The Instant Plot Hook

It happens to every game master (GM) eventually. You’re playing along in your roleplaying game (RPG), everything is going fine, and then your players short-circuit half of your plots, leaving you stuck with nothing to give them for the rest of the evening. Or things just happen to go faster than you expected, and you didn’t do as much prep work this week. Don’t you wish that you had a list of instant plot hooks? Of things that you could drop into any game that would get the players moving again and give you an hour of breathing room? That would just get you to the end of the night, so you’d have another week to come up with something?

That’s what we’re going to do today. We’ll suggest a bunch of things that you can drop into a game that will hopefully get you through that last hour. Some of them will be suitable for taking up a half-hour or so. Some of them you’ll be able to expand on when the night ends and you have some time to turn them into proper plots. Whatever you decide to do, we hope this article will make a few of those sudden empty hours a little easier on you!

The Hooks

The Gift

Pick an unlikely NPC and have him give a party-member an unusual gift with minimal explanation. Or maybe the gift comes through the mail with no return address, so there’s no way of knowing who sent it.

The plan here is to get the party to spend a good part of the rest of the night investigating the gift: what it might be or do, who sent it, where it came from, and why. Thus the more mystery that surrounds the gift, the better. The more unusual it is, the more they’ll want to figure it out. The weirder its origins, the more they’ll feel a need to investigate it. Drop weird clues here and there. Let them spend time casting spells on it, fingerprinting it, or questioning anyone whose hands it might have gone through. Maybe the item even comes with a mysterious or cryptic message.

You can use this as a one-time thing to take up a half-hour. Or if you want plot fodder for the next run, allow yourself to drop hints without giving everything away; you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with those hints. Just make sure you write them down so you don’t forget them! Then, during the following week, you can come up with the details of any strange powers the item might have, or perhaps its convoluted history. Use the details you dropped during the game and keep things consistent. If you decide you don’t like any of the hints you dropped, figure out a way to turn them into red herrings. Some possible gifts:

  • A pair of antique, curved blades with Arabic script on each side of each blade; they’re incredibly sharp. Anyone with a sense of the supernatural gets a weird shiver when they touch these blades. They were delivered by a dark-skinned man of few words; perhaps he didn’t speak English. A particularly good antique dealer might be able to tell the party that the blades are traditionally passed down from father to son within a family, and that most such knives are ornamental rather than functional.
  • A book on Native American Ceremonial Magic. It is well-worn. Pages are dog-eared and passages underlined. There are notes in the margins in a script the party cannot identify or read.
  • Stolen jewels or jewelry with mystical powers. Not only does the party have to figure out what these are and what they do, but they’ll need to contend with the original owners, who will undoubtedly come looking for them.
  • A cat with a voracious appetite and an attraction to anything dangerous. It can do a surprising amount of damage with its claws and teeth! Perhaps it decides to protect a member of the party, whether that person wants it to or not.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

One of the party is mistaken for someone else. Confusion (and probably danger) ensue. You could use this to get the party caught up in something strange. Or you could set it up to simply send them searching for the mystery-person or people they were confused with. Some people they could be mistaken for:

  • A local politician or police officer who’s been making deals with and taking bribes from organized crime figures. One of those people could try to hand money off to a party-member and remind them of some deal they have going. This could send the party off to look into the deal, it could send them after the organized crime figure when he realizes his mistake and takes off, or it could send them after the crooked politician or cop.
  • A hit man. Someone could hand a party-member an envelope and take off. In that envelope is half of the payment, and lots of information on some unlucky person.
  • A criminal. The police or a bounty hunter gives chase, and the party needs to avoid capture and find the real criminal, or clear their own names.
  • Someone’s blind date. Just make sure the date has something to drag the party into. Perhaps she has enemies who are about to catch up to her, or her “blind date” was supposed to help her steal something.

