Hooks, Sorta hooks, “Use No Hooks,” or Something Else Entirely

Of course, the hot topic today is the announcement by WotC about a new edition of D&D. I thought about writing about this, but really, why? I play Pathfinder now and I really enjoy it. So I wanted to mention a couple of insights I’ve had about running Pathfinder that have made me extra happy as a GM and ask a question of my readers about introducing adventures.

First, I suppose that what I’m about to say isn’t so much an insight as it is a realization of something lost. When I was running the Kingmaker AP, I got really caught up in being sure that I had all the stats and monster notes and spell notes and NPC abilities PERFECT. I hated this. I realized that for the majority of encounters I needed a much more bare-bones set of stats to actually run the encounter. I knew this and it’s how I ran 3.5 but I struggled with letting myself off the hook for it not being perfect. Pathfinder has built a lot of character/combat options into the feats available now (even more than 3.5) and spellcasters are, of course, complex. But really, all I actually need to know is the basics and all those feats can get distilled down into a simple entry on the NPC sheet, “bad guy can do this — like this.”

I was driving myself nuts creating every single enemy like they were a fully fleshed out PC. I never did this in 3.5 and it worked fine, so why did I get all caught up in it in Pathfinder? Don’t know. But as I sat down over the weekend to stat out the villains for some encounters I had planned for my game, I went back to simpler stat blocks and more carefully thought out abilities and it was simple and refreshing and I was done in a fraction of the time this previously took. Gave me a new lease on life as the DM of that game. Whew.

I’ve also been thinking about the way I run “adventures” and “campaigns” with my players. I’ve been thinking about hooks. Thing is, my normal tendency is to throw out a few hooks, some subtle, some not so subtle, and let the players bite on one they decide they like and then spin the game from there. I usually have at least four planned adventures I can go to anytime the PCs need to make a decision. I’m also the type who won’t care if the PCs simply decide to wander off in a different direction if something catches their interest I hadn’t planned on. Why not? Let them live their lives, right? I do get annoyed when PCs decide to start something and then just abandon it midway or if they decide to wander completely aimlessly… I’ve never figured that one out. I like a little structure in my game even if it’s only a bare scaffold.

But of course, this doesn’t work for some gamers. Some players want a clear story and a fairly linear progression, some want a lot of structure but little in the way of linear progression (that is, a strong world/metastory but the ability to a variety of adventures inside it — I’m thinking mission-based games like Shadowrun or a military style game here). Some players are deeply offended if the GM tries to offer any structure at all. And I’ve been told by players on both ends of the spectrum that having a wide-open world, some possible backdrops to a “Campaign”, and a variety of hooks they can take or leave, can be overwhelming — because they don’t know what choice to make.

So what about you? I’d love to hear how you tend to DM, how you introduce hooks, offer up adventures, or take a hand in the adventures of PCs at your table? What works, what do you hate as players? I’m curious and I’d love to have some other insights outside of my normal play-style.

Thanks for reading.


