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I hear the term "plot hook" a lot, but I've never understood exactly what it means. I thought it was a method for introducing the player characters to an adventure, but the term doesn't seem to be used that way. Take, for example, this list of plot hooks on Reddit. I see in this list things that seem to serve completely different purposes, but are all called plot hooks. For example:

  • A way the player's are introduced to a conflict, while leaving the exact nature of the conflict open for the DM to fill in.

    A farmer passing by tells of a nearby villages that have been struck with plague.

  • A description of a status quo, without any mention of how to involve the players.

    A shipwreck on a nearby coast is swarming with orc raiders.

  • A description of a scene that is just about to play itself out.

    2 paladins have met in a field, each with a second, and a herald, to fight a duel of honor.

  • A story element the DM could introduce into the players' lives that would encourage stories emerging naturally during normal play.

    The party finds a fully charged (100 uses) Wand of Wonder. It cannot be thrown away, and compels the user to point the wand and shout the command word ("SHICKETYSHAK!") every time the owner enters combat or the boundaries of a village, town or city. Once 100 charges have been expended, the Wand teleports 100 miles away, and fully recharges.

Etc.

Anecdotally, I've also had at least one DM use the term "plot hook" to describe a plot device that moved a character to the place where the adventure was taking place in a coherent way.

Player: I have my character's backstory, but I'm not sure why they would end up on the same island as the rest of the party.

DM: Don't worry about it. I've got a plot hook for you for when we start playing.

DM: [At the beginning of the game] You receive a letter from an old colleague of yours. In it, he invites you to a weekend at his estate. You were never very close with him, but you always knew he came from wealth, and his estate sounds very luxurious. What do you do?

With so many various things that serve such wildly different purposes, I'm left confused as to what it is that actually constitutes a plot hook. Some of the things on this list sound like the start of adventures before the players enter, some of them sound like ways to get the players to enter any potential adventure, and some of them sound like things for the DM to do to the players, independent of actually tying an adventure to that action. All useful things for a DM, to be sure, but with wildly different motivations behind them.

So, what gives? What is the actual definition of a plot hook? For bonus points, are the items on this list actually plot hooks, or just various things that might inspire a DM?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd love to tell you what a plot hook is, but unfortunately some goblins stole my Almanac of Gaming Terminology. They live in that cave outside of town; perhaps you could fetch it for me and I'll look up what that term means? \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Aug 16 '16 at 8:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't your example definition of "A story element the DM could introduce into the players' lives that would encourage stories emerging naturally during normal play" cover all of the other examples as well? \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Strand Aug 16 '16 at 20:42
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This blog defines a plot hook as:

an in-game element that inspires a strong motivation to pursue a course of action that furthers the plot or enriches a narrative in a game.

Which sounds about right to me.

All of what you listed are plot hooks. They are in-game elements (events, info, whatever) that inspire (or at least, attempt to) the PCs to take some action to keep the game narrative going.

  • Nearby villages have been struck with plague - Depending on the party, they'll either want to avoid the area or try and find a cure. Either way leads to plot development. Quest for a cure, or plague continuing to spread and cause problems.
  • A shipwreck swarming with orc raiders - Orcs are (usually) evil (and are worth XP). And the ship is probably full of treasure. Let's go get them!
  • Two paladins are fighting a duel of honour - What would cause two icons of Good to fight? Some sort of evil magic, or just a severe difference of opinion? Sounds like a mystery to be solved.
  • A cursed Wand of Wonder - All sorts of random chaos to make the party's lives "interesting". This is probably the least plot-hook-y. But it may inspire the PCs to try and remove the curse, which could lead to a quest.
  • You're invited to your rich friend's estate (where you'll just happen to meet the rest of the PCs) - Your character now has a reason to be in the same location as the rest of the party, so they can join up (and then another plot hook can get them going on an adventure).
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    \$\begingroup\$ May be worth mentioning it's a fishing metaphor? And the metaphor extends further: not every hook will lure every fish (player), and not every hook is necessarily even good at its job. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 16 '16 at 4:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the definition, though the examples are more like the bait than the hook. The hooks for the first two might be: PC priest's order is accused of causing the plague; on board the shipwreck there is a letter warning of great danger to the party's homeland. Both tie in to the party's own motivations and pull them into the adventure. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyrus Aug 16 '16 at 10:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ This definition seems excellent, and the source equally so. I think the duel and the wand are not particularly plot-hook-y (also an excellent term, thanks), since I don't think paladins fighting each other is enough to inspire strong motivation to pursue any specific course of action, though that certainly would depend on the group dynamics. I think @Cyrus statement that many of these examples are more like bait is spot on. This list of plot hooks may be a little cluttered, but now the definition of the term is very clear to me. Thanks much :) \$\endgroup\$ – Sardonic Aug 16 '16 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardonic What is and isn't a good plot hook depends on who you're trying to hook. I've had some players who'd definitely be drawn in by that duel, either to mediate the dispute or to take advantage of the eventual loser - and that cursed wand would immediately inspire them to get rid of the wand and/or look for a way to keep the wand after the hundred charges are used up. Conversely, I've players who'd just move away from a plague for fear that it's catching. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Aug 17 '16 at 5:31
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Don't get all esoteric about it; its a two word English phrase and the definitions of the words give you pretty much all you need:

plot the main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence: "the plot consists almost entirely of a man and woman falling in love"

hook a piece of metal or other hard material curved or bent back at an angle, for catching hold of or hanging things on: "a picture hook"

Obviously, the hook part is being used metaphorically. Together they are a device for the GM to:

  1. hang the story on, or (simultaneously or alternatively)
  2. catch the players into the story.

In the first meaning it is the really, really bare bones of the plot - "Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath a silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason." Douglas Adams The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In this example, the rest of the story could be about why the moon exploded.

The second meaning is a way of engaging the player's and (ideally) the character's interest in the plot - why they care enough about the boy, the girl or the moon to get off their asses and do something about it.

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A plot hook is a fishing metaphor.

When fishing, you attach a hook to a line, and you throw it out in the water. Often you put something tasty or tempting near the hook.

If the fish bites the hook, you reel the fish in up the line.

A plot hook is attached to a plot line. The DM throws the plot hook out into the game universe with something tasty or tempting near the hook.

If the characters bite the hook, the DM reels the characters down the plot line.

A plot hook gets a character (or group) started down the line of a plot. The characters are usually free to ignore the plot hook, and they can often even escape the plot line after they bite the hook.

But once the characters are hooked, there are lots of methods to keep the characters on the plot line. The DM can make following the plot line a natural one. Or the DM could railroad the players. Or once the players taste the plot line and choose to walk away, the DM could abandon it. Or the DM could make the plot line evolve in the background, dropping hints that might hook the characters back onto the plot line.

In short, how do you get a fish onto a fishing line? With a fishing hook.

How do you get a PC onto a plot line? With a plot hook.

The hook part is not usually described as DM facing, but rather character facing. The DM is the fisher in the analogy, typically, while the characters are the fish.

Now, an author could fish for DM plotlines by laying plot hooks in front of the DM and seeing if the DM bites, but that is not the most typical use of the term. Naked plot hooks (without a plot line attached) are not fishing for the DM bites, but rather for the DM to attach a line to them then fish with them.

The key part of the term plot hook is that it is attached to a plot line, and it gets the target started down it by enticing them on it.

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A plot hook is merely a way of engaging players in the plot. All of the examples you've listed at perfectly reasonable plot hooks. While plot hooks can and are often used to start a story, they'll often appear in the middle of a campaign as well. They're a useful tool to keep the players in the thick of things (which is where all the fun happens after all), and it's important to tailor your hooks for you particular players. Joe might not be interested in a pile of gold coins in a sunken ship, but if you let slip that there was a powerful wizard who died in the wreck he might want to find that wizard's spell book.

Keep in mind that unless the DM is particularly heavy handed with his plot, there is usually the option for the players to ignore a plot hook completely. They could choose to leave without engaging the dueling paladins, to let the plague run its course, or to merely tell a nearby official about the Orc raids. Sometimes players will be disinterested, have other priorities, or simply not realize the hook is there at all.

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They all can be narrative hooks (which is an alternative term covering your "method for introducing the player characters to an adventure" definition of plot hook). A "narrative hook" hooks the reader into the narrative. They've been divorced from the rest of the narrative, so what they're actually serving as here is an inspiration for the GM to write a plot[*], which eventually will use that briefly-described event or scenario as its hook.