Mis-Deliveries and Switched Documents

This could be a variation on the “mistaken identity” theme, in which someone sends something meant for someone else to a member of the party. Or documents or items get accidentally switched when sent, or in transit, and the party ends up with a message, file or other item meant for someone else. (It’s easy enough for the wrong label to end up on a package or letter.) Some things they might be sent:

  • A body part. This leaves them to find out whose it is, what happened to the owner, who was supposed to receive it and why.
  • A map with several buildings circled on it. This leaves them to run around to those locations trying to figure out what they have in common or what’s going on there. These could all be safe-houses for a witness or criminal, they could be places that are about to get broken into, they could be targets of terrorist activity, they could be sites of magical power, and so on.
  • The address of an apartment or house and a key to the front door. Inside the house they could find almost anything: A man tied to a chair and gagged. Weapons and blueprints to a bank vault. A hole down into Hell itself. Or someone could try to shoot at them through a window.
  • A computer diskette, tape, or CD with an encrypted file on it (alternatively, a coded letter). The file or letter could be almost anything once decrypted: mysterious numbers, a list of names, or exact instructions for performing a ritual, with a cryptic or incomplete description of what the ritual does.

Mugging, Theft and Random Combat

Someone tries to mug or attack a party member, the party, or someone a member of the party cares about. They have to get through the combat, and figure out why they were attacked and what their attacker cared about. If the subject of the attack was a friend or relative, they need to find the attacker, figure out why she attacked their friend, and take back anything she stole. Several possible scenarios:

  • The traditional random monster encounter fits into this category. When you need to waste some time, it can certainly be useful.
  • Someone mugs an NPC the party cares about and grabs her purse or backpack. She has something very important in there she needs to get back.
  • A party member gets home to find his home broken into and ransacked. The party will hopefully spend a while figuring out what’s missing (or what was left behind!) and trying to find the thief.
  • A friend of the party attacks a party member for no apparent reason. What made him turn on his friend?

A Prophecy or Vision

The party encounters a prophecy. Perhaps the prophecy is clear, and they run off to figure out whether it’s true or false, how it applies to them, whether it applies to them, who it applies to if not them, and how to accomplish or avoid it. Perhaps it’s cryptic, and they have to figure out how to interpret it. Several possible prophecy-plots:

  • Make an excuse, go off to your room, pick out a CD, and grab a verse from a song (preferably an obscure one). Have someone spout it off to the party under mysterious circumstances. Watch them run around trying to interpret it. Take the week after the game to figure out what it really means. (Note: don’t try this if any party members have abilities that will allow them to instantaneously gain insight into the prophecy, unless you think you can wing it.)
  • Have a fortune-teller offer to tell the fortunes of the party. Use a tarot deck and pull one or two cards for each PC (make notes of which cards you pull). Have the fortune-teller nod wisely and make suitably vague predictions based on the cards. Let the party run around worrying about what they mean and how they’ll happen. Spend the next week figuring out how the predictions will actually come true.
  • An NPC has a vision in which either another NPC or a member of the party appears to be either a savior or a monster. (This is particularly useful if you’re interested in starting off a high-epic plot.) Add a few odd details into the vision that will send the party running off to investigate them. Maybe the vision takes place at a location nearby, and they can check that out. Or someone they know is present in the vision, and they can go talk to him.
  • If one of the PCs is hiding something, have an NPC say something to them that seems to indicate they know the secret, but is obscure enough that it doesn’t give the secret away to other party members. Preferably make the NPC’s words sound dire enough that the PC with the secret will feel they have to do something, or make them sound interesting enough that the other PCs will feel it necessary to poke around further. (Be a little careful when doing this; make sure you’re willing to have that secret come out if necessary, and make sure the relevant player won’t mind either!)

