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Related: How can I help a player craft a backstory that gives me plot hooks?

This question is about generating new plot hooks during play, rather than part of character generation, however.


I prefer the story of a campaign to evolve from player actions, rather than being set in stone. I enjoy a story crafted by everyone involved in the game, not just by the GM.

In that light, what techniques can I use to encourage the players to generate plot hooks, rather than simply coming up with my own and adapting to player action story arc after story arc?

The same question applies as a player getting my fellow players to generate story (and getting the GM to run with it!) but I think that's distinct enough to warrant its own question. Here, I want to focus solely on what the GM can do to get the players to help mold the game in a way that it can be enjoyed by everyone.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Fictize the act of plot generation. What does this mean? It means create a fictional reason for the players to tell you the kind of information you're looking for. It's best to make it something subjective, that way you can either roll with it or change it, and still be "right". Here are some examples:

"Abner, you have a dream that wakes you up in the middle of the night, all trembling and sweaty. It involved your future, and you wake up feeling a need to prove yourself. What was the dream about?"

"Babette, as you're watching the Queen's parade pass by, you flash back to a time you were young. You remember a promise you made to yourself. What was that promise?"

"Caliban, one of the people at the table reminds you of someone in your past who made a great impression on you. They taught you about the importance of following your dreams. Who was that person, and what did they say that you took to heart?"

"Dagon, while rearranging your gear that night, you find a note in the bottom of your pack. You're not sure how long it's been there. It says simply "help me." You think you recognize the handwriting. Whose writing is it? Why might they need your help?"

"Elsie, as you're waiting for the food to arrive you notice a person who enters the room and looks around slowly, as if they're searching for someone. You haven't seen them in a long time, but you recognize the face. Who is it, and what do you think they're looking for?"

"Falafel, the fortune teller reads your palm and tells you that you are in danger of slipping from your true path. There is something you have forgotten to do, some responsibility or detail from the past. What was it?"

You can also throw a question to the entire group for brainstorming. Don't be afraid to ask for a scene about it. Say you just came up with a weird random encounter or event, and even you don't know what it means. That's ok, just sit the characters down and let them have a conversation about it. "Ok guys, so that night as you sit around the campfire, you all begin wondering about (that weird thing that happened earlier). Like... What could it mean? Is there something that should be done about it? I want to hear that conversation."

The players will probably come up with several theories on their own, and you can choose whichever one sounds good to you. Maybe they're exactly right. Or maybe they're only half right, but it will give you something to go on.

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I definitely like your "fictizing" suggestions. Those look like they could be a lot of fun! –  Brian S Apr 5 at 18:47
  1. Player buy-in
  2. Allowing players to mold the scenes (and scenery)
  3. Player control over certain NPCs
  4. Starting all of the above as early as possible

I am currently running a game of Unknown Ponies: Failure is Awesome (a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic spinoff game of Unknown Armies), and I've set the campaign far enough in the future from the show's canon that all of the characters with a normal life-span are dead. (Thus, the four Princesses and Spike remain, as do Celestia's and Spike's pet phoenixes.) This was explicitly designed to allow everyone to swing their mighty Hammers of Headcanon and Flails of Fanon, as well as generate our own content.

While I laid out a decent amount of structure for the campaign's lore and setting, I didn't create everything -- there's no way the average player would read everything written about the setting if "everything" was too detailed. Whenever one of my players would ask me a question about the lore, I would either make something up on the spot which fit into my own setting's canon, or reply with something to the effect of, "What do you think the answer should be?" In the latter case, I would incorporate their response into the setting for the game.

This gave my players a great deal of power over the setting early on, increasing their buy-in. The actual gameplay was similar; I would avoid describing a scene in too much detail until asked. I would either make up a response or description on the spot, or let the player have his or her way with the scene. Occasionally a skill check would be involved (roll Notice... sure, some of these rocks are made of phosphorous, why not?) but often the scene was built as much by my players as it was by me.

I think the final key to what I've achieved in this game was giving my players control over the NPCs which represent their immediate family. Not only does it lift some of the burden off of me (and I don't feel like I'm a crazy guy talking to his sock puppet), not only does it let the players have their family members act in accordance with their character's concept, it multiplies the ways in which the players can present those new plot hooks.

