So You Want To Be A Game Master - Part 6: Plot Hooks
Part 1: The Beginning
Part 2: Cutting Corners
Part 3: NPCs
Part 4: Villains
Part 5: Story
Here we are! We finally made it to game night! I am so proud of you! No, seriously, I am fighting back tears...
"You kids grow up so darn fast."
So the game begins. You have all the resources you will ever need, a plethora of interesting NPCs, a decent place to begin, a well-crafted story and a nefarious villain who your players get the pleasure of thwarting.
Now, all you need to do is convince them to engage in all that.
You may be prepped for the next 200 sessions. but if your players don't latch on to the story you so painstakingly crafted, all you have managed to accomplish is waste copious amounts of time making something no one will ever see.
"Which is not always a bad thing..."
If you want your players to jump into the artfully constructed story you've plotted out you have two options; railroad them (which we DO NOT do), or feed them a tasty plot hook.
What's a plot hook, you might ask?
A plot hook is a device used by the Game Master to capture the attention of the player by appealing to their character's interests. The use of this is meant to draw characters into your story by motivating them to accomplish some personal goal.
Case in point: Grundy Thunderfist is a dwarf of some renown with a penchant for ale and a love for fighting... so basically any dwarf ever. He has no issue telling folks about how brave he is, so when he overhears a pair of travelers talking about an overgrown ruin deep in the forest that even the bravest fear to tread that houses a monster no person has ever seen and lived to tell about, you can bet your last silver piece that good o'le Grundy is going to be tromping about the woods in search of the thing.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are..."
Grundy was enticed by a plot hook. Technically he was entwined by two; a location where he could prove his bravery to others, and a challenging creature to murder. The Game Master presented an opportunity to Grundy that intrigued him and could (and likely will) motivate him to convince the rest of the party to go as well.
Plot hooks can be some of the most challenging parts of running a game. Despite the fact the characters are adventurers, who lead lives of adventure, go on adventures, and otherwise adventure their way through even the most mundane tasks, they require a surprising amount of prompting to actually get that fire lit under their adventuring asses.
In truth, you become equal parts arbiter, storyteller, and advertiser. But it doesn't have to become a slog. Here are some things to remember when creating plot hooks for your characters.
1. Everyone Wants Something
Every character in the game wants something. Whether it is fame, glory, revenge or power, everyone has something they desire. During Session 0, really listen to what your character want, what their aspirations are, and why they decided to become adventurers. If they don't mention it outright, ask them. These will be the tools to help you craft appealing plot hooks later while you prep.
Eventually, what you want is to appeal to as many characters as possible. In the example above, Grundy wanted to prove how fearless he was when facing down this location and its beastly inhabitant. However, that doesn't do much for the rest of the party, who could give or take deadly monsters and broken places.
This is when you take a gander at your notes on the rest of the characters. You see that the ranger in the party has a backstory that revolves around her family being killed by an evil and powerful fey. Perhaps that evil beast living in the ruins is a minion of said fey or may be the fey itself (Gasp! Story!). And what of these ruins anyway? What are they? Well, they might be the leftover sanctum of a once renowned elven wizard and may contain arcane secrets after all this time, which is of great interest of the party wizard.
And if that doesn't work, use the great standby, that has existed for as long as the game has. The surefire way to get your PCs amped up; the promise of wealth.
"Wealth typically coming at a price."
There is no greater motivator known to mankind than money. Don't believe me? Stop going to work. Let's face it, money makes the world go round. Everything costs it, everyone wants it, and if you heap it onto your PCs, they will jump at it, especially if they are running low on funds. As a rule, I tend to start my home campaigns with the characters in dire straights (financially speaking), for no other reason than to give them a universal plot hook.
Remember, it's not railroading if they choose the path.
"The problem is choice."
2. Your Story Already Comes With A Built-In Plot Hook (Or Hooks)
When you started putting a game together, you probably had at least a vague idea for a story. At the core of that story, you have the conflict, that thing the PCs need to correct. There, my friend inlays a pretty big plot hook. Whether it is a necromancer raising an army of the dead or demons setting up shop in a nearby monastery, the primary conflict of your story typically has far-reaching effects that can be felt throughout the campaign world.
Think of what those effects are and how they relate to the common person (i.e. the people the PCs are interacting with the most). If a necromancer wants an army, it's going to need bodies. Lots and lots of bodies. Bodies for days. That kind of acquisition is not going to go unnoticed. Cemeteries are going to be emptied at an alarming rate. Sure, some poor folks are going to be missing some loved ones, but when a noble family's mausoleum gets heisted, you best believe some rich folks are going to be making a fuss and throwing a lot of money around to fix the problem.
"Fix my problems so that I might spare myself the tedium."
The plot hook for your conflict can be subtle, like a few missing bodies here and there, or it can be something a little less vague, like a man bursting through a tavern window while on fire, using his last breath to scream "DRAGON!" before collapsing in a heap of smoldering bones. It all depends on how the party reacts to information you hand them.
And trust me, it takes a few tries.
3. It's A Numbers Game
A plot hook is not just a cute little title, it is a description of what you will be doing for much of your campaign; fishing. Think of your campaign world as a massive ocean, and you are but a lowly fisherman sitting in a dingy. Every line you cast into the sea is baited with something of interest to the player-fish, begging to be nibbled. You will find as time goes on, there will be a lot of lines in the water and a shocking amount of them go untouched.
Don't worry. That is perfectly normal. Sometimes characters just don't latch on.This is why I strongly suggest multiple hooks for a single story. Even if one fails, you still have a few more floating in the water. Don't be disappointed though if these too don't seem to attract the attention you want. Characters are fickle things. Take your unused ideas, shelve them, and break them out later.
4. Sometimes Plot Hooks Spawn Stories
Maybe, just maybe, you don't have a story... yet. Maybe all you have is a simple sentence, like "The children of the village all sit up in their beds in the middle of the night and chant the same thing in unison before falling back asleep", or "Something in the woods has been attacking travelers".
From such a small seed a whole slew of ideas can grow. What is the thing living in the woods? How did it get there? What does it want? The more you think about an idea, the more it takes shape, until you finally have a working story.
I cannot begin to tell you the number of stories I have built from a single plot hook. If you ever find yourself at a loss for ideas, grab yourself a notebook, open messenger on your phone, or click on word or open office and just start listing off random sentences. You can find yourself with quite the diverse library of stories after only just a few minutes.
5. Sometimes Your Players Will Imagine A Better Story Than You Will
Your story is pretty boss. So, when you introduce the plot hook to your players and they take the bait, you are pretty stoked. As you listen to them, their strange little player minds begin to warp and twist the story you had written and you'll be damned if their idea doesn't sound better.
"Huh... son of a bitch."
I have written before about the notion of letting your players write your game for you. In this case, let them run wild with your hooks, really give them your undivided attention, and pit their ideas up against your own. If they work better, use them! In some cases, fuse their ideas with your own, and then throw in a Shymalanian twist for good measure.
With luck, this helps you out in your Game Mastering endeavors. And if you are still having trouble cooking up hooks, here are a few to steal.
Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard
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