4d20 Adventure Hooks & How To Use Them

I was going to make a list of adventure hooks to steal, but I decided to delay it. It needed a preface. Adventure hooks are the sort of thing that never get good explanations in guides for aspiring dungeon masters, so I’m going to try my hand at it.


Ivan Aivazovsky - Constantinople




PART I - WHAT'S AN ADVENTURE HOOK?

Most adventure hooks have three major components:

1. Context.
2. Conflict.
3. Reward.

"Because of CONTEXT we know that there's adventure here, and if we solve CONFLICT then we get REWARD." 

PART II - CONTEXT

This refers to the manner in which the hook is baited. It's:

a. The seedy tavern where rumors of a slumbering monster persist.
b. The blind beggar who knows how to (safely) get into the boarded-up house on the edge of town. 
c. The hushed looks that locals give one another when anyone passing through town asks about the strange castle on the hill. 

Context is king when it comes to baiting a good hook. You may have the best adventure planned out, but if it doesn’t immediately catch the ear when it first hits the table then players might put it aside with the other hooks that they intend to pass up on.

PART III - CONFLICT

This is the central problem from which a hook dangles:

a. The slumbering monster demands the sacrifice of children every new year or else it will destroy the village.
b. The boarded-up house is protected by deadly traps and no creditor has seen the eccentric owner in weeks.
c. The strange castle is inhabited by both a sadistic baron and a sorcerous vizier that the locals greatly fear.

All of these give your hook some zest. Conflict, whatever form it may take, is inherently human. It occurs naturally and begs an answer. If an adventure has no conflict, it lacks bite; It has less power. 

PART IV - REWARD

a. The monster sleeps atop a pile of gold.
b. The eccentric deathtrap owner borrowed a pile of gold and never spent it.
c. The cruel baron taxed imports and exports in his realm which resulted in a pile of gold.

Piles of gold are the standard treasure in most games. Alternatives do exist, of course; powerful kings will bestow titles, wizards may create magical items, beggars may be angels in disguise that dispense blessings, strange women in ponds may hand out legitimacy in sword form, creditors can forgive debts. When picking a reward, just remember that it must be enticing. No adventurer wants to spend three sessions mucking about a damp cave only to find out the real treasure was friendship all along. 

PART V - QUALITY HOOKS?

As always, remember that this isn’t a law. You don’t need a quality adventure hook every time. Plenty of good quests can come about from something as simple as stumbling across a deserted village or finding a lost treasure map. A hook may be missing some aspect of my tripartite schematic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad for the game. 

A good example of an incomplete adventure hook is native to the Hexcrawl Campaign. This style of game is a crutch for hooks - the act of travel between point A and point B may result is adventure hooks springing from the ground fully born. You don’t need pre-existing conflict in order to make a floating, dilapidated castle in the middle of a forest enticing to players. The context comes baked into the encounter with such a castle (you stumble across it while travelling) and though there’s no promise of treasure, it’s an implication of the setting.

The entire point of the three-part system is that it makes you consider which elements you’re going to use and which you’re going to omit. The simple act of planning makes hooks stronger as you familiarize yourself with them ahead of time. Having good hooks helps transition from one adventure to the next smoothly and swiftly. They also help you tie together multiple adventures and present various adventures at once to select from.

PART VI - WHEN PLAYERS GO FISHING

It is important to understand the structure of an adventure hook because players will often create their own - knowingly or otherwise. Rolls on a carousing table often lead to adventure hooks, as will the ideas and plots of adventurers who want to create their own mischief. How many thieves want to burgle a mansion, how many clerics seek to aid the local church, how many wizards wish to discover strange magics - so on and so forth.

It helps to be prepared for such impromptu adventures. There’s no need to be paralyzed when a player declares that they wish to seek out such adventure. Simply say that you need to consult your notes, pick an adventure hook that seems suitable for the situation and work it into the game as a result of the player's actions. 

PART VII - HOW TO TIE THE DOUBLE SURGEON'S LOOP

Everything prior to this was an explanation of adventure hooks. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the question. Now it’s time to try and shed some light on the ‘how’ of things; a good knot to bind things together and ensure that it isn’t all going to come apart after you’ve cast your line.

