I will soon DM a new D&D adventure. It's in a setting of my creation, and new characters will be created for it, with backstories tied at least in some ways to the setting. I intend to give my players a lot of freedom on how they approach the world and choose what to do.

Now my concern is this: I have come up with many possible hooks related to the setting. But I am unsure of how to present them to my PCs without railroading them (for instance: the town cleric needs help, but I wouldn't like to start an adventure with the PCs in his office, and him already explaining them their mission), or overwhelming them with too many adventure choices. On the other hand, I fear that without some form of railroading, the PCs will spend too much time looking for hooks, and end up bored, which doesn't strike me as an exciting start.

How can I effectively introduce my PCs to hooks in a sandbox style adventure?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Are the PCs already adventuring companions or must they meet and learn to trust one another over the course of the first few sessions? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ They already know each other and have adventured together. \$\endgroup\$
    – derp
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 2:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ The term I like to use for my game is "walk on the beach" rather than "sandbox". A metaphoric wide beach of sand flanked by a tall cliff and a deep ocean. Lots of sand to play in, but there are constraints guiding the PCs along. (In your cleric example, I would consider that a cleric in need of help will be distracted and seriously dropping the ball on his cleric duties. Who in the town does this impact? Pick three citizens who are distraught. Present these to the PCs as three "hooks" with different bait. No matter which one they choose, it will find them eventually helping the cleric) \$\endgroup\$
    – Blaze
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 20:20

10 Answers 10


Make them stumble upon and want to bite the hook.

Expecially in a homebrew campaign, players will want to get their bearings: take a look around, see what the locals are like etc. This is where you come in:

  • They hit the tavern? Have the innkeeper talk about how it's not been going well lately because for some reason less visitors drop by for drinks and beds.
  • They go hiking? Monster attack!
  • They do go talk to the priest? Let him to his story!

Now, you do not need to have every event from killing dragons to going to the outhouse involve a plot-important event. Instead, let them use the village where they start as their sort-of home base, where they get invested in by doing things big and small. But here's the twist: after every second or third sidemission something happens regarding to the plot hooks: wounded travelers come in, speaking of bandits; one of the local lord's men is in search for people who could lend their swords to the aid of the realm, or have Sir Murder von Evilstabbings ride into town, off some folks, then go on. Eventually this will drive the players to want to take the hook, if only to put an end to the schemes of Larrenyyys the lich.

Have their actions improve the game world, then have setbacks (minor or major) kick in until the party kicks someone's door down and give them greatsword accupuncture.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for setbacks when they ignore ongoing plot hooks. If rumors of a cult aren't enough to get them to investigate, then they'll probably react when the cultists start crucifying peasants in the street. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 21:53

Do not introduce hooks, introduce situations

The main difference between a campaign and a sandbox is that campaigns have a well-defined plot, while sandboxes have a well-defined premise. Think of it as a ballistic approach to storytelling. You set up your guns, load, elevation etc. and you fire. Where the projectile will land is then in the hands of gods, and gods here are the PCs and NPCs. After each session or significant player action take some time to think how the world should react. However, I recognise the fact that you would like your characters to have an interesting adventure, that can be achieved even with that premise.

Survey your characters

Make sure you know what are your PCs backgrounds and what they would like to achieve. If not expressed, ask the players directly: What would your character like to achieve? More power, money? A castle of his own? To be a high-ranking officer in the military? Fame and fortune? Once you know that, create the world.

Create the world

There is a lot of techniques that can be used to create the world, but I find a few of them especially useful for this.

  • Create two-three situations that would be interesting for the players. They can be very basic ideas, like "there is a witch hunt in town", "local prince is preparing for war", a motley troupe of wandering actors arrives in town", "northern trading route has been blocked". Keep them vague, the details will come later. You need to have more than one, or else it is railroading in a sense that "you go this way or nothing of note happens"
  • Set a roster of actors, e.i. stakeholders. These are the NPCs whose interests are on the line regarding the situations. In the witch hunt example that could be a group of inquisitors, monks from a peaceful convent, the mob, innocent local healer, wily merchants, local constabulary, the witch in question etc. They all will be affected by the events.
  • Establish goals, motives, relationships an knowledge Every NPC should have a goal, though they may share it or fail to pursue it. This goal should be somehow justified given their standing. Relationships between the NPCs are paramount, as is their knowledge - their actions are going to be governed only by what they know. Keep that in mind.
  • Imagine how the events would unfold if the players were not there. That's how the NPCs would react if they didn't know about player's involvement.


