Adventure hooks are those little clues that DMs drop here and there to attract characters to particular adventure areas, usually the ones the DM has invested considerable time and energy into detailing. They can take many forms (more on that below), but what’s important is that they tantalize the players enough to whet their appetites for more. Adventure hooks are the carrots that get players to pull the cart of the campaign along a path of the DM’s choosing.
Some DMs are blessed with players who go wherever the DM suggests they go, in accord with an implicit player/DM compact and a great deal of trust that the DM won’t steer them down the broad, straight path to Hell. Other players constantly tug in their own direction, oblivious to the DM’s desires. They might be actively trying to throw the DM off balance or just being contrary.
In an ongoing epic or adventure path, adventure hooks are useful only for the occasional side trek. Players are likely to follow the grand thread closely with or without hooks, because it’s understood that the epic story will fall apart if characters continually veer off the path to loot tombs and pursue their own agendas. As long as the marathon holds their interest, they’ll keep running.
Sandbox games are where hooks really matter. This is especially true if you’re not the type of DM who’s comfortable making up adventures on the spot. Once you’ve invested hours in designing a crumbling city, lost tomb, monster lair, or complex political intrigue, then you want the characters to jump into it. No one likes seeing their effort go to waste.
You can always corner characters into an adventure. That’s what’s happening when the town they’re in suddenly comes under attack, they’re captured by bandits, or they “randomly” pitch their camp on an ancient burial ground. Nothing’s wrong with doing that now and then, but those aren’t adventure hooks. They’re all stick with no carrot.
The key is psychology. You must know what your players want. Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players. No amount of “it’s rumored to contain the key to your unknown past” or “but this was your grandfather’s estate” will draw characters into an adventure that the players have no interest in.
Hundreds of articles have been written about the different types of players and what motivates them, so I won’t delve into that realm except to summarize. The basic themes of RPG adventures are gaining money and power, exploration, mystery, combat, roleplaying, intrigue, and the white knight syndrome (most commonly seen in the hackneyed “the blacksmith’s son has been kidnapped; oh, won’t someone help?” scenario). One or several of those are going to be your players’ favorite—the Scooby snack that they can’t resist.
For a hook to work, it needs to tantalize the players. The thing to avoid is waiting until the end of the previous adventure, and then letting the players know that there’s a dragon to slay in the north, a tomb to sack in the south, and a blacksmith’s son to rescue in the east. Instead, hooks should be scattered liberally through adventures and encounters long before the players or the characters are in a position to jump on them.
For example, while the characters are rescuing the blacksmith’s son from the goblins (who are, by all appearances, inveterate kidnappers), they recover a nonmagical but beautiful medallion from the goblins’ treasure. Later, they see the same symbol painted surreptitiously on the backs of signposts and in alleys, and they encounter a mysterious stranger wearing such a medallion. By the time their favorite innkeeper is killed with a dagger bearing that symbol, they should be curious enough to start digging into its meaning. This is far more effective than summoning characters to the local prefect’s office and hitting them with all this information as exposition in which they have no personal stake.
There’s an even bigger advantage, however, to sprinkling hooks through the campaign well before they can be acted on. The usual sequence is: write adventure; dangle hook; hope players take the bait. By sprinkling small but ever-accumulating hooks through adventures and encounters well before characters are in position to act on them, you can: observe players’ reactions to the different hooks; home in on those that attract the most interest; and only then invest the effort in writing the adventure, knowing that players are almost guaranteed to take the bait when it’s finally offered.
Used this way—before rather than after writing an adventure—hooks can reduce the DM’s workload rather than increasing it.