Consider the context of your game, the conflict you have in mind and the gold at the end of the tunnel.

If you want your game to be about then pick hooks that are focused on
Exploration Getting your players to see the world
Story Recurring NPCs, player character plots
Combat Monstrous threats that require violence to solve
Dungeoncrawls The contents of those strange and deadly places

These are just general suggestions, places to start from and not a hard rule. This all seems like it should be self-explanatory; from my personal anecdotes regarding the tabletop scene at large, the basics of writing adventures, stories and hooks are not something that ever gets introduced properly to would-be dungeonmasters. A lot of DMs who run their own campaign do the following:

Sit down. Make up a dungeon or an adventure locale. Fill out a few hexes. Check your random encounter tables. Scribble on some grid paper. 

And then come time for the session, they half-ass the hook. They spend anywhere from 15 minutes to 6 hours a week working on material, and the DMs I know like to spend that time writing the meaty content. The dungeons, traps, monsters, encounters, treasure. They gloss over the question “How do I get my players to that cool content?” until the session has already started. They’ll nudge the players in the right direction or drop them in front of it with a wave of the hand, and as a result the journey to the adventure is the weakest part of said adventure.

So, you hopefully have a few hooks by now that fit what you’re looking for and you’re ready for some surprises. You have an adventure all cooked up and the big, shiny, well-baited hook for it dangling in front of the players. And then they manage to walk around it without ever seeing the glimmer of barbed metal or the delicious flesh of the worm that you’ve impaled.

The players miss the hook entirely - maybe they kill someone you had in mind to deliver it, or they throw out the book that had a treasure map tucked between the pages. What now?

Well, hopefully before the session started you planned for this. It’s important to plant hooks for your adventures in multiple places. If your players miss the single hook you planted for your cool adventure, remember that you aren’t limited to a single hook. You can give the players more than a single lead to the same adventure as well - multiple approaches to the same problem can result in very different, and very interesting experiences.

This suggestion is to ensure that you doesn’t rely entirely on a single hook. By framing the same conflict differently, you can learn which approach catches the eye of your players. This is useful information, because it means you can learn and adjust your later plans to reflect this knowledge.

PART VIII - REEL IT IN

In conclusion:
1. Context, Conflict, Reward.
2. Design adventure hooks BEFORE the session starts.
3. Design adventure hooks that fit the tone of the game you WANT to run.
4. Have them written somewhere you can easily grab more, when need be.
5. Sometimes your players are going to make their own hooks. Let them.
6. Plan for your players to miss your hooks.

PARTY IX - STORE BOUGHT BAIT

The key to using someone else’s content is to know when you can and can’t use it as-written. Oftentimes, it won’t fit the world you’ve already established, and that’s fine. The entire point is to give you some inspiration. Steal bits and pieces that appeal to you, apply them where you see fit - especially with any hook that involves a named NPC. If you already have someone you’ve introduced that could play that role, use them instead of introducing a newcomer.

Crib stuff you like, but remember to make it your own. This is especially necessary if it’s a plot from popular media like movies, comics, or video games. There’s no shame in running a campaign where every plot hook and adventure locale is ripped straight from a blockbuster tale that your players have seen, but make sure it isn’t immediately obvious. You can use a little less discretion with hooks from blog posts like this because honestly, what are the chances your players read this unless you shared it with them?

