What's a hook?
It's a critical pirate element.
It's one half of Velcro Theory.
It's also what gamers need to feel like what they do matters at the table, that it's not just rolling dice, scribbling pencils and a way to spend an evening at a friend's house.
What I'm going to talk about today is types of hooks (for different types of players) and how to figure out how to hook whoever you have at your table (or your future audience).
Now, a disclaimer - I broke gamer-types up into 4 types, just for the ease of writing this blog post, it is BY NO MEANS CONCLUSIVE. I just picked 4 because 4-is-a-nice-number-that-satisfies-my-OCD-eccentricities-no-don't-make-that-face. You may not have ANY of these players at your table or in mind for your audience, and if you have a group that isn't listed here, leave a comment below and/or send me an email, I'll do a follow-up.
I'm supposing here that you're designing your own game, or you've recently picked up a new game and you want to bring players into it.
What do I do for a new player, someone whose never played this game (or any game like it)?
For new players you want to create what I call 'Hooks of Ease'. Regardless of whether or not the player has ever played a game before, you want to make sure that this experience (the experience of playing YOUR game) is easy, so that they come back, or want to play it more.
Hooks of Ease are anything that makes play EASY to do, EASY to understand and EASY to repeat. On a mechanical level, this may be reflected in a lack of complexity or in a straightforward and unvarying checklist of steps.
Example: The GUMSHOE engine uses a six-sided die, terming a roll of 1-3 a failure and 4-6 a success.
Example #2: Most board games have a roll dice/spin the wheel mechanic that doesn't change as play advances.
Hooks of Ease are anything (mechanical, narrative, etc) that create a sense that "I can do this", because encouraging action is the first step to securing enjoyment and immersion. People like to do things (and repeatedly do them) if the task was not complicated, produced a result without too much effort and had a benefit for them.
The vulgar version of this is "If they get it, they'll do it, and want to do it again."
What about rules lawyers who are used to a very literal interpretation and strictly go by-the book?
I know, they're tough. I play with a few, and they can leech the fun out of the room faster than a bad cabbage fart.
The first step is realizing that for ANY type of "difficult" player, you have to remember you are NOT at their mercy. They are not the boss of you, and you cannot let their existence act like an unseen hand in crafting the overall game. In short, you're not playing FOR the rules lawyers of the world, they just happen to be a part of it, like midgets, clowns or the strange guy at the supermarket who talks to the produce as he bags it.
Chances are the rules lawyer is looking for control of the experience. In bad cases, this means they want to be "the guy" at the table (this is not a sexist thing, you can be "the lady" too), meaning all the plot and the decisions of the table go through them. This is likely because outside the game they're unhappy with something, and in this fun-time, they get to correct their unhappiness, even if they do so somewhat obliviously to how the rest of the table may feel about their bluster and possibly douchebaggery.
Hooking the rules lawyer involves Hooks of Consequence. This isn't consequence like punishment, more like an understanding of Newtonian laws -- what the players do will generate reactions/ripples within the world. Knowing that following the rules and still creating good experiences will pacify even the most crusty of rulesmongers.
Narratively, this applies as well. When the player cries foul because the NPC has done X Y or Z, which may be mechanically supported, but not what they're counting on having happen because it means the player(s) (read: they as individuals above all) won't "win", point to the actions that caused the response -- and take note that their narrative argument, the fact that they're bitching at all about what's done, has proven them to be engaged.
Note -- Just remember you don't have to cow to the rules-lawyer or rules-lawyer-bully both at your table and as a designer. Stand up, put down those things at the ends of your legs (we call them feet) and have fun, above all else.
What about the other end of the spectrum, the player who isn't so rules conscientious?
Someone who's just sort of at the table, interested in having a good time but not too terribly invested in knowing that the particular combat mechanic is on page 44, second column 3rd paragraph, or that you can't roll d10 for damage with a short sword, is a good person to have a table, because like the new people, they're often malleable. (Unlike the aforementioned rules-lawyer or the later discussed jaded player who both may just be curmudgeonly or creatively-sedentary). With a good experience you make a light player into someone more serious or more invested, and that's a great thing for your gaming.
What you need to offer them are Hooks of Potential. Like the line in the Aladdin song, you can show them a world...(I'll let you keep singing). By showing that the game has a lot of opportunities to do things (both narrative options in-game and mechanically in-system), you spawn a stream of opportunities and if you pair these with a Hook of Ease, make these opportunities into easy decisions.
Easy decisions become fun decisions very quickly, because they generate consequences and feedback (Are you starting to see how these things all come together?).
Help! I have jaded players (or "I'm writing a game that has a lot of competition in the marketplace!")
I am apparently, a jaded player. I work in the industry, I write/edit/play games with designers and writers, I play multiple games a week if I'm lucky. No, I'm not bragging - I'm telling you that overexposure has dulled my sense of newness. I don't get all aflutter over prestige classes and skill suites. I'm not entirely too jazzed about a constant evolution and progression of medieval and Renaissance fantasy. This tiredness is what drove me towards "indie" gaming - where settings, mechanics and play types are vast and hugely different from game to game and session to session.
I've asked Mike my GM about this, and he's often expressed a concern that I'm bored with traditional model gaming, and I keep telling him I'm not. It's not the game itself (because that's inert), it's how it gets developed at the table. This is the attitude I want to impart to all the designers who think about their game getting into the hands of people who have played more than half their lives or who are developers themselves. What brings the jaded to your game with a spark and interest is a Hook of Demonstration. When they see the game DO something, handle something mechanically, resolve a crisis narratively, introduce elements a certain way, they will sit up and take notice.
This is what happened to me at my first Dresden Files RPG game - I arrived early, and was still eating my turkey club. The GM (not Mike, this was another group) laid out the books and gave each player a legal pad. No dice yet. Just pad and pencil. He also didn't let me crack open the books. Now, this was not typical of this group, who normally get very handsy with materials.
The rest of the players arrived and we got started. And our GM led us through City Creation. (We made some sort of amalgam between Newark, Elizabeth and Hoboken with a smattering of Atlantic City and Cape May -- very different cityscapes within NJ). We consulted no charts, we made no rolls. We did however do a lot of Googling and Wikipedia reading (yes, it's a credible source! Ask your local rockstar librarian!).
I took notice because this allowed me to combine my passions - storytelling, writing, creating with gaming into a new synthesis of awesome. I was no longer jaded (and many months later enjoy the game still).
So we have Hooks of Potential (show them what the game can do), Hooks of Consequence (show them that what THEY do has ramifications, responses and reactions), Hooks of Ease (that it's not hard to try/do these things), and Hooks of Demonstration (show them how the game does something in a way that others don't).
Remember: Hooks are not only mechanical, but can and should also be narrative tools as well. Remember also it is the combination of narrative and mechanics that create the game experience.
Happy (game) writing.