GM Advice: 10 Awesome Plot Hooks to Start Your Adventure (or Campaign)

You are sitting in a tavern drinking ale when a mysterious stranger approaches your table. He speaks, “I am in need of brave adventurers to complete a dangerous quest; I’ll pay handsomely for your services…”

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Perhaps the most crushingly boring opening to any adventure in the history of gaming, this type of  adventure hook is also one of the most common. These days, it’s used more as a joke or object lesson, but the truth of the matter is that it still crops up from time to time. Perhaps, the PCs are summoned to meet a rich merchant or nobleman who has a problem to solve. Irrespective of where they meet their employer they are still basically meeting a stranger who pays them to do something.

That’s pretty lame.

Instead, consider using one of the hooks below to start your next adventure:

  • Dying Wish: The PCs encounter a dying NPC who begs them to honour his last wish. This NPC could be a stranger or friend.
  • Escape: The PCs have been captured and now must escape. This adventure hook should be used sparingly. Players get very irritated with blatant railroading and this hook also requires them to lose all their equipment (at least temporarily). Players can get very attached to their magic items and often react badly when they are all taken away.
  • Find Plot Hook: The PCs could find an old map or diary detailing a hidden treasure and decide to investigate. Alternatively, they could intercept a message begging for help and decide to intervene.
  • Journey: The PCs must go on a journey – perhaps to their next intended adventure site. Such a journey, if of a decent length, is rarely without incident.
  • Legend Or Rumour: The PCs could discover a tantalising rumour or legend in the course of their adventures and decide to learn more. This hook gives the players the illusion of choice while allowing the GM to foreshadow upcoming events and adventures.
  • Lost: Adventurers spend a fair amount of the time traipsing around the wilderness looking for adventure. If they get lost, they can find adventure, but perhaps not the exact one they were seeking!
  • Man-Made Disaster: A fire rips through a town or a plague has a nation in its savage grip. Both events provide a wealth of unique opportunities for adventure.
  • Mistaken Identity: A PC is mistaken for someone else – perhaps the target of an assassination or kidnap attempt. Alternatively, the PC could be given a message intended for someone else.
  • Natural Disaster: A flood, raging wild fire or earthquake can all spawn the start of a great adventure. Whether they must escape from the disaster or deal with something revealed as a result of the destruction the PCs are sure to remember the ensuing events.
  • Sudden Attack: The PCs are suddenly attacked. This could be a “random” event – perhaps the local goblins have started raiding more frequently – or they could be targeted specifically. (For more fun, combine this with Mistaken Identity).

Help Fellow GMs!

So as you can see, there are loads of different ways to propel the PCs into adventure! Have you used other cool starting hooks not listed above? Please leave them in the comments below and help GM start their adventures without resorting to clichés!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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17 thoughts on “GM Advice: 10 Awesome Plot Hooks to Start Your Adventure (or Campaign)

  1. Always good advice and ideas there to help out with ideas when somebody faces a possible burnout or complete mind wipe.
    One of my faves and staple ideas is…
    You grew up on the farm which is pretty typical but you find your fathers old sword and you start longing for adventure and hearing the bards sing your praise. You pack your few road worthy belongings and trek into town to the nearest tavern to perhaps try your luck finding adventure with other like minded people. You notice by the look of people who seems to be hardened battle crazed folks on the road to recovery and who is just as green as you are. You politely but confidently approach the table with other green horns and ask for a chance to join them for a drink or two. They allow it and you join in the pursuit of eavesdropping on possible adventures and news from outside the town. You look into your tankard and notice its empty… again. You look up to see a grisly man in robes looking disdainfully at you and the bunch at the table and he shrugs and says I suppose you will do.
    He introduces himself and you realize he is the local mage and resides in the tower on the opposing side of town directly across from your farm. He sits and tells you that he has been asked to investigate some dour happenings in the next town over (30 miles minimum) but he is the middle of a major project that he cannot simply walk away from. He is willing to hire you on, outfit you and pay you for your troubles. Your mission is to simply collect information and report back… seems easy enough for starters like yourself so you happily agree not evening caring of the possible danger.

    For added spice I tend to have an NPC in the tavern call out to the mage that it looks like hes got his D-team after all or some letter to denote how many failed missions he has sent out there.

  2. I’ve used the “You’ve been captured and must escape… ” plot hook in the middle of the first Act in a campaign, and have been subject to it as well. It is a good one. The way this Super Hero campaign began though was with the single player stopping bu his brother’s home to find it scorched and his brother missing. Among the clues was a symbol burned into the cement outside of the home. Eventually this lead the player to investigate, as he was emotionally invested to his brother. After a year of playing this as a single player campaign the gaming group expanded and the campaign took many unexpected turns.

