Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.
Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players
A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.”
Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.
In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.
In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.
Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D. For example, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a megadungeon similar to those that D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax imagined for their first campaigns. But when I ran it, the paladin types kept wondering why they bothered with Undermountain. A mere search for fortune failed to motivate them; they wanted to become heroes. As the delve continued, I sought ways to add heroic missions.
Vicarious wealth and glory make a solid appeal to players, but curiosity can grab players emotions even more. Most D&D games tease a little curiosity with questions like, “What waits under Skull Mountain.” Especially compelling hooks make players ask, “How can this be so?” Television shows like Lost build mysteries that hook viewers who crave explanations.
Missing the hook
Some adventures risk only hooking one character type. Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the characters nearing a town under attack by a dragon and an army—foes that add up to near certain death to a 1st-level character. The adventure depends on new characters charging into the town, so it demands heroes willing to ignore impossible odds to do good. If everyone makes a paladin type, the start works. Of course, the rogues and the sensible characters probably tag along because their players came to play D&D, but their players feel the dissonance of making their characters do things they really wouldn’t. A broader hook might add rumors of a wagon load of treasure in the town. Movies like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999) work from a premise like this.
Alternately, the characters could start the campaign knowing they must play do-gooders. Hoard includes an appendix listing character backgrounds that bring them into the adventure. D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “Ultimately the Tyranny of Dragons storyline is a heroic one. The characters get into it because they’re heroes.”
Even adventures that start with an appeal to every character can run short of interest for one type, usually the rogues.
An adventure like Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus can switch goals. At the start, the characters just aim to thwart some evil cultists. The opening hook brings both a payment that appeals to the rogues and a chance to smite evil for the paladins, so it works for both character types. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to hell. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.”
Nonetheless, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along. Perhaps the expert role players invent a new goal that fits their character. Maybe they go for the sake of their friendship with the team. Maybe, like Han Solo, they go because they discover an unfamiliar desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the player does a bit of improvised world building by imagining a legend of treasure in Avernus. Most likely, the rogues just ignore the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t.
As the goals of an adventure change, the hooks still need to appeal to the entire party.
None of these missed hooks make the adventures I cited bad. I rate Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the best megadungeon to ever appear in print. Merric ranks Tyranny of Dragons as fifth edition’s best hardcover adventure. DMs grow accustomed to tinkering with hooks—many would consider such adjustments mandatory. After all, every adventure deserves a strong start.
Next: The D&D adventures that falter by letting the hooks stop in the first scene.
I see your point. I recently started running the classic Dragonlance campaign for a group of newbies to Krynn. They wanted to generate their own characters, rather than assuming the roles of those in the stories. I repeatedly had to stress that they needed to come up with characters that would be heroes, altruists, defending the people, righting wrongs and bashing bad guys. I had to privately remind players that this or that section of their background or motivation needed to be tweaked to fit the role of hero. Their natural inclination was to slide down a slippery slope into a “Me Generation” outlook.
On the other hand, your comment about having a “Han Solo” moment partway through a campaign is also valid. Because it’s a group game, and we came to play D&D, and for Pete’s sake, don’t give me some “my character wouldn’t care about this” crap. Because responsibility for making sure we all have fun falls EQUALLY upon both players and DM. Just make it work. DMs, lay out what you want to present. Players, accept that or make alternate suggestions, then generate characters that you will put through that adventure.
Narcissism isn’t welcome.
I remember early on in the 5e era, reading a play-through or summary of Tyranny. That opening, where (at least in the first edition of it) PCs were supposed to die, put me off all official 5e adventures, permanently.
That’s pretty close minded, but okay. Supposed to die was usually the beginning of all old school scenario, wether or not whomever survived is completely up to play style isn’t it? I almost exclusively run from classic modules in 5e, they take what used to be fourth level and extend it from first to fifth, that’s not a radical departure, it’s a different approach. If you want to drop characters the old gygaxian deviously run tactical gambits all work just fine. The spells are rolled back from their exploitable 3.x style to something more toned down and precise from 2nd edition. Magic items can be non-existent. Even the rest system can be tweaked to 1 a week and requiring a full camp (read player characters must all have lots of heavy and expensive equipment) to do so. Short rests can be bumped up to a full day. It can be more punishing than standard 3nd edition if you wanted to try it.
I know rogues who would give a lot to go to hell. The power, the deals, the treasure.
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I think it sells Tyranny of Dragons a bit short to say that it just expects characters to be heroic. The suggested adventure hooks they threw actually contain a bit of diversity; and while some definitely imply heroism, there are alternative reasons to get involved in the campaign – primarily motivations to want vengeance against the Cult of the Dragon. One of them strongly implies the character is evil.
With the right group, those short little throwaway hooks actually seed the potential for all sorts of interesting interactions (assuming each is given a different hook). They suggest a potentially uneasy alliance between people with a shared goal but very different reasons for following it. And their individual goals might clash with the best interests of the party. One of the hooks names an NPC the player wants to kill; yet when you meet said NPC the party is probably trying to be incognito and is better off avoiding a fight. Another makes a character a childhood friend of an NPC who will likely try to deceive and betray them.