Have you ever sat at the game table with a GM who asked “what do you want to do?” and then just stared blankly at you, waiting for you to find his plot?
Have you ever run or played an RPG with a cliché story introduction involving a mysterious stranger approaching you in a tavern?
If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you've seen what happens when a game doesn't have good hooks!
Interactive fiction needs to connect the player to the GM. This isn't as automatic as it seems. The players extend themselves into the game world with their characters. The GM extends herself into the game world with her NPCs and setting. The GM also presents challenges, and the players have their characters undertake those challenges.
The exact middle of the player-GM relationship is the question of why the players’ characters undertake the challenges the GM creates. The answer to the question is plot hooks.
Hooks are where the players reach across the table and write some story into their characters. Hooks the pieces of story that the players are interested in connecting their characters directly to. Hooks tell the GM the most powerful way to plug the players' characters into the plot.
A character hook is designed as a toy for the GM to play with. Whether you write a 20 page character back-story or a 100 word bullet point list, you should always summarize your character’s background in terms of how the GM can use it to draw your character into the story. To some players, it may feel like a weakness that their character’s enemies can exploit. That’s exactly what it is – and that’s such a good thing. The GM is going to write the next dungeon regardless, so you might as well have it spotlight your character by having the prince she believes to be her real father get kidnapped by the ogres. I mean, she’s going in that dungeon one way or another, right? If she doesn’t have any interesting hooks, she’s going in because a mysterious stranger paid her to, and that’s boring.
Character hooks are basically anything that your character cares a lot about. It’s something he loves, hates, depends on, aspires to, feels part of, identifies with, or fears. The emotion involved should be more powerful than usual, since your character is more powerful than the average person. RPG characters should be a little larger than life. Because RPG characters often risk their lives on their adventures, their hooks should be things that they would fight or even die for.
Take a look at the campaign, too. The setting and genre usually have a lot of hooks dangling out there for you to latch your character on to. A game set in a cyberpunk future has a lot of tropes associated. One common trope is to have the players working as shadowy mercenaries for mega-corporations. So knowing that the setting rewards mercenaries, you might consider why your character needs the money enough to risk her life. Does she owe money to the mob? Does she have a large family she needs to support? Does she dream of buying an island in the Pacific and living off the grid? Is she just a greedy sot who lives far too lavish a lifestyle and would rather die than give it up?
GMs create campaign hooks for the players. A setting hook is designed as a toy for the players to play with. Like the cyberpunk money trope, a setting hook is a hint that the stories in the campaign will revolve around a particular sort of thing.
There are different degrees to which you can inject these hooks into the game. These techniques range from an implied set of setting hooks built into a short campaign pitch to detailed character submission requirements for players.
Building Hooks into the Pitch
At the very least, you should include the best setting hooks in your campaign pitch. In my pitch post, the example has a lot of hooks implied. It tells the players that they should think about their characters’ answers to several questions:
- Why do you have money troubles?
- Why would you make a good pirate?
- Why would you be interested in profiting from the intrigues and politics of two decadent nations?
- Do you have any preference or national loyalty?
- Why do you want to acquire undeserved lands, titles, gems and jewels?
Question and Answer Hooks
In addition to the hooks in the pitch, you could type up some questions and hand them out to the players. This is somewhat more explicit than the hooks built into the pitch. Use leading questions, like the questions above, about the example pitch. When the players email or hand back their answers to the questions, not only do you know they have thought about all the hooks, you have their answers right there in your in your hands (or inbox).
You can also draw out additional hooks by writing leading questions that aren't connected to the plot. Try questions like "Who is she, and why do you keep a lock of her hair?" The question seems specific but only the emotion (caring for a woman) is. I always tell my players they can modify the questions when I use this technique, so they don't feel boxed in or put on the spot as badly. I also don't like to make them answer quickly -- best to give them a few hours or even a few weeks. The actual answers can be all over the place, but they tell you what the player thinks would be a good hook for her character:
- She is my rival, and I keep her hair in case I need to use it against her in a magical ritual
- She is my young daughter, who disappeared exactly one year ago today
- She is my mother, who died when the Knights of Neraka raided Pashin.
- She is my wife, and though my adventures take me far from her, I will always have a reminder of our love.
- She is me, and I keep the hair to remind myself of my life as a mortal, before becoming a vampire.
