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?

Sincerely,
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…

MOTIV8

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.

THE MASTER’S PLACE

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.

The Author

Rodrigo

Rodrigo

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

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8 Comments

  1. June 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm — Reply

    Bedding wenches?

    You mother and I are concerned about these games you’re playing, Rodrigo.

  2. Anonymous
    June 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm — Reply

    White Wolf’s Exalted actually incorporates Motivation into the character sheet. It plays into social combat (easier to convince someone of something that plays to their motivation, harder to convince someone of something that plays against it), and successes that further Motivation restore temporary Willlpower.

  3. Galactoss
    June 20, 2012 at 4:35 pm — Reply

    Good article, great advice. If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner shedding a quiet, nostalgic tear for the Dragon magazine articles of yesteryear.

    Totally stealing that werewolf factory idea for something too.

  4. June 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm — Reply

    If I were in a position to GM a game (though I have plans to, nor anyone to play with…yet), before we even started rolling character stats I’d give all the players this homework assignment: go home and think up a reason for a character to go out adventuring.

    And I like how you established that “get money” is not an acceptable motivation, because just getting money is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. What do they want the wealth for, I’d ask? Unless they’re a dragon taking the form of a man, and they just want to accumulate wealth specifically to hoard it, making scratch is not a good enough reason to run cross country, fighting monsters, and challenging evil wizards and stuff.

    A motivation needs to be something that gets the character out of the house and into dangerous situations. It doesn’t even need to be a complex goal, or a particularly creative one. Just getting stock revenge on a stock villain who killed their stock family is enough to base a story on, so long as it gets fleshed out. Maybe they want to get wealth, but in order to provide for their family or pay off a debt or become king by their own hand. Or if they insist on not coming up with one, give them a chance through the initial adventure.

    I heard this one guy who got killed by the avatar of a forgotten deity, and the GM allowed him to live, but with a curse. That curse then gave them a lot of story opportunities, and a lot of motivation as they tried to remove it.

    It’s all about creating a hook. It doesn’t have to be great at first, it just has to be something.

    • Praion
      June 21, 2012 at 1:19 am — Reply

      I hate it when games are all about “someone going adventuring”. There are so many other stories…

      • June 21, 2012 at 9:51 am — Reply

        Yes many equally legitimate stories

  5. Oldcomicfan
    June 21, 2012 at 5:58 am — Reply

    Bedding Wenches? I suppose that’s better than heating up the fry cooker, grabbing the tool box and corn flakes and Breading Wrenches.

  6. Micah
    March 2, 2013 at 10:39 pm — Reply

    I just read this, but I think the best answer to this question is “WWRD?” What would Rodrigo do? One major thing I learned from Critical Hit is a good DM sucks people into the story by force. In this case, the characters want to accumulate tons of money. Know who likes gold? Dragons. Know who might move into a cave that’s making everyone rich? Dragons. Gold and glory is a perfectly legit motivation imo. Alternatively or in addition, when the characters get rich, bigger and badder groups of bandits constantly raid the town to get said riches. “Okay, you have 20k gold. There is a knock at your door. Its the warlord from the next town coming to demand tribute.” Your job as a DM is to put them into an adventure because of their actions, in a way.

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