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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #462

The Road to Plot Hook Recovery: Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks



This Week's Tips Summarized 

The Road to Plot Hook Recovery: Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks

The Road to Plot Hook Recovery: Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks

Reader's Tips Summarized

  1. Portable Gaming Kit
  2. Free Notecard Creator
  3. Free RPG Software
  4. Revised 3.5 SRD
  5. The One Sheet Mystery

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Check out the Role Playing Games at Troll and Toad

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Awhile ago I put a request out for your unused Pathfinder stuff. I want to give a quick thanks to Kev B for the Pathfinder module. Thanks Kev, it arrived in perfect condition!

Reviewer Needed For Goodman Games 4E Modules

I have a small stack of D&D 4E modules and supplements from Goodman Games to review. However, I'm swamped and don't have time to give them a good examination and review write-up.

If you have the time and are interested, drop me a note.

Carnus Campaign Nears Conclusion

A year ago my group started a D&D 4E homebrew campaign. The setting was a small corner of a world dominated by the free city of Carnus. In their first quest, the PCs inadvertently let agents of Orcus open a permanent gate to Shadowfell. At that point all campaign plans went out the window, and we focused instead on an epic quest to close this gate.

Weeks of game time have passed and undead are still pouring out of the gate. They've besieged Carnus and have infested the countryside. Soon food will run out, and there is an hourly danger of zombies, ghasts, ghosts and worse breaching defenses and attacking the populace.

To combat the undead, an ancient evil has reappeared - the Dragon Lords. It took massive armies, powerful magic, and great sacrifice to defeat the Dragon Lords eight centuries ago. Now they are back - the PCs do not know how - and they battle the undead. A stalemate of sorts has been reached, which is ok as it gives the party a bit more time to save the world (from one evil, at least).

Last game, session #25, the group found the final piece of a broken key needed to open an ancient prison where the knowledge of how to close a permanent gate to another plane is said to lie. The PCs entered the prison and have begun a dungeon crawl (the Pyramid of Shadows module).

The crawl is interesting as factions operate within the magical prison, and the PCs have already parleyed with two. We ended the session with an agent of one faction captured and ready for interrogation.

Next week we're holding a special 12 hour game session in an effort to claw through the whole crawl. The session could end in salvation or TPK. I can't wait to see how the campaign ends!

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,


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More Insanity at Home! Azathoth Seeks Cultists

A Mythos adventure set in 5 different eras from the Vikings to the Samurai and the Wild West is now looking for designers, playtesters, and supporters. What secrets does the Codex of the Harbinger Star hold? What madness awaits when the Red Eye of Azathoth opens?

You decide, because in Open Design, it's your game!

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The Road to Plot Hook Recovery: Stale Plot Hook Tips and Tricks  

By Ronald Whited, Modular

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, cliche 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. 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 cliche, 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.

* * *

Additional Resources

For some other good tips on Plot Hooks check out:

Roleplaying Tips Weekly Issue #31 - Johnn's work is always top notch, take a look here at how to craft some new plot hooks.

Roleplaying Tips Weekly Issue #32 - Part two of Johnn's work.

Steal This Hook - Some great hooks from the official D&D site.

The Modular Gameworld Newsletter - Shameless plug from my website, we are printing ready made plot hooks to use in a variety of games in our newsletter, as well as tips on creating your own. The inaugural edition goes out Sunday, September 20.

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Reader's Tips 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. 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 colour 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.
  • Cellotape.
  • 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-namer, sheet-of-dice-rolls generator, group synthesis sheets, spells lists, etc.
  • An eraser.
  • Liquid paper.
  • A stick of paper-glue.
  • Scissors.
  • Super-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.

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2. Free Notecard Creator 

From: Random Axe

Free online tool to create your own notecards for any game system.

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3. Free RPG Software 

From: impClaw

Online RPG software:

  • Chat module
  • Dice roller
  • Map management
  • Game logs
  • Music manager

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4. Revised D&D 3.5 SRD 

From: Mike E.

Here is another great D&D 3.5 reference website that I thought could get some love:

Revised (v3.5) System Reference Documentl


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5. The One Sheet Mystery 

From: Amy Driscoll

My favourite 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 colour coded folder systems. Don't laugh; I've been there.

The sheet is here [XLS].

A Brief Explanation

Title: just type over it.

Mood or Theme: can be location, genre, weather, colours; whatever evokes the feeling you want to create.

Events: the simplified stages, scenes, or encounters. PCs will act around these.

The Table

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 stat out.

Further Notes

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.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

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