The Seven Sins of Character Motivation
First published 10/29/2001; last edited 1/7/2005
Note that while this article was originally written to apply to plots written for roleplaying game (RPG) characters, it can also apply to finding motivation for characters in fiction.
It's a problem you have to solve over and over and over again: How do you convince your players' characters (PCs) to get involved in the plot you've created? How do you motivate them? To a lesser extent, how do you motivate non-player characters (NPCs) - both to involve the PCs, and just in general?
It seems like such a complex issue with so many possibilities. Because of this, many of the commercial RPG adventures you purchase will have very few suggestions for how you can integrate your party into their game (how you can motivate them to join in the fun). On the one hand this is understandable - how is an author sitting in his office supposed to intuit what will motivate your individual, unique party to investigate the plot?
On the other hand, we just don't buy this argument any more. We believe that most possible motivations can be distilled down into a pretty simple list of base incentive-types. And once you've done that, it's easy for the writer to point out to the game master (GM) where in the module some of those incentives can be found, created or inserted. It should also be fairly easy for the author to put a little thought into making sure that several of those incentives are present. Then all you have to do is individualize those incentives - tailor them to your specific party of characters. That's a lot less work than coming up with motivation wholesale!
Of course, since we don't really expect all of the module-writers out there to read this and follow our advice, we'll pitch this one at GMs instead. Hopefully by the time we're done, you'll be able to take a quick read through that module you just bought (or wrote for your own gaming group) and scare up some motivation on your own.
Note that many of these motivators depend on the idea that your players have created characters with a little depth to them. If they haven't, the means to motivate them will become boring and repetitive pretty quickly.
Each category addresses a fairly wide type of motivator. We'll give a few examples of each, but you'll need to find the specifics within your own game and your PCs' backgrounds. We also believe that within each category there are two further issues to consider:
- Quality ("good" vs. "bad," or positive vs. negative, aspects of a motivator)
- Direction (is the motivation directed toward the PCs, or from them toward something else?)
We'll get into a few of the specifics under each individual section. At the very least, however, this means that we have 7 categories times 4 combinations of the above 2 qualities, resulting in 28 possible types of motivators. With that many to start with, you should be able to find at least one plot hook that will work!
Lust and love are some pretty traditional motivators - particularly in movies and literature. In this category you'll find such tactics as threatening a PC's loved ones. Kidnap someone the PCs care about. Have someone send a death threat. Alternately, have someone a PC loves ask her to do him a favor. Perhaps a PC's loved one is ill, and the only way the PC can get the cure is to get involved in the plot. Maybe the PCs get dragged into something because one of the characters is in lust with someone and follows her someplace he shouldn't.
In a wider sense this category covers all sorts of personal relationships and attachments. If there's an authority figure that the party respects, he can tell them to get involved in a plot. A family member, peer, or dependent might ask the party to look into something. NPCs make great motivators in general, in all sorts of ways.
This category has its "good" angle: selfless devotion to and sacrifice for people the party member cares about (love, caring, generosity, a sense of responsibility). It also has its "bad" angle: a PC who drags his fellow party-members into something dangerous just because he has the hots for someone (lust, desire), is afraid of someone, and so on. It could be an NPC's feelings for a party member that drag the party into things, or it could be a party member's feelings for an NPC.
Introduce an NPC from a module before you actually start the adventure. Work him into a previous plot and try to stir up emotions of one kind or another (or some other sort of attachment) between him and the party. Or, rewrite one of the characters from the module to actually be a totally different NPC who is already a part of your game, and to whom the party already has a connection.
Don't threaten and harm player characters' loved ones too often if you're running a roleplaying game and you don't have players who go heavy on the "role" aspect of roleplaying. Some people get annoyed if they start to see their characters' loved ones as hindrances rather than resources. Make sure that NPCs always seem more useful than not (or at least fun and interesting to have around) over the long haul.
Many characters can be motivated by simple greed for money or some other sort of profit. This includes such traditional expressions as having someone pay the party to get involved in the plot. It also includes the traditional dungeon crawl that yields plenty of gratuitous treasure. Perhaps someone asks the party to accomplish a task for them; in accomplishing that task, the party can get their hands on some amazing or valuable item. This is probably the easiest motivator to make use of. It doesn't require a lot of background or PC personality - just an NPC with a large wallet or an adventure with a treasure at the center of it. Of course, some would argue that many expressions of this motivator are also rather trite, such as the person who comes to the tavern to hire a bunch of adventurers. Either way, greed is still a powerful motivator, and it's good to remember that you can make use of that. Remember that you can personalize greed by working something into the plot that would specifically appeal to the interests of the characters, rather than yet more generic money and treasure.
