With the pretty aggressive abandonment of traditional questing in Guild Wars 2's PvE, there seems to be some misinformation about what directed content will look like. It's relatively accurate to say that there are three main types: personal story quests, renown hearts, and dynamic events. Dungeons, another type of PvE content, are kind of a world unto themselves; they're approached by way of the personal storyline but evidently aren't actually necessary for progress along that line (in an effort to not force people to team up in an MMO unless they jolly well feel like it). They contain events but also static objectives. However, since they're cordoned off by way of instances, it seems pretty safe to leave them out of this conversation. Let's dig in, shall we?
The personal storyline is the most recognizable form of questing in Guild Wars 2. It's got almost all the ear-marks of traditional questing. It starts the moment your character is created, so from the get-go you've got instructions in the upper right corner of your screen prompting you along the way.
The start of many personal story quests involves exposition in the form of a cutscene done in ArenaNet's "two-and-a-half D" style -- an artistic background with full character models talking in front of it. The action in the personal storyline takes place in instances scattered throughout the world and identified by a floating green star (and corresponding waypoint on your UI compass). While they're designed to be completable solo, personal storyline instances allow for buddies to be brought in, and content will scale to keep things interesting. I talked previously about the mechanic that allows people questing together to avoid redundant content -- go ahead and read it; I'll wait.
Back? Groovy. The Guild Wars 2 personal storyline is pretty streamlined. The cutscene conversations with NPCs are used to lay out story in more engaging way than just written text and provide a lot of the background for why you're doing whatever it is that you're doing (although if you're not really the cutscene-watchin' type, there's an adequate summary in your Hero panel's personal story tab). At the end of a particular quest (typically as an instance is drawing to a close or immediately after leaving the instance), players are granted their reward, and instead of being directed back to the completion NPC, they simply see the next objective to move their storyline forward.
As is pretty general knowledge, the personal storylines are heavily affected by choices made in character creation. For example, while all the early human quests deal with local bandits, they do so in very different ways. Noble-born humans deal with the kidnapping of a rich friend, commoners go into bandit territory to retrieve stolen medical supplies, and street-rats have to deal with a friend who's joined up with the bandits. All the races that we've seen so far have a similar differentiation between starting choices. Those distinct storylines are further altered by decisions that come up as you go along your way.
These seem to be the neglected part of the questing setup in Guild Wars 2. Because they're apparently ill-understood, I think some people assume that they are dynamic events (they aren't) and are therefore disappointed when they don't resemble what we've heard about dynamic events. I don't know that renown hearts are even the ArenaNet-condoned name for 'em; I picked the term up from an excellent post by Ravious. Anyway, these are loosely related to the sort of faction-wooing that you'll find in other MMOs, where you have to accrue favor with a certain city or race in order to receive goods and services from them, just on a smaller scale.
These hearts are dotted around the world, with something like 15 hearts in each map (from what we've seen). They show up as a gold heart (outlined when not completed, and they turn solid on completion) both on the world map and in the upper right corner of the UI of a player within range of a particular heart. If you don't see the heart icon on your map or are looking for a good place to get started, you can always look for a scout; they show up as a spyglass icon on your map, and they have the same icon floating above their head in the world. Scouts will be able to point you to nearby renown hearts and give you a teensy bit of background about the areas they refer you to.
Hearts work on a very standard completion bar. You start with your progress bar empty, and as you do tasks, it fills up. There are typically several ways to make progress. If you're in Wayfarer foothills helping out near the Bear shrine, for example, you can disable bear traps, feed little baby bears (and then they make hearts at you and it's so sweeeet), or kill Sons of Svanir; while in the human area of Queensdale, you can help a monastery out by ridding its garden of grubs, taste-testing ale, keeping bandits from stealing ale kegs, or fighting off centaurs. As you can see, not all objectives are combat-based, and this system allows you to participate in as many or as few viable ways as you like. I refuse to honor the Snow Leopard shrine in any way except by petting baby snow leopards and making them purr!
