Character Self-Motivation in Roleplaying Games

It can be tough for your game master (GM) to find ways to draw your characters into every plot he comes up with for his roleplaying game (RPG). There are some things you can do to help him, however. I believe that there are four major player character (PC) personality traits that cause them to get involved in the things going on around them. By giving your character one or more of these traits during character creation, you can make the job of involving the party in the plots much easier on your GM. This also means that you’ll have more fun: you’ll spend less time flailing around wondering how to get involved in things, and more time actually playing around with plots. In fact, at least one of these traits might cause you to create your own plots as you go!

The four characteristics are ambition, responsibility, curiosity, and the ability to form personal attachments. When you create your characters, think about these four character traits. There’s certainly no need to work all of them in, but try to find a place for at least one of them. I’d go so far as to say that most PCs that have none of the above characteristics aren’t really PCs. Characters that have no reason to interact with the world around them also have no reason to get involved in a game’s plots. They’re going to have to be force-fit into the structure of the game, and that will probably inevitably fail. For instance, if your character wants nothing more than to settle down and be a farmer, has no ambition, no curiosity, no interest in people, and no sense of responsibility for anything around him, then what’s supposed to stop him from settling down and ditching this plot-oriented business as soon as he has a little money?

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. If you tie your PCs together well enough, for example, then not all of the PCs need to have these characteristics — just enough of them to overrule the people who don’t when decision-making time comes.

The Traits

Responsibility

It helps if you give your character reason to feel some amount of responsibility for the world around her. Perhaps she has some sort of authority, however small, or a sense of duty to some ideal or government. Perhaps she has reason to think that she can make a difference where others cannot. Perhaps she believes that if she and her friends don’t help out, no one will. Maybe she just has a boss who requires her to be responsible for something, or underlings who ask for help on various matters.

Your GM can also try to introduce some of this after the game has started by bringing any of the above elements into the game. If your character has the sort of personality that at least admits the possibility of responsibility and duty, then he might work her into a position of some authority mid-game.

Curiosity

Characters who are curious about the world around them are easy to draw into things. If they see something weird, they’ll probably want to check it out. If something intrigues them, they’ll find a way to look into it. This is a matter of degrees of course. Your character probably has at least a modicum of survival instinct or she won’t live long, so she’ll be constantly weighing the potential dangers against the amount of curiosity the mystery provokes in her. There’s no need to make her so curious that she’s stupid about it, but it is good to make her sense of curiosity strong enough that occasionally it leads her to do things that she might think better of otherwise.

Then all your GM has to do is present you with that mystery. He can show you something neat, something interesting, something inexplicable. And he can give you just enough reason to think that it’s okay for you to look into it. Your character’s sense of curiosity should do the rest.

Personal Attachments

Characters that care about people are easy to involve in things. One of the best things you can do for your character is give her the ability to form personal attachments. Maybe she just likes people. She’s friendly; she likes getting to know her neighbors and co-workers. She doesn’t mind listening to their problems, and feels the need to help them out when they’re in trouble. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If your character easily forms attachments to NPCs, then it’s easy for your GM to draw her into things just by introducing her to characters involved in the plots.

This trait is closely related to responsibility, in that personal attachments can contribute to a sense of responsibility for others. Once your character has developed attachments to the people around her, the GM can manipulate those attachments to pull her into his plots.

Ambition

A character that feels ambition will create her own plots! All the GM has to provide is a power structure, plenty of intrigue, and the occasional nudge in the right direction. Ambition should do the rest — ambition can draw a character into any plot that seems as though it will yield some sort of advantage or power to her. As long as there’s a reward at the center of the plot that will appeal to your character’s ambition, you’ll have no trouble justifying jumping into all sorts of plots.

This one does require a little effort on the GM’s part. There needs to be something of a power structure (and probably a political structure) for your character to muck with in the game. The GM also has to be willing to allow the party to gain some amount of power or your character is likely to give up; many GMs have trouble coming up with plots for powerful characters. But if the GM feels up to it, this particular character trait can take you a long way.

But Why?

It’s good to give your characters some reason to motivate themselves, rather than relying on the GM to do it all for you. After all, your average everyday person doesn’t go around getting involved in “plots” and sticking her nose into everything. Your PC needs a personality that supports these activities, rather than forcing the GM to come up with all-new convincing reasons for you to investigate each plot. Your GM still needs to find ways to appeal to those personality traits, but that’s a lot easier than creating motivation wholesale.

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