Thursday, September 6, 2018

Mystery plot hooks: foreshadowing without railroading

Or, how to look like you've planned it all from the start without railroading the story.

Imagine, the party finally breaks through into the crypt under the village.  Inside they find a massive one-eyed clay statue.  As the thief reaches out his hand, the eye opens.  They have awakened the Eye in the Mountain, a mystery you've been planning out for months.

Only you didn't really plan it out.  You just tossed in the phrase "Eye in the Mountain" and let the players run with it for a while.

I like to keep a list of mystery plot hooks, about four or five at a time.  In the very first adventure, throw in a snippet of vague but evocative information.  It could be a password, an engraving, a note clutched in a dead man's hand — anything to drop it in the game.  Don't worry about what it means yet.  In fact, it's more fun if you have no idea yourself.

The idea here is to foreshadow things you haven't even planned out.

I don't care for preplanned plots, myself.  They always end up robbing the players of their agency in the world, making their choices feel insignificant in the shadow of the story the DM wanted to tell.

But preplanned plots do allow foreshadowing, building of tension towards a narrative climax and a more satisfying story.

One way to combine the two is to add mystery hooks that you'll figure out later.  Short phrases tend to work best:
  • the Lady of Spring
  • the Withering Stone
  • Silence will Fall
  • Beware the Red of the Grumbler
  • the Day of Resounding
Toss a mystery hook into the game with no leads, no clues of how you could learn more about it.  Let the players speculate, but don't give them more information yet.

There are many ways to sneak a hook like this into the game.  Some that I've enjoyed:
  • a nursery rhyme
  • the last words of a dying man
  • an informant tells you they overheard it while spying on someone
  • inscribed on an artifact
  • a prophecy being talked about by superstitious people
  • carved into a tree (but misspelled)
For example:
Beneath the dry hand of the corpse you find a page that's been scribbled all over, random squiggles around a single phrase written in the center, "the whispering glass".
Don't explain it.  After all, you don't know what it means yet either, but don't tell the players that.

Then wait a few game sessions, and throw in another reference.  This time add a few details nearby that don't really explain anything.
She says there was a fairy tale her grandmother told her, many years ago.  Something about stone and glass and whispers you shouldn't listen to.  So long ago, when she was just a little girl.  They lived by the sea then, and she ate corn porridge with a bit of pepper.
Over time, sprinkle a few of these mystery hooks into the story.  Listen to the theories the players come up with, and let the mystery stew for a while.

Then when you need to introduce a new element to the story, decide how it relates to one of the hooks you already introduced ages ago.  Armed with more of an explanation, you can start to add clues that actually mean something.

Maybe the Whispering Glass is a globe full of tortured souls that will drive you mad by listening to it.  Maybe there's a looking glass that whispers secrets you wouldn't want revealed.  Maybe there's a secret society that has a ritual where all drink from a common glass and speak in whispers.

Whatever the hook turns out to mean, the players will already want to know.  They'll be paying attention the moment you say "whispering".  If it's something they thought of, they'll feel proud for guessing what was coming.  If it's nothing like their ideas, they'll be surprised at the result.

Either way, you'll look like you planned the whole thing and they'll get the satisfaction of uncovering the mystery.


  1. This is really clever. Have you ever done this process backwards and started with a completed mystery before breaking it into parts for the players to find?

    1. Sure, though that takes a lot more work, and it assumes the players will stick to the story you thought up. I like using that approach for one-shot games, but for anything longer I assume the players will derail all my plans.