Aesthetics of Play and the Hook

Readers of the blog know that I like to think about how to use individual game elements in RPGs to serve the core aesthetics of play. In the past, I’ve addressed traps from this perspective and dived into Fellowship pacing, but now I want to make it a series, starting with how the aesthetics of play relate to crafting your campaign and adventure hooks. The goal will be to help you, the reader, assess what aesthetic of play you want your hook to promise and then craft a hook that delivers that promise.

If your table has a significant focus on exploring and learning about some aspect of the world itself, with the players at the helm, then these hook-pointers may be of interest to you.

If you are trying to invoke Discovery as an aesthetic in your campaign, then your goal with the hook is to promise intriguing things for your players to find as the campaign progresses. To that end, the first encounter should include plenty of Perception, Insight, and Investigation-style (subject to your system) checks to pick up information. You don’t want all of the information to be immediately apparent, or they won’t feel like they are doing the discovering. On the other hand, you don’t want them to miss anything. As the scene progresses, keep drawing them back to the checks with progressively lower difficulty if they continue too roll badly.

On your end of the GM screen, make sure they know there’s something to find. Let slip phrases like ‘hmm, didn’t see it’ and ‘interesting’. When the mysterious element is at play, get a little giddy and allow yourself to rub your hands together to draw attention to it and make them want to know what you’re making such a fuss about. Maybe the first encounter is a dead body, killed in some mysterious way; make sure they notice that one of the townsfolk is extra-nervous, or that the body has two distinct holes in the neck by calling their attention back to it until they make their roll. Maybe (as hooks so often are) it’s a combat; modify the enemy to tie into the mystery to be uncovered. Give them an unusual weapon or unusual power: magic sapping dust they throw in the PCs faces that can only have come from the lost mines they will be looking for, psionic powers that indicate something odd is going on.

An example from my campaigns was the first session of the Primordial Frontier campaign, when during the combat I was openly flustered taking notes relevant to the enemy’s learning mechanic until they noticed that it’s attack and defenses were improving as the fight went on. This will come up again in Challenge later, but the purpose of being transparent that I was tracking something was to tip them off that there was something to Discover.

If your players come to the table primarily as a medium to express themselves through their character, then these tips apply to you. Some clues that this aesthetic is important to a player include them drawing a picture of their character, writing an extensive backstory, using a new voice, or talking about their build at length.

If even one player shows signs of adopting their character as a part of themselves, consider how your hook can promise the campaign will serve this aesthetic. During the first encounter, give an opportunity to describe what they look like, ask how they do things that might reveal their style (what is their demeanor as they shoot the arrow, what kinds of movements constitute their melee attack, what particular visuals accompany their spell), let their backstory come out of their own mouth in gameplay.

Again, in the first session of the Primordial Frontier campaign, I promised this aesthetic by asking each of them where they were in the town when the attack came, giving them a chance to describe their character’s mundane activities before being called to adventure. While Expression hasn’t been a core aesthetic of previous campaigns with the group, it was clear this time that they all had characters they were excited about and Expression has continued to be core to this one.

If the story is a major source of payoff in your games, for example if your players are invested in the plot or character growth and your campaign is going to have a beginning, middle, and end, then that story should be promised in your hook.

There are plenty of story elements that can be introduced in the hook. If there is an NPC that will be a key part of the Narrative, consider inserting them here, whether as someone the party can rescue, someone rescuing the party, or a repeating sponsor/quest giver. Blatant foreshadowing, up to and including prophecy, can go a long way to promising a narrative payoff right from the hook.

In my Tyranny of Mundanity campaign, the first session involved being recruited by a dissident group and introduced the conflict that would be central to the narrative. It was a narrative that was soon abandoned in favor of another one due to player choice, but it still set the stage for a narrative heavy campaign.

If your players come to the table expecting to overcome obstacles, whether it’s handling a complex combat, navigating social interactions, or working out puzzles and riddles, then this aesthetic is at play. These pointers should help develop a hook that promises challenge throughout the campaign.

It is important that this hook tell the players that there is some chance of failure and what the stakes are for that failure. The chance doesn’t have to be high and stakes don’t have to be the fate of the world, but it should be apparent that there were things that could go wrong in the hook, and that the opportunity will continue to exist for failure.This pressure is most apparent when there are clear resource limitations: a 10 minute sand timer on the table, quickly diminishing health, dying allies. All of these things indicate that failure is a possibility, whether it is or not. Actual failure from time to time is also a strong indicator, but the hook may not be the time for it. The real chance of failure here should be low (with a low variance) and can get higher later.

While I generally consider this an important aesthetic to my campaigns, I can’t think of a time I have introduced in in a hook and suppose it has never been truly core to a campaign, just an overhanging chance of failure. The reason I introduced a learning robot in the first session of Primordial Frontier was to make the battle one with a puzzle to be solved, though it was not a strong nod to this aesthetic.

Members of your table group may be invested in your campaigns out of a desire to believe they are someone else. If this is a major source of engagement, consider the following ideas for making that opportunity apparent in the hook.

While the system you are running generally outlines most of the things you can be in the game and provides the mechanics to bring player imaginations to the table, there are things you can do in the hook to amplify that. Vivid descriptions of the world and events can help form the desired image in the player’s mind and increase immersion. Voices, sound effects, and other atmosphere choices can also keep the player in the fantasy they are pursuing. When narrating, try modulating the tone and speed of your speech to express the solemnity, excitement, or energy of the situation.

This aesthetic is a natural element of tabletop games, but you can certainly amplify it by setting the tone and being engaging yourself. It’s something I’m working on.

If your party gathers every week largely as a social event, then Fellowship is already an aesthetic, regardless of what the hook does, but if you want to emphasize it, then these tips might be useful.

The goal of a hook focused on Fellowship is to promise your players a continuing atmosphere of social engagement. What this means for your table will vary, but it will often involve putting the players in situations where they must help each other so they can have effective moments of comradery. Sometimes this will also involve referring to inside jokes, events from previous campaigns, past PCs, or pop culture references common to the group.

If you found this analysis at all useful, please let me know in the comments so I can make an informed decision about how eagerly to jump into the next one, probably combat or puzzles. Sharing and liking will also bias me toward writing this kind of content. I’m not saying you control me, but well…

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