How to Create Story-Exploding Character Hooks
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #593
Hola game master!
This week I launch my newest product, 200 Story-Exploding Character Hooks.
Don’t buy it from any stores – I’ll be sending you an email with a discount link soon as a thank you for being a Roleplaying Tips subscriber.
Meantime, I have some tips for you today on how to make your own killer hooks.
Though the title has a bit of hyperbole in it, I’m standing behind my claim of story explosions.
When PCs have a certain type of hook, your adventures and campaigns get injected with something great, something urgent. And as I say in the foreword of the book, something to hang your sword belt on.
Regular hooks might offer a seed for adventure or a nifty quirk or trait. But the kind of hooks I want your players to have in your games can launch entire plot arcs. These hooks should open up story ideas for you and offer them like juicy peaches hanging heavy on the branch in late August.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, pasted from the book:
Gifted with a steady hand and a mind for letters, he quickly rose as top scribe. The others are jealous of him, and he knows of at least two plots against him. But last week his entire perspective changed while copying a strange book and its maps. He secretly made a copy for himself and now wonders what he should do with this forbidden knowledge.
As a GM I could do a ton with this type of hook if a player presented it to me.
First, there’s some kind of scribe guild or group. I can easily drop such a group into my campaign. What a great resource for future hooks, knowledge gathering and plot fixing. And it sounds like a nasty group too with those jealous plots in play. So a little pepper added to my soup. Nice.
I’ve also got two NPCs now who hate the PC. Great for future gameplay.
And then there’s the obvious hook – the book and maps. But we infer a client owns the original. So as GM I have new options. Who is the client? Will they be a rival? What will happen when they find out the PCs are involved?
Further, the hook called it forbidden knowledge. So no standard “Here be treasure” quest, but something dangerous and mysterious. Forbidden by whom? Why? What’s so dangerous about this information?
We’re just taking the lowest hanging peaches here, too. As GM, I would mull over this hook for a few days, teasing out ideas and possibilities. I’d tweak the hook to suit my campaign, but it’s generic enough that I can move game pieces around to suit my main campaign goals.
I’d ask: Who, What, Where, Why, When, How and How Much for each morsel hinted at or inferred by the hook. I’d ask Why? three times for the juicier tid bits. The ideas, connections and choices would soon, well, explode.
This is why I feel you want story-exploding hooks from players, and why the title merits the slightly over-the-top wording. I wrote 200 of these hooks. And I’d like to share a few tips now, based on what I learned writing them, so you can make your own.
Make It Personal
Players have to be excited by their character’s hook too. Do this by making their PC the centre of the hook.
Have the PC be the main agency acting or being acted upon.
The PC is not on the sidelines, watching. They’re involved and they’re entangled.
I originally wrote this tip as Give Them A Reward. But my favourite hooks from the book actually offer no standard treasure reward.
Instead, they offer future interesting gameplay. And my fave hooks offer potentially the most interesting gameplay.
So you make hooks personal not just with the promise of treasure or reward, but with involvement in interesting gameplay and a great story.
Do this through connections, which is the next tip.
Add NPCs to the hook so the PC comes to the table with a small (or large) pre-existing network of relationships for you and the player to mine for great gameplay.
Make these NPCs interesting. The more interesting, the better:
- People in power
- People with weird abilities
- People with dangerous resources
- People with their own story-exploding hooks!
In our example hook with the scribe PC, we already know two NPCs want the PC gone.
Maybe one NPC had an affair with the PC. Maybe the other is the head of the scribe guild!
Two cool options and both put the PC at the centre of future craziness.
A simple way to involve NPCs is with a mind map.
- Put the PC in the center circle
- Draw three circles in orbit around the character
- Write names or roles in the NPC circles
- Add a label that describes the relationship to each connector line
Just make sure the NPCs themselves are interesting too.
Already mentioned in past Roleplaying Tips, we humans are hard-wired to want to know Why? to everything.
So it’s time to test the phrase, “Curiosity killed the PC.”
I mentioned the technique of asking Why? three times to really dig deep into a game element like a plot thread or an NPC’s motivations. This idea came in from a Roleplaying Tips reader years ago, and I’ve found it a great GM tool.
For example, why is the leader of the scribe guild plotting against the PC? We know this was happening before the dangerous job came up, so it was a pre-existing condition.
Maybe the PC’s work is causing problems. Clients only want the PC for their jobs because of the high quality, and the leader doesn’t want that headache. He’d rather offer mediocre work so clients aren’t so picky and jobs get done faster from multiple scribes.
Maybe the leader is jealous. He fears the PC could become leader himself some day soon.
Maybe the PC is half-elven and it’s really a racial thing.
Once you know the deeper motivations or reasons behind a hook, offer just the surface level to the PC. The first Why. Keep the deeper levels a secret for future twists and surprises.
Now you’ve got the best of both worlds. The player has a reason Why for the hook. This grounds the hook and makes it seem less arbitrary – critical for immersion. And you’ve got deeper stuff in your back pocket to weave into gameplay when you want.
Include A Strong Desire
The best hooks involve strong emotions. Players are used to wanting treasure and XP, and that gets ho hum after awhile. Instead, use your character hook to offer them something more and watch them get excited.
For example, our scribe hook offers treasure maps. Good stuff. But it also offers a deeper emotion: danger from the forbidden knowledge and two enemies.
Cooked into the PC right from the start is drama and the edge of fear. The player starts the campaign watching their back and poised to react to personal threats. Talk about a hook!
Then you build on that as you reveal through the story what the forbidden knowledge is and the consequences of having that knowledge, plus enemies, plus enemies who know the PC has that knowledge.
While on one level this tip is about character motivation, it’s really about building player desire to play their character just to find out what happens!
End In An Open Loop
Last, make your hook unresolved. Leave the conflict open. That’s what gameplay is for – to resolve the hook through group storytelling.
You can play the resolution in session one or session one hundred, it’s up to you, because the goal is to hook the player right away and to unleash a great story.
When writing the 200 hooks, I actually imagined the player on a diving board. You know, a springy board that propels people into an oh sh*t moment?
I wanted hooks to end with the PC in mid-air, with your player saying “Oh sh*t!” and your game kicking off with your group demanding to play to see how things turn out.
Make your hooks so they create this same desire. Get your player’s pulses racing and eyes big, dice in hand and ready for a crazy roller coaster ride.