Fetch quests are one of the simple default plots that inevitably turn up in the toolkit of pretty much every GM. It’s understandable why; outside of “Go into a dungeon and get rich” the fetch quest might be one of the fastest plots to prepare. You just need a map, some encounters, a quest-giver, and a prize to retrieve. With a little fancy GM wizardry, it can look like a real plot for a bit.
The problem is that unless your players have never touched a RPG before, they’ll recognize it; faster if they’ve played any of the many MMOGs out there or any of the tabletop-descended video RPGs. If you have such exotic players, by all means do give them a fetch quest. If you’re like the rest of us, though, you should avoid this old trope of an adventure.
It’s boring. This is the big downfall of the fetch quest. When something is as simple as “Go forth to collect this thing/these things and return to me!” it gets really easy to skimp on the things that could save it. Making a fetch quest that works takes more effort than other plots, because you have the barest hint of a skeleton to build on. If you spend the same amount of time on making a fetch as you do on something more complex, you’re probably going to be missing a fair bit of meat from it. Your players will be able to tell.
It’s predictable. It’s easy to use the formulaic version of this; quest giver gives quest, PCs go out to fight things and harvest the desired item from them, PCs come back, quest-giver hands over a reward and offers a higher-tier quest or a mission to go to the next quest-giver. While this works for MMOGs and the like (because you can customize the stories of those to the players) at the tabletop there’s no excuse for this kind of dishwater-dull plotting.
It’s linear. Tied in with the predictability is that – unless you’ve put in enough work – a fetch quest is effectively a short railroad. You don’t get more story, more plot, more characterization, anything, unless you go fetch the widget for the person. This is something that even video games have to bend to; any MMOG that sends you on a fetch quest without giving you additional things to do while in the area isn’t going to hold anyone’s interest for long.
It usually doesn’t make any sense. So the person is asking for a dozen wolf pelts, or a load of rare flowers, or a crystal harvested from a goblin-infested mine. Why is this person asking what amounts to a gang of armed and armored thugs to do something more suited to a specialist? Hire a trapper to get the wolf pelts and they won’t come back hacked up with sword wounds. Hire an herbalist to collect the flowers or, better yet, to grow them for you. Hire a miner and a few guards to go get the crystal. Don’t send the people who look like they belong to an association of tomb raiders unless you have a tomb that needs raided.
It’s repetitive. This is why you can usually get away with one fetch quest without much trouble. Unless you’ve got players who are particularly fidgety, you can probably slip a fetch quest in to cover when you didn’t get your prep time in, for whatever reason. It becomes a problem when the fetch becomes prevalent enough that your players start to feel like errand runners rather than adventurers. Again, video games can get away with it because they have ways to distract the player from the repetition and predictability; you’re limited to the spoken word, maps, and figures with some sound effects or background music at best, most likely.
So can you make fetch quests work? Absolutely, but you need to be willing to put in the work. Don’t chain them together. Don’t make them something that it would make more sense for someone else to do. Make them flexible – if you’re sending the players after a prize in an old cavern, give them side things to do, puzzles to solve, hints and plot hooks to grab. And, most of all, make it matter. Don’t send them to go fetch a crystal from a mine. Send them to retrieve the crystal, the miner who was sent to get it originally, and the soldiers, and bring them back alive if possible, because the quest-giver needs the crystal to finish a golem that will protect the castle, freeing up the guards to go defend other locations, freeing up those guards to go to the front lines and bolster the war effort. Make the fetch quest matter, and don’t rely on it. Use it sparingly and cloak it in the effects of other plots, and your players will not only enjoy it, they won’t be sure whether or not they were playing fetch.