The players find themselves in a living area, let them witness the situation unfold. If you did the precious step right, no hooks are needed. They have hooks everywhere, from the mob protesting against the witch practices, the guards struggling to keep order, the monks shying away from inquisition and local herb gatherers panicking and trying to avoid suspicion.


What if the players don't follow that? Let them. It's their job now to find an objective for their characters. A fame-hungry bard might want to join the hunt, the warrior would do the same for profit, druid might sympathise with the witch and the paladin would be willing to investigate. The players will have to find their place and standing in the situation and come to terms so that everyone finds a reason in themselves to pursue one end or another.


The players are now the wind that changes the flight path of your projectile. Adjust accordingly. At all times bear in mind, that if the monks are unaware of player's actions and they do not affect them, they will proceed as if nothing happened (see the last point of creating the world).


The idea is that you will follow the Status quo - disturbance - reaction - resolution pattern. The players might want to take any stance in the situation (disturbance) and that creates the reaction. The resolution should be the sum of all the actions, PCs and NPCs alike. One thing you need to make sure is that the disturbance is somehow relevant to the players - a witch hunt would be irrelevant to a party of rogues who simply want to avoid trouble - they would run away at first possible opportunity. If the disturbance either presents an opportunity or threatens the players they react.

On a last note, make sure they know it's a sandbox game. If they are up for it, they should consider that it's a make-you-own-adventure type of game, with no such thing as a random retired hero in a tavern giving them a quest.


Some of these are contentious points with some people, but work for me.


Find out what they are interested in. Look at what they pay attention to in a session. Work out ways to either connect those things to the plot you have, or write some new stuff.

Talk to them after a session, too, find out what they're planning. If they won't say for fear of you foiling it, you have a problem that goes beyond your plot hooks.

Floating Hooks

Got a quest? Got a cool NPC to introduce it? Remember, the NPC only exists when the players know he does. There's no reason he can't change to fit the game. So what if they don't head North to Palestown, you can shift Palestown events to the town they're in.


Leverage your PCs backgrounds. You can have something happen to people they mention, have letters turn up from old friends, or old rivals.

The Time Warp

You are a storyteller, not a chronicler. You can always do a scene about things that happened earlier (heck, with some practice doing future scenes can be fun).

Let them do the Work

But tell them first. The players probably want to wander about bored about as much as you want them to. If you ask who's family crest is on the dagger, they can give a response. You may need to refluff some bits, but it can lead to really good plot. I find, though, that you have to explicit that they have permission to do this.

Show, don't tell

Don't tell them monsters are attacking. Have them attack. Even if it's in the distance, it engages the characters. In a similar vein (which way require a lot of prep, depending on system) you can give them a set of different characters, who then get into a situation they can't get out of. The players tend to engage with this well, for instance "getting even" for a lost combat.

The Last Bit

All these techniques work with the player's buy-in. If they want to tell a story, let them know some of the techniques you'll be using, and that they have a part to play as well. You shouldn't be there to provide player motivation (character motivation, there's an argument), and they should be working with you to create something awesome.

You can't be expected to write an entire world. You can however write enough for them to interact with.


All DMs railroad at first. If you have to do it a bit, do it a bit.

That said... the NPCs are your information dissemination tools. Roleplayers like interactions. Put a over-comical fellow in a tavern who's clearly drowning his sorrows, or a pretty young girl drying her eyes in the woods alone, or a very obvious priest attempting to break into a building with a clear lack of skill and an obvious sense of urgency... PCs can't resist this stuff. I kicked off a major storyline by having an old woman staggering out of her hut, shrieking that her worldly treasures (3 sp and a gold wedding ring) had been stolen. Before it was over, the PCs had foiled a demonic plot to kill a paladin king; but it started with a shrieking old widow in a hut.

Anything that smacks of people in distress, raging angry crowds, sexuality or clearly unnatural behaviour is going to cue player interest. In some ways, DMs have an easy job, because most players really do want to KNOW what's happening.

It doesn't even have to be an NPC. A major plotline in my game, running for years now, started when the players ambled across a lever protrouding from a wall, a lever which had very clearly, long ago, been wrapped in heavy chains and spiked down so it would never move again. It turns out that PCs are natural born lever-pullers.


My group loves an open-world, sandbox kind of game, so many of the games I run to them tend to be very open world, but they do, like you said, get bored just running about aimlessly. I tend to do one of two things.

The first is that I'd prepare a short list of very broad plots based on what I think each one of my players will enjoy. Then I'd introduce them briefly over the course of a session (while at the tavern, you overhear a conversation about the evil necromancer to the west.), and see if they get excited about it. Since the ideas are based on what I know they like, something is likely to catch on, and the players can then pursue it however they like.

