Schrödinger's Gun GMing: Baiting Your Plot Hooks

Welcome to another article in the Schrödinger's Gun GMing series!

So far we've talked about letting go of your GMing preconceptions about where an adventure begins and a bit about Plot Points and making a Plot Stack for your game. Now let's use your Plot Stack to get your players involved in creating the adventure.

A Busy PC Is A Happy PC
I've brought up the idea of the time crunch and overbusy PCs before. Back when I first tried the time crunch experiment, I took a page full of plotlines and gave them all to the party at once through various rumors, mysterious disappearances, requests from patrons, paying jobs, opportunities for doing great things, and family members getting mixed up with unsavory characters. I remember sitting back when everyone got together to talk about what to do next and how intensely each one of the players worked on how to prioritize the onslaught of stuff to do. It really gelled the party and snapped the focus onto what to do next so they can tackle as much of their backlog before things started falling apart.

Giving the PCs too many leads to follow and too many interesting things to explore gives the players the sense that your game world extends far beyond what they can see and that only the PCs can prevent the world's inevitable slide into chaos. Truth is, the game world extends only slightly beyond the town the party currently occupies, but the judicious use of adventure hooks makes it seem like so much happens just around the corner and the party will get left behind if they don't get involved.

For those of you concerned about railroading, providing an overabundance of adventure options should dispel any misconceptions that you're a railroading GM in a hurry. What GM could possibly prep all of those adventures and make every one of them relevant to the overall story arc without breaking out the Player Be Good stick? You can, and you can let yourself off the hook because not every adventure needs to directly tie into the main plot. So many interesting stories beg for air time just in the PC's backgrounds. How can we as GMs refuse a story begging to be told that a player has already invested in?

For the rest of this article, we'll focus on ways to craft your story hooks to make your party bite at them and then argue about which adventure to tackle next.

Bait Tips #1: Make The PCs Care
Character backgrounds make incredible GM fodder. If a player has taken the time to make a background for their PC, then using that background as fodder for plots in your game is the least you can do to honor their effort. Think of character backgrounds like letters to Santa: the player tells you what they want to explore in the game even if they never say anything to your face.

If you can make an adventure that hooks into that background information, then the PC will care about the adventure and the PC's player will think that you made an adventure specifically for them. Once the players think that you're writing everything for them, they'll pay more attention to the game and you'll have dedicated and invested players at your table.

Tying a plot hook into a character background can be as simple as having an old friend or mentor ask a PC for a favor, or as elaborate as a convoluted revenge plot against the entire party involving a secret society of mages with a copy of The Necronomicon as bait. The tighter you can weave a character's background into an adventure, the more the entire party will care, and the more real your entire world will seem.

Bait Tips #2: Communicate Consequences
If you hear "What the heck are we doing here?" more than once during the adventure, you probably missed an opportunity to motivate the party. Motivations come in two basic forms: Carrots and Sticks. Carrots and Sticks both offer consequences; Carrots tend toward the positive, and sticks tend toward the negative. Neither needs to manifest physically, and in fact some of the best motivators exist only ephemerally, such as information or reputation.

Typical Carrots include fortune, fame, and happiness. Most games include information as a type of currency, so "do this for me and I'll tell you what you want to know" plots surface fairly regularly. Saving the village and establishing a friendly base of operations works well as an early-in-your-game Carrot.

Now that is what I call a Stick.
Sticks threaten bad things unless the party does something. Threatening to kill a family member or friend of a PC as a motivator backfires more often than not as the entire party immediately resists the offered mission in favor of removing the idiot who tried such a stupid stunt. Threatening a village with disaster or destruction works better since rescuing an entire village of people reluctant to leave their homes gives the party fewer options.

Exploring the unknown can work as an adventure, but it needs to be about more than just filling in a map. You need to bring in Carrots and Sticks to make the task matter to the party. You could provide a reward for finding viable mineral deposits or rare plants. You could blaze a trail through the mountains and try to find a usable pass to connect two nations more conveniently. You could make it a race against time where you need to find the bandit camp and stop the bandits before they raid the village next week. A duke could commission a survey of his lands and offer a bounty for bandits, any treasure recovered, or first choice of a stronghold site to the party upon completion. Or all three if the duke feels especially generous.

Bait Tip #3: Make the Hook Offer Believable
If you're going to offer a plot hook, do it in a way that makes sense. Having the party's most annoying adversary waltz into camp and try to hire the party stretches the limits of credulity. If the party discovered their adversary's scribbled notes about an artifact hidden in an elven tomb filled with undead, they may want to race the adversary to retrieve the artifact, Indiana Jones style, especially if the tomb has two entrances.

Likewise, when a cakewalk offered by a trusted ally turns into a disaster of one ambush after another, the party may begin to question the ally's motives. You can work with this after the adventure and introduce some twists into the plot. If the ally is being blackmailed by an enemy into keeping the party busy, that's an interesting plot that might take the party some time and effort to uncover. And when they finally undo the blackmail, the payoff in the sense of accomplishment alone feels great.

Remember that NPCs have motivations and plots as well. Just like PCs, those NPCs may want to do something but they may need a little help to get it done. If the NPC refuses to ask for help, maybe the NPC's sister or boyfriend approaches the party to ask for help on the NPC's behalf. Maybe the party needs to follow the NPC and figure out what's happening and then strongarm the NPC into accepting help. That would make a more engaging story than just having the NPC straight-up ask for help, unless they get in totally above their head and it's almost too late to help them...

Thanks for reading!

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