Heroic Motivations

Mr. Terrific, the worst named superhero. But awesome.

I’m starting to wrap up my month on motivation here, but wanted to spend some time on what’s probably the most common and most overlooked motivation for characters to get involved with adventures, and that’s simply by virtue of being heroes. Even in a non-heroic game, being a good person will provide worlds of motivation to interact with the characters and events in the setting. I always recommend it to new players, because it provides a simple reason for them to get involved. 

Mr. Terrific, the worst named superhero. But awesome.What’s it mean to be a good person, though? What’s so special about it? Lots of games have their own take on ethics, and and legions of people much smarter than I have taken a stab at this question over the past two and a half thousand years, but I think there’s one point that’s common to all the definitions. A good person, or a hero, takes an interest in the well-being of others. Whether it’s a man sobbing at the bar or a woman drinking to forget in the corner, a good person will seek to find out what’s wrong and if they can fix it. For a good person, the fact that something will make a person better off constitutes in and of itself a reason for them to do it. Virtue, as they say, is its own reward.

The reasons for actually being good are diverse, and can range from upbringing, like Superman, to being motivated by a deep pain, like Batman. You can be inspired by a leader or ideal, like Sir Galahad, or just out of a sense that people deserve a better life, like Mr. Terrific. I read an unhealthy amount of comic books, by the way. My point is that not everyone is a hero because of ponies and rainbows, and a sunny disposition isn’t a prerequisite for the job. What matters is that when other people are in trouble, a hero stands up for them as best as they can. They value other people’s well-being in a non-trivial way, and are willing to make sacrifices for others.

Motivating a hero is a pretty simple process. I’ve boiled it down into three steps.

  1. Show them a person with a real problem.
  2. Give that problem a face.
  3. Make sure they’re in a position to punch that face.
From there, profit. Seriously though, it’s that easy. Show them a person or group of people in genuine need, and they’ll respond. But it also has to be a problem they can do something about. Systemic poverty doesn’t have a face that you can hit, but a cruel Baron squeezing taxes out of his townsfolk does. As always, make it personal, both for the victims and for the perpetrators. The better you can demonstrate the need, the harder they’ll work for a solution. 

While this is a simple way of motivating people, be careful not to do it too often. There are three important reasons for this. First, it can result in overloading the character. They can’t do everything, and if everyone is in dire need, it’s going to start to desensitize them. You know that feeling you get when you look at your Skyrim quest log and see that it’s full of quests to help forty random people? It’s that, and it’s a problem. Second, if you can’t give the problem a face to punch, this can be good, but if it happens too often, your heroes will start to despair. yes, a lot of the really interesting problems are systemic in nature, but it’s easier to beat up the Baron than it is to try and dismantle a feudal nation-state. It’s not impossible, but too much of this can leave people at a loss. Finally, it can just detract from the narrative. I’ve been playing Jade Empire, and right now I’m stopping my quest to find my master and follow my destiny by restoring the dead to the underworld and take my place as the last of the Spirit Monks to do some matchmaking in a tiny Chinese fishing town. They’re all in such desperate need, but it really takes away from the sense of urgency in the overarching narrative when I keep stopping to help bakers.

Heroic motivations are best mixed with other ones. That’s where you get a lot of interesting choices. What happens when you have to choose between love and duty, or pick between doing the right thing or and accomplishing a meaningful goal? These choices are the kind of thing that will create great tension, and heroic motivations fit right in there. With heroism comes sacrifice, after all. What are some times when you’ve had characters that made heroic choices?

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