Baiting adventure hooks

When you dangle a quest in front of players, you can these types of bait to get them to bite the quest hook. Another way of looking at it is that you (or an NPC) is persuading the party into an action. The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided the means of persuasion, into three categories:Ethos (aka credibility), Pathos (like empathy), Logos (aka logic).

Here, we will mainly look at Pathos, since credibility and Logic aren’t terribly useful for telling a good story/compelling adventurers.

from the articles above:

Pathos is “pathetic appeal”. Not pathetic in the way we understand it today. Rather, it is “suffering, feeling, emotion, calamity.” English words like sympathy, empathy, apathy are derived from pathos. Pathos is used by the speaker to appeal to the audience’s emotions, build a common bond through a shared identity, and inspire action.

Aristotle suggests there are seven emotions and their opposites that you can tap into:

  • anger and calmness;
  • friendship and enmity;
  • fear and confidence;
  • shame and shamelessness;
  • kindness and unkindness;
  • pity and indignation;
  • envy and emulation.

Pathos as a means of persuasion in D&D storytelling falls into 5 broad categories that I can think of. I’ll list them in order of utility for D&D here:

  • Love for NPCs to be saved (Empathy, Sympathy)
  • Greed or wanting power, money (Hunger)
  • Hate or revenge against a wrongdoer (Enmity)
  • Curiosity or wanting to know a secret, or know what will happen next (Intrigue)
  • Fear or wanting to get away from a place or thing (Danger)

A note on utility: I ranked these forces for how easy they are to employ (to motivate players). Love and Greed are safe, easy, and effective bait. To utilize hate, you have to kind of build up hate-able bad guys, which takes time, and if the bad-guy is defeated, you have to start all over again. Sympathy can be made for an NPC, and then the heroes can save them more than once. Defeating the same bad-guy repeatedly breaks realism. Describing evil deeds and how it hurts people around the party or the party can also upset players, so be sensitive. Curiosity is a somewhat weaker force since players may seek what they think they need (power) before what they want (knowledge) You can get around that by setting up the knowledge to be very powerful before they gain the knowledge (seek ye the prophecy detailing how the evil is defeated, or all hope is lost yada-yada). Note that each of these 5 motivators reset to 0 motivation when the players achieve that current goal of saving the NPC for love, getting the dragon’s gold for greed, killing the badguy, finding the secret out, or escaping to sanctuary. Even though these 5 goals immediately drop to 0, the party will have other things they want to do, like spending their wealth, using their new knowledge, etc. You can use that time to start building the next motivator for the next quest. Note that you can sometimes recycle the same hatable badguys a little by having players kill grunts first, then guard captains, then lieutenants, then generals, then the badguy. One sympathetic good guy can be saved repeatedly, but that can get old. Really any of these can get old if the story is the same each time, so just make a new story and mix your motivations a little if it feels repetitive. In reality, that happens on its own as long as the quest is different. The important thing is to think about what motivation are going to be in the next quest and how to ham it up a bit.

Sympathy, make the NPC they’re helping be in dire need, and have them be sympathetic. The player should feel the NPC’s pain, danger, loss, fears, and desires as much as possible. Maximize the danger to the NPC, while making the danger tolerable to the heroes. Maximize the connection they feel to the NPC. An example is to have the village blacksmith help the party re-shoe the paladin’s horse, then that evening at the inn, the same blacksmith that they already connected with can rush into the common room of the tavern asking for help, “the goblins took my girl!”. If the the goblins are evil and will hurt the innocent/helpless boy or girl, the party may feel sorry for them and try to help them out.

Targeting your sympathetic connection to your audience:
You can change the victim to match what your players love most. Some stereotypes to get you started:

  • Children love saving small furry animals.
  • Parents love saving children, parents of children, and families.
  • Teenagers might fall for an every-man character that made a reasonable but unfortunate choice.
  • All of the above 3 examples are instances where the player sees something they like about themselves reflected in an NPC, and they want to protect it. Look into your players and identify what they like about themselves, then insert that into your sympathetic NPC that needs saving. Helping these types of people makes your players feel good, and that is a good thing we can use to make the game more fun for them.

Just as you match bait to a fish, match quest-bait to your players.

More generic tips not targeted to a group:

  • A friend that was already kind to the players with aid or friendship.
  • Helpless & innocent characters.
  • Good people who were selfless or brave but got into too much trouble helping another NPC other than themselves. Altruists.
Greed, AKA “Enlightened self-interest”. Let the party know that going on the adventure will make them rich.
  • In ‘The Hobbit’, the dwarves were hunting for Smaug’s treasure.
  • In treasure island, well, treasure island. Same for The Maltese Falcon.
  • Some players view greed or the search for power as a vehicle to help them unlock the rest of the story. That type of greed is almost like the Curiosity motivator. These players may reason “we can’t beat the boss till level 20, and if we level up faster we get to see the story faster” or “If we die in combat, we lose the story stuff so let’s become immortal.”