Casting greed into a good light often requires crossing it with another motivator. For instance, you can stir love into the pot: someone might want money in order to help someone else rather than themselves (generosity). Greed as a motivator can also be fairly neutral - just because the party is willing to involve themselves in the plot for monetary gain doesn't automatically make them grasping and nasty. Ambition, in some part, falls under the heading of greed, although it can also fall under the category of pride.
Greed directed toward the characters could involve an NPC who wants something the characters have; his actions in trying to take it from them involve them in the plot. Alternatively, he wants something someone else has, and decides to use the party in his plot to get it.
Is there a treasure at the center of this adventure? Make sure the PCs know about it and have reason to think that they'll get to keep some of it. Or have one of the NPCs in the module pay the PCs to get involved (just make sure he has at least some reason to hire them to do the job). Perhaps an NPC from your new module steals something valuable from the PCs, and someone gives them an opportunity to get it back by setting off on the adventure.
Envy has heavy overlap with pride and greed. In some cases it's just greed for what someone else has. Perhaps you can spur the party into delving into a risky venture because they're envious of what their neighbors have. You can show off some NPCs and things they have that the party wants: items, respect, power or powers. When your party becomes wealthy and money itself no longer attracts, this can be one way to get their attention. Show them that there's always someone who's better, more powerful, and wealthier than they are, and hopefully they'll jump at the bait.
Believe it or not, there's still a good angle to this one. Perhaps the party discovers that its enemies have developed an advantage over it. The characters need to hurry up and get a few advantages of their own, or maybe they'll be stomped out of existence. This can be a fantastic motivator.
Envy directed toward the party could lead NPCs to attack the party, steal something from the party, attempt to ruin the party's reputation, and so on. The party might find that they need to get involved in someone else's problems in order to track down what was stolen from them, get revenge on the people who attacked them, restore their reputation, and so on.
If the party has a long-time enemy, work them into the plot. Give them some sort of advantage that the party can overcome by solving the plot. Or if you're trying to appeal to their sense of greed and failing (i.e., they feel they already have plenty of loot and this adventure isn't worth a little more), then try to show them someone who's more powerful than they are, more wealthy, so they have incentive to let greed be their guide once again.
The accumulation of all reputation lies within this category. Here you'll find parties that play with politics in order to gain powerful positions (ambition). You'll find the thrill-seekers who jump into dangerous situations just for the danger or glory. Take advantage of this! If the party values their reputation then give them a chance to improve it. Or that reputation could be threatened, damaged, or challenged. Turn the plot into a contest between the party and some NPC rivals of theirs. Make the party prove its worth to someone. Responsibility could also be seen as an aspect of pride, and a PC that feels responsibility for the world around him is easy to drag into plots.
There are of course plenty of selfless reasons for wanting power and reputation - most of which involve using those things as a means to an end. Create a long-term need for the party or its allies, and then make sure that power and reputation would fill that need. This will give you plot hooks and motivation for months to come! This does require a bit of effort on your part of course - it's hard to have power struggles without a detailed power structure for them to take place in. Come up with some politics and intrigue for your game world if you plan to make use of pride.
If the party is becoming powerful or developing a reputation, then perhaps this time it's someone else's pride that sets things off. Maybe an NPC is tired of being upstaged by the party. He could be angry that someone like them could have such an impressive reputation or so much power. Perhaps an NPC's love of danger drags the party into things - either they have to rescue him if he's an ally, or clean up after him if his actions disrupt the lives around him.
If the party values its reputation or enjoys danger, then play up the danger involved in the plot. Make it sound exciting and note-worthy. Find a way in which succeeding at the plot could appeal to the party's sense of ambition - perhaps it would improve their reputation or impress someone important. Have an NPC whose opinion the party values imply or state that he'll be impressed with the party if they solve the plot and disappointed in them if they pass up the opportunity.
Anger, revenge, justice - yet more traditional motivations! It's hard to go wrong with these options. There are so many things that can make PCs angry, particularly if there's anything at all that they care about. Threaten the things they care about. Hurt their NPC friends. Steal things they love. Foil their carefully-laid plans. Offend their sense of morality (or responsibility).
On the "good" side of things, pay attention to that bit about offending the party's sense of morality. If the party members have a strong sense of morality or responsibility of whatever kind, then you can drag them into all sorts of plots without even having to get personal about it. If a PC has a strong sense of fair play, then seeing a stranger get cheated out of something might be enough to make him angry. This is another reason why it's a good idea to have players who create three-dimensional characters. You might ask your players to specifically pay attention to their characters' morality during character creation.
In terms of anger directed at the PCs, this is something you might want to wait a little while to make use of. Pay attention to what they do. If they kill a villain, for example, you could start off a later plot by having a relative or subordinate try to get revenge upon the party. This can be a neat way to weave old plots back into the fabric of your game, and it's always interesting for players to suddenly find themselves going, "hey, wait, I recognize that guy from three months ago!"
