I want to get this out of the way. I love writing plot hooks and the first thing I ask a person who is writing a plot is, “What is the hook?”
That said, plot hooks can be a huge problem. You just wrote this huge adventure for your players and you desperately want to give it out, but you can’t think of a really natural way to introduce it. Everything you think of feels wrong or fake. You don’t want to railroad, but you’ve got to have something for game, right? You really have 4 options, the last of which is the one I will be talking about the most, but let's get the others out of the way.
In a Magician’s Choice campaign, you write a broad outline of an adventure with the sorts of things you want them to encounter, traps, NPCs, etc and just reskin it for wherever the party goes.
The party knows about these five hooks
You only wrote one adventure. In it there will be 4 battles of increasing difficulty. They are a scouting party, a guard post, a big enemy, a minor foe, and the big boss. You decide that any of them can be rolled up into the next group as needed. You know that there will be a trap near the beginning with a riddle. Finally, you make a list of basic treasure and draw a rough map.
The characters pick the weirdest one, and the hardest to improv your adventure to, the walking tree. Either before, or in the moment, you decide that the tree’s motive is that they are (fill in the blank here) and the party needs to do (fill in the blank) to help/stop them.
You planned a dungeon, but now you aren’t so sure how it will work. After a bit of thought, you decide that the tree went stomping off through the forest tearing a meandering path through the thick underbrush that just happens to match your rough map. Then flipping through the Monster Manual, or equivalent, you quickly pick out a group of related monsters or reskin something you were going to use before. Orks can be plant men and you only have to look up a cool boss. You can do all this in the customary 15 minute break to get snacks and pee before the action begins.
Now, you know you have a trap and a riddle. The swinging blade is now a whipping thorn bush and the riddle is an encounter with a spirit.
The first few times you do this, it will feel a bit awkward, but over time, your improv skills will improve and you can seamlessly reskin a variety of different adventures to make them appropriate for the moment. In particular, if you do this while keeping the player’s backstory in mind, and drop details in related to their past, they will think you are a genius for always having something ready no matter what they do. And on the occasion where you do need to write a whole adventure that they will definitely be going on, your improv and quick thinking, and design skills will serve you well.
Over time, you will learn that this works really well with adventure based games, but it also works with games more about story, intrigue, and politics. Lean into to tropes, tweak them as needed, and lampshade for moments of surprise. Shakespeare wrote dozens of plots and basically none of them were original. Agatha Christie followed a basic formula in her famed murder mysteries. The real art is in the telling of the story and that is a technique you can learn.
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Jason Hughes has been involved in playing and running roleplaying games for the past 20 years and wishes that he had been able to do it for longer. He has been a national level Storyteller for a World of Darkness organization and now is on a podcast about improving gaming.
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