In January of 2001 we created something we called the instant plot hook. These are little items and ideas that you can drop into your game at a moment’s notice, with very little preparation. The idea is that they can take up a spare hour or half-hour here or there when your players have unexpectedly run through the material you prepared a little faster than you anticipated. Or you can drop them in when things seem a little slow and you want to liven things up. If the instant plot hook attracts the attention of the players and seems to be working out in an interesting way, then you can flesh it out into a full plot during the time between game sessions. This time, instead of simply handing you a bunch of IPHs, we’re going to help you make your own.
Remember The Mystery
Most important to an instant plot hook is mystery. If it’s just a random event, entirely explained, then there might not be a whole lot for the party to investigate and you won’t serve your goal of filling up that half-hour or so. This isn’t always the case – there are IPH categories that don’t require mystery – but it is a common theme.
Gifts have unannounced senders, odd undiscovered properties, or otherwise mysterious origins. Cases of mistaken identity have a trail of problems to track back to their source (the same with mis-deliveries and switched documents). Prophecies and visions often have metaphorical elements that must be puzzled out and matched up with reality.
Hopefully there’s enough mystery that the party can start checking things out, ask a few questions, investigate a lead or two, but not get too far in the space of that half-hour you need to fill. That way you have the time between game sessions to fill in the gaps in the story and expand on the IPH, turning it into a full-blown plot.
The other advantage to a mysterious IPH is a lack of detail tying it to a specific plot, place, or person. This means that it’s less likely to be rendered obsolete when that plot goes in an unexpected direction, the player characters (PCs) move to a new city, or a related person dies. The mystery gives the IPH a much longer shelf-life, allowing you to hold onto it until you need it.
Samples of mysterious IPHs
#1. When the party wakes up one morning, they find that the world is trapped in an unending night. The sun never rose; everything is dark and quiet. What happened? Is it a natural phenomenon? Who could have done such a thing, and why?
#2. A non-player character (NPC), preferably a friend of one of the PCs (or someone they need), vanishes in front of their eyes. Where did he go? Did someone take him, and if so, why? Or could the problem be with the PCs…
Keep It Short & Flexible
Keep the IPH short. One, maybe two paragraphs (at most) is usually good. Sometimes it only takes a sentence or two. There’s a good reason for this – unless you’re sure you’ll use that IPH within the next session or two, you never know when you’ll make use of it. It could happen next session, next week, or next year. This means IPHs have to be as flexible as possible.
The more details you pin down in advance the more assumptions you’re making. Such as what interests your party, what they’re likely to check out and how, and where the plot is likely to go. If you don’t end up using the IPH for a while, then for all you know the party might have moved to a different city, developed an interest in an entirely different type of plot, or even switched membership a couple of times. The NPCs you worked into the IPH’s plot might have died. Any of these things could make your well-detailed IPH irrelevant to your current game or party.
The “instant” part of instant plot hook refers to the fact that you don’t have to change a lot of details before you drop it into your game. The fewer details you pin down in advance, the fewer details you’ll have to change.
Samples of short and flexible IPHs
#1. A party member’s shadow takes on a life of its own. What does it do? Why has this happened? How can it be fixed?
#2. An enemy of the party comes to them for help, and it isn’t a trap…
Think In Categories
If you’re trying to come up with a nice long list of IPHs that will last you a while, then start with categories instead of single items. If you have difficulty with this at first, then start with a hook and work backwards to figure out what sort of category it might fall into. Here are the categories we’ve played with so far:
Basic instant plot hook categories
- Cases of mistaken identity
- Mis-deliveries and switched documents
- Muggings, thefts, and random combats
- Prophecies and visions
- Disasters and catastrophes
- Job offers
- Mysterious nonexistent relatives or friends
- Sudden trips
Creepy plot hook categories
- Things that aren’t quite right
- Body changes
- Mind changes
- The hunt
- Mysterious disappearances
Item hook categories
- Plot-relevant items
- Items once owned by celebrities
- Historically relevant items
- Personally relevant items
- Unusual and unique items
I’m sure there are quite a few more that we haven’t thought of at all! There are a couple of advantages to thinking in categories. First, it helps you to make sure that you don’t use the same sort of IPH too many times in a row – you know that if you recently used an IPH from one category then it’s time to move on to another. Second, if you can come up with an entire category that works well, then it can be even easier to brainstorm later IPHs from that same category.
