Game Worlds and Plot Hooks

A plot hook in a roleplaying game is an event, item, person, or piece of information that is capable of “hooking” the player characters (PCs) and dragging them into a plot. Brief plot hooks can suggest entire plots and adventures, and with a little care, several at a time can be packed into even a single paragraph. Simple throw-away lines can become whole adventures.

Why Are Plot Hooks Important?

Why are plot hooks important? They make life easier for game masters (GMs):

  • They provide plots that the GM can directly expand upon and put into his game. (Think of them as mini-adventure seeds.)
  • They help the GM to get a feel for the sort of adventure and plot opportunities that are available in your world. (This makes the game easier for him to use.)
  • They can serve as “instant plot hooks” when a GM’s prepared material runs out early in the evening and he needs something to toss into the game.
  • They can capture the imaginations of GM and player alike, inspiring them and causing them to develop a strong and lasting interest in your world.

In short, plot hooks give your world intensity and flavor. They also make it much more usable than it would be otherwise–a very important consideration if you want GMs and players to keep using your game world and playing with it over and over. This is particularly important if your game takes place in an unusual, non-standard setting; almost anyone can come up with a plot for your generic fantasy universe, but it can get harder when GMs are unfamiliar with the terrain. Plot hooks also help people who are new to roleplaying develop a feel for the possibilities that exist in gaming.

Pack The Plot Hooks In!

If you don’t already excel at packing in the plot hooks, then stick a reminder somewhere obvious, somewhere you’ll see it while doing your writing. Put a post-it on the edge of your monitor or on your calendar. Add a note to your to-do list. Put it wherever it will do you the most good.

An Exercise

Until you think you’ve really got the hand of this plot hook thing, take everything you write for your world and subject it to this exercise. Print out a copy of the manuscript, pick up a brightly-colored pen or, even better, a highlighter, and underline or highlight every plot hook you can find.

How much color have you added to the pages? A few lonely lines per page, or whole paragraphs of color?

Consider alternating colors: use yellow for one plot hook, blue for the next, back and forth over and over. Why? That way you’ll make sure that an excess of color is due to number of plot hooks rather than length of plots. Lengthy plot hooks aren’t plot hooks any more; they’re adventures. While adventures are very handy, they aren’t what you want to fill your setting material with. You want something short and sweet so that there’ll be plenty of things for GMs to make use of. Hence, plot hooks.

Editing Your Work

Every time you look back at the material you’ve written to give it a read-through and edit, ask yourself whether you’ve provided enough plot hooks. Read every paragraph you wrote about politics, culture, or history and see whether a GM could strip it for at least one good plot for his game.

It takes a little practice, and I think every RPG writer forgets this rule now and then, even if she knows what she’s doing. So don’t kick yourself too hard if you forget now and then. There are ways to help you remember.

Some people create a checklist for themselves of things they particularly need to pay attention to when they edit their writing. Create the list from the things you know you have trouble with in your writing, and use it every time you do a read-through and edit. Yours might look something like:

  • Did I use concrete examples of abstract concepts?
  • Did I use all five senses, not just sight and sound?
  • Was I consistent with point-of-view?
  • Replace any passive voice with active voice.

Whatever your list looks like, now add another item to it:

  • Check each paragraph for plot hooks.

Get Some Help!

If you have someone who can read through your work and give you feedback, then it might help to give him a copy of your editing list, or one like it. Let him know which things you want him to keep an eye out for. These could be things you know you tend to miss, or they could simply be general things you want to make sure are in there. As an example, you could give him a checklist like:

  • Is the work internally consistent?
  • Did I leave any assumptions unstated?
  • Can you picture what the world looks like?
  • Are there plenty of plot hooks?

Plot hooks are a matter of practice. You need to practice writing them in, and you need to practice looking for them. Eventually you should be able to pick them out easily, and you’ll know when you have enough or need more. Adventures, adventure seeds, and plot hooks are usually one-use-only affairs. This means that you need to pack as many as possible into as little room as possible when detailing your setting. You need all of the benefits of such material (as listed under “Why Are Plot Hooks Important?” above) without turning too much of your setting into disposable material.

Think of it this way. If you concentrate on longer write-ups of adventure ideas when you create your setting material, you might fit just five or six plots into your history write-up. This means that the usefulness of the history is more or less exhausted after six adventures. If instead you create interesting setting and litter it with fifty small plot hooks, then the GM can turn that history into adventures for months to come.

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