  3. Need a plot hook to start a campaign? Watch a movie and transfer it to your Pathfinder game. Even bad movies transfer pretty well with a little help. Example: Old Jamie Foxx movie called Bait. Not a great movie but I admit a guilty pleasure of mine. In the movie, Jamie Foxx gets arrested for stealing shrimp (Prawns!) He gets thrown in the same jail cell as a criminal arrested for a much more serious crime of a major gold theft; gold which he has hidden from the cops and other criminals. When the prisoner dies in jail while under intense questioning, the cop played by David Morse decides to release Jaime Foxx’s character making it look like he knows something about where the gold is, hoping to draw out the mastermind.
    So how does that translate?
    Your party of adventures starts the game out in the city jail! Depending on the makeup of the party they could justly be put into the slammer for a brawl at a local establishment or rounded up as part of the usual suspects (another GREAT movie and also prime for roleplaying adaption). While they are in jail one of the NPC’s gives them a cryptic message before being hauled off by the guards for questioning. Afterwards the head of the city guard releases the party, returning their belongings, and providing them some upgrades, etc. Only now they are secretly followed by the guard while being hunted by the mastermind/thieves guild…oh and that cryptic message? It holds the clue of where the treasure truly lies…

  4. I like to start my adventures off with the characters as slaves or slaves escaping due to a natural disaster (slaver shipwreck is fun). Makes the search for even basic equipment a memorable challenge. Add a slave brand or tattoo and the PCs have a constant plot tie in for random encounters e.g. slave catchers trying to reclaim their lost prizes (imagine the value of an enslaved spell caster) or townsfolk not wanting to help escaped slaves for fear of the authorities. This also gives the PCs a unique reason to amass wealth to have the tattoo or brand removed by magic.

    • I’m currently writing my first adventure as a DM and I plan to use a very similar back story as it pertains to the adventuring crew being slaves and are ultimately rescued (not that they will initially know who they were rescued by) by an old wizard that is, in his later years, trying to stop an evil plot to create a new multi-universe order. The tattoos each party member is adorned with are actually a type of magical GPS so that the wizard can assist in the groups effort, track there progress and whereabouts and contact them as needed. Obviously a lot more to it but I like the way you think, Felix!

  5. Great ideas and inspirations for starting points. Some of these could even be used as the opening scenes for the first adventure! Here’s two examples I’ve used in the past for my most successful games:
    -The Wreck: This was the opening to a Dark Heresy one-off game. The player’s created their characters with only their characteristics and personal information/background. They awoke one by one (based on their initiative) in near darkness, but could see pin points of light all around them. As their eye’s adjusted, they found themselves to be within what appeared to be the crew transport compartment of a Chimera troop transport vehicle, the pinpoints they saw being bullet holes in the hull shining outside light into the vehicle. They had short term amnesia due to the wrecking of their vehicle and being tossed about the compartment, knocking them out. After a brief discussion between them, recovering their gear, and reasessing themselves as to why they were here, they broke out from the vehicle to find themselves in the middle of a wartorn hive city complex being overrun by ork invaders. From then on it was a loosely guided sandbox adventure to complete their mission and find extraction off world to regroup with their Inquisitor.

    -The Coming of Age Trials: Also set within the world of the Dark Heresy RPG, but with a twist. The characters are all apart of a tribe of peoples who are regressed descendants of Imperial void faerers. They live on a Space Hulk (essentailly a conglameration of shipwrecks and planet debris smashed together into a giant lump within the Warp) so large they don’t even realize it is a hulk (or even what a hulk is due to their extreme isolation from the Imperium), and consider the warp anomalies and weird make-up of their world the norm. When they become a certain age, all younger tribal people must make a pilgrimage to a shaman that shows them what their true path in life will be, but they must do so by braving the innumerable and indescribably horrifying dangers of the hulk itself. Few make it to the shaman, even fewer return to the village. But those who do have proven themselves to be the strongest and bravest of their generation, and are sent to guard the tribe from outside dangers and become explorers to wander the hulk in search for new things to help the tribe survive.

