There has been a call now and then for me to give examples regarding how I create tension - through the use of dialogue or circumstance. I did not give examples in How to Run simply because there would be too many possible examples necessary to correctly give a sense of good DMing - and were I to give only a few, those would almost certainly receive more attention than they deserved
I thought I might address this in a post. Specifically, in an effort to provide measurement for what makes a good hook and what does not. Like writing, the value of a hook depends on its ability to encourage action or to provoke it - a hook is useless if it produces apathy or distrust. Bad writers, for example, will begin a story with a very heavy hand, concentrating on the narrative - and what has to happen next - rather than the conflict. The result will be paragraphs of intensive reasoning that motivates the characters into doing what's next without any attention paid to why the characters do anything. At best, the motivation will be something obvious, like a McGuffin or a single event that happened in their past. In bad writing, one character experience justifies everything the character does.
The character feels sad all the time because the character's mother died. The character won't go to this place because the character's mother died. The character has trouble dealing with women because the character's mother died. And so on. In short order, we know what's going to happen next because it is plain where the writer wants the story to go.
In role-playing, the equivalent is where it is painfully obvious what the DM wants the players to do. For example:
As the party crests the rise, they encounter the violent aftermath of some sort of battle. A wagon has been attacked and overturned. The characters can see three dead bodies. There are three men alive, who see the party immediately and begin coming towards them. "Help us!" they say.
This is just awful. As a hook it fails completely. The DM's fingerprints are all over it. Unless the party is inclined to do whatever they're told to do, the response will be groans and answers of, "Do we have to?" At least, they would be in my world.
It isn't, however, because the basic idea is bad. The fail is due to two things - the information that's given is far, far too general. Apart from sweeping generalizations, there's no detail here, nothing to emotionally involve the party. Remember that for a person to feel something, they must see images of what's going on - and 'three dead bodies' does not begin to cover it.
So, first, we need to expand meaningfully on the description - without any words that say what actually happened. Both of these phases, ". . . the violent aftermath of some sort of battle" and "A wagon has been attacked . . . " are the worst! Let the players figure it out. Don't spoon feed them.
We need to remember that we are describing, not explaining.
As the party crests the rise, they see -
What? Try to picture the scene in your mind before you speak. What would the party see first? Probably the overturned wagon. And since the wagon would have been carrying something, we'll want to describe what's happened to it. Was it valuable? It might have been hay or sacks full of vegetables, or perhaps uncut lumber. Remember that if it is something very heavy, the wagon probably wouldn't be rolled over - unless something really BIG did it. That's a clue! If the wagon was full of dirt and ore, and that's thrown all over the road, what's big enough to have done it?
Remember, too, that if whatever's in the wagon was something expensive, that's going to say much about both the living and the dead. If the wagon was carrying all the people owned, furniture, bed, chairs, rugs and blankets, a barrel of water or food, then these people are going to be a family. In any case, the more profound or interesting the cargo is, the more likely the players will care.
Let's go with the family that's moving their goods to another place. It's simple and we can imagine it. Strewn across the road - that's a good word, strewn, as it suggests an action without being specific - are the cheap furnishings of a house. The wagon is overturned and the contents are strewn. Some of it is broken - a split barrel, leaving a large wet spot, perhaps reddish in colour to indicate wine (which feels like more of a tragedy than water).
Now, we should be thinking, what was pulling the wagon? Mule, horse, oxen or the people themselves? If a mule, say, is the mule still alive? What is the most evoking image? The mule is standing untouched, a dozen yards from the decimation, calmly grazing on the grass. Were that the case, we would want to describe the whole scene, in all its horror, before balancing it with the calm mule. Or we would begin the horror by describing the mule still in harness, dead, head with an axe in it - a primitive axe, to entice the listener to wonder who in hell is using a primitive sort of axe around here - and tongue lolling out onto the stones. The animal lovers in the party will feel the mule's death in their bones.
Okay, something has plainly happened - with the axe alone suggesting what. Let's consider these three dead bodies.
Where are they? Are they scattered, bloody, imbedded with axes of their own? No, because that's way too obvious. One might have a spear sticking out - but what would be better is if the body were laying close enough to the party for them to see the spear on the ground next to the body, the shaft covered in blood, having just been removed by one of the living who is weeping next to the dead body. The mourner could have their hands covered in blood, with blood on their clothes - an apron, perhaps. Whatever the clothes are will also give clues to the party as to who these people are, without obversely saying so. These are things the DM should incorporate.
