At some point every GM/DM needs to provide a motivation to the PCs, a call to action that gets them on the path of adventure. This is often called a ‘Hook’, as if you can snag them into a story (you can’t and you don’t need to). At the start of a new adventure a 'hook' is no more than an excuse and instruction for the players. It's more about clarity than motivation. Let's take a look at that and how we can reduce and simplify what we do to create a better experience for our players.
I have never found it necessary at the beginning of a new campaign to ‘hook’ the characters. After all, the characters are already spoiling for a fight, the players have arrived for a session of an exciting table-top roleplaying game (TTRPG). They’re hardly going to stay on the farm or try to avoid trouble. There’s a social contract present at a TTRPG that the GM/DM will present opportunities for adventure and the players will form a party and engage with some of those adventures. I’ve always found it easy in the beginning.
Spare a thought for the poor farm hands, urchins and ex-soldiers your murderous players created. They never had a chance of a quiet life. In this, the character’s desires are likely to be at odds with the player’s purpose. Tad the burly woodsman didn’t want orcs to attack his village, he doesn’t want to have to risk his life to save the blacksmith’s son but the player behind him wants just that! Enter Tad the Barbarian, bye-bye woodsman. The player wants Tad to end up fighting dragons and braving unknown horrors in deep dungeons. Poor Tad. The players don’t need a hook or a call to action, they’ve got their dice and their character sheet and there had better be some action for them! At the first session, a hook is no more than an excuse for the character to do what the player already wants, a justification for adventuring that doesn’t require them to break character (they want to roleplay too, right?) I think of this as ‘The Three G’s’
Gold, Goodness and Glory
Most players can find something for their character to engage with in one of the three Gs.
Rescue the blacksmith’s son because:
1. It’s the right thing to do. It’s Good.
2. There’s a reward for his return. There’s Gold.
3. The orcs are brutal fighters and no-one else dares face them. There’s Glory.
Fine for the paladin to charge off to the rescue for god and goodness but the person playing the money-grabbing rogue is left thinking ‘well obviously I’m going too because we’re here to play DnD but I don’t know why my guy would do that.’
Pitch it under multiple headings and the noble paladin, the avaricious rogue and the proud barbarian all have a reason to get involved.
‘Glory’ can seem a similar motivation to the player’s own desire to get adventuring but if it was a low level ‘clear out the giant rats’ it might not feel the same. It doesn’t matter if the rats are on the move because of the greater threats if the players don’t know that. (You could stress the mutated monstrosities that these rats are and the fear of the villagers to try and tick that box for the player, I suppose but it doesn’t feel that ‘glorious’, huh?)
Later on, a player can allow their character to go along with the motivations of other characters in their team due to bonds of fellowship but in the beginning it’s useful to give each player an independent motivation that their character can follow. You are not hooking the characters, you are giving the players an excuse that allows their characters to engage without making the player feeling they are ‘breaking character’.
Aside from that 'excuse to adventure', the only thing a pitch or hook needs is to do is say what the adventure is about and give a clear course of immediate action. I mean what it's really about and really clear first steps. Take this example;
'There are disturbances and strange figures in the hills and the blacksmith's son has gone missing in the top fields. Go and investigate what is going on'. That is not an exciting hook.
Firstly, it tells the players nothing about the threat at hand. Think of a Hollywood teaser trailer for a big action film, it gives an audience a tiny glimpse of the monster. Do that. They're going to learn what its about soon enough, whet their appetites for it, excite them. Don't down play your adventure. Secondly, 'investigate' is a rubbish instruction, what's it even mean anyway? Go up there and ... look? Wander about and wait for something to happen. It doesn't put any agency in the players hands. A loose and indistinct instruction like that can leave the party talking over what to do at a time when they are itching to be doing it, something, anything. Is it good
Here's a better wording; "Orcs have been sighted in the hills and now the blacksmith's son has gone missing from the top fields. Time could be running out. Find the boy!"
It's not giving the story away, it doesn't say why the boy was taken (the orcs are selling him to a necromancer) but it does allow the players something to be excited about, "Let's hunt some orc!"
'Find' is an imperative. It makes me think of speaking to his parents, what was he wearing? Has it been raining and will there be footprints? How many orcs will there be? How do we take them out? There are clear questions to answer with things to DO more than discuss.
That’s the basic principle but my practice is to have worked this out with the players well in advance of the first session, particularly if it’s a longer adventure or a campaign of adventures. In this case I’ll have worked with my players during character creation and built their back stories into the adventure. They will also know something about the adventure in advance. It helps us all to know if it’s swashbuckling tale on the high seas with lots of choices about where to go and what to do or if it has a strong narrative focus within a city location. Maybe they know we are going to play ‘Curse of Strahd’ and have expectations based on that. Whatever the reason, the ‘hook’ at the beginning never poses a problem because the players want to play the game in the first place.
Stressing about a detailed hook and flooding the players with convoluted info at session one could detract from what they really want to do; get right into it, and start being their character, making decisions and rolling some dice.
Building the Party
After the initial ‘call to arms’ I find it’s best to focus upon building the party rather than developing the adventure plot too much. This is just one approach and I use others from time to time but unless I have a clear reason to do differently I fall back on this method. It’s based on humility and accepting that I’m not Tolkien and the players don’t really care about my adventure concept.
I don’t think players care about the story nearly as much as the GM/DM thinks they should. In my experience players don’t care that much about the world setting, adventure plot or even their characters’ motivations. They mostly care about their character being cool. The adventure is necessary to give them some context for their roleplaying and tense obstacles that they can overcome in cool ways, but I believe the strength of a story is in its characters, not its plot. There are a lot of reasons for playing a TTRPG and exploring a world and becoming embroiled in major events are part of that but I find that for mostly players are more interested in being some kind of bad-ass. This is especially true in the first few sessions for the following reasons:
1. In the beginning, their recently written backstory is bright in their minds and they know little about the adventure to distract them from their first chance to ‘be their character’. They are focused on their character far more than the story that’s unfolding.
2. They are still getting to know their character. The shared experiences they will have with the other players will soon become important but those haven’t happened yet …
3. They might be playing a new character class or even a new system and they will be concentrating on the rules and features of their fresh, new character.
All of these mean that important plot details can be easily missed and too many choices can seem bewildering. I try to keep it simple without twists and turns and use the first few sessions to focus on the players getting to know their own characters. Something cool will happen, they will each do something memorable and it will define and give shape to their shiny new character like no amount of backstory ever could.
They also get to show each other who their characters are and build a team camaraderie without decisions about plot or narrative in the way. They will save each other, learn whether the barbarian is a solid bulwark or a heedless charger and they have the freedom to experiment without it going badly wrong (though there are exceptions, some adventures should start like a slap in the face but not most). In other words, I rail-road them for a bit. I don’t GM in rail-roady style at the table but I plan the early sessions that way. In fact I give them a lot of room to ‘flex’ and show off, to smash down easy challenges that can be beaten in pretty much anyway they think of. Almost every choice becomes viable ‘good choice’ as they travel, fight and win together.
However, the trail leads to the woods where they can go over the hills or through the swamp (a pretty clear, binary choice) then there’s the caves and everyone is clear the clock is ticking for the poor blacksmith’s son. Each challenge leads to another without much let up and I force the pace onwards giving them the choice of how to defeat the challenges but little option in terms of which challenges to face or which goals to pursue. By the time we are a few sessions in and a couple of levels higher they know their characters and their team. They understand their role in the team with bonds forged in battle. As the plot develops they start to make more lasting choices about what story are they going to tell and it’s at this point that I need to provide motivations for their characters.