  6. Near the conclusion of an adventure a very large man wearing a robe and asks a party member if he is Johnny Rabbit. (He is,) He replies yes. and asks “Why?” The big man replies “Because I must kill you.” Johnny asks “Why?” The big man replies , “Because you will kill my master.” A fight ensues where the big man punches the cleric in the chest staving in his breastplate armor and killing him. While the party’s attacks draw blood it does not seem to bother him. Wisely, they run to their horses and flee to town. (He is an early version of a Terminator. ) { “The first ones were easy to spot, they had rubber skin.” Kyle Reese… “The first ones were easy to spot, they were flesh golems.” Johnny Rabbit } A small 7 foot clay golem with a magic mouth spell and an enchanted gem eye which allows the creator to see and hear through the gem via an enchanted mirror of scrying. The blood comes from several small sack sewn in to the cloak to make him appear human. The group must find a weapon to use against the big man and find the Magic User /cleric who made him. Clues: The big man smells faintly of clay, Edged weapons seem to do no damage, if the blood at the scene is closely examined it is found to be cow’s blood. (Via identify or if brought to a cleric or butcher.) If the group can slay the Golem the Magic User/ Cleric will , in time send a second generation terminator . A Man sized Iron Golem covered by a Flesh Golem. Perhaps with a gem eye containing a soul trapped NPC to guide it. The Magic User/ Cleric has determined via scrying or consulting demons that Johnny Rabbit will kill him in the future and he means to prevent this at all costs!

  7. In the latest campaign that I started goblins have infested the sewers and are becoming a serious nuisance. I gave the players two options. Either their character has been sentenced to community service after being caught committing a minor crime, or they are a member of the city watch who is on a commander’s sh*t list. Two went with option one, and two went with option two. After coming up with their own reasons for being in trouble, the campaign began in the office of a city watch sergeant who assigned the group goblin extermination duty in the sewers.

    The group dynamic is great so far. One city watch officer is in trouble because of his gambling problem, and the other because he questions authority too freely. One of the characters that is serving community service is doing so because he was arrested for stealing a fish to eat, the other because he was caught doing some “creative” accounting. The animosity between the characters that existed at the beginning of the adventure has begun to disappear after they saved each others’ lives numerous times fighting goblins and cultists below the city.

    If interested, this game is being recorded and published as an actual-play podcast: Pathgrinders: 3 Die Deep. It’s a spinoff of my other show, Douglas and Dragons.
    https://douglasanddragons.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/pathgrinders-3-die-deep/

  8. Nice list! Another that I like is The Curse. One of the adventurers received a cursed item that leads the party on adventure to break it. This usually involves discovering the source of the curse and rectifying the reason it was originally cast. The item might have come from an inheritance or inadvertently bought from a merchant, who may it may not have known the item was cursed.

  9. I began a campaign with the players on the road to a town. They came across a wagon by the side of the road with two statues of human peasants, the recent victims of a wandering basilisk who had since gone on its way. They soon discovered that a baby was still alive, laying just beneath the arms of the protective mother who had been turned to stone.

    And so the debate and moral dilemma began, with the players unsure of what to do. How do we care for a baby? Where do we take it? Perhaps there is family nearby? What if people think we just abducted it?

    • Perhaps the child was bitten/swallowed some basilisk spit rather than be “looked at”. As it grows up, it has a flesh-to-stone-like ability when it gets angry, as well as developing a liking for scaly creatures. This eventually draws the attention of a snake worshiping cult, and then the yuan-ti, or perhaps two factions of warring medusae, one that thinks the child is a prophet to be protected, the other thinking it an abomination. At some point, an evil opponent of the yuan-ti/medusae comes forward as it sees the PCs as “the enemy of my enemy” and wants to join forces with the party. This attracts emissaries of the non-evil party cleric or paladin who confront them for consorting with despicable foes, finally becoming fed up with the party’s actions and supporting the cleric/paladin’s expulsion from the church and therefore access to spells. As a final point, a wicked uncle appears and wants the child back so he can loan it to a disreputable arcane research centre/trap-producing thieves’ guild he belongs to. So, they then have a developing child with growing pains and a vicious spell-like ability, two factions of similar a type that are fighting over the child, an evil ally, a same-deity now haranguing them, plus possibly only low-level healing spells at their disposal AND a leading light of a less-than-open guild to deal with. And all for helping a small baby at the side of the road…

  10. How about this? A group of PCs find themselves hanging from chains in a cylindrical stone tower with putrid water rising to engulf them. Their memory has been temporarily wiped due to something they shouldn’t have consumed. All their gear is gone as well (in a room nearby). A mysterious gnome dangles from the chains while laughing at the PCs. She’ll eventually pick their locks and beckon them to follow her through a dark passage while goblins begin launching arrows at them from above.