And the important thing is he says no.[Laughter]
As opposed to this thing that we see often where it’s like, oh no, this is wrong, but she wants to so much. So I guess it’s okay. It’s like, yeah, then you’re just looking for an excuse to do the bad thing, storyteller.
Oren: Not a great thing to equivocate on, I would say. The good news is that the fear of clichés works in our favor because the whole go on a quest and get the princess’s hand in marriage is so well known that like very, very few authors will do it sincerely because everyone knows it. And so they’re like, no, it would be cliché. So it would be a faux pas to put that in my story. And it’s like, well, you’re not wrong, but that’s not the main reason.[Laughter]
Chris: It’s also notable that even Disney movies have stopped with the like, they instantly fall in love after one dance at the ball routine. They subverted it with Frozen and their other recent movies to give people at least a little bit more time.
Oren: Now they try to do an actual romance arc with varying degrees of success, but they’re trying.
Chris: They’re trying. It just goes to show how outdated the whole I rescue the princess and she marries me or I do a task and get a wedding is at this point. If even Disney has cut it out.
Oren: Finally caught up, Disney. Good job. We knew you could do it.
Wes: Are there any particular quest rewards that you all really like in stories? Because I have a fun random one.
Oren: Please tell.
Wes: Well, I really like in Lord of the Rings in the books, because it doesn’t happen, unfortunately, in the movies is that basically in return for like helping the Ents out and befriending the Ents is that Merry and Pippin get to drink Entwash and they get huge. They become huge hobbits.
Wes: Yeah, they grow. They’re basically become, I don’t know, like dwarf sized. That’s important at the end for the scouring of the Shire because they’re both just like riding into town and Frodo and Sam are there, but they’re kind of broken people. Merry and Pippin are just like, huh, huh, and they save the Shire because they’re huge hobbits.
Chris: I did not remember that part.
Wes: It’s so funny.
Oren: I’m imagining how much of a nightmare that would have been to try to do in the movies.
Wes: I know.
Oren: They were already employing very cutting edge film technology at the time to make the hobbits look short and make it look like that was naturally part of the scenes with the human-sized characters. And so at least when the hobbits were all by themselves, they didn’t have to do that. They could just film the hobbits normally. And now suddenly if Merry and Pippin are significantly taller, oh my God.[Laughter]
I can see why they didn’t do that.
Wes: It’s just a funny question because one, it literally makes them bigger. And then two, they return home and it’s like, look how much they’ve grown physically and metaphorically and spiritually.
Oren: It’s a secret metaphor.
Wes: Exactly. Plus Entwash. You’re drinking Ent sweat.
Oren: Is that what that means? Is that just water that washes off of an Ent?
Wes: I don’t remember what it is, but I know it’s just called Entwash. I mean, I think the Ents drink it, but it’s unclear.
Chris: Probably not their sweat then?
Wes: Probably not.
Oren: Maybe they’re weird survival types, Chris. Who knows?[Laughter]
Wes: That was a quest reward that always stuck with me because I thought it was funny, but I also really liked it when I first read the books. I was like, oh cool. These hobbits are big. They weigh probably like eight more pounds each. That matters for some reason.
Oren: I actually enjoyed in the first season of the Mandalorian- I think it was the first season. Maybe it was the second season. I don’t know. Whichever one, when he gets the darksaber.
Wes: Second season. Yeah.
Oren: I thought that was pretty neat. I’m not super attached to him having it. Spoilers for the third season, but the reactionaries are mad because he gave it to Bo-Katan. I don’t care. I think it’s fine that she has it, but it was cool when he won it from Moff Gideon and had a cool darksaber.
Wes: Yeah. And he wasn’t fighting Moff Gideon with the understanding he would even get it.
Oren: Right. It was a whole. Moff Gideon happened to have it and he was like, well, I guess I’ll take this. And then they’re all like, no, you can’t give it away. It has to be won in combat. And he’s like, well, I guess I’m stuck with this for a while.[Laughter]
Wes: And then I like the implication later where he uses it. And he’s like, oh my God, this thing sucks. It’s so heavy. Why does it hurt to use?[Laughter]
Oren: Part of Dave Filoni’s obsession with having non-force users use lightsabers. It’s a common thread in a bunch of his Star Wars material.
Chris: I have to say, I did really like the Beskar in the Mandalorian. He did something, he gets Beskar, brings it to the smith. It just feels kind of video gamey, doesn’t it? You get the Beskar and then you bring it somewhere and then the shopkeeper makes a thing for you.
Wes: It was fun too for people like me who like, I didn’t know that their armor was made out of Beskar. You know, I just saw what looked like an impressive amount of money and I was like, oh, cool. He gets a lot of money and then I go and melt it down and make cool armor out of it. Yes, please.
Oren: I honestly couldn’t remember if Beskar was invented for the Mandalorian or if it was part of Star Wars secondary canon before that. But yeah, it was kind of neat. It was like, here’s some metal ingots. It’s like, that’s an odd thing to get paid in. It’s like, oh, I see. It’s blaster proof armor.