The bodies might be piled together, or laid side by side Hollywood style (always makes a good camera shot). That alone would help suggest how long it has been since the event occurred.
Never, ever, only describe a body as a 'dead body.' These were people once, remember. Give them features, describe characteristics, elaborate on their clothes. Shoes are always a good tag, as much about what we think of people is wrapped up in the shoes they wear. Clogs vs. wrapped leather vs. hard, heavy boots. All three make different suggestions of what sort of people these are. Stephen King always has one of his dead bodies 'knocked out of their shoes' - because it evokes a strong image.
If it's a family, the bodies might be children. The living might be children. More likely, a parent with a child. What are the relationships? Who's in charge? Does the son trust the father or not? Is the son or daughter old enough to fight? If we avoid the cliche that the son is ready to fight the first thing he sees (sigh), how might he react to the party compared to his father?
The three that are left alive would never notice the party immediately. These men have just been through some sort of hell. They're shocked, horrified that people they knew are now dead, too shattered even to collect their things and right the wagon, much less rush towards a party of armed strangers who just crested the hill. This is the worst day they've ever had, and the party are now proof positive - to them - that this is the end of everything. The only reason they don't run away into the forest (or whatever the road travels through) in terror is that they were just attacked by things out of the forest.
Do the men have weapons? If they do, there's other places we might go. The bodies might be piled together, the men may be getting ready themselves to march into the forest and get back whatever was stolen from them. Remember, they didn't know there was a party coming. What would they be doing if the party had not?
To understand that, we have to decide what was taken, and by what. Several things? Humanoids, probably, since they used that axe and spear, but human-like or no? It makes a big difference if the creatures were small like goblins and kobalds vs. something big like orcs, hobgoblins or bugbears.
Try to imagine yourself, capable of using a long knife or a club. You've just been attacked by a group of orcs who in aspect resemble an organized gang of thugs. They're six feet to six-foot-six, so in size they look like police officers. They're muscular and mean and they look down on you.
Now imagine that you've been attacked by a group of goblins. They're filthy and feral, but they're small. You've been attacked by the equivalent of unwashed, insane children. As hateful as they are, you're going to feel a bit more like these are in your league.
Suppose, then, that these creatures - whatever they are - have taken all your valuables. Well, that might be galling, but you might just load up, gather the bodies and count yourself lucky to be alive. Suppose, however, that they've taken your father or your brother. Or your wife or sister. What are you going to do then?
This is what's happening to these strangers we find on the road. They're not empty vessels designed to tell the party what to do, these are living, suffering people who have just been violated. They are already in a state of reaction. That reaction is what will motivate the party's attention.
Inevitably, the party will either approach or pass them by - more likely the former. The party will almost certainly ask, "What happened?" As a DM, you have to be ready for that question.
You do NOT say, "A group of goblins came out of the forest and attacked us. They stole our stuff and kidnapped my wife." omg. This is an opportunity to make the party feel involved, even responsible, without feeling like they know what the DM wants.
Try having the father step forward and saying, "This is none of your business, move on!" Of course, we don't want the party to move on, so instead we say, "This is none of your business, outlaws! Move on!" Or some other insult, 'foreigners' perhaps, or 'mercenaries.' Parties being what they are, they tend not to carry heraldry, they tend not to wash, they tend to travel a lot so they are almost certainly foreigners and so on. If those don't make sense, try "non-believer." If it's possible, get another insult or two into the party's head if the party does decide to move on without getting involved. "Coward" is a nice send-off - as it will almost certainly bring the player back to the scene.
What we want is conflict. We want the party to feel the angst, anguish and hatred of the npc's second hand - so they will lash out at the party, try to get rid of them, insist even after talking that they don't need the party, that they can do it themselves, etc. Under all this should be the obvious fact that they can't do it themselves, since they were attacked already, they lost and three were killed. If the party stands back and watches the rest go after whatever or whomever is in the forest, the party knows they've just let those people go to their deaths.
This won't matter to the party if that scene isn't built before the interaction happens. The party's sense of indignation has to be riled. There are things in the forest attacking people on the road. This is inherently wrong.
Of course, I've had parties who would simply finish the job. They kill the last three people, saving the four-year-old girl for last, then see what there is left to plunder. It is a great opportunity for leaving clues that suggest it would be nice now if at least one of these people were still alive to explain what the blazes this book is that was found in the secret compartment in the wagon's floor.
But that is another adventure.