So, lately, on the internet I've been hearing a lot about plot hooks and whether or not they work. Also, many people have been discussing whether a game that lets the PCs do whatever they want, without any overarching plot, is unsustainable and cannot go on for a long time.
Is there something in the middle? The problem with plot hooks is that if characters do not take the plot hooks, the overarching plot does not affect a particular session of a campaign. However, if plot is too overarching, no matter what the PCs do, your players will feel as if they have no control over the story or their character's fate. Here's a few tips for a GM who wants to find the middle here:
1. Doing nothing is a choice too. If your PCs choose to ignore a plot hook, make that relevant to a campaign. Are NPCs fighting, but your PCs refuse to get involved? Perhaps both sides now think that your PCs are on their side, setting up for a larger conflict later. Did your PCs run away from an important battle? Perhaps they develop a reputation of being a group of cowards later on.
2. The PCs live in world that is moving around them anyway. Sometimes, in large campaigns, PCs aren't the center of the entire universe. This can be okay, as long as they still have the power to affect change and influence their own stories. They don't have to be the ones who save the world all the time. Your PCs don't stop the apocalypse from happening? Okay, then it happens. The story moves on. And now they have to deal with a post-apocalyptic world. The world and story doesn't have to stop.
3. NPCs are characters too. This is the one I've been playing with most in my current game. I stick villain NPCs in situations and just see how PCs react to them. I play NPCs as characters, playing out interactions with important characters as often as I can, and shift motives of villains based on sessions.
4. This one's the hardest to achieve but: Make everything plot-relevant. This is easiest to achieve in a high stakes game, such as something where the goal is for the PCs to save the world. If the bomb's going off in 5 minutes unless they disarm it, up the stakes. Set a time limit. Have a point where a villain initiates combat. That flower arranging your PC was doing will be relevant if villain notices your PC likes working with floral arrangements, so arranges to pass secret messages with an accomplice via floral arrangements coming in and out of your PCs office. Or the floral arrangement becomes a metaphor for the PC's emotional life, with flowers being shifted out and re-arranged, or ignored, to reflect the withering or blossoming of that character's soul.
Remember, not all sessions have to be plot relevant either. As long as it fits within the world, it's furthering plot. Character development and experiences will change your game anyway, whether or not they hit the plot you want them to hit.
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