GAMER’S CORNER: Player Character Motivations



I get frequent e-mail questions about gaming from our Critical Hit listeners. Often they ask me my opinion on a game setting or a particular power in 4th edition; but there is one question that I get more than any others, and it goes something like this:

Dearest Rodrigo,
HELP! I have an awesome campaign planned but ever since my players discovered that they can sell copper for 2 silver a pound they’ve decided that they are just going to become miners and settle in a sleepy mining town. How do I get them to pick up their swords and staves and head over to the bad guy’s teleporting, time-machine castle, which is also a werewolf factory?

Kevin Von Realperson

And I usually try to offer some advice. Although that is not what I will do today. This article is not about what Kevin should do. It’s about what Kevin should have done…


In my experience, the aspect of character creation that is most often skipped over is character motivation. I know there is a lot to keep track of; concept, stats, modifiers among other things. But hammering out that character motivation is absolutely crucial, and as a game master it will make your job ten times easier. “How?” you ask, like so:

A motivated character takes action: Aside from Critical Hit, most of the games I run are one-shots, usually with player-characters I have made ahead of time. These characters usually come with a brief write up on character appearance, personality and motivation. And it is amazing to see the way that players perk up when the object of their motivation (which they only learned about 5 minutes ago) is introduced. The player of a character with a strong motivation is compelled to follow it, in a way it re-introduces that urge to win into a type of game where there are no winners. And that urge is a powerful tool.

Motivations facilitate roleplaying: Sometimes characters are faced with a decision, but rather than making the decision in-character the player will take a step back and weigh the options out of character. Why? Because the player doesn’t know which choice her character would make. The player of a character with a strong motivation will automatically know, even with dramatic “Your family or your friends” type choices that motivation will inform and facilitate the situation. Likewise when faced with downtime a motivated character will go out and pursue her motivation, rather than sitting idly waiting for the plot to attack her.

Knowing a character’s motivation allows you to nip potential problems in the bud: This is a big one. When you pitch a high fantasy heroic game, and then ask your players for their character’s motivations and get “Becoming Rich,” “Bedding wenches” and “Killing Rick’s Character” You know something’s going to have to change. Either you need to run a game about rat bastards or you need to tell your players to change up their motivations. If you never ask your players what their motivations are, you’ll never find these things out. Instead these half-baked ideas lie dormant until suddenly a character decides to sell out the party and become a pastry chef, sending your game into a tailspin.

Character motivations can be a source of inspiration: When you sit down to hammer out motivations with a player that player is giving you a glimpse into his imagination. This is a great opportunity for you to incorporate aspects of the character’s motivation into your game. This has the dual function of keeping the player engrossed in the story and fleshing out your game world.


Helping a player figure out their character’s motivation can be dicey. You certainly don’t want to TELL the player what his motivation should be. But you have to be able to tweak concepts that aren’t quite functional and outright veto disruptive motivations. Through this whole process make sure that you are mindful of how your player is responding, hurt feelings can break down a game with the quickness.

Once the motivation is hammered out you now have the opportunity to weave that motivation into the game. Don’t be affraid to work your player’s ideas in. Is one of the players an archeologist hell bent on proving some theory about the ancient world? Have the rich bad guy you were going to introduce anyway be the patron of an archeological expedition. Is one of the players someone who wants to see injustice erradicated from his city state? Make a trail of injustice leading to your awesome plot.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that motivations will change as the game continues. As bad guys kill the party’s allies and new problems develop, the player characters will adapt their motivations accordingly. As a game master it is important to keep an eye on these shifting ideas and to respond accordingly. I’m not suggesting that you try to stop your players’ motivations from changing (if you’re doing your job as a GM they WILL change) you just have to make sure that the universe is responding accordingly, placing obstacles that challenge and reinforce the new motivations as well.

Game Masters have a lot of things to keep track of but we often forget that the most important thing to keep track of is whether our players are enjoying themselves. Hopefully this article helps you hone your game into a better experience for everybody.