Let's talk about the NPCs for these hearts. You actually have the choice of never talking to these fine folk; hearts are automatically begun when you enter the proper area, progress is saved when you log out or leave the area, and rewards are automagically delivered upon completion. However, if you really like text or want more story, these NPCs are more than happy to chit-chat with you (and they're capable of explicitly telling you what needs doing in case people are confused by the UI text).
Additionally, when a renown heart is completed, these NPCs turn into karma vendors. They will provide you (in exchange for karma points earned by completing dynamic events or helping in friends' storylines) with all sorts of goodies that reflect the theme of what the heart was about. Helped beat up on some centaurs? Your new NPC buddy will probably have a centaur axe or sword with an awesome skin to trade you. Lent a hand to the local Seraph outpost? They probably have some gloves or other armor that they'll trade you as thanks for your trouble. These aren't automatic rewards; you have to choose to take 'em. And as they cost karma points, you might decide you don't want to do that. Maybe the centaur weapons aren't your flavor of badass, or you don't really care for the martial theme to the Seraph armor; that's OK, just save up your tasty karma points for something you do want. As a side note, most karma vendors I came across in my time in the beta had transmutation stones (used for combining the appearance of one item with the stats of an item of the same type -- you can't make an axe look like a bow or a breastplate look like a tunic, sorry). I think that mightn't be real news, but it's worth pointing out.
Rewards for the hearts themselves are, as I said, automatic. Once a heart is complete, the progress bar goes away from your UI and you're informed of how much XP you earned. You also get a letter from the local NPC with some thanks, perhaps a bit more story, and the monies you earned.
Now, why do these things exist? They serve, for one thing, as a kind of dependable way to get XP even if an area is quiet in terms of dynamic events. They are always available (once per character) for completion. By allowing players to take part in the goings-on of different parts of the map and providing them with lore and story, hearts are also a good way of engaging players with the world and its inhabitants. On top of that, it seems like hearts are a good way of measuring whether or not you're ready to move on past a map. During my time in the beta, I found that once I'd finished the vast majority (or all) of the hearts in an area, I was ready to move on. They're a good way of gauging progress and sampling all the content in a map and knowing when to proceed without grinding the same 12 mobs forever.
These are the well-publicized crowning glory of Guild Wars 2's PvE content. Dynamic events are hot-joinable in that you don't have to talk to an NPC or pick up a quest to participate, their rewards are automagic, and you can leave a DE and still receive credit for it. At one point I ran across some people helping to guard a caravan from centaurs; I fought one or two waves of foes with them and then kept going about my way. About 10 minutes after I left, the event ended successfully and I got bronze-level rewards (XP, karma, and coin) for my participation.
Some dynamic events are initiated by player actions, but most seem to happen regardless of player interaction. Despite clarification by ArenaNet, there seem to be some misunderstandings about how dynamic events work. Some folks still expect dynamic events to have a permanent, rather than persistent, effect. The key to dynamic events is that they chain. Defending the Seraph garrison from centaurs leads to wiping out a centaur encampment leads to taking back a trading post leads to fighting to hold the trading post and so on. So if players aren't around to help out the local yokels (or players fail to stop whatever's going down), things will go back to how they were -- you shouldn't be surprised to clear the charr wrecking yard of Flame Legion soldiers only to come back to find it repopulated by baddies if you weren't around to prevent them from moving back in.
Completing dynamic events can coincide with making progress on a renown heart. If part of the heart's objective is to kill centaurs, and a herd of centaurs happens to be in the area trying to take over the fort, then you're effectively getting double credit for each kill. That doesn't make them the same. Hearts are stationary and have a single, one-time reward, while dynamic events change, chain, have multiple reward tiers, and can be completed many times.
Elisabeth Cardy is a longtime Guild Wars player, a personal friend of Rytlock Brimstone, and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column updates on Tuesdays and keeps a close eye on Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. Email Elisabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org.