New GM: Using Hooks
Well I have finally returned from the abyss of thesis work and back to writing here at TPK. Today we’ll be looking at hooks, how you introduce adventures to your players. For a new GM it can be hard to implement them properly so lets take a look at what I did and how I learned from it.
As I have mentioned before, several of my players were new to D&D and all of us were new to 4th ed so I had an early combat to get both them and myself used to the systems. Once they had finished the encounter, I introduced a hook with a map found on the body of a slain adventurer. The clues lead the party to the nearby town of Fallcrest first, where I had intended to introduce other hooks. However, the group latched onto the first quest hard and they were off onto that adventure before any other hooks could be brought in.
So, what did I learn from that? Be careful what you introduce and when. While not all groups would have dove in quite as quickly as mine, you should always assume that if a hook is used before any others, there is a good chance the group will latch onto it, if only for something to do. If you are running a linear game then that’s great. You need the group to be interested in that adventure or you won’t have much for them to do. If you are running a sandbox, as we here at TPK tend to prefer, then you have to be sure to present other options so the group doesn’t feel railroaded. Something that I have noticed is how you introduce your hooks will determine which ones the party is more likely to grab hold of.
When my group returned to town following their first adventure, I was prepared. Rather than introduce one hook, I had several on the go at once, aided by the fact that the party split up once they crossed the city limits, as most tend to do. This is an ideal time to insert new hooks into the game as it forces your players to relate the information to each other and discuss what they want to do next. These discussions can give you a lot of insight into what your group is most interested in so that you can add more of those elements to your game. For my players, some heard rumours of trouble in remote settlements, some met up with people from their background and heard of criminal activity within town, and one was personally approached by a farm boy seeking help.
I had expected the criminal activity to be the adventure they would choose but it was the farm boy’s quest. Looking back, I realized why. While the background characters were a good way to grab the attention of my players, their problems were, at the time, a little vague. The problem was one of investigation rather than “please go beat up criminal for me” and the NPCs were not asking for direct intervention. There was nothing obvious for them to do with the information they had, so they did nothing. When they were approached by a farm boy, begging for help with his disappearing livestock, they jumped right in. While, again, the problem was vague and required investigation, they had a clear request and goal. Even though they had never met this character before, it was easy for them to want to help him. Behind both of these hooks were the rumours. The party knew approximately where these were taking place and what the trouble was (bears and lizardfolk for those curious) but there was no one asking them to intervene. They were merely stories being passed along amongst many of the townsfolk.
During the discussions amongst the party, there were a couple of other factors that we GMs should keep in mind when designing hooks and adventures: urgency and distance. One of the key factors for my group helping the farm boy first was that his problem seemed more immediate than the criminals. There were ongoing problems for Fallcrest, sure, but there was no indication that a day or two were going to make a difference. The other factor, distance, helped this even more as the boy’s farm was less than a day from town. The party figured they could help him with whatever was going on and be back to help out someone else in no time. Groups will often strive for that sort of efficiency, even if it usually doesn’t work out so keep that in mind.
With these factors in mind, you can introduce hooks that will grab your party’s attention and even predict, to a degree, what they will decide to do first. In a sandbox setting this can be especially helpful, as it can tell you what needs to be prepared right away and what might sit on the back burner for the group for a while. Just remember that one factor is likely to trump all others: coolness. If you create a hook that is particularly cool sounding, that is the one most likely to be taken.