Ethics of Motivation


I want to wrap up my month on motivation by talking about the ethics of motivation. After all, creating and using these tools to motivate the players is essentially manipulating them to do what you want, which could be railroading by another name. As someone who has staunchly defended respecting players’ autonomy, how can I get behind this? I’ve touched on it briefly here and there, but now it’s time to really dig into how to use these motivations ethically. 

I’ll even throw in an air freshener.

By using motivations to bait adventure hooks, you’re exploiting the players’ and characters’ desires in order to get them to do what you want. You’re offering them some kind of incentive, maybe a reward, or something that helps them move closer to one of their goals, or just an emotional payoff. Or you might be threatening one of those things. This is a kind of coercion, and in real life, it’s ethically tricky. Think about how it’s used in sales. If I were selling you a car, I might offer you additional incentives to sweeten the deal, like an extended warranty or lower financing. When I do this, I’m meddling with the choice you’re making about what car to buy. I might use threats too, by saying that this is a one time offer. If you walk off the lot now, you won’t be able to get the same deal. These are standard sales tactics in any industry, and they’re firmly on the ethical side of things, because while they influence your choice, they don’t remove your choice. If I threatened to shoot you unless you bought the car, then even if you chose to buy it, you wouldn’t really be making a choice. Using people’s motivations is ethical only so long as you don’t affect their ability to make meaningful choices.

Now, PCs are usually in a better spot to negotiate when someone threatens, them, but any reward or penalty that is so great that it utterly overshadows any alternatives will prevent them from making a meaningful choice. Doing a job to get the antidote to a poison that’s killing them, or because there’s a bomb in their heads are examples of this. There’s no real alternatives there. Doing a job that ends in a reward of godhood or even an incredible hoard, same thing. The the actual risk involved isn’t a factor because of some reward or penalty, then you’re restricting their ability to make choices, rather than enhancing it. This doesn’t mean never use these kinds of elements, but don’t use them as motivations. Negotiate them with your players instead of offering those choices directly to the characters.

Meaningful choices are the central appeal of any role-playing game, and really any game at all. If you don’t get to make real choices and have those bear out, then you’re not really a player. These kinds of abuses of motivation may seem like choices, because the PCs could choose to die, or to walk away from an incalculable reward, but just because you have a choice doesn’t mean you have a choice. This kind of thinking goes all the way back to Aristotle, who divides actions into three kinds: voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary. Involuntary actions are things that are completely outside your control, like your heartbeat, or thinking of a pink elephant when someone says “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Voluntary actions are ones you perform freely and rationally, and are held responsible for, like what you say during a debate, or entering into a business deal. Non-voluntary actions are actions that seem voluntary but aren’t, because you would never have done it but for the circumstances. He uses the example of a merchant jettisoning their  cargo in a dangerous storm. The merchant would never want to do that, but if it’s their cargo or their life, they choose their life. The kinds of risks PCs take for immense rewards or out of life-threatening danger are the kinds of things they would never choose but for those circumstances, and their actions in that respect are non-voluntary.

You’re in control of these choices, which makes you responsible for them. By setting up motivations in your adventure hooks, you’re exercising power over the setting and using your knowledge of the PCs and players to your advantage, and that’s fine, as long as its in the service of their autonomy. Your real obligation is to make sure the choices that you present to them are meaningful. What counts as meaningful will differ from game to game but the obligation doesn’t, whether you’re making rule calls or narrating NPCs. You can avoid using motivations this way  by asking one question. “What if they turn it down?” If the consequences for turning it down are madness, or even if it takes you longer than a minute to imagine why they’d turn it down, reexamine how hard you’re pressing on those motivations. More often than not a lighter touch will be better for everyone, because the players won’t feel like you’re being ham-handed about it, and you won’t be as invested in them going along with the hook.

Motivation, when used ethically, is a worm on the hook for the PCs. Unethically, it’s fishing with dynamite. There’s a lot of collateral damage and a good chance somebody winds up dead. And I think that just about wraps up my month on motivation. I’ve talked about how to direct rewards and penalties at players and characters, the difference between asking and telling, given a short list of motivations and how to use them, talked about how to motivate heroes, and today I’ve described how to do all of this without violating the trust your players place in you. What are some of the ways you motivate PCs in your games? Is there anything really important that I missed?


  • Now, I thought I’d put some thought into revenge as a motivation, but reading this has made me think a few things. I know revenge, when it’s an NPC acting against a PC group is pretty nasty anyway, but reversed; I’m worried that it’s still not a nice thing to do.

    • Apologies for the late reply Shorty, I was finishing up my thesis.

      Revenge is a great motivation, provided it’s characters taking revenge against characters. If the PCs depose Lord Wilkinson Herberdershire III and, consumed by hatred, he spends the last of his family’s money on an a top-notch assassin, that’s the start of a great story. The responsibility of the GM is to ensure that the PCs can still make meaningful choices about that assassin. Maybe they uncover the plot, maybe someone they care about doesn’t wake up one morning (Lord Herberdershire III wants the characters to suffer, after all). There are lots of outcomes that create more choices. On the other hand, telling a player “Your character doesn’t wake up. They were killed in their sleep” eliminates pretty much all of those choices, and doesn’t help the narrative.

      If it’s the PCs out for revenge, that’s good too. They want to hurt someone because they’ve lost something meaningful. They get to make choices about how to find them, what to do when they do, and most importantly how to weigh their desire for vengeance against other concerns. In the Count of Monte Cristo, the central theme is revenge, but it winds up costing Edmund his love, and maybe even his humanity. He has to make choices about that.

      Getting them motivated by revenge may seem pretty mean, but when you get down to it, it’s pretty much the GM’s job to do mean things to the PCs. When you’re a PC, you learn to live with it. The princess you were engaged to got kidnapped, orcs raided your hometown and killed your parents, and the innkeeper secretly works for a cult that wants to put your heart on an altar somewhere. That’s life.

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