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July 23, 2013

The Hook: You Can Lead the PCs to a Quest, But You Can’t Make Them Care

In the last article, I talked a lot about how to “pose the dramatic question” to yourself, but I left something important out. How do you pose the dramatic question to the PCs? When an encounter starts, you have to get the PCs to the top of the ski slope, show them the trail, point them toward the trees, and give them a shove. Sort of. We call this a hook.

An encounter’s hook presents the PCs with a dramatic question that needs answering, it gives them a reason to care about answering the question, and then it calls them to act. Most DMs figure out the whole “presenting the PCs with a dramatic question” thing intuitively. Many even figure out that “reason to care” business. But many DMs screw up the call to action. It is important to understand all of these things, though, because this is where any limitations you set up in the question are going to come in.

“The tunnel emerges into the long side of a wide, oval cave, about 60 feet long and 40 feet across. Thanks to your light spell, you can see only one other exit, a wide tunnel directly across from you, about 40 feet away. Before you can set foot in the cave, however, several giant spiders drop the ceiling. They rear up, raising their front legs menacingly and spreading their double-pairs of mandibles in a soundless hiss. They are about to lunge! Roll for initiative!”

That’s a hook. After describing the basic scene, the first thing it does is point out a goal and therefore establish a dramatic question. It shows the party the only exit and, assuming they want to continue their travels, they are going to have to reach it. “Can the party safely reach the tunnel on the far side of the cave?” Of course, this hook assumes the DM already knows the party has some reason to be traveling from point A to point B. But the truth is that motivating PCs at the start of an encounter is usually pretty easy. The PCs generally have a goal by the time they are wandering from encounter to encounter, so the important part is simply to let them see how this particularly encounter brings them toward that goal. Alternatively, if the encounter doesn’t bring them toward a personal or adventure goal, you have to show them something else they might want (“… on the far side of the chamber is a glittering pile of gold and gemstones!”)

The hook above also provides the PCs with a call to action. Spiders are attacking; roll for initiative so we can start this combat! It tells the PCs that it is time for them to do something to pursue their goal. It is the equivalent of “what do you do?”

Now, consider this hook:

“The tunnel emerges into the long side of a wide, oval cave, about 60 feet long and 40 feet across. Thanks to your light spell, you can see only one other exit, a wide tunnel directly across from you, about 40 feet away. Milling about on the ceiling of the cave, stringing sticky strands of glistening silk between the cave growths is a colony of spiders. They either have not noticed yet or are not bothered by your presence at the entrance to their cave. They continue their work on their webby nest.”

Now, it starts off the same way and sets up the same goal. But things are a little different. At first, it might seem like it doesn’t have any call to action. But it does. The players now have a goal and they have been presented with a source of conflict between them and the goal, just like the combat. The difference is that the actions they can take are more open-ended. The heroes could attack, launching spells and arrows at the spiders and gaining the upper hand, or they could opt for a different approach. They could send someone to approach the spiders to see how they react. They could attempt to sneak around the very edges of the cave. They could put the spiders to sleep or shroud the cave in obscuring mist or simply bolt for the exit and hope they can flee before the spiders are upon them.

A good call to action does a couple of things. First, it shows the players one or two obvious paths to their goal, or at least suggests some. Second, it creates exigency, a need to act. A sense of urgency. Not every encounter has the same level of exigency, but most encounters are served well with some sense that the time to act is limited in some way. Notice that the second encounter implies the heroes haven’t been noticed YET or haven’t disturbed the spiders YET. The simple inclusion of that word hints to the players that you will not wait forever for them to formulate a plan.

Notice also that, by changing the hook, I have added or removed assumptions from the dramatic question. The first hook assumes a fight is imminent. The players still might be able to avoid a fight with the right spells or by fleeing past the spiders, but the default is definitely a knock-down, drag-out with a bunch of oversized arachnids. The second hook offers opportunities around a fight and doesn’t even mention the possibility of a fight. If the party wants to kill the spiders, they can, but they aren’t forced to by the situation.

Now, I did the flavor text thing to illustrate how different hooks look when they are done. But you don’t need to write a full hook just yet. In fact, it is better if you leave it a little vague for now. You just want to get a sense of how you’re going to start your encounter and why the PCs are going to care. After you write down a hook, ask yourself if the heroes will actually be driven to action by your hook. Are they likely to care? Ask yourself if it suggests an action that might be taken to pursue the goal?

It is important to note that sometimes the hook is dependent on the actions of the PCs or the fall of the dice. For example, the spider cave with the nasty hunting spiders could have up to three hooks: the heroes surprise the spiders and can act before the spiders notice them, the spiders surprise the heroes and can act before the heroes notice them, or neither side surprises the other and both can act against the other. It is important to treat all three as potential hooks (unless you know ahead of time there is only one) and make sure that each one poses the dramatic question and calls the heroes to action properly. So, the hunting spiders might look like this:

  • Heroes Surprise the Spiders: “Up ahead, clinging to the ceiling, you see a clutch of vicious giant cave spiders. They are clearly ready to drop down on unsuspecting prey in order to devour them. They haven’t noticed you yet.”
  • Spiders Surprise the Heroes: “Suddenly, with three heavy thuds, giant spiders drop down from the ceiling into your midst. They waste no time, taking advantage of the element of surprise to attack!”
  • Neither Side Surprised: “Several giant spiders drop the ceiling ahead of you. They rear up, raising their front legs menacingly and spreading their double-pairs of mandibles in a soundless hiss. They obviously mean to make a meal of you.”

Ongoing Example: The Chase

Lacking anything else to go on (thanks @Clampclontoller), I’ve got to come up with a hook on my own. I could take the easy way out and assume the PCs already had a reason to be interested in the assassin and they’ve stumbled on his lair and he flees out the back door, precipitating the chase, but they doesn’t demonstrate much.

So, let’s assume this chase is going to start an adventure. Something about uncovering a big conspiracy. And the assassin is a hired underling. Catching him and learning who he is and who hired him starts off a big mystery. The question is how to get the PCs to care, how to tell them to chase the assassin, and how to call them to action.

Because I’m just starting this one off, I’m keeping it vague. I’m not writing the full flavor text for it just yet. Instead, I am going to assume the PCs are on the street when an assassin shoots someone with a poisoned crossbow bolt. The PCs are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and see the assassin as he drops the crossbow and flees into the crowd toward the bustling market.

Now, for most PCs, that is enough to get them chasing, especially assuming they are good guys. I’ve got a good call to action and a sense of urgency. The assassin is already running, he has a big head start, he wants to flee.

But is that enough? Let’s assume my players are a little more resistant. What else could I do. I could put the visiting person in priest robes, making him sympathetic and obviously innocent. Or perhaps make him an obvious city official. And make him beloved, too. A good city official. Perhaps when the people on the street see who got shot down, some of them scream while others drop to their knees and wail. These are all nice ways to get the PCs to care. I could also point out that the ruler of the city would likely reward anyone handsomely for running down the assassin if some of my players are more of a mercenary bent.

My bigger worry is that the PCs will be more worried about the dying noble than about the assassin. So, I might want to make sure that there are NPCs tending to him right away or that someone announces that he is dead right away. Either way helps get the players moving.

But that is really it for the hook. All I have to do is show the PCs a goal, give them one or more paths to the goal, and give them a chance to act.

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