Who Are You Motivating?


A lot of GMing is about motivating people. Players and characters are looking for reasons to undertake actions, and while some of these are going to be reasons they create themselves,   other ones will be created by the GM. Often, this motivation takes the form of the bait for an adventure hook, and involves the promise of a reward or the threat of a penalty. Today I want to look at what makes rewards and penalties meaningful, and more importantly, at who you’re motivating when you offer one thing over another. The first rule of sales is know your audience, and it’s no different in gaming. 

For a reward to be meaningful, it has to be something that people desire. A lot of RPGs use experience points, which serve as something everyone wants, and rewards for overcoming challenges are doled out in those forms. Spirit of the Century doesn’t have experience, and instead rewards people who, for example, defeat an opponent in combat, with the right to tell the story of how it ends, extracting concessions from their foe. A reward doesn’t have to be mechanical though. Understanding people’s goals can help you come up with other rewards which are tailored to individuals, or to the party.

For a penalty to be meaningful, it has to disincentivize an action or behaviour. It has to be meaningful enough that people genuinely want to avoid it. Most games incorporate this into their combat mechanics, because combat tends to create the most situations you want to avoid (like being on the ground with an orc bashing your head in). Character death is a form of penalty, though whether it’s a necessary one is an interesting question for another time. Games like Spirit of the Century, 7th Sea, and Toon don’t have any character death whatsoever. The penalty in those contexts isn’t the death per se, but the cutting off of that character’s existence, and usually the cost of starting behind the rest of the group a bit. Paranoia characters have five lives, making death less meaningful and more an amusing bit of gameplay, because dying doesn’t actually cost you much. The classic vocabulary for this uses the word “Punishment” instead of “Penalty”, but I think the latter is a better fit. GMs aren’t in a position to punish people or characters, because that implies the removal of choice and a kind of direct intervention that I don’t advocate.

Now, the mechanics are in control of some of the rewards. They usually take care of things like how many experience points people get, how much treasure, and sometimes even what kinds of treasure. They also govern penalties, setting out how characters accrue them and what they are. In D&D you’re rewarded for killing monsters and taking their stuff, and penalized for not being up to the challenge of doing so (usually with the death of your character). But these mechanics aren’t rewards and penalties that the GM uses per se, they’re built into the game. The rewards and penalties that interest me are the ones employed directly by the GM to motivate the players and the characters. The bait of an adventure hook is a reward, whether it’s money up front or the promise of treasure at the end. Characters being punished for crimes is a penalty, a factor of the world designed to disincentivize that behaviour. These kinds of things are directly up to the GM. There can be some ethical issues surrounding that, and I want to explore them, but not today. Today I want to look at the difference between rewarding players and rewarding characters.


Things like experience points are metagame rewards. They reward players by improving characters. Fate points and other mechanics like them fall under this, and the promise of them can help motivate players toward certain kinds of behaviour. The most ubiquitous example of this is roleplaying xp. Giving out ad hoc experience for good roleplaying is about motivating players to do something, and requires a metagame reward. If you were to offer them treasure for their characters, they would then have to explain that treasure in game, but experience works differently. Metagame penalties are harder to pick out, because I think they’re not used as often. The kinds of things over which you’d ask someone to leave don’t count because they’re about general conduct rather than behaviour relating to the game. An example of a metagame penalty is the practice of docking experience points when people speak out of character. The idea behind is is that the fear of this penalty will motivate players to spend more time interacting in character.


Motivating characters can be done through a number of ways. Treasure is the most obvious example, but there’s also prestige, which can help a character become part of the setting. They can also be brought closer to one of their goals. These also reward the player of course, but doing it in an in character context can help you create tension between the player and their character. If Steve doesn’t want his ranger to fight his nemesis for a few more levels, but you dangle a juicy bit of information about the whereabouts of said nemesis, Steve has to make interesting choices about what to do. The classic “in character” penalty that a GM employs to motivate a character to take on a particular challenge is “Save the princess” where princess can be replaced with anyone the character cares about. Not acting will mean they get eaten by a dragon or something else with lots of teeth and a large appetite, so it motivates the character to mount a rescue. Another form of penalty is the loss of some of the rewards mentioned previously. The possibility of losing treasure, prestige, or getting farther away from one’s goals can all be motivating to a character.

