You’ve done your worldbuilding, whipped up the perfect antagonist, and helped your players through their backstory elements…now you’re a week away from your session and you have to determine what is, to some, the most crucial part of any D&D game: The Story Hook!
Having compelling Story Hooks is key for campaigns and one-shots alike. For a campaign, you want something to catch your players’ attention, but then lead smoothly into each subsequent arc– after all, a campaign centered around a single challenge with no evolution can quickly become stale.
For a one-shot, you don’t necessarily have to consider the “what comes next” aspect of a game. That being said, you still want something that your players will willingly invest themselves in. This way, they are motivated to really bring those characters to life and think about the decisions they make.
So whether you’re prepping for a campaign session or a game night session, here are some things to keep in mind when crafting your own Story Hooks! Start with the basics (the three “W”s), then move to the next layer down (Repercussions and Motivation):
1) What is happening?
This is that “Call to Action”, the immediate threat that your party must face. It could be an attack on a village, a mysterious disappearance, or perhaps something strange suddenly appearing in a place it shouldn’t be! Remember to make it engaging and even disruptive, for heroes aren’t born in the absence of adversity. Also, be sure to make it appropriate for the level of the party. Don’t drop a low-level party into a plot hook of political intrigue, and don’t waste a high-level party’s time with a goblin ambush…unless it’s part of something larger! The DM’s Guide has some good guidelines for this in the Tiers of Play section (page 36):
Levels 1-4: Local Heroes
- Characters are still learning the range of their class features that define them, including their choice of specialization. But even first-level characters are heroes, set apart from the common people by natural characteristics, learned skills, and the hint of a greater destiny that lies before them.
Levels 5-10: Heroes of the Realm
- By the time they reach this tier, adventurers have mastered the basics of their class features, though they continue to improve through these levels. They have found their place in the world and have begun to involve themselves in the dangers that surround them.
Levels 11-16: Masters of the Realm
- Characters are shining examples of courage and determination– true paragons in the world, set well apart from the masses. At this tier, adventurers are far more versatile than they were at lower levels, and can usually find the right tool for a given challenge.
Levels 17-20: Masters of the World
- Characters have superheroic capabilities, and their deeds and adventures are the stuff of legend. Ordinary people can hardly dream of such heights of power– or such terrible dangers.
2) Where is it happening?
Is the danger close to home or is it somewhere that requires the party to travel? Is it localized to one location or will it require a series of smaller tasks to solve? Sometimes, the plot hook can lead to more of a saga than a single event. If the party must travel, consider what they may need in order to get to their destination. Can they reach it on foot or will they require additional vehicles/tools to get there? Do they have the right skills (sailing, land vehicles, tracking) to get there? If not, be prepared for the party to want to prepare before departing for the journey, and have options for that ready in the form of knowledge and supplies for your players to find, either through NPC interaction or environment exploration.
3) Why is it happening?
Leave it open-ended, to give your players something to discover or solve. The “Why” and “How” are things that they should determine over the course of the adventure, often revealed in clues sprinkled along the way, or in a nice fat lore-drop after they find the big baddie. Never present a problem that happens “just because”. That leads to a hollow story and you miss the opportunity to show off that fantastic worldbuilding you’ve spent so many sleepless nights on. Even if the reason behind the event isn’t revealed right away– if it’s something that you’ve woven into larger story threads– as long as the players find the answers eventually, then that’s fine 🙂
What Happens if they don’t clear the Gnolls out of those ruins? Will their dark ritual to Yee Nog Hu bring a new darkness to the surrounding villages? Avoid the video game quest effect, in which the innkeep tells the party about some monsters nearby…then that specific scenario seems to have no impact on things until the adventurer finally decides to deal with it (hours later after they’ve sold off excess loot and leveled up all their gear).
Is there something about the hook that speaks to the party on a more personal level? While gold and jewels can be quite persuasive, the players will be more invested in something if, say, one of their friends or family members were kidnapped. If the fate of their hometown is at stake. Think about their backstories (where the PCs came from, what do they like and dislike, and what motivates them) and see if you can layer in some themes that you know the party can’t turn away from. Backstories are more than a mechanic for players to “get in character”…they are a treasure trove of story material for the savvy DM to weave into compelling hooks! Your players will also appreciate a story with more depth and built-in investment compared to hollow quest that doesn’t appeal to the characters. DMing involves more than rules and writing. My favorite part about writing for D&D is using stories to help the characters grow and progress…to become heroes of the realm! That won’t happen if the challenges they encounter don’t link to their goals.
What are some of your favorite story hooks that you’ve either presented as a DM/GM, or experienced as a player? Do you have a favorite type of hook? Feel free to share in the comments below!