Hooks

In writing D&D adventures, the concept of a ‘hook’ is something that grabs the attention of the player characters and gets them involved in the adventure. This is a pretty important concept, because pencil-and-paper role-playing games are not video games: in a video game it’s both accepted and expected by the player that the game ‘world’ has some sort of boundary. Consider Pac-Man; not a computer role-playing game by any stretch, but usable as an example. The game world is pretty clearly defined: you can roam about until you hit the edge of the screen, and then you stop. No one questions this and says, “hey – I should be able to climb over that blue line and keep exploring whatever is beyond it,” because everyone knows that there is nothing beyond the blue line. In real role-playing games, though, there is no blue line, and if there is a blue line you can bet your players are going to try climbing over it.

Which brings us to hooks. When the game world has no boundaries, when the player characters are free to do whatever they please, how then do you as a dungeon master keep the player characters “on-track” and progressing through a defined and structured adventure? They may find out that the princess has been kidnapped by evil giants, and you may have spent the last three weeks of your life building an elaborate series of encounters and locations for your players to experience on their quest to rescue the princess, but if they look at each other, shrug, say “eh – whatever,” and hit the bar instead, or charter a ship to the far side of the world, you can kiss those three weeks good-bye.

There is something to be said for completely free-form role-playing. This can be fun. The idea is that there is no adventure. The players basically tell the story through their actions, with the dungeon master reacting and providing a realistic and compelling “response” from the other non-player characters encountered. So a player might decide that he wants to track down his estranged brother, and knowing that his brother had fallen in with a rough crowd he decides to bring a few sturdy friends along. That starts the adventure off and gives a plausible reason for these 4 or 5 adventurer-types to be hanging around together. Notice that in this situation, the DM has yet to do anything. I mean, he’s just sitting there watching the players build a storyline based on their own characters and what the characters’ backgrounds are. Of course, beneath the surface he’s doing anything but just “sitting there;” he’s listening to what the players are saying, and planning out the wrinkles and surprises they will encounter along the way. It can be tricky, though. Let’s say the DM is deciding that the character’s brother is now completely evil and has risen to a position of some standing and importance in an evil guild of thieves and warlocks. That might be a cool adventure plot twist, but what if it goes against the original player’s concepts? He may have conceptualized his character’s brother as a good and kindly man who had been led astray by an uncouth mob, but not someone who would ever intentionally do evil things. So then you have a possibility of a profound encounter as the two brothers meet and try to resolve what’s happened – or you have a mess where the player is upset that you trampled all over his character sketch.

Still, it can be fun. But there’s also the challenge of finding players with the commitment and imagination to come up with detailed backgrounds and storylines like that. Keep in mind that D&D is designed for 5 players and 1 DM, so how do you handle 5 characters, each with his own detailed background to spin plots out of? On the one hand, you could gradually resolve each character’s background one by one, probably giving you a good 10 levels or so of adventuring before all the skeletons in the closets have been properly turned. Or here’s an idea – get the players to build their backgrounds as a team. Maybe they were all members of the same special forces division, or they are the only surviving refugees of a village destroyed by a rampaging dragon. Something like that could provide fuel for a shared background for the whole group rather than a sequence of backgrounds having nothing to do with each other.

 

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