Ivan Aivazovsky - Night Constantinople

Exploration
  1. Overnight, someone has carved a huge, cryptic treasure map in the side of the local governor’s estate - a dire warning is scrawled underneath it.
  2. Rumors surface about a tower that rose from the sea, and how the village near to it was swallowed by angry waves.
  3. Strange lights shine from a nearby hillock, luring people away from their homes never to be seen again. Something out there is beckoning, promising treasure and glory to those who make the sojourn to that desolate hilltop.
  4. Pale, nervous merchants carrying sacks of precious gemstones have been buying up all the provisions they can get their hands on and taking them into the nearby forest. Some of the men whisper that they are being forced to build a temple.
  5. A sinkhole has opened up in the middle of a nearby trading post and the money-lender’s vault was sucked into the bowels of the planet. Everyone is far too frightened of the howls coming up from that hole to retrieve the treasure.
  6. Giant owls have been leaving the forest, and a few have stopped briefly in town. They speak the language of men and mention a circle of stones in those gloomy woods.
  7. Escaped slaves wander into town. One of them has a map carved into the flesh of his back that details a solitary fortress only a few days travel away - that is the place where they were being forced to dig.
  8. Astrologers and wise men are travelling to some distant frontier town, following the trail of a holy star. They are hiring anyone with a weapon to accompany them on this perilous journey.
  9. An old sailor refuses to stop telling the same story to any who will listen: about a strange tunnel in the middle of the sea that leads down to some subnautical realm.
  10. Tentacled horrors have dragged the King’s daughter off into a chasm that opened up in his castle overnight. There is a bounty on her safe return, and on each of the creature’s gemstone-encrusted head.
  11. Something has unleashed the mountain floodwaters, and the rivers all run rampant. Odd creatures are washing down from the mountains and hills, along with oddly-shaped silver coins.
  12. A cartographer has passed away and his strange sea charts are being auctioned off to pay his debts. They detail a fabulous island as well as the map-maker’s plans to retrieve a treasure he stored there.
  13. The lonely castle on the black hills are aswarm with whippoorwills, signalling the death of its owner. No one is there to guard its cursed treasure, or so the locals say.
  14. A graverobber is found strangled, half-buried in freshly-dug soil. He carries a solid gold pendant, dragged up from that realm where dead men sleep and ancient bones occasionally stir.
  15. Merchants and travellers speak of a strange sight out in the dunes - a recent windstorm has revealed a city once thought lost forever to fate’s whims, those sand-filled halls are still filled with unclaimed treasure.
  16. The duke’s men are recruiting brave souls to breach a cursed door found in the local regent’s cellar. They know not what lies behind it, save for the inhuman gibbering heard every hour or so on the other side of those grey timbers.
  17. The bloodthorn-thicket resounds with wicked chanting and ominous drums. A knight-commander decked in splendid armor and wielding a holy spear went to investigate, and has not been seen since. 
  18. A snowstorm kicked up out of season and out of nowhere, blanketing the nearby forest in that blinding white powder. Something dwells there now, and the landscape seems to be changing more each day.
  19. The old well on the edge of town has finally fallen in on itself, revealing the remnants of an old cave system and the glimmer of golden coins buried there ages ago for safekeeping.
  20. Great black monoliths have erupted from the nearby marsh and the animals now betray some dire intellect. Locals have gone missing and predatory priests want the strange objects brought out of the swamp so they might be worshiped properly.

Story

  1. Good King Harold has sent word to other realms seeking the aid of strong, cunning or wise fellows who can rid his land of a great archfiend that plagues it with temptations of power and wealth.
  2. Al Azar the Illusionist has located the lost tome of a long-dead lich and has begun to recruit dungeon-delvers to retrieve it for him from the ancient tomb of the moth-eaten monster.
  3. The court of nymphs have left their secluded grove to seek out good-hearted fellows who might help them. They seek to plant the seed of a great world-tree in the heart of a desolate wasteland, and replenish nature there.
  4. Adam de la Halle, newly-created vampire and son of a dishonored nobleman seeks to reclaim his family’s honor along with his ancestral estate by whatever means necessary.
  5. A letter from one of the player-character’s cousins arrives; they beg them to return home, for some tragedy has just unfolded.
  6. On the same night that the party enters a new town, a local authority figure is assassinated and the newcomers are implicated.
  7. A crazed man with an impressive telescope attempts to recruit the party to help him investigate aliens that once abducted him.
  8. Elle the Wicked seeks adventurers to help her collect arcane trinkets for a demon summoning ritual.
  9. A widow wants someone to help her avenge her husband’s murder at the hands of a corrupt order of knights.
  10. Strange shapes from beyond the stars descend during an eclipse and seek out individuals who exist at the fringes of society to aid their bizarre quest.
  11. The high cultist of a dead god seeks out those who tithe and offer prayers in exchange for the promise of some dark gift.
  12. Illlithids are in search of morally dubious adventurers to help them acquire human slaves. They offer magic items and wealth to any who aid them.
  13. The Queen of Moths has taken up residence in an abandoned mansion and wishes to hire adventurers to capture her escaped worshippers.
  14. An old knight seeks heroes to help him slay his ancient foe in a final act before he passes on. The great faceless wolf of the winter vale begins to howl as their conflict looms on the horizon.
  15. Archmage Zalathar placed his soul inside of a raven before his body passed away and now spends his days sharing his secret knowledge and gossip with the magically-inclined.
  16. Courtiers from the Palace of Green Waters invite the party to a gala in honor of some recent deed that nobody could have witnessed.
  17. Knight-Captain Winslow seeks out hired blades for a peacekeeping mission to a bordertown plagued by strange and powerful bandits.
  18. Barbarians from the southern realms have arrived, looking to sell their services on the cheap as they grow accustomed to this new land.
  19. A silversmith in search of rare reagents wants to accompany adventurers into an abandoned mine for a fabled ore deposit that was abandoned by the former owners.
  20. Drugdealers from the Black Quarters are hiring bounty-hunters to kill their competitors, torch drug-dens and steal everything that isn’t bolted down to send a message.