Keep track of old vendettas the party has. Any time a bad guy gets away, make special note of that. Keep that bad guy in mind and if he would fit easily into your module, then work him in on the other side of things. Make sure the party finds out he's involved so they'll want to jump in just to oppose him. Also pay attention to vulnerable NPC friends and try to drag one into the thick of things where appropriate.
Be careful with this category. Because this set of motivators works so well, GMs sometimes get a little over-enthusiastic in using it for everything. Players can get a little touchy if their carefully-cultivated NPC contacts and allies are constantly getting hurt and bumped off just to drag them into plots, and understandably so. Give the PCs a chance to save their friends or recover their prized possessions. Don't constantly threaten their loved ones, or you're only encouraging the party not to get close to anyone, and that doesn't help you at all!
This one doesn't seem nearly as obvious as the others, does it? How on earth can laziness translate into a plot hook? Well, we take this to mean that you want to set things up such that getting involved in the plot is easier on your party than avoiding it. You have to make your plot the path of least resistance.
Let's start with an overly simplistic example. In order to get the party where you need them, they have to go down a certain hallway. So have that hallway be easier to traverse. One of the others is guarded. A third has rubble blocking it.
Of course if your party is particularly paranoid then this might not work - they could decide instead that the obvious hallway is an evident trap. And if you're too obvious about this it may seem like you're sending a message from on high, and people can get understandably frustrated with that. So use a little subtlety when employing this trick. Even better, weave it together with other motivators, so it's part of a package rather than a glaring message. For instance, that hallway doesn't look particularly inviting, but at least it looks more passable than the others. Add to that a pursuing party of angry enemies, and hopefully the PCs just don't have enough time to go any way except down that hallway.
You could also allow your NPCs to make things easy on the PCs, so that it's a part of the game instead of "giving hints from on high." An NPC who wants the party to help him out might arrange things so that it's just plain easier for the party to help him than to avoid him. Again this usually works best if the characters can come up with some additional reason why they'd want to get involved - it'll help to keep them from bailing out at the first opportunity they find.
Try to make the plot seem generally appealing. Muck with it in small ways to set it in the party's path or to appeal to their interests and concerns. Read their character sheets and work their abilities and backgrounds into the plot.
If it's set off in some distant mountains and you can't think of any way to make the party go there, then set it closer to their paths instead. It's your game world and you can change details as you see fit. Just remember to use subtlety here. You might want to avoid this one if you're just starting out as a GM. It takes a little practice to be able to do this without being overt and obvious and without screwing with continuity and game balance.
Crafting a plot to generally appeal to the characters can at times be a subtle and tricky thing, so this method often works best when combined with other "sins."
This is useful when you have PCs who hunger for something in particular - such as knowledge. Another example of this category would be a PC who has an addiction, or a PC who voraciously collects certain items.
Curiosity is also a strong aspect of this category. This is the party that can be drawn into things simply by finding odd little details that intrigue them. Gluttony could be seen as the "bad" aspect of this one, and curiosity as the "good" aspect, although of course it's possible for a PC to collect items for a selfless reason. Again it can be directed toward or away from the party - they're curious about something or someone else, or an NPC is curious about them. The party wants a piece of knowledge they're offered, or an NPC tries to use them to get a piece of knowledge that he wants. The party tries to get their hands on a type of item they want, or an NPC either uses them to get an item he wants or takes an item from them.
Drop just enough weird details about the plot into the game to get the party's curiosity aroused. Or have the plot take an interest in the party! If the item at the center of a module's adventure is something that just wouldn't appeal to your party, then think about what would appeal to them and find a way to substitute that in. If a member of your party collects a certain type of item, then make sure there's one of them mixed up in the plot and that he finds out about it.
Overlap And Self-Motivation
You'll notice there's a heavy overlap between the examples covered under the various categories. This is because many (if not most) motivators can be seen as combinations of these categories. A PC who wants to take revenge for the death of a friend is motivated by both anger and love.
There are also plenty of ways for parties of PCs to self-motivate. It often isn't enough for only the GM or the players to create motivation; there usually has to be some sort of meeting in the middle. Player characters that have self-motivating characteristics, combined with some thought on your part about which emotions (which "sins") drive the party members, should enable you to find a way to pull the party into pretty much any plot or situation. Once you think about people's motivations it becomes much easier to figure out how to appeal to those motivations. Or in the case of NPCs, what actions those NPCs are likely to take that could involve the party.
If you can't find any elements of the above motivators to link your party and your plot, then perhaps you need to work on something more basic. Such as coming up with a plot that better suits your party, or convincing your players to create characters that possess more in the way of emotions and desires.