With one-shots, it’s all about getting players into the action. Fast. This means the RPG & D&D adventure hooks must be even clearer and more compelling than in a full campaign. After all, there’s no time to debate the issue – you’ve only got 2-5 hours for your adventure!
So, once you’ve built your villain and figured out your initial setting, it’s time to combine those elements into irresistible plot hooks!
When your players enter the story, there’s already something wrong – the villain is already active and causing havoc. The villain’s actions will have effects and consequences; some intentional and others incidental. These effects create a trail of breadcrumbs to lure your players into your story.
You should have a list of these effects as part of your one-shot planning. Now, you need to introduce these effects (clues!) to the players. Often this is by way of NPCs in the starting location, who are affected by the villain’s actions. These NPCs take on the role of typical quest-givers, but they don’t necessarily know who the villain is, or what they’re planning – only the effect the villain’s actions have had on their daily life.
Consider the specific place where the players will start. Who will they meet there, and what do those NPCs know? How will you show the players that something seems amiss? Having these details prepared will ensure players get immersed quickly. And sticking to those details will help you avoid unnecessary improvisation which could slow momentum, or send players in the wrong direction. After all, every GM has had a party fixate on some throwaway detail they believe is a crucial clue. If that happens, be ready to gently redirect them.
Here are some tips for creating RPG and D&D adventure hooks for your one-shot:
Make the hooks personal. Players should feel they have a stake in the adventure’s outcome. For example, they could be motivated by a personal vendetta against the villain, or eager to earn a faction’s respect as part of their character arcs. Making the quest-giver NPC likable is another key factor – players are less likely to help an NPC they don’t connect to, sympathize with, or trust.
Make the hooks urgent. Players should feel they need to act quickly to resolve the conflict. For example, the villain could be on the verge of completing their plan, or the effects of the villain’s plan might already be dire – and getting worse fast. Cosmic events (3 days to the full moon) can be helpful here too, but must be foreshadowed clearly.
Make the hooks interesting. Players should be intrigued by the adventure and want to learn more. For example, the villain could be a figure cloaked in myth and legend, or the effects of their plan could be unexpected and unique.
Serve various motivations with your hook. For some characters (and their players!) simply presenting them with the hook is not enough. They need a good reason to get involved! Whether it’s money, equipment, reputation or information, make sure there’s at least one (and possibly several) clear benefits from accepting the quest, to entice reluctant characters to say yes.
Here are some examples of adventure hooks:
- Players are hired by a mysterious stranger to investigate a series of strange disappearances.
- Players are tasked with finding a powerful, stolen artifact before it falls into the wrong hands.
- Players learn of experiments carried out on NPCs by a powerful wizard, intent on destroying the world.
- Players are asked to investigate the source of a mysterious illness, drought or weather pattern.
- Players receive evidence of a coup attempt, secret weapon or double-agent in the government.
- A series of disastrous omens hints that an ancient threat, long believed vanquished, has returned.
- Players discover evidence of enemy forces amassing for invasion on their borders.
- Players find out that a powerful NPC is not who they claim to be, or is behaving strangely.
- A mysterious phenomena is causing NPCs consternation, but the town guard is unwilling to investigate it.
You can see the basic structure of these plot hooks reveals the adventure:
PARTY learns of EFFECT, which (after INVESTIGATION) leads them to VILLAIN.
That’s a pretty clear plot line and for new GMs, it should be easy to follow. You can spice it up with intriguing locations and fascinating NPCs, and you’re in for a great adventure. For old hands, or those who want to extend your one-shot into an adventure, you can even present the party with several EFFECTS (maybe from different NPCs) which, when combined, lead to the villain.
By following these tips, you can create adventure hooks that draw your players into your story and keep them engaged. If you’d like even more resources on plot hooks in your RPG campaigns, we’ve got you covered! This article covers how to use monsters as plot hooks. Learn how to make a quest board. And if you’re starting with the classic “you meet in a tavern”, here are some tips for creating a D&D tavern.
💡Itching to get started? Download this printable one-shot worksheet created by our founder, professional game designer Janet Forbes.
🛠️Looking for a complete DM/GM toolset, compatible with over 40+ RPG systems, including D&D 5e, Pathfinder, and Call of Cthulu? Create a free World Anvil account.
co-written by Janet Forbes & Kat French