Roleplaying: Story Hooks

I usually lead a Dungeons and Dragons group every Sunday. In D&D, a group of players control characters in a fantasy world and use dice rolls to represent their actions in the story. Running the game, as a “Dungeon Master,” combines some of my favorite activities: storytelling, improv, and having friends.

D&D was canceled this week, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about storytelling as a Dungeon Master. Today, let’s talk about story hooks!

If you want to keep players engaged, you have to compete against their phones, laptops, and the thrill of making little stacks out of dice. Start the session with a solid hook—an event which kick-starts the story and demands a decision from their characters. A good hook should get their attention immediately, affect their characters directly, and tell the players what to look forward to in the day’s session.

My favorite hook I’ve made started with all the characters meeting for the first time in a tavern. It’s a traditional choice, if not overdone, and it’s a quick way to get all the players on the same page. A peasant approached them and said their pigs were missing, pleading for help. Before the players could respond, a wealthy baron entered the tavern and told the characters that his castle had walked away, and they would be rewarded handsomely if they retrieved it for him. The players decided to follow the baron and begin the adventure.

By acting out the pitiful, pleading peasant and then brushing them aside for the rich baron with a more interesting quest, I turned the story hook into a comedic moment. Making players laugh engaged them, and when it turned out the walking castle and the missing pigs were related, the players all remembered the peasant’s problem because they had laughed.

Of course, by including the peasant up-front, I gave the players an important decision early in the session. I suspected they would follow the baron, but if they decided to track down those pigs, I had another adventure planned. Demonstrating that the players have agency and can make decisions prevents the suspicion that you, as the Dungeon Master, are carefully controlling things behind the scenes.

In a recent planning session for my new group, my co-Dungeon-Master and I finalized some notes about the next adventure our players will face. We’re ending the next D&D get-together with a series of story hooks, so that whichever one the players choose, we can have a whole week to write the next adventure. This dove-tailing of sessions from week to week gives the whole campaign a cohesive feeling; rather than isolated, episodic incidents, the story is a continuous thread of decisions.

On their epic quest, our players’ characters will fly over the ocean on a giant, talking bird. The bird will set them down near a bustling coastal city, too tired to fly any further, and suggest they join one of the caravans of traders in the bazaar, so they have guidance and company across the hostile terrain.

Then, my co-DM and I will improvise role-playing encounters with five quirky groups of traders. (These players generally prefer role-playing to combat, so this isn’t too excessive.) While having a blast acting as their characters, they’ll also get to evaluate each caravan. Which one of these would you rather join?

A group of lizard-people herd cattle across the island. They run a food stand at the bazaar killin’ and grillin’ cattle on-demand, like one of those choose-your-own-fish restaurants. To move their cattle from place to place, they sometimes cut down forests and jungles, much to the chagrin of:

The Ents, tree-people lead by the maniacal Doctor Stump. When Doctor Stump was chopped down (leaving just, well, you know), he Frankenstein-ed his fallen trunk back to life by grafting new branches to it. Now he and his tree friends sell produce they grow on themselves, and show off the reanimated Franken-Tree, which grows all kinds of fruits.

The Rakshasa, a group of tiger-people, sell spices and perfumes. They worship the tiger, which is a little awkward, because there’s a sketchy trader selling tiger-skins a few rows down. In fact, if the players investigate him, they’ll find that he sells Rakshasa pelts as well. Will the characters warn the Rakshasa?

Or will they choose the golems, who smith weapons using metal and stone from their own bodies? The golems here were created by a mad wizard to work in his dungeon, but escaped to make a living selling their wares. They will give the players a pamphlet for “golems without borders,” an organization raising awareness for the mistreatment of stone-people everywhere.

The players probably won’t choose the Slow Lorises, a group of spectacle salesmen who speak very, very slowly. While one co-DM role-plays a slow loris, the other will run a stopwatch. At the end of the conversation, the players will make a DC 15 will save (roll a 20-sided die, add a number, get above 15). Anyone who fails will have their character stuck standing there, hanging on the slow loris’s drawn-out words for an hour for each minute on the timer.

Each of these groups (except the slow lorises) has an interesting story to follow, and whichever the players choose, I’m sure we can make an adventure out of it.

Maybe I’ll tell you how it goes next week!

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