Combat

  1. Knight-Captain Winslow seeks out hired blades to help him put down a river troll that has been raiding nearby townships.
  2. The Psionic Order of Future Events (P.O.F.E.) sends summons to the party and asks them to pre-emptively slay a man who will become a dark wizard.
  3. The crawling eye-beasts of the southern fen are destroying frontier-towns. Their eyestalks are highly-valued by soothsayers and wicked priests.
  4. The horned witches of Antioch send word to the party - they require killers-for-hire who will not question their task in exchange for precious gemstones.
  5. The Mad Knights of the Black Citadel have been raiding the surrounding lands, dragging back all sorts of treasure to their mountain fortress. Many lords wish them dead.
  6. The cyclopean daggermaws have descended from the kniferidges and with their deadly talons eviscerated the poor inhabitants of ill-fated Porgrin. A few treasure hunting scavengers have already perished in that deadly ghost town.
  7. Sharkmen from the bloody reefs have been launching raids on port cities all along the coast, collecting slaves and other booty to drag back to their underwater lairs. 
  8. Gaunt creatures wielding sharp hooks on long chains have been skulking in the darkness of nearby cities and dragging victims from their houses in the dead of night. Bounties for the monsters continue to increase.
  9. Skeletons have been crawling out of the family crypt-mansion of the house D’Artali. A hefty bounty has been posted for anyone willing to put down the restless bones of those ancestors and ensure that the holy relics are all accounted for.
  10. Magma specters are roaring forth from the depths of a deep dwarven foundry. They are disrupting work, and many smiths are willing to pay handsomely for their pulsing diamond hearts.
  11. Giant sand beetles from the blasted wastes are weaving their silver strands in intricate structures as they construct new hives dangerously close to civilization.
  12. Leviathan, that mother of all monsters, has birthed another great serpent that is slowly travelling upriver from the great western reservoir. It’s presence is ruining every coastal city it passes by.
  13. Elves from the deep vale have returned to collect an overwhelming debt owed by the humans of Ninteor Vale twelve generations ago. The lords are hurriedly gathering skilled warriors to repel the force.
  14. Thirsting for blood, a swarm of neophytic vampires have begun to stalk the nobility of the river-city Vantr. The bluebloods are offering good coin for the extermination of these creatures.
  15. Consumed by spore-madness, an entire village has come under the thrall of the fungus people that live beneath their well. Merchants and travellers alike are at risk when they travel near the blighted place.
  16. Creatures made of raw lightning prowl the countryside as a cataclysmic storm rages. They leave behind streaks of strange gemstone in the bolt-stricken earth.
  17. The Seventh Leper legion has taken up arms against their oppressors. Those silent warriors in their bronze armor strike fear into all as they march through the townships.
  18. The alchemist’s forbidden techniques have brought to life a massive puddle of sentient gold. Barely containing the creature in their deep library, those incompetent sages seek its removal.
  19. Long nights give way to dark delights - a pair of seductive devils roam the city. They slay the nobility and pilfer the corpses of all beauty. These ill-gotten gains are in high demand, along with the heads of the thieves.
  20. Hulking, mutant bears have been taking vengeance on the woodcutters and foresters of the region, and many a wizard wishes to study their prismatic pelts.