You'd be in the same quandary if GM's were given inspiration in the form of a dénouement: "the ship hits rocks, everyone drowns, and orc raiders swarm over the wreckage". You'd think that's not a dénouement because there's no conflict or question for it to resolve, and no tension to release. But it's a proposed dénouement to whatever the GM invents. Of course there are very good reasons not to plan RPG sessions from the end.

So if you like, they will be plot hooks once there is a plot, and once the protagonists are present or become aware of them. But currently they're "plot ideas", they aren't yet capable of hooking anyone. They're all things that, if they happened in front of the PCs, would be expected to serve as plot hooks.

I suggest that's why we're calling them that, but it's interesting that Harry Johnston's answer shows a different interpretation of "plot hook" not quite analogous to "narrative hook".

[*] or in the case of the Wand to generate hi-jinks that may or may not form a sufficiently connected narrative to really deserve the name "plot" as such. An improvised narrative may or may not have a plot when it starts, and there's no shame in an RPG session not having one, but we still habitually call the sequence of events "the plot" even if it turns out they have no connection other than occurring in order.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Huge +1 for giving me the term "narrative hook" to describe what I thought plot hooks were. Extremely helpful answer all around, and serves as an excellent supplement to Adaptus'. Thanks very much :) \$\endgroup\$ – Sardonic Aug 16 '16 at 16:40
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Just as a coat hook is something upon which you hang a coat, a plot hook is something, anything, upon which you hang a plot.

That covers a wide range of possibilities:

  • A way the players are introduced to a conflict - plots are often based around conflicts, so such a plot hook might represent a potential plotline that the players can (or must) follow up on, or a background plotline that won't directly involve the players for the time being.

  • A description of a status quo - applicable when the situation being described either offers an opportunity for a simple adventure plot (as described in Adeptus's answer) or might represent the start of a larger plotline, e.g., perhaps the ship was carrying a powerful magical item that the Orcs will make use of, or perhaps they have taken a politically significant hostage .

  • A description of a scene that is just about to play itself out. - the scene in question will undoubtedly have a plot, so that's sufficient in itself to describe the introduction as a plot hook; of course, the scene might also introduce or be a part of a larger plotline.

  • A story element the DM could introduce into the players' lives that would encourage stories emerging naturally during normal play. - you could hang lots of plots on the hook given in your example. :-)

  • a device that moved a character to the place where the adventure was taking place - here the adventure (aka plot) depends upon the device; if the player doesn't choose to take the plot off the metaphorical hook and put it on, the adventure won't take place (or at least, that player won't be part of it).

Anything which either supports an existing plotline, presents a new plotline for the players to consider taking up, provides opportunities for future plotlines, or even just introduces a plotline that the players aren't (as of yet) directly involved in, can be sensibly referred to as a plot hook.


For completeness, note that a plot hook can also be anything that attempts to "hook" the players on the plot. One might argue that some of the examples you gave fit better into that category, but there is a considerable overlap.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting analogy! I didn't think of hooks as something to "hang" the plot on, but to "grab" the players. Overall, though, this definition seems a little too broad to be very useful. Almost anything happening in the game could be a plot hook, then, including actions the player's take, which really doesn't match up with my intuition of what plot hooks are. Thanks for the contribution! \$\endgroup\$ – Sardonic Aug 16 '16 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardonic: that's not unreasonable, it is clear from the other answers that the latter definition is the more common interpretation. :-) For what it's worth though, my definition isn't quite that broad - it has to be something that plays a significant role, it has to be introduced with the specific intention of hanging a plot on it, and IMO it has to be intended to further your plot rather than someone else's, so that would exclude the player's actions except perhaps in some of the less structured roleplaying games. \$\endgroup\$ – Harry Johnston Aug 16 '16 at 20:58
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A plot hook is a type of plot device unique to the narrative medium of Role Playing Games, and appears in video RPGs just as frequently. The purpose of a plot hook is to engage the player in a given narrative, thus allowing it to be played out. Such a plot device is not necessary in other media, such as literature or film, as those media do not incorporate the audience as an active component- they are rather passively absorbing the story.

There are a few ways to think about plot hooks, and the style in which they are used depends a lot on the style of the GM in how they construct their campaigns, and the kind of story they plan to tell.

A GM who is running a more free-form or sandbox style campaign will likely use plot hooks that act kind of like fish hooks. The GM is placing lures throughout the local environment to attract, and possibly "hook" the players into the story they want to tell. In the absolute most free-form of play, (while still allowing for a specific narrative, as opposed to an emergent one) the GM may actually have multiple stories laying around the world, each with their own set of plot hooks to try and grab the players' attentions.