Example #1

At the end of the first story arc, the players accidentally got a mountain blown up, creating a large number of refugees. At the beginning of the following session, I told my players that there was a few weeks of downtime, and I asked them what their characters had been up to in the duration. One of the players said he'd been helping his father at the docks with supplying the relief efforts.

(Note: The PCs are all underaged "blank flanks," think ~10yr human equivalent)

News that the player was working the docks then reached the school principal, who called in Foal Protection Services, which launched into a story arc centered on exonerating the player's father. While the player may not have intended for such a story to occur, it nonetheless occurred entirely due to player action (deciding that he'd been working the docs to help with the relief efforts, and letting that fact slip and reach the principal's ears).

Example #2

The current story arc has thus far involved a mysterious meteorite that landed on the farm owned by the family of one of the players. The players got Princess Twilight to come help investigate (through a relationship they forged in the first story arc). During the investigation, the father of one of the players revealed to Twilight that he and his wife had discovered four of the necklaces which had once held the Elements of Harmony -- powerful artifacts, indeed -- and were holding them secure in their basement.

I had had no intention of involving the Elements in this campaign prior to this revelation, but I rolled with it. Twilight retained control of her tiara which has once housed the Element of Magic, but the player's father revealed that two of the necklaces they found had been moving under their own power, somehow. With Twilight's assistance, an area was found where the final missing necklace should be, and the player's father declared a desire for the PCs to go looking for it.

The PCs being children and her friends, Twilight was against the idea of letting the go into the desert, near the border of the Badlands; an argument sprung up between the father and the Princess. Eventually, however, Twilight conceded to the adventure on the condition of parental chauffeurs and the assistance of Spike the Dragon.

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+1 for player molding. Admittedly the more I GM I ask "is there something you're thinking of" a lot more to randomly throw stuff in. –  CatLord Apr 5 at 14:19

First tell your players your desire. "I would like that the plot would be driven by you, so if you have any ideas, tell me".

Ask often your players what they want to do between adventures or plots.

Give the PCs the opportunity to know interesting NPCs that can help them to accomplish their goals.

Reward player initiative with cool plots, attention to their character, and stories that complete them. If they wanted to start a commercial route, allow them to become rich and powerful. If the character is in love with a handmaiden, allow him to win her heart, to marry her and have children if he desires to. Of course, all of it must be played and achieved through playing (that's why you do it), and the success is not guaranteed, but you should offer them a good chance to success and reward their initiative with character development.

Once your players see that their initiative is beneficial to them, they will start taking the habit of looking plot hooks to improve their characters. Note that some players find it harder than another, and they will more often follow other players initiative.

As a final advice, note that some of these hooks can be personal stories. Try that they don't take too much time. The game can be crazy if each player is following a different story. Ask your players to implicate others on their plans, and to cooperate.

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Your suggestions in here are great, actually, but I hope that I may still have something to offer for you.

Questions

Questions are one of the easiest and most useful tricks for generating plot hooks. Ask your players some questions about what they feel, how they met, their family and the like at the start, and you've got your first few adventures. It doesn't end here, though, as you can practically continue to ask them questions about their past throughout the entire campaign. Their goals, their dreams, and so much more and each one of them can lead into countless of story arcs.

Give them a bomb and watch

I wrote in an answer to another question some time ago that I was given once a canon. It finished with an epic campaign which resulted in a new Alexandra the Great. The idea here is quite simple, give your players something to play with (a cannon, or if I can give an example from my present campaigns it must be a blue smiling flower) and let them roll with it. You'll notice quite quickly that if you've captured their imagination and curiosity, you won't need to think about plot hooks ever again. They'll create them for you. You only need to give them something to play with and roll with them from there.