Disasters and Catastrophes, Natural or Otherwise

Disasters and catastrophes can take up a remaining hour nicely. The party might need to avert the catastrophe, save someone from the disaster, or prevent the disaster from becoming worse. Several possible catastrophes and disasters:

  • An earthquake happens. The party spends the rest of the night helping to dig survivors out of the rubble, digging themselves out from under a collapsed building, helping to care for the injured, and so on.
  • A fire starts at a chemical plant or pharmaceutical company (arson) and something has gone wrong with the fire suppression system (sabotage). The party has to help stop the fire and/or get some of the chemicals out of there before the fire spreads far enough to ignite the potentially explosive ones, or burn toxic fumes into the air. This is a good one if you have some time to fill, as they can investigate the arson afterward.
  • A riot starts. The party has to hide from rioters, prevent looting, calm people down, or help someone being hurt by the crowds.
  • A hurricane is coming through the area. The party has to help get the word out to people who haven’t been listening to the radio, help to evacuate people, make their own preparations, and rescue people once the devastation starts or after it’s over.

Job Offer

The party, or a member of the party, gets a job offer. Maybe someone passed the party-member’s name on, and exaggerated how good they were at what they do. Perhaps someone who didn’t want to be forced into a dangerous assignment pointed the employer at the party. If someone in the party has been looking for a job, maybe a head-hunter doctored his resume to make it look good to a potential employer. Several possible job offers:

  • Someone powerful has heard that the party are particularly good bodyguards or protectors. She forces them to protect a member of her family who doesn’t want to be protected and who has figured out how to elude the security firm the woman usually uses.
  • Someone offers a party member a job they’re clearly unqualified for (geneticist, nuclear engineer, lion trainer, whatever). The party has to figure out how these people got the idea that they were qualified for said job, convince them they didn’t lie on a resume or some such thing (or if for some reason they take the job, convince them they can actually do it), track down the person who said they could do the job, and deal with it.
  • Someone offers to pay the party an impressive sum of money if they’ll just deliver a letter for him. (Depending on how much time you have to fill, this could involve either lots of danger and combat, or a surprisingly simple and easy delivery–which might in itself make the party suspicious enough to look into things further.)
  • Someone offers to pay the party to watch a person for a day and report on all of her activities. Who is she? Why are her movements so important to someone?

The Mysterious Nonexistent Relative or Friend

Someone shows up claiming to be a relative or friend of a party-member. The party member is 100% certain he’s never met and has not heard of this person, but the person also seems certain. Some possible scenarios:

  • Someone shows up claiming to be a party member’s child, but the PC is sure he (or she!) never had a child. The supposed progeny says her other parent is dead now, and she found papers among her parent’s belongings identifying the party member as her other parent. During the week you can figure out whether it’s really their child or not, and if so, how this happened without the character’s knowledge.
  • Someone shows up claiming to be a party member’s childhood best friend, but the party member doesn’t remember them, and if he contacts his family they don’t remember the person either. But any attempts to read the person’s mind, use a polygraph on her, or otherwise verify her story reveal that she indeed believes that they were childhood friends. She also has memories of times together that, while the party member doesn’t remember them, do involve things he liked or liked to do, and things only he would have known. You can spend the next week figuring out whose memories are right or wrong, and why.

  • Someone claims to be a party member’s distant cousin, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, but the party member was never told about this person. If he contacts his family he finds out that he does have a relative by that name, but since no one’s seen her in decades, no one can verify that it’s really her. Where was she all those years? And why has she suddenly introduced herself to the party member?
  • Someone claims to be the party member’s significant other of some few days, but the party member doesn’t remember meeting him. All of the times the person claims to have spent with the party member are times that the party member can’t account for (she was asleep, drunk, or otherwise out of it).

A Sudden Trip

The party gets whisked off in a sudden over-the-rainbow style trip. You can haul them off to another universe, another dimension, a fictional world, and so on. Just look at your shelf of movies or books to give you ideas for where to send them. They can start looking around, and then you’ll have a full week to figure out where you’re going to go with the plot. This isn’t something you want to pull out too often, but every now and then it can be interesting. Some possible places to take them:

  • The party falls through a deep dark hole into some tunnels beneath the city. They can’t immediately find a way back up, so they are forced to explore their new surroundings.
  • The party is rendered unconscious and wakes up in a surreal and dreamlike place like Wonderland, Oz, or Never-Never Land.
  • The party gets whisked off to an alternate version of their own world.
  • The party gets whisked off to some lesser-known fictional world (hopefully one they aren’t familiar with).
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