A GM who is running a more traditional, or formal campaign structure, (either linear or branching) will likely treat plot hooks as major narrative moments. Turning points, if you will, which define the direction and tone of the adventure. In this sense, they're kind of like a coat hook- they're an important, stationary point from which the plot literally hangs. In this sense, the plot hooks are used to keep the adventure on track. When done very well, this method allows players great freedom in activity of play, significantly reducing the extent of invisible walls employed by the GM, allowing substantially more inventive improvisational play, and even incentivising creative workarounds of the main challenges, while still giving the GM a series of clear "waypoints" to direct the effects of their actions towards, thereby ensuring meaningful progression. Done poorly, this results in a style of play called "railroading" where the GM denies and prevents any activity which does not follow their plot hooks directly as planned.

These two methods can be, and often are, mixed.

For example, a game may be a sandbox full of "quest-giver" type plot hooks, but each of those initial hooks engage the player in a more traditional campaign structure composed of stationary hooks to tell their separate stories. The narrative between these separate stories then uses the world-sandbox as a way to segue from one adventure to the next in a seamless, believable way, sustaining the willing suspension of disbelief.

Plot hooks can work on different scales as well. While the players are carrying out a campaign, there may be smaller side-quests or side-stories playing out in the background, each composed of their own hooks to initiate and sustain them. Additionally, each adventure the players participate in may be, itself, a single massive plot hook in a much grander, overarching narrative, sometimes called a story arch or metaplot.

Finally, plot hooks can be used to tell stories that have already happened, such as major historical moments in the setting which lead up to the current situation. This can be done by exposing the players to subjects and situations in the current setting which clearly exemplify their cause, or explicitly state a piece of that prologue. It would then be up to the players to remember these points and sort them out chronologically to learn what actually happened in the past.

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Plot hooks come in a wie array of looks, but all serve only one purpose: to get the players to start what the GM wants, the adventure he prepared.

I think the term comes from fishing, where 'to hook' can also mean to have a fish on the hook, or it is just the metal object that is used to hold pictures (or catch fish). In either way, the symolic here is easy and your plot hook only needs to serve its purpose: get the players to the plot, either because they bite it (and get dragged by the following events) or by them looking at the picture of Adventure the GM wants to do with them.

Now, as we have what a plot hook is, what can he be like?! I say manyfold! It is hard to tell what the plot hook for each group needs to look like, for each adventure, because there are many types of games and playstyles, that all require different hooks. But you could roughly categorize them.

  • Interaction

Interaction hooks are when the players have to interact with the NPCs to get the clues about adventure. They might hear rumors, they might be searched for illegal goods or they might get an invitation - all these things can lead to the trail of adventure.

  • Status Quo

Just describing the player the Status Quo might suffice to make them act. Like describing the fate of the city slaves, the hungry eyes of the farmers' children or the war going on in the east all might soften their hearts so they spring to help.

  • Research

If the players are more proactive, they might have agendas upon themselves. Maybe the Paladin wants to free his childhood friend from the claws of an evil overlord, maybe the mage wants the secret of a long lost spell or the thief wants to steal the crown jewels. If they have such agendas and actively use time between adventures to research in those directions: GREAT! A GM can bait them then with some tiny bit of information and possibly more if they investigate/follow the adventure he has prepared anyway!

  • Struck with it

Some groups like it, others hate it, but it is still a valid hook type: Forcing the hook into the players group by making escape from the adventure impossible. Some of theese are "you all awaken in the same room" or "You all get arrested/captured" and so on. More subtle is the variant of this hook that is often used at convention groups: "You all have met and agreed to go to (insert place here) in order to (insert action here)". They are often crude, but they serve the purpose, and they are often really effective.

Regarding the hooks you have presented us above, the farmer is interaction, the orc raiders could be status quo or being struck with it, depending on where the players are. The paladins are again an interaction, and if the players want to investigate, then the GM got them hooked. The Wand looks like a "Struck with it" that might turn to become a research one for later adventures. And the last example is simply an interaction hook via letter.

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A plot hook is presented after some world building, when the action starts, so that the readers/players get very engaged with the forthcoming action.

Think of the point in a story where you get 'hooked.' It is meant to create the feeling of 'I must know what happens next.'

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