Chris: He also got the Beskar Spear as a reward. And I thought that was pretty cool because you could actually, I think, fight against somebody with a lightsaber with it. So that was a really neat thing and it was unique, but also useful. I don’t remember what happened to that thing. I’m sad he doesn’t have it anymore.
Wes: Well, because you have to watch the Book of Boba Fett to understand what happened to it.
Chris: Well, I did, but I tried to forget as much as possible.
Oren: I was legit sad. What happened to that spear is that the armorer melted it down because like Beskar’s not for weapons, it’s for armor. And I’m like, all right. On the one hand, that does make sense because Beskar’s only real use as a weapon is if you’re going to fight someone with a lightsaber and have an ability to block lightsabers. And that doesn’t come up that often. So I get it. It makes sense, but I was still sad. I love that spear. I was really sad when she melted it down.
Wes: Spears are great weapons. They need to be in more shows.
Oren: Yeah, I do love spears. Someone get me like a Jedi with a long stick with a lightsaber taped to the end.[Laughter]
I’m into this. It can be like in the extended universe books where they started introducing weird lightsaber customization features where you could have like a nine-foot lightsaber blade.
Oren: It’s like, this is getting out of hand.
Chris: Let’s not do that.
Oren: Or you could make your lightsaber catch on fire. So it would do extra fire damage. You know, if there’s one thing a lightsaber needs, it’s more damage.
Chris: Well, apparently now somebody can walk away after they get stabbed through the midsection with a lightsaber. So apparently it does need fire damage.
Wes: Yeah, I guess so.
Oren: Yeah, that’s the problem, man. The Sith need that extra 1d6 of fire damage. They just can’t get a killing blow without it.[Laughter]
Chris: For me, when it comes to negative treasure, cursed items, I always keep thinking of in Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the dragon bracelet.
Oren: Oh, that thing creeped me out. Not because it turns you into a dragon. That’s fine. But because it didn’t grow when you became a dragon.
Chris: That was really creepy.
Oren: Just freaking crushing your arm now. I hate everything about it. I was scared to wear rings for years after that. Not like I wore a lot of jewelry anyway, but I was definitely mildly afraid of putting on a ring and worrying that my hand would grow while I was asleep.
Wes: I get that for sure.
Chris: Yeah, that part was not necessary. The thing that really helped the story was turning Eustace into a dragon.
Oren: That is a good part of the story. It’s as good as Eustace’s arc was ever going to be. It resolves his arc really fast after that, but I still liked the dragon transformation.
Chris: I do think that in a lot of cases with treasure, it is almost like a karmic problem where storytellers don’t want to give their heroes treasure unless they need it, not just because they want it. And there may be some exceptions, especially if the hero has kind of gone through a lot of excessive hardships to get the treasure. But I think in that case, that’s often when it’s, oh, we didn’t get the treasure, but friendship was the reward all along.[Laughter]
We didn’t actually need it for anything as opposed to, oh, my parents’ business is going to be foreclosed on. Now I need money, and then you get treasure to pay for it. And then often heroes just give away the rest. Or if they get a bunch of treasure, they don’t need it for anything. They often give it away.
Oren: Sometimes they put a portal on a balloon and the balloon spews the treasure out over the rest of the town.[Laughter]
We’re getting close to the end here, but I do have one more thing I want to mention, which as I talked earlier about using quest rewards as the stakes. And there’s a cautionary tale I want to share, which is that you need to be careful that the quest reward isn’t just a cool thing that you as the author want your character to have. So I read the novel Chilling Effect a little while ago. Some spoilers for that novel. The big thing that the protagonist is trying to get at the end of the story is that she wants her ship back, because she had a cool ship at the beginning, and it gets stolen from her about halfway through. And now she has I guess a less cool ship? Although granted, it’s kind of unclear why her first ship is better, but it’s supposed to be better in some unspecified way. So her big motivation is that she wants to get her ship back, and it’s just kind of a weak motivation, because she doesn’t need the ship for anything. She’s already got a new ship, which I actually have more attachment to than the first ship, because she spent a bunch of time fixing it up and getting it space-worthy. So that felt a little too video game-y. That was like, yeah, well, we need to get the cool ship back so that it has better stats for us to blow things up better with.
Chris: Are there any actual stakes, like negative stakes?
Oren: No. If she doesn’t get her ship back, she won’t have her ship back.
Chris: Right, so that’s the problem, is that’s not capable of generating tension, because it doesn’t matter. There’s no negative consequences if she doesn’t get her ship back.
Oren: Yeah, basically. That’s the issue. And I’ve seen that sort of problem in client manuscripts on a fairly regular basis. This was just one of the only times I’d seen it in a published work, so I thought it was worth pointing out.
Alright, well, I think that’s a good note to end this on. We now have the reward of a podcast episode. That’s basically good. That’s the same as a pile of gold.
Chris: We can say that’s the reward we earned for talking for half an hour. You can read what you like into that.
Okay, if you enjoyed this episode, please support us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, there’s the popular writing software Plottr, which you can learn about at plottr.com. Then there’s Callie Macleod. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants Podcast. Opening and closing theme The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?