Motivation Lightning Round
So I’ve talked about reward and punishment as motivators, as well as requests and orders, but there are lots of other things which can motivate people to crawl down dark holes full of monsters or hang from a cargo plane while shooting at nazis. Here’s eight of them, for your perusal.
Some people are explorers. They want to know what’s out there, sometimes whether they get paid or not. Learning who was here before us and what they were like are key components of our natural curiosity, often accompanied by wondering whether they had any really neat stuff we can have. A character who’s curious wants to uncover hidden things or locations and dig deeper into the setting for the sake of learning more about it. Motivate them by including exotic locations or hinting at a deeper history.
Duty is a complicated thing. It can mean a duty to a specific person like a knight’s to a king, to an organization like a union, to a role like parenthood, or to an ideal like the right thing to do. When we act out of duty, we don’t do it for a reward or because we were told to, but because we recognize the necessity to do so. Motivate a dutiful character by recognizing what they see as their duty and finding a way to appeal to them on the basis of that. Making sure it’s not an order or an instruction but instead an opportunity leaves them with interesting questions to answer about how they see their duty and how they balance it with other factors.
Sometimes you just want to stick it to the other guy. Not because someone got kidnapped, not because there’s an evil plot, but just because you want to hit them before they can hit you. Vengeful characters can be tricky, because vengeance can be part of their game goals and pull the game in their direction. But if you can invent someone that they really hate, they’ll jump for it every time. Motivate them by showing them an opportunity to hurt their enemies either directly, which usually involves stabbing, or indirectly, such as helping friends.
When it’s not about getting the money but about getting there first, you have a rivalry on your hands. A genuine rivalry with NPCs can be very hard to create, and I’ll talk about that more when I talk about archetypal relationships in a few months, but if you’ve got one, then you have a veritable bounty of motivation. Characters who are rivals will compete at almost anything, and you can use that to lead them into all sorts of trouble. Rival alchemists? Well, one of them has a map to a temple with a rare ingredient, and set out a week ago. Looks like she’ll be the darling of the Royal Society…Unless someone beats her to it. Motivate rivals by getting them to keep up with the Joneses, and develop that relationship for all that it’s worth.
This is a kind of reward, but it’s worth talking about here as well. Respect plays well in real life, and it does so in game too, but it has to be earned. Having fanboys follow a first level wizard around cheapens the effect, but having the party hear that someone wrote a song about their battle with the demon Thugyarataz (somewhat short but with pizzazz) is pure gold. Things like discounts and deference don’t cost you anything, but when that bard comes to them with an ask, it’ll pay off in spades. Motivate characters who crave respect by giving it to them and letting the realization sink in that it’s something they can lose. When the innkeeper who always gives you free drinks because of that time you saved the town asks you to save her lost son, it’s not the potential loss of the free drinks that’s motivating, but what that loss means.
Some of our most powerful stories are about redemption. A second chance, the opportunity to right old wrongs, it’s something everyone wants in the real world. It’s harder to tell this story in a role-playing game without being over the top, because characters are so much less complicated than people. They have less regrets, and most of those regrets involve dead people. But a regretful character is a character who can be motivated by the possibility of redemption. Regretful moments are different from tragic moments, because for the regret to be real, it has to be your fault. The death of Batman’s parents is a tragic moment, but what he regrets is asking them to leave the movie early, which meant running into a killer in an alley. Motivate regretful characters by presenting something as a second chance or creating an opportunity for them to forgive themselves. Only works once or twice, but when it does, they’ll move mountains.
We do foolish things for love. I didn’t say that, Merlin did in The Once and Future King, but it’s true. Getting a flower from the highest mountain or the talon of a beast from the deepest dungeon is one way to do it, and fits all the standard romance archetypes. But there are subtler ways to leverage with love. Love can be a motivation to not do things, out of a concern for danger or a desire for closeness. Encouraging words from a loved one can also lend characters confidence when they have doubts. Should they go and fight the Spider-God? It has sixteen limbs and spits both acid and fire, not to mention being the size of a house. Have a character with a solid relationship to the PC utter the words “Of course you will. That’s why I fell in love with you” and you’d better send the Spider-God a memo concerning a future ass-kicking. It takes time and work to develop these relationships, but unlike redemption, it doesn’t get old.
Every character should be good at what they do, but some of them want to be the very best. Characters pursuing mastery will overcome challenges, climb mountains, and jump down the darkest holes if it will make them better at what they do. This one can usually be a good start for a rivalry, but they could just be trying to beat the twelve labours of Hercules. Make sure both you and they have an understanding of their goal and how to get there, but don’t be afraid to move the goalposts. In 1896, the gold medalist in the 100m did it in twelve seconds. Two weeks ago sprinter Usain Bolt did it in just over nine and a half. The closer to you get to being the best, the harder things get. Motivate characters seeking mastery by appealing to how it will make them better, either by improving their skills or by adding to their achievements.
So there you go, eight other ways to motivate characters. I could write a post on each of them, and I might one day, but in the meantime, I recommend talking with players about the kinds of motivations they’re looking for. They have stories they want to tell, and by appealing to the real motivations of their characters, you can help them tell those stories. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when using these, but if you don’t get a hit, move on rather than forcing the issue. And feel free to mix and match, because a lot of these can be intertwined for interesting and personalized results. What other things can you think of that motivate people?