The Road to Plot Hook Recovery: Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #462
Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks
By Ronald Whited
What exactly is a plot hook? To me they are the baited hooks you tease in front of your players until they sink their teeth into one. Then you reel them into wherever you wanted to take them in your campaign.
Compelling plot hooks can launch an entire campaign, while stale ones can crash and burn leaving you to try to salvage your night of gaming.
I don’t believe bad plot hooks exist. Every hook has something to bring to your campaign. You just need to bring the greatness out!
Stale plot hooks are characterized by being overused, cliché or expected. People expect certain things to happen when they are in a tavern or when they meet strangers on the road. People have expectations, and you can turn these expectations into great plot hooks!
Part of the road to plot hook recovery is training your mind to see plot hooks differently. Old plot hooks are a great resource you can turn to when you get writers block or simply don’t have the time to prepare for a campaign. You just need to look at them in a different light and present them to your players in different ways.
Below are several ways to rejuvenate a stale plot hook.
1. Get the Players Invested
Get your players invested in the hook. A major flaw of stale plot hooks is that the players know the hooks so well they don’t care about them. Getting players invested in the hook brings the interest back.
It might seem like a simple thing, but connecting the hook to an NPC the players already care about can often be enough to get them charging into the dragon’s den for that darned princess.
For example, the Mayor asking the PCs to find a stolen locket is much less powerful then Anna, their favorite barmaid that has been giving them information for 10 levels, asking them to help find a stolen heirloom of hers. Getting the players invested is a quick and easy way to improve response to your hooks.
2. Do Something Unexpected
Freshen up a plot hook by do something with it the PCs don’t expect. It doesn’t have to be a big change, just some small twist to make it seem fresh and new.
A favorite tactic is to start the players in the middle of the plot and let them piece together what is going on. Just having the players start in the middle gives them such a different perspective on the events no one notices until long after the game that it seemed a bit similar to another hook.
Little, unexpected twists to the plot hook can add tons of value as players wonder what you might be up to next.
3. Add Details
The second major flaw in stale plot hooks is their cliché, generic nature. When a plot consists of “[authority figure] calls [hero] to slay [evil monster] in [creepy forest] to return [priceless treasure]” you know it’s stale.
That same plot hook could seem a lot more interesting loaded with details from your existing campaign. This tip meshes well with getting the players invested, but goes beyond using just established NPCs.
Maybe the [creepy forest] was where they fought the spiders 5 levels ago (I wonder what ever happened to those buggers?). The [priceless treasure] was the circlet of peace you delivered between the two feuding kingdoms months ago.
An established gameworld, even if only a couple sessions in, is a gold mine of content to use in your plot hooks. Take advantage of it.
4. Gunslingers in Space?
Strip the plot hook down to its basics to find out what made it entertaining in the first place. Keep that part and retool the rest of the hook around it.
Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh coat of paint to make something seem new again (it sure worked for my living room). After all, the classic save the princess from the Red Dragon feels a bit different when it’s the Dragonborn Matriarch that was kidnapped by the Stone Giant. Or if you take a cowboy western and base it in space.
These changes will seem large to the players, but really it’s just an older plot hook in a new setting.
5. What do you mean we were second?
One thing I can’t recommend enough is cultivating rival NPCs for your players. They can add so much potential to so many things in a campaign, including spicing up your hooks. Have the King give the two groups the same quest and have them compete to complete the task (and to get that juicy reward).
Another option is to have the NPCs get the job first, and send the PCs in later to rescue them (bonus points if the situation is ‘Not What It Seems’). Adding rivals into a plot gives the hook a whole new dimension.
For some other good tips on Plot Hooks check out How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part I — RPT#31 and How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part II — RPT#32.
Portable Gaming Kit
From Loz Newman
We all have a dice-bag with a pencil in it right? There’s been many a time when I thought, “Drat, if only I had [item X here] in my dice-bag.”
So here is the list of the items I now have accumulated and used often over the years; maybe it’ll help some people.
