Using Hooks in your Dungeons and Dragon’s games and storytelling

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What is your Why

When playing Dungeons and Dragons, each player has their own reason for joining a game. Perhaps they want to spend more time with their friends, or they have a creative streak they want to express. Some people enjoy the rolling of dice and gambling aspect of random chance, while others enjoy the well thought out plans and execution. All of it is storytelling.

In good storytelling, I ask “why do the characters show up to the action?” and more importantly how, as a Dungeon Master, can I hook them into my story in such as way that it becomes our collaborative story. Action is good, but Motivation is better.

Every good adventure successfully hooks the characters in the story. Just like when fishing, the hooks must be appetizing so the players easily “take the bait”. The hooks then, have to be tempting enough so the players can honestly play out their character’s values rather than chasing empty meaningless action. I would like to discuss two main hooks.

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast 2021

Active plot hooks happen to the characters

Passive plot hooks draw in the characters

Let’s start with the active plot hooks. The goal is to generate action with incidents, events and occurrences with a direct action interrupting their everyday life. These are things in the world that happen to the characters, or at least around them. Some possible hooks include war, famine, a birth of a baby, the first holiday after the war, or simply the dawn of a new day. You can think of these as “ability saving throws” so common for use in the game. They just happen because you as the dungeon master determines. I enjoy using these hooks because they can demonstrate the passing of time which helps immerse your players into the story. Time, after all, is the great equalizer.

Also, do not be afraid to sprinkle your session with mundane events to continue hooking the characters into the game. Some might include, price of rations increase in town, registration on your sailing vessel has expired, a note arrives informing your character that they received an inheritance, or a demigod announces to the church that they are retiring. One of my favorites to keep hooking the characters is to announce, “your stomach rumbles with hunger, for it is time to eat.” This simple autonomic response can drive the players right in the heart of a story. Active hooks invoke an immediate response because of their invasive nature on the characters.

Now, let’s continue to define hooks. There is a story that you are telling. In order to draw the players into the story without directly spoiling the details, the dungeon master provides tempting hooks to lead them into the storyline. These hooks can be active, such as events that occur, or passive. A goal of a passive hook is to create interest that relates directly to their story.

Passive hooks do not happen to the characters, but rather, they draw them in and at their best, they are tempting morsels of storyline the players cannot resist. These passive hooks invoke the players to act.

In order to set up a passive hook, the dungeon master needs to explore the values of the characters in question. Do they respond to needs of justice? Then a crime committed acts as a passive hook. Do they resonate with keeping up the natural order? Then a necromancer practicing in the town graveyard draws them into the story. Passive hooks don’t really link to the place or time, but rather make an attempt to directly reach the characters themselves. Passive hooks do not “happen” to the characters, but sit aside quietly until the characters decide to act. Naturally, then, these are the main hooks that drive the plot.

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast 2021

Ingredients in a plot hook

Now that we have defined hooks, here are some flavored ingredients that you can add to the hooks in order to solidify the success. These work because you know your player characters. By directly asking the players of their character’s values in a Session Zero, you can better prepare hooks that are sure to, well, hook the characters.

  • Family and Friends
  • Money and Wealth
  • Physical Health
  • Places they love
  • Places they want to travel
  • Monsters they hate
  • Items they have or want
  • Items they want to encounter
  • Answers they seek
  • Knowledge they seek
  • Vengeance they seek

A word of caution: Fridging is the practice of killing off or hurting a minor character in order to motivate or torture a main character. The term comes from the world of comics, describing an issue of Green Lantern in which the hero’s partner is killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for the protagonist to find. Yikes. While many stories in movies kill off a character to further the plot, I would personally exercise caution in over relying on using family bonds as a plot driver. While I think great stories like Conan and Braveheart both involve deaths of a loved one to motivate an entire story, these are also true stories in people’s lives. Please, tell these stories respectfully.

Upon deciding hooks, just remember that characters have the ability to ignore passive hooks, but cannot ignore active ones because of their invasive nature. Again, in Session Zero, and beyond, revisit the character’s values through various NPCs and even direct conversation. If the character says they value knowledge, seeking to knock off their parents might not be the best course of action, but threatening to burn down the local library may. If a character says they value their village, launching an all out raid upon that village would be appropriate, but threatening their mental sanity might go too far. What kind of story are we telling together?

Without creating false action or gratuitously noise, here are some other benign and humane active hooks to continue generating action and the passing of time in your story. These are particular enjoyable in a realism genre and should reasonably happen to anyone in any given time period.

  • A patron gets sick
  • A page is missing from your textbook
  • A rival frames you for cheating
  • A secret admirer delivers a gift
  • A piece of equipment or weapon needs repair
  • A new skill is available for training
  • A family reunion occurs
  • A characters wardrobe is outdated

In every great story, there is a believable motivation on the hero’s part. And the best stories speak to all of us, resonating with our values. I hope this read was useful to hook your player’s characters into a story with grace and ease. May your story continue!

When deciding on how to spend your energy, remember; action is good, but motivation is better.

Jonathan Hardin

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