Quietly redundant plot hooks can push your players in the right direction.

A lone man sits on the ice. He is ice fishing.

Any moment now, the fish will come. Any moment now.

I think it is great that we try to engage our players in the stories we craft through a tool called “plot hooks”. Plot hooks make me think of fishing, and the analogy could not be more apt.

Have you ever gone fishing?

For the uninitiated, allow me to explain how fishing works. You go out on a boat/a dock/the ice and you put a hook in the water with a little bit of bait on it. Then you wait for the fish to come and take the bait, getting caught on your hook.

Except the fish don’t come.

You wait and wait and wait, and no fish ever take your dang hook. Sure, some people get lucky in the first five minutes they are at the lake, but they are by far the exception, not the rule. You could be here all day, and you might not get so much as a nibble.

Plot hooks are like fish hooks. Even the best DMs sometimes just cannot get the party to take the bait on a particular plot point. Knowing your group well helps, as does general experience at the table, but sometimes you just cannot get the players to bite.

How can you get the players to grab the hook and move the story forward without forcing their hand? You can troll them.

Trolling: Maybe Not What You Expected

The trollface character is fishing off the side of a dock, with a trollface hook, trying to catch angry face "fish".

If this is your idea of trolling when fishing, you may want to go outside more often.

Trolling is when you go out on a boat and drag several lines behind you, each line with a baited hook. It works because it is not much more effort for you to troll with several hooks than it is to troll with just one. The fish, however, never see that you are dragging several baited lines. They are just more likely to see a hook and go for it. The fish is oblivious to your strategy – it just likes bait.

One way that our games do a very poor job of mirroring the nature of the real world is that the players can only know what we tell them. In the real world, people are being bombarded with constant data from their surroundings, and their brains can put together a complex understanding of the universe from this information. In our games, the players get, “You search the room carefully and find a small golden pin underneath one jar of alchemical reagents.”

You will frequently hear DMs talk about how their PCs are dumb. This usually is not the case – the players are just not mind readers. Even when we give them all of the information they theoretically need to advance the story, they may not realize it. If they do realize it, they may be wary for other reasons. If we want to catch the players with our plot, we need to cast out multiple hooks.

In my first article about playing in a sandbox environment, I provided an example of how to use flow charts to plan a campaign story arc. Looking back on this example, I had several hooks that could lead to a confrontation with the Manslayer. Over the course of five levels, the heroes actually grabbed onto a few of these hooks. By the time the Manslayer began massing his army, the heroes had plenty of reasons to stop him. Setting the hook and reeling them in was easy.

Let’s say you want the heroes to investigate the abandoned Keep of the Scarlet Torch and discover a hidden sect of Vecna cultists that live there. Do not just have them overhear about the keep while staying at the local inn. Plan out a few different hooks for them to grab onto if they wish.

  1. A young woman has gone missing – her best friend says she planned to meet a handsome eladrin man at the old keep and never returned.
  2. The brewer’s hops vines have caught the blight and died. The hops at the keep were said to be blight-resistant, but they are jealously guarded by goblin brewers who have taken up in the barracks.
  3. When riding past the keep at night, the party wizard sees a red light shining in the uppermost room of the tallest tower. This is odd, since the other heroes see nothing.
  4. A local family had a recently deceased loved one disinterred because he was accidentally buried with an important heirloom. Imagine their surprise when they find the body is missing. If the PCs investigate, they will find that missing bodies have recently become common in all the villages surrounding the keep.

You do not need to share all of these hooks at once; you do not need to share them all at all. The real advantage of having these hooks is that you can give a story tie-in no matter what the party chooses to do in the area. Since none of the hooks tie in directly with the Vecna cult, you can flesh out others if the PCs decide to pursue them once the Vecna cultists have been dealt with.

By setting out many hooks, you increase the odds that the players will find one interesting and run with it. By making the hooks only indirectly related to the central story element, you do not risk the players getting annoyed when you repeatedly smash them over the head with a clue-by-four.

If you are also using a flow chart, then come up with a few hooks that fill the gaps between any two connected spaces on the chart. If the elf’s mother has important information for her, then have several reasons ready for why the elf might need to travel back to her homeland. If war is brewing, then plot out a few different ways by which the heroes can get to the climactic battle. You are not reducing choice to an illusion – you are simply stacking the deck in response to the limited information the players can glean about the game world. It all comes back to that idea that in the real world we take in and process far more information than any DM could ever provide to a player.

If you have a plot point that you want the heroes to find, make sure you set out plenty of varied hooks to get the players running in that direction. If you rely on a single hook, you may end up like that guy on the ice, waiting for fish that are not going to bite.

Do you use multiple plot hooks in your sandbox-style games? How do you avoid the problem of the PCs simply not knowing what they can or should do next? Is it “cheating” to give the players more than one shot at discovering something, or is it just good practice?

3 Responses to “Into the Sandbox – Casting Plot Hooks”

  1. I tend to set up my sandbox games as if the players didn’t exist, and fit any “adventure site” into the warp and weft of the campaign as appropriate. That being said, any “adventure site” has to be accessible to the players otherwise it is meaningless. But generally the hooks aren’t planned, they come out in play according to the players actions and locations. It helps to have a random “rumours” table (many of which are seeds for generic mini-adventures, but others are specific to an area). Although these tend not to be actual rumours, per se. Just opportunities.

    The only exception to this are treasure maps which are automatic hooks. But they also take many different forms, such as journals and diaries, and even once a mosaic showing the undestroyed city in the jungle (useful for locating the sight of the grand temple).

    As for the players not knowing what they should be doing next, well, I just talk to them about what they want to do. What they want their characters to become. I try to be non-adversarial in my relationship to the players because of the lack of knowledge syndrome that you mention. I listen to the players and plans and even contribute suggestions, including “no, that probably wouldn’t work because of [...]” if they come up with something where the characters would have a good idea of the situation, rather than using this lack of fore-knowledge to ambush them.

    And nope. Perfectly fair to offer multiple enticements to adventure. Just don’t try overplanning. Take it as it comes. Work out the history of the place and how it will affect the area around it (as if there were no players involved) and you will have a better idea of what will happen when players stumble upon it. Unless it is a trap specifically designed to entice players into it (either specific or in general), of course, in which case it will put out lures of some sort. Usually quite a number of them. [These tend to be particular favourites, since they come with an implicit objective on the part of the encounter.]

    I will add the caveat that most of my campaigns arose out of worlds were multiple parties and individuals adventured simultaneously (much in the spirit of the original wargame campaigns that birthed the hobby, since that was my previous experience, and that of my fellow players/gamemasters when I started RPGing), which kind of encourages the gamemaster to be an unbiased referee and emplace stuff beforehand, so that each group/player has equal opportunities. With a more traditional single party sandbox, don’t be afraid of reskinning the encounter to suit what the players are doing if you really want to run it.

    • My personal style at the table is very similar to yours, it seems, especially when it comes to helping the players evaluate their own ideas. Like I said, we cannot expect the players to be mind readers and have exactly the same ideas of success consequences as we do.

      Over planning is an interesting concept. Some GMs prefer to ad-lib their way though as campaign, and some plan out every step in a meticulous manner. I fall somewhere in the middle, or possibly at the two extremes at the same time. I plan out way more than I need, but I do that so I am equipped for when the players take most any action. I prepare so that it still feels slick and planned when the players take an action that is “off script”.

      I agree that reskinning is a powerful tool in the GM’s tool kit. I use it on a regular basis.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Reverance.

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