Sowing Hooks at Character Creation
What’s more, you can actually create plot hooks and sow them into the characters of the story. Say you have the following two plots ready to go:
- A character’s mentor was brainwashed by an enemy recruiter, and he is losing herself to the enemy more and more every day.
- The leader of the PCs’ faction is new, but successful. However, the will come to learn that he’s maintaining his power by selling his soul bit by bit.
In order to draw the players characters into these stories, you might tell them that you want them to submit character ideas that contain one or two of the following hooks. All four hooks should be included within the party, possibly repeated multiple times (though the goal to take over would need to be negotiated if two or more shared it!):
- My character has a mentor he or she trusts
- An enemy in the rival faction tried to recruit my character, but failed.
- My character wants to take over and lead our faction.
- My character has one or more NPC allies who are priests or religious leaders.
Game System Hooks
Some game systems have specific ways to build hooks into the stories played at the table. Games like Vampire: the Masquerade build hooks into every character – everyone has a clan, a generation, a sire, possible other broodmates, coterie-mates, etc. You cannot make a Vampire character without some pre-installed hooks. The game tends to be about conflicts between elder vampires and intrigues between clans, so the kinds of stories that the game is best at telling are also the kinds of stories for which your character’s pre-installed hooks are relevant.
Another technique that the World of Darkness games pioneered was flaws. Now even D&D has character flaws! Flaws are character hooks that, at the heart of it, represent things your character is going to screw up. These can include physical and mystical flaws through personal vendettas and psychological flaws. They give the player permission to have their character screw something up without appearing to be an idiot for screwing it up. Of course I rushed in to attack instead of sneaking up on the enemy like we planned – I have the Vengeance flaw against them! They also provide hooks. The conspiracy leader is from the clique you have sworn vengeance against!
Other games build hooks directly into the character in other ways. Fate’s Aspects are hooks, and they arise from a game and setting creation system built to give the entire table some say in how the setting and game are designed and how their characters fit into the story.
GMs should make sure to use these hooks. They’re there for a reason. Players should make sure to include hooks over and above the ones the system requires them to include.
Common Problem: The Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan
Far too often people create a character as a Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan (CBLO) – a badass with no connections in the world for the GM to mess with. I’m always sad to hear about this, when it happens. It’s such a wasted opportunity, because a CBLO might actually be an interesting character, but nine times out of ten, the person who submits a CBLO to a tabletop or LARP game I’m involved in doesn’t have those questions answered and doesn’t want to. They made a CBLO so the GM couldn’t mess with them.
If you encounter a player like this, try relating to them like this: You’re here to go on pretend adventures. Now, you’re going to go into these dungeons/arcologies/jungles/sewers anyway, because that’s why you came to game night. You can go in with a character who’s just going along for the ride, or you can go in with a strong personal reason why your character would risk his life here. If you give your character a soft spot, it’s my job to threaten it, so that your character can triumph not just for some cash, but against something despicable that threatened something he really cared about.
A CBLO can be a fun character, if his reasons for being a CBLO are fleshed out. Try asking these sorts of questions of the player who submits a CBLO without much to go on:
What happened to make you so callous? Are you callous to unnecessary cruelty committed against the innocent? If not, do you have any innocent groups, neighborhoods, or individuals you watch over to make sure nobody victimizes them? If not, why not? What would it take to make you start and what would you need to arrange to make it happen?
What kinds of cold-blooded things have you done that you don’t want others to discover? Are you famous (or infamous) for doing some cold-blooded deeds? Do people call on you when they need those deeds done? What do they say your specialty is? What kinds of cold-blooded things are you prone to doing that could get you in trouble in the future?
Why don’t you trust anyone enough to make a network of allies you depend on or who depend on you? What did you do to alienate the allies you used to have? Are you liable to do it again with anyone who trusts you in the future?
What happened to your parents? Is there something you need to do to get closure in regards to your parents’ death or disappearance? Is there some loose end you never looked into, or never were able to tie up, related to their death or disappearance?
What do you want to see improved in your life? Do you want to grow tougher, richer and more powerful? From whom do you plan to learn those complicated skills and get those rare pieces of equipment, from where do you intend to get all that money, and what’s your plan to attain all that power?
A Note to Long-Time Readers
This is a revision that condenses several of my earliest posts on this blog. You can find all the originals here:
- The Case for Hooks
- Sowing Hooks
- Story Structure and Hooks
- Character Driven Storylines
- Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation