Tag Archives: leads

How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded

Everyone giving Dungeons & Dragons advice tells dungeon masters how to start an adventure with a hook. This includes me, last week. That advice usually stops after the first hook, and it shouldn’t. Sure, adventures that lure characters into the unknown seeking treasure only need one hook. But just about every adventure with a more complicated premise serves hooks from start to finish. Those hooks offer choices and lure characters along a course that shapes into a story.

The hooks that come after an adventure’s start often go by names like clues, secrets, or leads. In earlier posts, I favored the term “leads” because the word matches one essential purpose: Leads reveal ways for the characters to reach a goal. (If the idea of leads seems unclear, see instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.) The word “hook” emphasizes a second essential: Hooks entice players to chase a particular goal.

By either name, hooks and leads must accomplish two things: They entice characters to pursue a goal and they reveal ways to reach that goal. Skipping one of those parts causes adventures to stumble.

Leads point a direction, but sometimes they still need to sell a new goal.

When an adventure needs to point characters toward a new goal, the leads need to sell that new goal. Many adventures fail to close the sale. Most often, an adventure starts with a promise of gold, and then presumes that a band that may only include murderous treasure hunters will happily switch to, say, battling princes of elemental evil—for free.

My last post describes how Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus attempts this sort of flip. The opening hook appeals both to the treasure hunters and the do-gooders. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to Hell for the slimmest chance of rescuing a damned city. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.” Still, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along.

In an adventure like this, either the dungeon master or the players can rethink the party’s motivations, smoothing the rough patch. Often, no one does. Many longtime players face such situations often enough to feel numb to the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t do just to keep playing. The rest feel railroaded.

Hooks sell a goal, but they need to offer a sensible direction too.

When an adventure runs short of hooks or leads, everyone notices. The party gets stuck and the DM finds a way to drop new clues. The adventure may stall, but the obvious trouble invites a solution.

Imagine trying to start an adventure by only revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location. That tidbit would only leave players waiting for more, because without any clues, the incomplete hook rates as backstory. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. Number 2 rarely gets discussed because DMs seldom botch it. At the start of a scenario, no DM dangles a hook that lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal.

The more insidious problem appears when an adventure offers clues that don’t seem to lead closer to the goal. The players see a lead, but no reason to follow it. Few players want to derail an adventure that plainly offers a direction, so the players dutifully follow the lead while ignoring that dissonance that comes from doing things just because the DM pointed the way. Following an apparently useless lead makes players feel confused at best, railroaded at worst. To the DM, the adventure seems to run smoothly, so the problem goes unnoticed by the person who could have corrected it.

Descent Into Avernus suffers from this trouble. (This discussion includes spoilers, but hardly more than the adventure’s title.) D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “The trip to Hell offers no reason for the characters to believe they can improve things. You stopped a threat to Baldur’s Gate. Why now to Avernus?

“‘If the characters think they have any chance to rescue Elturel, Liara strongly urges them to pursue that quest.’ That’s why the PCs descend into Avernus. Not great, huh? Why do the PCs think they have a chance?”

Game designer Justin Alexander is more blunt. He explains how Descent Into Avernus keeps asking players to follow directions just because they lead to more D&D. “The entire campaign is just this one structure repeated infinitely: A non-player character tells you where to go, you go there, and then find another NPC who tells you where to go.” This pattern works when the NPC’s directions show a way closer to the goal. The leads in Avernus fail that standard. “The problem is that the designers aren’t designing a situation. They aren’t thinking of the game world as a real place.

“Why does the adventure assume the characters will simply plane shift to Hell without having any reason for doing so? Because an NPC told them to! Why not also have the NPC give them a coherent reason? Because it doesn’t matter!”

The design only aims to route players from scene to scene. In play, the party sees a lead that they know the adventure expects them to follow, so they do. To the DM, the adventure appears to work, but unless players feel numb to dutifully playing DM Simon says, they feel railroaded.

Alternately, when hooks clearly point characters toward their goals, even linear adventures, even railroads, can work magic.

“A good railroad, at a certain level, is like a good magic trick: The players won’t really believe that magic is real, but a good magic trick will let them suspend disbelief just long enough to be amazed. The most important technique for the railroaded scenario is to frame the meaningful choices in such a way that the players legitimately want to make the predetermined choice.” writes Justin Alexander.

“The GM never forces a card on them. In the end, they do the magic trick to themselves. When a railroaded scenario pulls this off, the suspension of disbelief is perfect: Players never feel as if they were forced to do something. They’re able to remain completely immersed in their characters, feeling as if the world is unfolding in direct response to their actions.”

In a successful narrative adventure, the DM keeps laying track by dropping hooks. Each one shows a course that brings the characters closer to their goal, so the players willingly choose to follow. 

Good hooks power meaningful choices even better than linear scenarios. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

As for Descent Into Avernus, the adventure brings evocative locations and vivid characters to an unforgettable journey through Hell. Your heroes get to adventure in Hell! Fixing the weak connections merits a bit of creative work. For ideas, see Merric Blackman’s account of running the campaign, Justin Alexander’s Remixing Avernus, and my own post Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures.

Related: Why Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying) took years to leave the dungeon.

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.