How to Deal with Unresolved Plot Hooks in an RPG
Nothing is worse than spending hours creating an interesting dungeon and having your players never touch it. While you can always stow it away for another campaign it’s still a tad disappointing if you’ve put a ton of effort into it. What could you have done differently with this unresolved plot hook to make it more enticing?
It’s frustrating when your players seem to avoid a great story you prepared. Especially if this idea was one you spent a ton of time expanding upon and creating. Objectively though, you have to sit back and understand why this went untouched and what can you do about it.
One of my favorite things about Apocalypse World is that unresolved plot hooks are a staple mechanic for the GM is expected to use. Since my group began playing Apocalypse World on a semi-regular basis I’ve taken this mechanic to heart in other games and systems.
Just because your players never confronted the villain does not mean that the villain’s plan just disappeared overnight.
What is a Plot Hook?
A plot hook – more formally known as a narrative hook – is a technique used in literature to “hook” the reader to continue to consume the content. Essentially it’s a device that is interesting enough to grasp the reader’s attention and entice them to finish the story or article.
Plot hooks are a key device for the GM to use to engage the players in the game. The party needs a reason to adventure. It’s your job to give them the reasons along the way.
What is an Unresolved Plot Hook?
Ideally, a plot hook will be presented to the players and it will be interesting and engaging enough to have them hooked on the story. The party will then pursue the end goal of the plot hook until its completion.
Unfortunately, most of us GMs are not professional writers. We’ll have plenty of plot hooks that simply will not interest our players – leaving loose ends in the story.
An unresolved plot hook is just that. It’s a loose end or a piece of unfinished business. The plot hook was presented to the party, but they never solved whatever problem came with it.
While that sounds like you as the GM have failed to keep your players interested in the game, it’s actually not all that bad. Depending on the type of game you’re running you may have more unresolved plot hooks than finished ones. Sandbox games have this problem in particular due to the sheer volume of plot hooks that pop up.
Unresolved plot hooks are not a bad thing in more linear games either. It’s unrealistic to assume that the party can do everything in the world. There will be problems that the party cannot solve for one reason or another. Rather than just brushing the unresolved plot hook under the table, instead, we should do something with it!
Why Might the Players Not Pursue the Hook?
There are plenty of reasons for your players to have not pursued the plot hook. Some of these reasons you as the GM can control, others are left entirely at the hands of the players.
As I’ve stressed many times in this post and will continue to say, this is not an utter failure on the GM’s part. There are times when everyone either misses the mark or the players were more interested in doing something else.
The Hook Wasn’t Compelling Enough
Either the plot hook itself wasn’t interesting to the players, or the way you introduced the plot hook was not engaging enough for the players to interact with it. If this was the only issue with the plot hook you’re in luck because it’s a problem you can actually solve.
Find ways to introduce the plot hook in a more interesting manner. Emphasize the consequences for the currently unresolved plot hook. Inform the party about the vast riches that they’d be rewarded with should they pursue this quest.
If the plot hook wasn’t interesting go back to the drawing board. You now have feedback as to what doesn’t work for this plot hook. Try something else! However, if you do this, reintroduce the plot hook, and the party still isn’t interesting don’t continue to force it. It may just be something the party doesn’t care about.
The Party Never Found the Hook
In a world, with unlimited options, conversations, and tens of thousands of NPCs there’s a great chance your party will simply miss out on learning about some of your plot hooks and storylines.
Unfortunately, the party can’t pursue what they don’t know about. They may be able to stumble upon the situation in the future or learn of the aftermath of the situation, but until then there’s nothing they can do.
The only thing you can do is either try to introduce it to them in a less-subtle way or leave it be. Your choice in this situation will depend on how high-stakes this unresolved plot hook is for the campaign.
Too Many Plot Hooks to Choose From
Generally, more plot hooks are introduced to the players than they can realistically choose from. Loose ends are going to be a part of that game.
There are two solutions to this problem. The first is that you could start creating fewer plot hooks. Your game could be bloated from the number of plot hooks you’ve stuffed into it and you have too many for even yourself to keep track of. Slow down a little bit and see how that plays out. Over-preparing is not necessarily good.