The quantities of some items might surprise some people. That’s because I’m often the GM, and I loan out items others lack, such as pencils and dice, to avoid lost time.
- Sorted dice in mesh bags that allow me to spot the ones I need without having to pour all 30+ dice onto the table.
- A second bag with multiple sets of the combination of dice used for our most commonly-played games. Three sets each of a different color to speed up selection when I lend them out.
- Pencils and spare lead.
- Biro-type pens – 1 black, 1 blue, 1 red, 1 green – and felt-tip pens in black and green.
- Black permanent marker pen.
- A metal 15cm ruler. It’s lasted ten years so far; a plastic ruler wouldn’t have lasted half of that.
- Blu-tac in a grease-proof paper packet.
- A mini-stapler with spare staples.
- A mini-pharmacy bag with Vitamin C, aspirin, paracetamol, caffeine tablets, throat pastilles, a couple of plasters for cuts and blisters, Kleenex, Fisherman’s Friends, anti-cold tablets, and my personal medication.
- Two tea-bags and a few micro-tablets of sweetener in a small Zip-Loc bag.
- A7 note-paper cut down from old printed PC sheets and paper-clipped together inside a small Zip-Loc bag.
- A USB memory stick with all sorts of game-related files including image galleries, world info sheets, PC sheets, ambiance sorted music, and games utility files, such as a random-name, sheet-of-dice-rolls generator, group synthesis sheets, spells list, etc.
- An eraser.
- Liquid paper.
- A stick of paper-glue.
- Half a dozen paper clips.
- A cheap calculator.
In case you’re wondering, it all fits smoothly into a leather carrying case about 8cm by 20cm by 25cm.
A leather case and a metal ruler might seem overly expensive. But think about how long cheaper plastic versions would have lasted and the cost of replacing them every couple of years.
My leather carrying case has been changed exactly once in the 27 years I’ve been roleplaying – and that only because it got damaged during a fire. Due to the heroic resistance of the leather the contents remained unscathed, despite fire licking at it until the firemen arrived to throw it out of a window onto the paving two stories below where it remained for two rainy days. Now that is a testimonial!
Here’s hoping this may inspire a few “upgrades” to dice-bags that help some people avoid minor hassles in the future.
The One Sheet Mystery
From Amy Driscoll
My favorite game to run is the locked room mystery.
In the process of creating these, I’ve developed a spreadsheet that you might find useful to easily craft a tight mystery without resorting to flowcharts, sticky notes, bits of string and color coded folder systems. Don’t laugh; I’ve been there.
A Brief Explanation
Title: just type over it.
Mood or Theme: can be location, genre, weather, colors; whatever evokes the feeling you want to create.
Events: the simplified stages, scenes, or encounters. PCs will act around these.
Things to Discover: the meat and bones of the page. Everything the PCs need to discover to solve this mystery should be listed here. Don’t worry about order or importance, just get them down.
Keep them as simple as possible. Try to limit each thing to discover to one fact. If it’s a Very Important Clue, list it a few times and work out two or three ways the PCs could discover it.
Clue: what tells the players about the things to discover.
Location: where to find the clue.
“Sus” is short for Suspicion. Do the players suspect this thing to be true yet? Have they found the clue? Tick this off as the players go through the adventure.
Prop is a little more meta-game. Could you make a prop for this clue? Yes, or No in this column.
Distractions and Red Herrings: things that don’t need to occur during the adventure but might be fun or further the campaign in some way.
Below the Table
Props: list the props you want to make, as noted in the table above.
Locations: summary of the locations in the table above. If you’re doing a map, all of these places need to be included somewhere.
Combat Stats: statistics of the creatures your PCs might come into conflict with. They’re the only ones you should need to start out.
As you run the adventure, use a printout of this sheet. Tick off the clues the players pick up as they go.
A One Sheet Mystery doesn’t have to be the whole adventure. I use this to design single mysteries/secrets as part of my larger campaign/adventure planning spreadsheet.
The sheet might take several sessions to complete if it’s a campaign secret.
You can use these in series or parallel to run a more complicated adventure.