Beard explains how to use plot hooks to incentivize players to go along with your story in tabletop RPGs and the different kinds of plot hooks there are.
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Motivation and Agency
Today we are going to discuss player motivation and agency for tabletop RPGs. Perhaps one of the most integral parts of adventure design, motivating the players at your table is one of the many challenges that you, as the Game Master, can’t ignore if you hope to craft an interesting, dynamic and fun experience for your friends at the table. Without a compelling hook, experienced players may still understand the Game Masters vision for the plot, but nonetheless, the players will feel railroaded and uninvested in experience ahead.
There are innumerable ways you can hook your players into an adventure but it can be tempting as a Game Master to simply allow your players to roam free in the case of sandbox campaigns or to simply force them into your narrative. Neither of these hooks are true motivations at all- if your players are lacking agency in the greater narrative, they wont care about the story or the people in it.
For those fans of random tables out there, we’ve taken some potential motivations and separated them into the alignment system used in the tabletop games Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. Despite this, these motivations can be used in any setting and by a party consisting of any moral inclinations, they may simply need to be tweaked somewhat to truly inspire your band of heroes to once again march into the howling catacombs and risk life and limb for a prize they truly desire.
Perhaps the most simple and elegant of the motivations, greed can manifest in many forms and not only can motivate the characters within a story but usually the players at the table as well. Gold, credits, resources, a kingdom, an artifact or even a future favor, motivating a party with greed requires the Game Master to lay out the prize at the start with promises or whispers of a prize and sit back and witness as the players clamber over your setting trying to find where it’s buried. Using greed as a motivation in your adventure requires you, as the Game Master, to include the promise of riches at an adventures end and a suitably exciting location to find it in. How the party hears about this treasure can also feed into the adventure: if the party overhears in a local tavern about a royal tribute ship that was scuttled in monster-infested waters, it’s imperative that the party understands that they aren’t the only ones who know about the treasure. If, during some downtime, a party spellcaster decides to research new spells, reveal to them that one of the dusty scrolls they uncover is in fact, a portion of a greater spell, the remaining pieces could be scattered throughout the world.
If you, as the Game Master, decide to use greed as a motivator, the layout for your adventure could be: the discovery, the journey, the delve and the payoff. Now, this payoff doesn’t have to be the treasure promised at the beginning of the adventure, but if you decide that the party’s princess is in another castle, it is in the Game Master’s best interest to leave hints as to where the party should look next lest the group decide that the hunt isn’t worth it after all. If there is a great risk, there must be an even greater reward!
Using family or friends as a motivator can be extremely effective in some circumstances but risks alienating the rest of the group. Unless the characters show an extreme amount of camaraderie or selflessness, it is recommended that the family motivation is stitched in with a secondary hook for the remainder of the company. If a party member’s little brother is kidnapped by bandits, the company should learn that this same bandit group has recently engaged in robbing merchants in the area and are likely laden with riches, or, similarly, have the bandits attack the character’s personal property and make off with their loved one during the attack, knowing that unless stopped, the indiscriminate attacks will continue. If grafted to a secondary motivation, using a loved one as a hook is usually very effective.
Using a loved one as a plot device shouldn’t always be as straight-forward as a kidnapping. The age-old trope of friends or family secretly being the true villain is also effective but can be clichéd. A loved one becoming involved in circumstances over their head, such as joining a fanatical group or even another rival group of adventurers can be much more refreshing and still give the players at the table a reason to strike out and rescue the one they care about. Due to the varied nature of how best to use the ‘loved one’ plot device, there is no hard-and-fast story outline.
In the real world, curiosity drives many of us to light that first spark of courage. In storytelling, this emotion is amplified. Using curiosity as a motivator follows much along the same lines as using greed, as the answers sought are usually the reason the characters set out on their journey in the first place. However, curiosity requires an additional quality to be met, in that, the Game Master needs to find a question that they are confident the players would be willing to risk their characters over. Why did the planes separate so long ago? What compulsion pushed the star-captain to venture alone onto the hostile planet so long ago? What is the nature of magic? Any of these questions are grandiose to serve as propulsion to an adventure, provided that the characters feel invested in knowing the answer.
Much like the ‘greed’ motivation, the players should be aware of the answer that they will receive at the end of their adventure, to ensure that they are willing to press onward and also to ensure that they are indeed invested in that answer. It is unlikely that all characters will share the same curiosity, but it is possible to inspire others through either implications of what the answer would mean or by grafting a secondary motivation to the first. If the party discovers why ships disappear in a region of the world, perhaps they will discover where the ships, and moreover, their cargo, have been whisked off to.
Protecting the Innocent
A motivation for characters pure of heart, shouldering the responsibility of defending those weaker than themselves is a noble goal and one that is easily implemented as a story-device. This motivation, unlike many, requires the players to decide to accept the responsibility themselves, as asking them to protect a settlement or those weaker than them can sometimes backfire not only in that they may begrudge the people they are supposed to protect, but because they may feel trapped or without agency. This motivation is more effective when presented to the characters and left to them to decide whether or not they want to dedicate themselves to the cause.
If, while travelling in the countryside, the party comes upon a merchant caravan being attacked by a warring nation, you may be surprised to find that the party doesn’t want to stick their necks out for strangers. Worse, if your entire adventure hinged on the characters decision to assist them, your story is now adrift. Use a second motivation to coax them into assisting and if your players still seem reluctant to shoulder the burden of protecting the innocent, write something else.
If your group does seem keen on protecting the weak however, this is one of the easiest motivations to implement. Not only can threats to the weak be used to prompt adventures, but so can other, less dangerous goals. Setting up trade routes, building relationships, gaining fame, respect and honor; all of these can be used to further reinforce the players desire to defend their charge and can be used for innumerable jumping off points for future adventures.
The awakening terror from beyond the stars, the war-provocateur, scientists who are too curious in probing the nature of our reality- the emerging threat references world-shaking events that could cause widespread destruction and misery if left unchecked. Luckily, most characters will be invested in becoming involved in the emerging threat story arc if only because they happen to be alive and don’t want to be dead. This trope can be effective, but also has some hurdles. First, be sure that the players feel as though they are necessary to preventing catastrophe. Because of the world-changing nature of the emerging threat, your players may wonder why they should feel compelled to stop the threat themselves, especially if entities more powerful than themselves would also be threatened by this event. The players may feel outclassed or simply overshadowed by others more powerful or more responsible than themselves to stand in the way of calamity.
Ensure early on that the party is invested by giving them some sort of unique responsibility in the affair. Perhaps they have the weapon to destroy the threat but not the means to use it. Perhaps they are aware of the threat but others don’t take them seriously. It’s your duty as a Game Master to ensure that the characters feel as though if they sit idly by while doomsday approaches, the blame lands squarely on them for not acting.
Victims of Circumstance
The victims of circumstance
- Loved One
- Protecting the Innocent
- Emerging Threat
- Chosen Ones
- Victims of Circumstance
- Personal Story