Make It Exciting
Try to make the IPH something that will immediately catch the interest of the party. Mystery is a part of this – any player characters (PCs) with a healthy dose of curiosity will hopefully get caught up in a mystery. Excitement can come in any of a number of forms, however. You know your players best, so hopefully you have some idea of what will interest them and pull them into a plot. Use that!
Sample exciting IPHs
Although what excites one group of players can be totally different from what excites another, we’ll do our best to give you a couple of examples of exciting IPHs:
#1. A cinematic chase scene happens right in front of the characters. Unfortunately for them, one of the participants decides to drag the PCs into it. He hides behind a PC, tries to take a PC hostage, begs them for help, or something similar. Who are these people and why are they trying to kill each other?
#2. One of the PCs starts to have flashes that he thinks are hallucinations. Unfortunately for him, as events unravel he starts to realize that he’s seeing through someone else’s eyes. That someone is doing something terrifying, horrifying, alien, or just plain weird (something that can be narrated in a gripping manner). Who is the other? Why is he connected to that particular PC? What is the other trying to accomplish? How can the PC find and (stop/help) the person?
Include a few questions in your IPH that your PCs might look into or try to answer, or that you will need to answer. It’s a quick way to get you thinking in the right directions, since you’ll probably be picking out your IPH in the middle of the game. It’s an easy way to remind you of what you need to fit into the game and get across to your players. You might think of your questions as sparks to help you improvise.
Sample IPH with questions
When one of the PCs arrives home, he finds some other family (seemingly perfectly normal) living in his home, claiming all of his possessions as theirs. If he does any checking, no one except him and the rest of the PCs remembers him as living there (although anyone who knew him well seems a little uncertain), and any paper records show the other family as living there. Who are they? Why have they moved in? Why does reality seem to agree that the home belongs to them?
Another alternative is to add a few possible answers to those questions, to give you something to work with when the time comes. Even if none of those suggestions end up being appropriate to the current situation, you can use them as inspiration.
Sample IPH with answers
A package arrives for one of the PCs. Inside that package is a locked strongbox with a note on it saying “Beware: Highly Dangerous,” but the contents seem simple and ordinary (a cheap bracelet, a random library book, or a bottle of spring water). What’s dangerous about the item? Who sent it? Why did they choose one of the PCs as the recipient? Why is there no explanation of the item included?
The item might have been sent by an enemy, mentor, unknown family member, or random person who has heard of the PC’s reputation (or who has heard a prophecy regarding the PC). He might have sent the item for safe-keeping. It could be a trap. It could be dangerous but helpful, and he wanted the PC to have the use of it. Perhaps he left the explanation out because he thinks the PC wouldn’t believe him, and thus wants the PC to find out the details to his own satisfaction. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk the explanation falling into the wrong hands. The item could be magical or mystical, or simply important because of what is prophesied to happen to or around it. It could be some sort of illusion or disguise covering up something important, or it could have something important hidden inside of it. It could be a puzzle or message of some sort.
It helps to have at least a little experience with improvisation before you start messing with instant plot hooks. They are, after all, the antithesis of fully prepared material. This is all right, though, as improvisation is important to game mastering (GMing) for so many reasons!
Hopefully all of this has given you a few ideas for where you might start when creating your own instant plot hooks. They’re so useful when your players short-circuit what you had planned. They’re kind of a safety net, so you don’t feel like you have to railroad the PCs into following your plot – you can let them take things wherever they want, and then use your IPHs to fill in any blank spots that causes. As always, free will in roleplaying rules the day!