Ok, I touched upon this yesterday in the footnotes, but I want to call it out here. This is an incredibly useful trick, and it’s one that every GM should keep in hand if they want to make adventures or introduce game elements that are really going to resonate with the players and their characters, even if they give you only one or two things to work with.
Most characters have hooks, interesting elements about them which carry some emotional or behavioral load. They hate orcs. They drink a lot. They have sworn an oath to avenge their father. Whatever. To a GM, these things are pure gold, because they represent a laundry list of cool things that make a game go. The problem is that the list often seems kind of short. If every character has only one or two such hooks, that may end up seeming like a pretty anemic list once it’s spread out over the length of a campaign.
Not so fast. With the right approach, even one or two hooks can be turned into an absolute smorgasbord of elements n a game that directly engage the characters without simply repeating the same handful of plots. The trick, to put it simply, is this:
Don’t tie things to the character, tie them to the things tied to the character.
Ok, that may not make much sense without context, but give me a minute here. Let’s take a sample character, Anna, who has only two hooks – she’s a terrible skirt (pants?) chaser, and she wants to be the king’s Master at Arms someday. If you were to only use those things, then you’d have exactly two plots: The guy she’s sleeping with, and the mission for the king that will get her the position. Sure, you could stretch them out into chains – there might be a series of lovers, or it might be a sequence of missions before the title is rewarded, but that’s pretty much. This is all you have to work with.
But what if, instead, you never touch the obvious things? What if, instead, you presume those things to be givens, and instead focus on other things that connect it into it. Thus, even if we never focus on an individual lover, we might well run into:
- The jilted, vengeful other lover looking for revenge
- The wife of your last conquest
- The partner who gets too enamored and asks his family for permission to marry you. They are not amused
- The partner who signed her name on his debts. His bad debts.
- The pimp, who feels you misunderstood the situation.
Similarly, the route to the Master of Arms office is almost certainly dotted with:
- Other potential contenders for the position about to improve their standing
- People who would be happy to have the future master at arms owe them a favor
- People who might have the king’s ear who want things.
- Alternative (and very sweet) job offers
Even with just this off the cuff list, you now have enough seeds to keep the character engaged for dozens of sessions. And that’s with some very shallow hooks – your players have likely been much more creative.
The trick is to find the thing important to the character, then find the things that resonate with that. Not only do you multiply the number of play opportunities for a single hook, you keep that hook from feeling overused, even if it comes up constantly. Where a string of lovers in trouble might get repetitious, the people connected to those lovers are vastly more varied.
Anyway, it’s a small trick, but when I’m stumped, I find it’s a very useful one.
1 – And like all good tricks, it’s utterly obvious once you see it.
2- A similar technique makes for a fast and dirty way to make memorable NPCs. Take an element from one of the players and reflect it in an obvious fashion. If one player was a soldier, make him a soldier on the other side. If one player likes to drink, make him a drunk. Something that seems like an entirely obvious GM trick to elicit sympathy.
Then reflect it again. Discard the first value and use this new one. Instead of being a soldier, he had a brother in the war. He used to drink but is better now. Whatever. Suddenly it’s a lot less contrived, but there’s that root of commonality to give their interaction some resonance.