They are always free to do what they want with it. They only ever started on the path because they liked it, and they are welcome to go off of it if they so please.

Everyone eventually does something stupid. Simply build on the consequences of your players' actions. If, for instance, they decide to destroy a village of orcs, you can have them be hunted by orcs until they deal with the problem, and let them deal with it. But be sure to think up of a way out, in case they never find anything and have no idea what you want with them.

You can also play on their sense of morality. They might find an orc baby in the burning remains of said village, and will feel obligated to somehow care for it. They might also later discover than no orphanage will accept orcs. And just like that, they start on a quest to find an orphanage who will, a friendly orcish family, an orc-to-human potion, or whatever else they might think of.

Whatever you do, though, be sure to think up of a way of problems you introduce, especially in sandbox games. In my fledgling, I've already had TPKs happen because I haven't, or worse, the players got bored because they had no idea what to do.

Good luck!


By making them an offer they can't refuse.

Paladins, Druids, Clerics and most other alignment or organisation based characters can simply be told that there is a threat to their organisation or alignment that needs stopping and (if the players are roleplaying properly), they should go out to stop it.

For other characters, particularly if they are chaotic neutral, it can be a bit more difficult. Find something that each player/character wants, be it cash, magic items, the promise of land/titles/rank.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be more about the content of the hooks rather than about the way in which the hooks will be introduced to the characters. How will they receive this offer that they can't refuse? \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 23:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon you are right, that is what I meant. Does my question require clarification? \$\endgroup\$
    – derp
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @derp I thought your question was pretty clear. I'd answer it if I had more experience with this. This isn't a bad answer, I just think he's answering a different question. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:05

Well you know what they say about hooks..

Not just anyone is going to bite one. You have to bait the hook. Bait the hook with something they want more than anything, have them each write a list of the top five magic items they would want. And bait them with the allure that in doing something they will gain that reward.


I think this is THE hardest part of any game: where are we? What is there to see? What should we choose to do?

One way of the other, PCs need to start somewhere.

One option is they meet on a trip, such as all traveling on long or short boat ride to some town (where something of interest, a worthless gold mine suddenly has diamonds ...?). Doesn't matter. The PCs are instantly attacked on the boat, and the attackers want them dead for some unknown reason.

The attackers motive could be anything, mistaken identity, one PC is carrying some item and doesn't know it is the Big Flrub, or the attackers think it is the Big Flurb and it isn't, wrong boat, PCs are look alikes for some other NPC group, etc.

This doesn't need to lead to anything, but it gets them asking questions with more than "we gather info ..."

Let them go to the harbor master, police, courts etc. Once there, they hear your 2-4 hooks while finding out why they got attacked. That is the only part you need to plan: how this or that guy reveals your hooks.

Maybe it turns out the NPC attackers knew about these 2-4 cool hook things and wanted to stop the PCs from jumping their claim ... doesn't matter exactly. The attackers may never show up again.

Battle leads to comradeship, especially if people need to band together to stay alive, and it leads to asking a lot of specific questions, that you as DM have answers as related by: NPC police, or the ship's crew, or a message board in town, a sorry widow, a sick Knight, talking wishing well, temple cleric, etc.

Plus, they'll never see this coming. 5 minutes into the game and they are in melee, close to death.


Hand them some rumors on a silver platter.

Set up how they came to appear at the location where the adventures started and how they met. Then, tell them while they were coming to this location (or living there if they did) they heard about these things.

It's as much a part of their backstory as anything else that happened "before" the adventure started.


Why not start them off in the Clerics office?

Most players accept that the DM has put a lot of time and effort into making an adventure so that is what they will be doing. Good players I have had actually appreciate starting the game in a meeting so they don't have to waste 30 minutes of real time finding out what the adventure will be.

In my first ever DM'ing role I had a whole party of adventurers who went out of their to not do the adventure - not because they didn't like me, or the adventure, but purely to frustrate me. I have since learnt that this group is the group from hell and will not play a game the way it is supposed to be played.; avoid them :)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Hi James and welcome to the site. Your answer seems to not answer the question itself. In RPGs there are many-many legitimate styles of playing and GMing and this is one of them. I strongly advise you to read this short guide about how to answer more to the point. I'm sure it will help you answer better and to enjoy far more what we have to offer. Thanks. rpg.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer \$\endgroup\$
    – Yosi
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 12:26
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Your input is appreciated, but part of this question's premise is that the asker does not want to start them in the Cleric's office. If you'd like to clarify or challenge the asker's motivations, that's best done in comments on the question. See this meta question for details. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 21:47

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