Now, if you're reading along with me in your copy of B9 Castle Caldwell, you might notice that one of the few magical items in the place is a cursed sword, in the hands of one of the bandits. What happened with that is an example of my next technique, which I call:
IV. Make Your Own Serendipity
Serendipity is when you're looking for one thing and find something else useful instead. You might think that it's hard to create that on demand - and you're right. But what you can do is prepare for the possibility and make it more likely.
The easiest way to do this is to have loose ends. Don't decide on everything beforehand. Don't try to plan 100% of everything - first, it will never work, and second, you're filling in all the places where you could fit interesting things that you come across in play. Leave some things dangling, because you never know when you could use a dangling plot thread to tie something together.
Back to the case of the cursed blade. In a remarkable display of the dice (well, the random generator on Maptools, anyway) agreeing with the fiction, the bandit leader managed to roll a 1 on his attack. Normally I use this as a minor setback, but I decided that in the case of a cursed blade, it needed to be something worse, so he managed to inflict quite a bit of damage to himself. Between that and the roll he made that should have been a hit, I figured the jig was up, but I watched carefully to see the party's reactions when the fight was over.
F, playing the cleric Dmitri, picked up the blade to examine it. (This isn't as unusual as it might sound - we agreed on a variant where he traded the ability to wear armor heavier than leather for the ability to wield any weapon. His character has a definite witch hunter à la Warhammer vibe.) Well, crap, because now he's put his hands all over it, and I need to figure a way to make a cursed sword interesting.
In the next combat he finds himself drawing it rather than his normal blade, and somewhere later in the course of the adventure he winds up giving himself a terrible wound with his own weapon (again on a roll of 1). As they continue to explore, they find a secret room - one that was added on the Warlock's new map for the castle, and consequently, one that I had utterly forgotten to do anything with. Rattling through my mind for something that would be interesting, I describe the room as a secret retreat, filled with hunting trophies both exotic and mundane. I also threw in a stack of journals and accounts. (You can never go wrong if you throw in journals, because players will always take them to peruse later.)
And that's where I found my serendipity. F's character concept is that he wants to hunt the things that hunt mankind - and he's got a tragic past that hasn't been revealed to his companions yet. I hadn't decided what to do with it (loose end #1) and I never did decide what happened to the previous owner of the castle (loose end #2) and I had this cursed sword to explain (loose end #3).
So I threw in a taxidermied creature, half-wolf, half man (was it similar to the shadowy figure Dmitri had seen years ago in the woods?) and in between sessions I wrote up some journal entries describing the owner of the castle's encounters with the creature and his quest for a sword that could defeat it. I namechecked Bargle and Baron von Hendricks (because I've got a dangling plot hook about Luln out there) and worked out a bit of backstory for the blade. Since I felt bad for having the first magic item the party found be a cursed one when they didn't have the resources to handle it, I even included a hint as to a way to not just break the curse, but to restore the blade's former magic - if they pursue that hook they can turn a liability into a powerful item.
And, wouldn't you know it, F couldn't make it to that session. Sometimes all the planning in the world won't help you at all. But it's there, and the groundwork is laid. In some ways, we've come back to my first suggestion on how to hook players - making it personal - but as you can see it doesn't have to be limited to the start of the dungeon.
Now it's time for me to go back and apply these lessons again - in return for some magical healing (a cure blindness spell for the wizard) our heroes have agreed to take on a task for the Patriarch of Threshold, and I have to see what I can salvage from the Elwyn's Sanctuary adventure. You'd think I would have learned my lesson with the castle…