I like to tell stories with my D&D games. Doing so can be tricky at the best of times because you’re merely the person setting the stage when you run a game, unless you’re willing to deny your players a significant amount of autonomy. If you let them have their freedom, the players are the ones who plot the story and direct it. You are all the actors, the camera man, the producer, the SFX artist, the prop master, and the scenic designer. And more! The hats you might be required to wear when dealing with a particularly willful group of playing is beyond my ability to describe, remember, or predict. There are simply too many things a good GM does when running a game to keep track of it all.
The thing is, though, you can have a lot more control over the story than most people think if you’re good at setting plot hooks. Plot hooks are for snagging players, not landing a story in their lap. You are hooking their attention and directing their actions toward a particular end that you’ve likely spent a fair amount of time devising. Most people stop that as soon as the quest has been given and the players have declared their choice. If they bought in, why spend more time on it? If they didn’t buy in, maybe you can recycle it later or find another way to pitch it once they’ve done something else. But hooks can be used quite frequently to help lead your players where you want them to go or to keep them focused on what you want them to be doing.
In my story-centric campaigns, frequent use of hooks can make the players feel like they’re at the center of the universe. Too much of that feeling can be bad because they don’t feel like there’s any risk, but enough can make them feel like the heroes their characters are. Carefully managing the frequency and type of the hooks allows me to keep my manipulation under the radar when I want it to be. It also lets me do things a bit more obviously if I know there’s something my players want that is in line with my goals. I can make them buy in a little more heavily for a portion of the overall story and they get to influence the events of the story in a way that makes their characters feel important.
My favorite way to do this is to give them an entertaining cast of characters that is invested in a particular outcome. If they care about these characters, then they’ll listen when they talk and be more willing to pick a path that helps them out. For instance, if you wind up protecting the bad-ass woman punching a hole in a stone wall because the god who saved your life told you to go do something that led you here and then it turns out that you discover the ancient, hidden tomb of a forgotten mummy lord while guarding her during a trip across a desert wasteland, the players might be pretty inclined to involve her in the tomb exploration (at least verbally, since she’s a busy woman) which means it becomes super easy to lead them in the direction of the other tombs the badass woman’s associates find since it turns out that their discovery actually explains why the blight the badass woman is investigating is happening in the first place. Now they’re all invested in doing what was essentially the NPCs job and they feel like they cracked the case wide open because they made one lucky skill check. Throw in a few hints as they go along at how this ties into the larger story and now all they want to do is figure out what is going on and fix what their main villain broke.
This isn’t to say, of course, that I don’t give my players the opportunity to go off and do whatever they like. If they want to ignore what is going on in front of them and do something else, they’re perfectly capable of doing so. I might not always drop some neat adventure into their lap (and definitely won’t if I sense that they’re being petulant or trying to derail the game on purpose), but I let them do as they wish. I just always make sure they know that time is passing and what they’re leaving behind might not be here when they get back. The passage of time and windows of opportunity aren’t exactly manipulation, but they do help keep players focused on their core quests.
The other main way I continuously hook my players is by giving them hints of what is to come and how powerful they could be if they follow down their current path (the one I want them to). Hints at alliances, potential gear, the experiences, and the in-world fame or glory for accomplishing mighty feats. The path laid out is not the only for growth and ever greater power, it’s just the easy way. Haring off in your own direction and doing whatever the heck you want can lead to growth and power, but it can also lead to dead-ends and unfortunate circumstances. I’ll never direct my players down a plot line they can’t handle, but the world is full of many dangerous things and they might run afoul something horrible if they stray too far from the places they know. If the party does something dumb, I will totally let them die. If they almost die or barely make it out of something awful because they did something incredibly dumb, they generally learn that there’s danger out there and wandering around willy-nilly means they might encounter it.
Thankfully, all of my players are very invested in the current story and they all want to find out what happens next, so it doesn’t take a lot of work to keep them invested or focused. For the most part. The “focused” bit can be tricky at times.