Old Stuff – Hooks, lines and secrets

This one first published on Troll in the Corner on 11th October 2011, my first post there.

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting a lot more involved with my fantasy campaign setting project, working title Kingsmead. (Now known as the Old Crown)
Getting into the setting meant thinking about the tools that a GM uses to set his scenes and engage his players, especially with my need to run a few playtests of various bits and pieces. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about my own take on the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is the idea in writing that if things come in threes then the reader more readily consumes it, and this is for some reason more satisfying.
I then fiddle it to apply to the writer as well. I’ve found that using the Rule of Three really helps to effectively flesh out the my ideas quickly and effectively, and gives me an easy framework to write around.

Most elements that I add to the story, setting, adventure and so on carry with them three parts of information in three categories – hooks, secrets, or lines of description.

Lines of description can be told freely to players, describing physical features or characters or buildings. They can be three adjectives to describe a character’s personality or specific feel of a scene as a shorthand for the GM, or they can be important facts that everyone would know such as the teachings of a particularly popular deity.

Ulf Hunter is an older man with cropped grey hair and the build of a bear. Everyone in town refers to him as ‘Pa Hunter’ or ‘Old Man Hunter’. He is boisterous, loud, sometimes grumpy.

Hooks are what we can hang story on or that quests can arise from. The setting itself has plot hooks, the various locations have them, even specific buildings. Most named characters have either three plot hooks or an elaborate hook that covers three smaller points. Any of these can be dropped into the players laps as rumours or passing conversations, for a callback later if needed.

Ulf used to be an adventurer decades ago, along with his wife and brother. He is sometimes found late at night or early in the morning passed out drunk on the temple steps. He blames himself for his son’s accident a few years ago.

Secrets are much the same as plot hooks, but requires some digging or chance encounters by the players to uncover. This requires the players’ input on many levels, as I try and make the secrets slightly less detailed (group storytelling being what I love).
If a player happens to be in a certain place at a certain time, they learn the edge of the secret, and it then becomes more of a plot hook. Having the players have a secret of their own also adds to this, when coupled with a character background that I can lift a couple of ideas to become plot hooks – if and when the player notices!

Ulf used to be very religious, pledging to a martial religious order. He is celebrated in the bard song ‘Ulfrik and Therese’, along with his wife. Told his son he threw his old sword down the well shortly before the boy’s accident.

The combination of the different levels of secrecy is what I think makes the technique effective, and I’m really looking forward to running a full game and finding out reasons my players think he gave up his religious calling and adventuring life.

(Note – no one has ever found it out in any playtests, but it’s fun to have it there in case they do.)

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