One of the most important parts of any roleplaying module are the hook and the introduction. How you get your characters and players invested and interested in your narrative is a subtle art, unfortunately often reliant on tired tropes.
A few days ago I spent the entire evening writing a module and creating what I thought was a pretty solid adventure hook. In fact, I was so convinced that the hook was so good that I didn’t even think about having multiple hooks or at least a fall-back option. I got a friend who is a fellow game master to read over what I had written and with one question he completely tore through my not-so-brilliant plan.
“What’s in it for the characters?” he asked.
“What’s in it? You mean, what are their monetary gains?” I answered.
“Yes, why would they act if they don’t stand to gain anything? You know how some players always think in terms of gold and magical items.”
“But… but…,” I stammered.
He was right, you know. Making sure that your players and their characters feel invested in your narrative is a huge part of ensuring that your session, module or campaign will stand out and the hook is very important.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned about adventure hooks, that I feel help the players and the characters to both feel empowered and invested in your narrative.
A few methods
There are a few methods that you can use to open the narrative. Each of these has their pros and cons. These methods are nothing more than tools, they are useless if you don’t have a good narrative in mind. But once you have a strong story these tools can help make it masterwork!
In media res
Starting in the middle of combat or in the middle of a scene is something that writers have been doing for decades. This is also something that you often see in modules. In Hoard of the Dragon Queen the module starts as the Cult of the Dragon attacks the village Greening and the PCs need to fight off the kobold attackers. In Out of the Abyss the PC‘s start as captives along with numerous other NPC‘s. A game master friend of mine once had the module start in a plane about to crash.
This kind of opening is great for helping the players introduce their characters and the game masters gets a chance to introduce not only the NPC‘s but also the threat that they face. This kind of introduction can also be quite fun, since you jump right into the middle of action and you immediately need to start solving problems together.
Using in media res
However, this kind of opening is worthless if not properly used. You need make sure that the characters understand their situation. They don’t necessarily need to have the threat or NPC‘s spelled out to them, but there needs to be something that leads the PC‘s to it.
In Hoard of the Dragon Queen the PC‘s don’t know what force it is attacking Greening, but through investigation they find enough leads that lead them to the Cult’s camp, which in turn holds enough evidence for the PCs to take on the long and arduous trek north along the Sword Coast, to investigate the Cult further.
In Out of the Abyss the PC‘s need to ally themselves with other prisoners and find a way to escape from the drow prison. After the escape the PC‘s need to find their way through the Underdark and discover that all is not well there.
Pitfall and traps
There are some pitfalls you need to avoid, when using this method. First of all, don’t keep this too intense. In Hoard of the Dragon Queen the characters need, as written, to survive 6-8 encounters without a long rest before they can get a chance to really wrap their head around the what’s happening in Greening. I’ve had TPK’s this way.
Also, make sure that the characters have ample room to interact, explore and understand their situation. As mentioned above, this is a great way to introduce NPC‘s and threats.
Finally, always make sure that there’s a way out for the PC‘s. Sometimes the dice gods are busy and no matter how many times you roll, nothing seems to be going your way. Having your character killed in the opening scene, especially if she isn’t wearing a red shirt, is devastating.
Creating a personal intro for each character or a pair of them can be quite some work, but it’s fun. Especially since you can leave each and every one with a small part of a larger puzzle, one that they can only solve together.
In Dragons of Autumn Twilight the characters arrive to Solace following different routes. Each experiences something on their way to the Inn of the Last Home that introduces them to what is happening in Solace and in a way foreshadows the events to come. Tanis, Tasselhoff and Flint encounter Fewmaster Toede while Sturm meets Goldmoon and Riverwind, where they also learn that the hobgoblins are seeking the Blue Crystal Staff. Along with the Majere brothers they figure out that they need to visit Xak Tsaroth, where the Blue Crystal Staff was taken from, and embark on one of the most iconic D&D treks of all time.
Using personal intros
The personal intros require more work and you need to have a more definite story in mind, especially if you plan on following in the footsteps of Hickman and Weis, and give each character only a piece of the puzzle the group needs to put together.
To make the personal intro even more fun for the players take either their character‘s backstory or background into account. In D&D 5E all characters have a background that offers so many opportunities for roleplaying, though I must admit I often miss seeing these come more into play in the modules published by WotC.
Pitfalls and traps
This method has one major drawback. If you are not conscious of your players play style, having solo sessions with each player while the other players wait can be a bit boring for the waiting players. Make sure that you keep the intros short and sweet and free of long, tedious encounters.
Also worth noting, some players love the chance of having their character in the limelight and might want to prolong the intro. Make sure that each player gets enough room to shine but doesn’t hog the limelight.