2 responses

  1. I started a new pathfinder campaign recently and I am doing some things differently.
    I’ve borrowed ideas from a variety of sources like the Dresden Files (Fate system), Smalliville RPG (Cortex system), Apocalypse World, and City of Heroes.
    Our group had run into some troubles with a couple of ‘Sandbox’ style campaigns (one city and one based on Athas/Dark Sun) [I was the player and not the GM for the campaigns]. Being the player in the game, I realized some of the problems that occurred in play and it in inspired me to think of solutions.
    The first solution was to create the campaign from the player’s ideas instead of my own. I started with a blank piece of paper and simply asked the players to tell me what was in each direction like if you had some one describe the surroundings of the town that you lived in. The players took turns placing forests, lakes, floating islands, deserts, major cities, major monsters, and other things into the surroundings.
    This did two things for my sand box creation of the world. The first thing it did was everyone participating in the creation now ‘knew’ what the world was really like and where things could be found. The second thing was that it spelled out what things the players were interested in and wanted to interact with. I feel these two points went a large way for player buy in and player involvement in the creation of the campaign.
    I refined the map more by at the end asking the players to answer a series of questions on what was now at the centre of the map. The questions covered a variety of topics like who is in charge, what kind of problems or challenges do the people in the centre of the map face, when was the last war, when was the last natural disaster, and many more that you can find similarlly in Pathfinder Gamemasters Guide.
    It was only after this that the players were allowed to start to make their characters but now they all had a firm understanding of the game world and some idea of things they had placed to interact with.
    I then borrowed from Fate and Smallville by asking the players to tell me three things on their character. The first thing was who was their parents or who raised them. The second thing was how did they learn their abilities. The third was first adventure they went on using their abilities. I used the answers from these questions to help build a relation diagram like in Smallville to relate the players to items in their environment. For Example, I had a player that was a mortician and that meant there was now a mortuary where he worked at.
    I used the first adventures like in Fate to randomly assign two of the other PCs to have participated or crossed paths during that adventure. This meant that everyone knew two players from their private adventure and had worked with two other PC (possibly different or the same) at some point.
    I’m now using the diagram with the associations and the player interactions marked to help develop ideas like Smallville. For example, one player is secrety a Ninja and the player’s family has a hidden dojo in the town. During the current adventure, the villain will send some of their minions into the dojo (disguised as a warehouse) to steal materials. The player will have to decide whether they want to reveal the true nature of the warehouse and what steps will they go to save a student of the dojo captured by the villains.
    The last thing that I am doing which comes from City of Heroes is make short definitive quest objectives with a Patrom/Quest Giver stating what the player needs to do at reach step. The first mission was a ‘Go Here’ mission where the players had to go, look at a dead body, and return with information gathered. The second mission was a ‘kill 10’ mission where the players were told to capture 10 members of a particular gang and told where they could find these gang people. The third mission will be a delivery mission where the players take an item to a couple of points and an ‘ambush’ will occur while carrying the item.
    I’ve chosen this method of missions because too much choice can lead players to confusion in a sandbox campaign of what to do next. If you have players that can set strong goals in simple tasks that the rest of the group is willing to follow then that is great but in a new campaign it can help to make the tasks simple and straight forward till the players get comfortable with their player’s goals and aims.
    I also like this method as it helps me make sure there is enough combat occuring in proportion to roleplay because my eight person group gets ‘bored’ when there is too much talking and not enough hacking. Players can lose focus when one or two players spend half and hour or an hour talking with NPCs.
    The last thing that I’m planning is that the players will get regular ‘upgrades’ to their home base as they complete adventures courtesy of their patron. I have a list of rewards to give out like chariots, lab space, servants, students, dojo, access to libraries, access to officials and nobles, special travel items, general items, awards and honours (like dedication of temples or statues) to provide. I’m pulling this a bit from various Facebook games where the surroundings improve based upon completing quests.
    I hope this gives you some ideas to think on.

  2. Wow. Thank you for the comprehensive comment. That’s awesome. I have a couple of questions though…

    On the subject of allowing the PCs to “create” the world… I know a few other GMs who have done this same thing and the problem for me is — there is no mystery or sense of discovery — we made the stuff so we don’t have the thrill of finding it out during game. I know that it switches the point of gratification — but it really seemed to front-load it for me. Also, if you are DMing this, how much liberty do you then take when designing adventures based on the set-up created at the beginning? And do you take any active hand during design?

    This seems important since you run the game with a mission-based format. Maybe it isn’t. Just seems like it would be to me.

    Which leads to my second question… how much work do you put in making the “go here, do this” missions seem organic? That is, do the players feel like this is part of a living world where the quests/givers are well-embedded or is your group pretty much okay with “go get me ten gang members.” “Why 10, what if we only find 6?” “I need all ten or you don’t get the reward.” Nothing wrong with that if everyone is having fun, I just wonder how your group goes about it.

    My players are actually pretty close to starting an adventure which might net them a base of operations. Maybe. I’m excited about using your idea to build “upgrades” into the story. One of my players is very keen about having a base and your suggestion (while, I admit, at first triggered a “erg, you got your computer game in my tabletop” thought, quickly gave way to good sense and seeing the potential in this).

    Thanks again.

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