There’s a lot of questions which can be pursued here, and in the next few weeks I’m going to look at some of them, including using some examples from my own game to show how I try and motivate both players and characters. There’s a question about meaningful choices, about the difference between asking and telling, and about the ethics of setting up these kinds of rewards/penalties. What do you find to be effective when motivating players? How about characters?


  • This is something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit now that I’ve invited people to start a game. Finding a good motivation for one character or player seems like the (relatively) easy part. What I’ve had a harder time envisioning are hooks that motivate the entire party. Making one person in the group interested in a particular quest/adventure/whatever is all well and good but if everyone else doesn’t have a reason (or as strong of a reason) to risk their necks then why would they come along too? Steve may gain information on his rival’s whereabouts but why should the rest of the party care?

    • That’s a genuine challenge, Rhino. One of the ways around it is to have the group set some goals, or to examine people’s game goals and appeal to those, rather than their character goals. Some games have a universal reward, like money, but as Shortymonster points out, cash can have diminishing returns, especially since most adventures involve the acquisition of treasure.

      If you have a party of characters who are integrated with the setting, then the goals of their factions or associates can come into play, but the easiest way I’ve found to motivate the entire party is actually through NPCs. Having hooks be delivered by characters that the party members genuinely like or dislike motivates them to head out on the adventure. The payoff is being able to help a friend or hinder an enemy, and applies to both players and characters because they’ll both have feelings about that NPC. For example, in a game a few years ago I delivered a number of hooks through Pollyanne, a widow and single mother whose inn had been burnt down by criminals. The party was genuinely sympathetic, both in and out of character, and helped her despite the fact that she repeatedly refused out of pride. A lot of it boils down to knowing your players and their characters, and the things that push their buttons, but taking the time to really humanize the NPCs in the setting can make the hooks a lot easier to swallow.

  • I think there’s a sliding scale on what it takes to motivate a group, both in and out of character. OOC, they will turn up expecting a good game, but will keep coming back if the GM manages to continually impress them, and they get on with the other players. that kind of thing is important, and I think could be looked at in more detail.

    IC, it starts with a promise of payment at the end of a job or something equally basic, by the end there are more complex motivators like revenge and honour that come about through game play. A lot of this is in the players hands to play their characters well, but the GM should be providing ways for them to delve deeper into their motivations. Even an in game pay day could be drawn out to mean more.

    As an example, while running a game that promised a big cash payout, the group acquired a lot of things during play that they were going to buy with the cash, meaning it was a lesser motivation. Now, they had all gotten so into the game and the plot, that almost everyone had a reason to see it to the end without taking the money into consideration at all (there was the one guy, but isn’t there always?). So instead I gave my NPC employer a bit of a free reign to use his high society and government contacts to offer them each something that money couldn’t buy. The Doctor was given stewardship of a large department and even had a wing of the hospital named after himself.

    it was still a reward for completing the job, but it meant more to him than any amount of money would.

    • I think you’re right that players are essentially looking for a good game, but while it’s worth looking into, it doesn’t seem that that’s a factor in motivating them to do specific things rather than others unless what makes the game good is at stake. What I’m interested in is the specific things that a GM can do to motivate them toward behaviours which can help the game or away from those which can harm it, as well as getting the players to motivate their characters. I do intend to talk a bit about some of the things I do to motivate players in some later posts, how they’re useful, and some challenges that I’ve had with them.

      With regard to in character motivations, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. As characters become more deeply entrenched in the setting, their motivations become more complex. I think is because the players in general have a better feel for the world and its relationships, but also because their relationship with the world is real. It’s one thing to write in your background that Steve the ranger has an illegitimate child and fought in the battle of Hillside, and another thing entirely to have played through that relationship or battle., and the latter certainly results in a deeper and more complex understanding of the situation.

      You’re also right about the perils of motivating people with treasure. In games like D&D, the promise of treasure has diminishing returns, but there are a lot of other things in the setting that money cannot buy, such as prestige, land, and the achievement of character goals. Those are often better motivations in part because those rewards often cannot be obtained through any other means.

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