Never say no

This may be the most important thing in this entire list (at least for me, anyway). By saying no you not only destroy potentials for many a great stories, but you're also discouraging them from coming with their own ideas. Usually, when we say no it is for an idea that one of the players comes with. This idea may turn into that great plot hook that you're striving to, and by saying no you're preventing it from ever coming into the light of day. Furthermore, by saying no you're kinda saying that you have a better idea for where this story should continue, and this will surely discourage them from coming with their own ideas ('cause you know best and all). Try to say yes to everything that they say which is not downright outrageous or out of the mood of the game. If you can, and it will make it far better, "yes-and-it" by adding a little detail of your own. You'll be surprised from the depth of stories that it can create.

Give them writing tasks between sessions

Writing the fluff of the characters doesn't end in character creation, or at least it doesn't have to. Ask your players to keep diaries of their beloved characters. Let them write those few paragraphs (or more, if you're all happy with it) and you'll get from this 2 things. Firstly, you'll get the player's reflections about the sessions' events in one of the subtlest ways that I know of. Secondly, you'll get leads about what they want, to where they wanna take the game, what they wanna see more and what less. All of these will surely help you with finding, generating and managing plot hooks.

And an end

Hope I still was able to help you a little bit, albeit your wonderful solution of your own.

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"if you've captured their imagination and curiosity, you won't need to think about plot hooks ever again" What an excellent line! –  Brian S Apr 5 at 18:43

You could offer something in exchange (apart from typical avenge/find lost family) - an item that improves with character level or some unique abilities/skills that develop with the story. The players will be very happy to provide interesting and elaborate hooks to get their freebies.

The players may be asked to:

  • design a quest required to improve their item/ability,
  • invent a backstory for each improvement,
  • plan ahead for further changes.

If you merge their abilities and items into your storyline, each player will get his/her own unique role in the game. And in my experience, players feeling special become more cooperative.

Also, asking detailed questions, as in the referenced answer, is always a good idea.

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Run with the plot hooks they give you.

Better yet, run with everything they give you, not just the deliberate plot hooks. And when I say run with these things, I mean make them important. Tie them into the main plot. Shuffle your unrevealed plots and NPCs around to match what the players give you. It's lovely to give the players 30 extra minutes of interaction with an NPC they invented. But it's far better to turn that NPC into a major recurring character who they see each and every week.

Basically you want to demonstrate what happens when they give you a plot hook. If player generated content is important in your game, the players will pick up on that and create more content. They may not understand this at first because most GMs fail to run with what their players give them.

True story - I wrote a backstory in spanish and the GM didn't notice. I named a character Jesus and the GM didn't notice. I submitted an SNL sketch's script in place of a backstory and the GM didn't notice. These GMs asked for backstory but were really just assigning me homework. If I were just starting out under these GMs, that might condition me to think that my contributions to the game don't matter.

Do the opposite! Show the players that the stuff they put in the game becomes important, and they'll continue to put more stuff in the game.

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Your true story is sad and unfortunately you're right; often GMs forget to use the material players have handed to them. I find it's best to convince the players to leave their PC sheets with me between games, and before planning the next adventure I go over every line, looking for stuff I can hook something onto. Without this great source material, I'd be relying on stupid prewritten modules or random rolls that have nothing to do with my players' desires! –  As If Apr 6 at 17:24

Bribe them

I have had good success in the past getting players to feed me hooks by replacing the advancement system with a goals+reward house rule. In its most system-neutral form, you just allow players to set personal or plot goals for their individual characters, and then attach a known mechanical reward for completion. I once ran an entire short, unplanned campaign launched by showing them a local region map and using the the goals they made in response.

This is most effective when it replaces the normal means of acquiring the advancement currency of your game system (XP, character points, 1/10 toward next level, whatever), but can also work as a supplemental reward to normal advancement reward sources. It's slightly less efficient then because the player motivation to use it and "game" it (you want them to game it!) is diluted, but it still works.

The particular house rule I've used is called "Wyrds", but as you can see, at its core it's a simple simple/robust idea that can be ported into most any system that has advancement mechanics. The various details of Wyrds (the bonuses, exact number, how they can be changed, etc.) aren't as important as the basic concept: give me a plot hook, and you'll get XP for doing it.

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Thanks for the link to the Wyrds rules. Very interesting technique, it's kinda like *World agendas/portents for PCs! –  As If Apr 6 at 17:27

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