The second solution is that you need to keep a stricter timeline for your game. Your plot hooks may interfere with each other. If one plot hook details doing something within X days and the other is stopping an evil plot on day Z, your players may simply not have enough time to do both.
If this choice was unintentional you may need to spend more time creating an accurate calendar for your game.
How to Deal with Unresolved Plot Hooks
Now that we have an idea as to why our players may not have chosen to investigate a plot hook let’s see what we can do about it.
Unresolved plot hooks are great narrative tools if used well. Reintroducing a plot hook is not an excuse for railroading and not allowing player agency. Instead, use it as a way to build the world and story around your players’ choices.
The Villain’s Plan Unfolds
The party never confronted the villain, or they were powerless to provide a solution to the problem. Whatever it was, the villain’s plan was left untouched or only slightly delayed.
This is not something that can be swept under the rug or left alone. This was a treacherous plot and there are victims to whatever atrocities the villain intended to orchestrate.
This could be a small-scale plot such as ruining a NPC’s livelihood, or on a large-scale such as destroying a city or even the world. Whatever it is the party was unsuccessful at halting the progress of it and the villain’s plan has swung into action. There will be consequences for the party’s action or inaction.
For large-scale plots be sure to have given the party multiple chances to confront the plot hook. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about creating an engaging villain check out my post though it is more D&D-centric.
It Comes Back to Haunt the Party
The unresolved plot hook was tied to the lives of the party or close NPC allies. Either the party missed the plot hook entirely, or even tried to resolve it, but were thwarted when doing so.
Either way, the unresolved plot hook has weaseled its way back into their lives. The plot hook may be even more deadly or challenging since the last time they confronted it or learned about it. For example, a villain who was left untouched for months or years will continue to amass power.
How or why the plot hook was not resolved does not matter. What does matter is that this problem that was left alone has come back to harm the party in one way or another?
Kidnappers, thieves, or assassins are great tools to use in this scenario. They may be the plot hook or they may be hired help from the antagonist of the plot hook. Kidnap or kill a NPC that has some history with or value to the party. Outright steal from the party!
Rumors and Worldbuilding
The party’s goals were simply not aligned with what the plot hook presented to them. You may have just missed the mark, or the party decided it wasn’t something they were interested in.
In these types of scenarios, you can then use these plot hooks as a tool for worldbuilding.
For example, the corrupt politician is still in power and making the lives of people a few towns over miserable. This may never directly affect the party, but it’s something that helps build up the world around them to some degree.
On the other hand, this is a great way to reintroduce unresolved plot hooks. The party stumbles upon a rumor that the townspeople under the reign of the politician are staging a revolution. This is something that the party may want to take part in despite it not directly affecting them.
Leave Them Be
The plot hook you crafted and carefully introduced to your party was simply not interesting enough for them to pursue. As I said before, most of us aren’t professional writers. This happens.
The important thing is to know how to “read the room”. If you’ve introduced a plot hook that your players have no interest in you need to reconsider using that in the game.
Find out why it was that the party didn’t find that plot hook interesting. Feel free to ask the players outright. Honest feedback helps you grow and will help you know what kind of topics your players just don’t find interesting.
If a plot hook takes about 3-4 sessions to resolve that’s 9-12 hours of your lives (at minimum). That’s a lot of time spent engaged in something most of the table has no interest in doing. Spend that time playing the game the way you all find fun even if the story “suffers” a bit for not including that plot hook.
Plot hooks are the lifeblood of any tabletop RPG. They are the reason the party goes on an adventure and they are necessary to keep the plot moving forward.
Unresolved plot hooks are in some ways just as necessary. Leaving a problem unsolved can potentially be more interesting in the story and the world than if the party always saves the day.
As the GM you’ll have to make an executive decision regarding unresolved plot hooks. Was the problem necessary to the story or the enjoyment of the game? Will the game suffer if it’s left out entirely? These are decisions only you can make.
I’ve mentioned before that no prep material is ever truly wasted. If a plot hook is never explored or talked about in your game just save it for the next campaign or group!