[GMing 101] Plot Hooks Defined

Plot hooks.  You hear about it all the time when GMs talk, but starting GMs might need a little more information than just whatever they can infer from conversation.  What is a plot hook, and how do they work?

Plot Hooks Defined:

For me, a plot hook is an in-game element that inspires a strong motivation to pursue a course of action that furthers the plot or enriches a narrative in a game.  Not to sound pretentious about it, but I feel that that statement sums it up nicely.  Let’s break it down further and examine the pieces:

  • In-Game Element – Plot hooks have to exist in a fashion that is apparent to the characters, and not just the player.  This element can take on many forms: an event, a clue dropped in conversation or a theory that emerged from the characters as they compare notes.  What matters is that the characters are there to experience it.  A clue hidden so well that the players don’t encounter it in play can’t be considered a real hook.  A hook must be perceived by the players for it to serve its function.
  • Inspire a Strong Motivation – Upon encountering the hook, the players must feel a strong impetus to take action.  This is an emotional reaction that you’re gunning for.  Whether it’s Fear, Schadenfreude, Joy or Anger, this emotion is what will color the actions taken by the players.
  • Pursue a Course of Action – Plot hooks should also be something that the players can act upon immediately.  This doesn’t mean that the hook resolves right away, but the players should have a clear idea of how their characters can respond.
  • Further the Plot or Enrich the Narrative – By taking action in response to the hook, the players then push the narrative forward, bringing a sense of motion and progress as they achieve the objectives and events unfold in response to their actions.  In addition to this, the actions taken by a player character can reveal something about their nature as they’re forced to make a stand or to act according to their beliefs.

Identifying Plot Hooks:

Plot hooks come from multiple sources, some planned, others spontaneous:

  • GM-originated – These are the hooks that the GM makes, seeded liberally in the game, based mostly on what the Player Characters are like, and how the GM feels he can get the characters involved and active.
  • Player-originated – These are the hooks that are seeded by the players in their player background stories.  Personally these are the hooks I look for the most, because they’re usually the easiest to trigger.  A character who has had a history of being beaten up by his drunken parent as a child will be strongly motivated to stop something similar when they’re put into a situation when they can avert it.
  • Emergent – These are the hooks that are hard to spot but golden when you do.  Emergent hooks are hooks that come up during play.  It’s hard to pull up an example that I can easily explain without resorting to the “You just had to be there” angle.  Essentially, emergent plot hooks are the moments when the players spontaneously realize something (even if you didn’t plan) and just run with it, making assumptions that generate a plot thread that was not expected, but nevertheless extremely awesome.

Caveats:

With all this talk of Plot Hooks, it’s also important to identify some of the common traps that GMs fall into if they over-prioritize plot hooks.  For one thing, plot hooks are best done with a measure of finesse.  A good plot hook is not a bulldozer barreling over your players.  Furthermore, a GM should take care to scale their hooks properly.  A hook with massive consequences is okay once in a while, but it’s good to space them out.  Pacing is key, after all, and too much noise and stress will burn your players out, leaving them too numb to even bother with character development, when they’ve been conditioned to feel as if you’ve got another A-Bomb waiting for them in the shadows, just out of their perception.

Plot Hooks are the meat and potatoes of GMing.  I’ve been at this for quite a while now and this methodology to Plot Hooks has served me pretty well.  Here’s hoping that this article has come in useful to the new and up-and-coming GMs as well.

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