The prologue intro
In the Greyhawk module Vecna Lives! the players take on the roles of many of Oerth‘s greatest spellcasters, before the main narrative begins. The prologue sets the scene for what’s to come for the player characters and gives them a glimpse of what they are up against.
This can be a great way to make sure that the players get some idea of the forces at play and what they need to do in order to succeed.
You can also use the prologue intro like a sort of cutscene. In some of the old WEG Star Wars modules, e.g. Starfall, you have cutscenes where the players get to hear what their adversaries are doing. I once had the players roleplay their adversaries as a prologue intro to a campaign. Their decisions in the intro had major impact on the campaign as a whole.
Using the prologue intro
The prologue intro needs considerable preparation. If you decide to use the same method as Zeb Cook did and have the players play famous characters you of course need to stat these out.
In Vecna Lives! the prologue intro includes a short investigation and a small dungeon. Played out it takes a good part of a session. The players however get a very clear picture of what their characters are up against and know a great deal more about the evil Vecna. It sure helps building mood and the right atmosphere for the module.
Pitfalls and traps
The most obvious pitfall using the prologue intro is player knowledge. If your players are prone on using player knowledge this method can be include too much information for them and it can be prove almost too tempting to use that knowledge.
Getting the characters hooked
Have you ever wondered why some books seem to suck you in, so you turn page after page, eager to know more? It is not an easy feat writing a story like that, where you can almost feel every triumph and loss the main character experiences.
As a game master you need to make sure that not only one person feels this, but all your players and the hook is very important in that sense. It needs to have all the right ingredients, the ones that make sure that the players feel what their characters feel.
Make it personal
I think that one of the most overlooked hooks is the personal one, i.e. making it personal for the characters. By making sure that they have something to lose, something important to them, you have them quickly hooked.
In a way and properly presented the hook in Tomb of Annihilation can be quite personal, since the characters may lose someone close to them, even a party member, by the Death Curse.
Essential to this method are character backstories and that they actually have something to lose, be it a loved one, their honour or even their lives. The threat needs also to be real and substantial, something that the characters can easily identify and act upon. Evil gods or ultra-powerful beings have no interest in the problems of low-level nobodies, or they would at least need a very good reason to go out of their way to interact with these kind of individuals.
Make it heroic
One of the main driving forces behind players choosing to play roleplaying games is to feel like a hero, to get the chance to do heroic deeds, to be a hero. Getting the chance to defend someone from the attack of evil beings, to be known and celebrated as a hero, is something that many players cherish and strife for.
Having villagers celebrating you for saving their children from the hobgoblin slavers gives you a sense of enormous well being. By appealing to this you can easily have the characters on board. Especially good or heroic ones.
Knowing your players and their playing style is essential for this to work. You will never get a group of players who lean heavily towards the murderhobo playing style to respond to this kind of hook the way you want, but those who are more inclined to go all-in roleplaying when in town might like this.
Make it local
The older I get, the more I like Local-before-Global kind of narratives. By making sure that the hook is local, the chance of the PC‘s ignoring your hook is greatly diminished. Are the PC‘s families around? Is their business being threatened by the Redbrand thugs in Phandelver? Has the neighbouring farmer, where the PC‘s used to play as kids, been losing sheep to wolf attacks?
What makes this even a stronger incentive is the fact that using the PC‘s locale, like their hometown, is the fact that this is also makes it personal. The PC‘s know most, perhaps all, the NPC‘s, some even from birth and seeing those people in need of help, hurt or wounded, is a pretty hard thing to ignore.
Make it worth their time
Finally, as my friend pointed out, the hook needs to include something that has a monetary value, because there always is a player or two that need to have a golden carrot dangled in front of them. And that’s alright, we just need to take that into account when we create the hook.
What the PC‘s stand to gain should they embark on the mission introduced in the hook doesn’t need to be gold or magical items. It might be something they have been seeking for a long time, something they need or would make their life easier. In Dragonlance Classics the group leaves Solace for Xak Tsaroth after seeing the first evidence of a divine magic on Krynn for ages. What they find in the ruined city are the Disks of Mishakal, which brings the knowledge of the gods back to Krynn. In the Prism Pentad Rikus, Neeva and the rest of the group see a chance to free the slaves of Tyr and decide to act on it.
Whatever method or kind of hook you use, just remember that it’s not your players responsibility to find a reason for the character to partake in whatever mission or adventure you got planned, you need to show them hooks that are relevant to the narrative and their characters can easily identify and relate to, because the game master is responsible for the narrative. The players are responsible for the character‘s actions and choices.
It’s also your job to make sure that choosing not to act is a very bad option, that they have much to gain but everything to lose. That the stakes are high and that it all rests on them – after all, they are the main characters in this story.