An easy way to encourage Greed is to reward money/gold whenever the players loot the bodies of the fallen enemies, this is a type of positive reinforcement. Make it easy for them to spend the money between sessions. Money that they can’t spend will only motivate for so long. One problem with money is you have to make shops. But you can skip that and exclusively give exp, or magic items, or just let the story be advanced. Or give some other reward like access to an area they normally can’t reach. Like in pokemon when you finally get a bike, or getting a horse in D&D or in FF7 when you get chocobos or an airship. Or by helping some dwarves with killing a giant, the dwarves can now give the party a heavy discount on crafting the mithril sword of dragon-slaying they need to defeat the dragon. Sometimes one reward can be exchanged for a different one.

  • wealth (gold coins, credits, black market points, tokens, etc)
  • combat power (exp/items)
  • non-combat utility (a new mode of travel, or set of tools, or non-combat magic item)
  • a status perk (notoriety) that will have unknown effects later on.
Enmity or revenge, Making an enemy loathsome can push players to violence. Letting loose all the frustration and anger from real life in a safe place can be cathartic. Find out what makes your players hate people, then give those qualities to the Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal’s troops/leaders/captains/the B.B.E.G. themself. Find what the players love and have the badguy try to take it. If the players like their wealth, have the badguy take it from them. If your players hate waiting in line at the DMV/office/having their time wasted, make the enemy a bureaucrat. If the good guys love an NPC, have the BBEG kill that NPC. If the players love a place, have the BBEG burn it to the ground in the most horrifying way you can (maximize the sense of loss, but don’t be a dick about it. Be sensitive to your players. Playing D&D should not upset people, but it can be a place of healing or catharsis  if done right.)
Curiosity, Intrigue, or “If you do the quest you find out about the secret lore”. To really intrigue players, try putting something incomprehensible in front of them, but hint at a way they could try to figure it out. As a player I often find that I don’t really care about the dungeon crawl (traps, opening doors) as much as I do that there is a story to find out about. For that reason I don’t like randomly generated dungeons or Monty-Hall dungeons. Some players really like that but not myself when I play as a player.
Fear, or the urge to ‘Escape hell’. Being stuck somewhere you hate and having to do something heroic/adventurous to get out. Escaping the underdark, the plane of fire, the abyss, etc. Getting away from the rampaging army of the orc warlord, or getting away from that rampaging horde while also protecting the sympathetic NPC that you met along the way (which is harder but more heroic!) Note that heroes don’t run from danger all the time, but the players might just want to leave the dungeon so they can heal up in safety, spend loot on upgrades to their weapons and armor, etc.
Completionism is not an emotion, so as a motivator it is terribly weak compared to the others above and doesn’t really exist in D&D if you have a living/realistic world. completionism/100% completion of a game is something that happens in video games, not in real life
Combining the bait above: Most quests will combine 2 or more of the above motivators. Here are some examples I’ve spotted from sessions I ran before writing this post.
I once let my players through a one-way portal, into an open field near an ancient looking temple. When they looked up, they could see their home continent above them as if they were looking down from the moon, but much much closer. None of them had ever seen this place when they looked up from back home. They didn’t know what it was, or where, or when. They immediately started looking for a way back home, for information, and for the lore of the place. The fear of being stranded, separated from their friends and homes (the NPCs that they built connections to) pushed them to get home, which meant discovering where they were. The Curiosity to learn what the heck was going on also pushed them towards the quest area. Greed is always a bit of a motivator in my games since I’m careful to always include a bit of loot/exp/treasure or some other reward.
The city of Quarm has been invaded, the populace is being taxed into poverty, and those who cannot pay the tax are sent as slaves to the slave market to pay their debt. The party has seen the wretched conditions in the slave market (always hit the players over the head with how bad the plight is for the NPCs) The city guards (who were soldiers of the invading army) tried to extort a helpless shopkeeper, threatening to enslave the shopkeeper if they could not pay a made-up tax. When the party tried to intervene and persuade the guards to leaving them alone, the guards made up a “smart mouth tax” to extort the party out of their hard-earned gold pieces.
I was overjoyed to see my most pacifistic player lose his shit and start howling for their blood. He lost his shit because that session combined Sympathy for a very helpless person with Greed (protecting the party gold) and Hatred, so the players were invested and believed in the story. They later were ecstatic to go against the big bad who was responsible.
To maximize the 3 motivations present that were used to encourage violence against the BBEG:
  • Love: The shopkeeper was as sympathetic and helpless as I could make them (she talked about how her father owned the shop and now she is alone caring for her younger brother because her father was enslaved for not paying the high taxes). The conditions in the slave market (where that shopkeeper was going to be sent) were as bad as I could describe.
  • Hate: The extorting, bullying, evil guards were as cruel, heartless, confrontational and rude as I could make them. As soon as the players (very reasonably and politely started talking to them, one guard said to the captain “Hey cap isn’t there a smart mouth tax these guys need to pay?” When the guards tried to take wealth from the party, it immediately triggered Hate in a personal way.
  • Greed: Learning that the BBEG had looted the countries’ treasury and they were inside the castle meant the party knew there was loot to be gained by bringing justice to them. When the guards tried to mug the players, it made their greed immediately seek to protect their current wealth.
Extra credit: Matt Coleville touches on greed and sympathetic NPCs when he talks about hooking adventurers in this “running the game” episode 2 and a little at the beginning of episode 3

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