Why are fetch quests and delivery quests so popular in games? I understand to a degree why video games use them, since they primarily end up being side quests in that format. But in RPGs, they are pretty lame. I think I mentioned that I joined a PbP game of the 5E adventure Storm King's Thunder. And we're in the middle of a boring delivery quest right now. It's dragging on and on since it's PbP and takes weeks to get through an encounter. Someone spoiled the adventure for me, at least partially, and from what I heard, there are more dumb fetch/delivery quests waiting. I'm considering dropping out of that game.
And the 2E game I just joined that I mentioned in the previous post just got underway with all of our PCs meeting in a tavern with an NPC who wants us to be errand boys. Joy.
I figured that this was not a good way to manage a game session many years ago. In my first 3E campaign back in 2000, one of the adventures was based off of a story in Welsh mythology where the hero had to visit increasingly older and wiser creatures to learn the knowledge he sought. When I translated it into a D&D adventure, it ended up being a series of magical fetch quests for weirdo NPCs. And my players were fine with the first round, but when they found out there was a second, and then third round, they were not too happy. After the game, we discussed what I'd hoped for, and what they experienced in the game. I've not used the fetch quest or delivery quest since then in D&D thanks to their feedback.
Players are gathering around to play D&D, or any other RPG, because they want to vicariously experience adventure through their character's experiences. Having an NPC just tell them, "Bring me back the MacGuffin and I will reward you." or "Take this MacGuffin to NPC B and they will reward you." is not very adventurous. Well, it can be adventurous if done well, but often it's just tedious. And if not done well, it can be very railroady.
So, what to do instead?
First of all, it's perfectly fine for NPCs to want certain things, and even to offer rewards if the PCs can bring them those things. But that should just be one of many possible hooks or rumors that might drive PC actions. Whatever the MacGuffin is, it should not be something vital. It should not be something demanded of the PCs (an exception is when geas or quest spells get used, more on that below). Similarly, if an NPC wants something taken from here to there, why force the PCs to do it? Unless it's in some dangerous or difficult place to reach, why should a bunch of treasure seeking ne'er-do-wells or even glory seeking would-be-heroes waste their time playing Fedex?
The NPC makes it known that they would like to have X, or have X taken somewhere. Maybe they even say what the reward will be. That's a rumor you can introduce to the players when in the home town. If they follow up, they may contact the NPC for more information, and accept the job if they feel like it. If not, no big deal. There are other rumors or hooks for them to follow. And if they come across the item of a fetch quest, intentionally or by chance, and then offer it to the NPC, they can claim the reward. Of course, they should always have the option to just ignore the MacGuffin, or even keep it for themselves. Similarly, the PCs should be free to abscond with the MacGuffin of a delivery quest if they so choose, or just simply ignore the whole affair and find something more interesting or challenging to do.
Now, there will be times when PCs end up under [often magical] compulsion. This may be due to a geas or quest spell, as mentioned previously, or something they agree to as payment for a service (removal of a curse or to have a slain companion raised, for example). But this should happen as a consequence of the PCs' actions and choices. If they try to rob the Temple of Golden Pigs, and the High Hogg's men catch them, the High Hogg may slap a quest spell on them as punishment. That's fair. It's the consequence of their failure.
Even then, the quest/geas spells allow you to ignore the compulsion, accept a penalty, and try to find a way to remove that magical compulsion somewhere else. And if it's not a magical compulsion, and the PCs are willing to accept the legal or social consequences of their actions (possible arrest or being labelled as outlaws, refusal of further services by the Temple of Golden Pigs, etc.), again there is nothing forcing them to finish the fetch quest.
And in cases where the PCs willingly accept a fetch or delivery quest, it had better be worth the players' time. A trip from village A to village B, maybe with a planned encounter or two on the way, is not so exciting. Having to find an object in a remote, dangerous, or magical environment (dungeon, cursed mountain, other plane of existence, etc.), or deliver the object to a similarly hard to reach place, is a good step to making the quest more interesting. But even then, what's in it for the PCs?
In my West Marches game, there were NPCs who wanted certain things. There were sometimes rumors about these things, and the players followed them up from time to time. But they were just rumors I threw out there, that could lead them to new areas of the Marches, or else suggested things they could do, but hadn't considered on their own, in areas they'd already explored. I had one NPC who would occasionally pop up in town seeking new monsters for his menagerie. A few times the PCs followed up on this, trying to hunt down that type of monster, capture one or more, and bring them back to town. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they failed, and sometimes they just gave up because they found something more interesting. And I was fine with all of that. I could always wait a few months then reintroduce Throckmorton P. Ruddygore, with a new request for the capture of a new type of monster in a different area of the Marches.
Similarly, in my Star Wars game, the PCs wanted a faster hyperdrive for their ship. So I determined that there were three places to get one on the Outer Rim planet they were based on. Two NPCs would sell them outright, or would reduce the cost if the PCs would help in some way. A third wanted safe passage off the planet (he was wanted) and would exchange the hyperdrive for help escaping. In this case, the idea of improving the hyperdrive was 100% a player-driven goal. And if they'd pooled their money, or gone on some other adventure to make up what they lacked, they could have just purchased a hyperdrive without any hassle. They also had three different places to find one, and if they had tried to leverage one against the others, they could have possibly gotten the discount without the "quest."
In the end, they ended up taking on the quest of the first merchant they talked to, who wanted them to salvage an AT-AT walker for spare parts. And of course, there were other interested parties that the PCs had to deal with while doing so. In the end, it was challenging and fun for the players, and they managed, through their own initiative and effort, to get the reward they wanted.
So please, don't start an adventure -- and definitely don't start the entire campaign -- by forcing the players to go on some boring fetch quest or delivery quest for an NPC in order to "advance the story." Use NPC desires as potential motivators of action, but leave it up to the PCs to follow up on that or not, and make sure that if they do follow up, there is adventure and challenge along the path.