Dungeoncrawls

  1. The crypt of Naz’thala the Immutable has been uncovered in the salt marshes. Its darkened halls are lit by sapphire lanterns and the eerie chords of some strange harp resound from the shattered entrance.
  2. Forgotten within the abandoned temple that once belonged to the dwarven god of  Volcanoes, a golden spear has begun to call out to worthy warriors, hoping that someone might use it once more in the fight against wickedness.
  3. The sunken city of Atlantis has begun to rise once more, and seaweed encrusted buildings can be seen off the coast. Bioluminescent plants guide the way, and the wreckage of many ships mark that foul city’s main port.
  4. During the full moon, an overwhelming tall tower perpetually shrouded by dense fog can be spotted. The siren song of a lyre is said to lure travellers in the area to that foreboding structure. 
  5. The dwarven necropolis rests half-buried in the hot sands of the magnetic zone. Its sandstone halls hold the mummified remains of every notable dwarf that ever struck a pick within the planet’s embrace.
  6. The deathly corridors of the grand necromantic chapel are filled to the brim with corpses. Every custodian in that place is given a candle in order to speak with those ancient spirits.
  7. Fields of tulips hide the strange, twisting labyrinth under the floral plains. Its colorful twists and turns are filled with a lovely, soft scent. Something deep within pumps out that enticing aroma, tempting foolhardy adventurers.
  8. Towering fungi create a dense canopy, and the gentle but unyielding rains of the mushroom forest loosen the soil. Whenever a downfall comes, hidden passages made of mycelium and gold dust appear.
  9. The windy canyons of the northern barrier hills are as alluring as they are dangerous. The tempestuous gales that tear through the landscape eventually descend into ancient, man-made tunnels. Where they carry the gales is a mystery.
  10. Galled by the hubris of mankind, the low king Baranza created an ever-shifting labyrinth beneath his kingdom that is designed to trap and kill would-be adventurers. He stocked it with the most fabulous goods he could find, and spread word of the challenge to the nine corners of the world.
  11. The silver gleam of the Winter Elves’ palace shines only on the darkest solstice of the year. When snow blankets the world, it is said that travellers might find that bizarre capitol, dead and waiting to be pilfered.
  12. An obelisk found on the lonely shore is all that remains of old Lemuria. The ruins have been swallowed up long ago by the land but that stone monolith serves as a gateway to an earlier time.
  13. Far atop the needlepoint mountains, a shimmering tower of rainbows can be seen floating in the sky. Brave travellers who find a way to that floating fortress often return laden with platinum coins and wondrous garments.
  14. The wide plains of Ilthamatar hide the lair of the archlich Granpellara. His undead legion is slowly amassing in the winding barrow-tunnels, and the emperor of the wild elves that live in that region hate him for it.
  15. The purple jungles of half-tattered Mongolia serve as the deadly entrance to the great Gate of the Heavens. Beyond that strange portcullis rests the house of the gods and all of the angelic hosts.
  16. The great Cistern beneath the Black Moon Ruins call to those who seek lost items. Everything abandoned or forgotten eventually finds its way to that strange place, and many attempt to delve those impossibly deep halls at least once.
  17. The ancient divination school of Crystal Hall has long been abandoned. The towering library and queer dome are now inhabited by ravenous beasts from a timestream unknown to any living souls.
  18. Far and few between are the adventurers willing to venture into the blackthorn bramble. The hulking man who dwells there has slaughtered many trespassers; their blood and bodies serves as fertilizer for the intelligent plants.
  19. The eternal sleeper rests on a stone slab in the Odeon Temple. The occasional pilgrim steps into his timeless dreams, but few return from that grim sojourn.
  20. The slime pits of old Antioch are a treacherous and deadly delve, but the fact that the grey oozes of that land refuse to eat silver or gold means that an inordinate amount of treasure has amassed in the depths of those sewers.


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