Let’s talk about Guardians of the Galaxy. And when I say “let’s talk about Guardians of the Galaxy,” I mean to say “I’m going to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy and you’re going to shut up and listen.” Because I just KNOW there’s some jacka$& who will want to raise a moronic counterpoint to what I’m about to say, probably based on something that happened in a comic book. And I don’t care. I’m trying to make a point and teach a lesson about making good adventures. Because, yes, we’re talking about building adventures again. And, specifically, we’re talking about the third piece of the adventuring pie, the third Triforce of Adventuring. We talked about structure, we talked about resolution, and now we’re going to talk about motivation.
I saw Avengers of the Galaxy recently. Yeah, yeah, I’m a little behind. I don’t have time to watch crappy movies (because they are all crap). I have to keep cranking out thousands of words every week because now I’m getting paid for it (I have a Patreon, you know). And, while it was a fun little movie, it had some pretty specific flaws. Not least of which was James Gunn trying to right Joss’ Whedons Avengers in SPAAAACCCE rather than writing James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But whatever. The bigger problem was one of motivation.
So, it starts when the Purple Avengers Guy decides he wants to get a magic rock. And so he sends the Blue Hammer Guy to find the rock. Blue Hammer Guy wants to use the rock to destroy Planet Glenn Close. But his daughter, the Green One, is mad and decides to betray him by trying to sell the rock. Meanwhile, That Guy gets kidnapped from Earth when his mother dies and he becomes a space treasure hunter and hunts treasure. Except we learn that he actually works for the Whistling Dude and he tries to get the rock to betray the Whistling Dude and sell it. Meanwhile, there is a Squirrel and a Tree who are hunting That Guy because of some kind of bounty? And That Guy and The Green One and the Squirrel and the Tree end up in prison where Overly Literal Guy wants to kill that Green One because of Blue Hammer Guy. But then they end up working together, escape the prison, and decide not to sell the rock but instead to fight Blue Hammer Guy before he can destroy Planet Glenn Close and the Purple Avengers Guy is… well, lost interest. I don’t know.
The thing is, a lot of s$&% happens in the movie. And people do things. But WHY do the people do the things? Why is The Green One so mad at The Blue One and the Blue Hammer Guy and the Purple Avengers Guy? And why, if she was just going to sell the rock for a s$&%load of money and run does she decide not to once she finds out what the rock is even though she already KNOWS that Purple Avengers Guy and Blue Hammer Guy were going to blow up the universe because that’s literally all they talk about? Why was Blue Hammer Guy mad at Planet Glenn Close? He clearly had some sort of religion driving him, but what was the religion? Why did That Guy turn against the Whistling Dude even though they seem to have a lot of affection for each other? Why did he turn back? Why the hell did the Tree do ANYTHING? It’s like everyone read the script and knew what things had to happen, but it didn’t really matter WHY they were doing it.
Those things? Those reasons why people do the things they do? Those are called \motivations. And they are actually really, super important even though lately, a hell of a lot of popular movies seem to be forgetting about them. And, because of that, you might think it’s okay for you to leave motivation out of your adventures. But it isn’t. Because you’re not asking the masses to sit silently for two hours and noisily shovel grease-laden popcorn into their gobs while they watch flashing lights and stop thinking. You’re asking players to waste five hours a week basically doing math and creative writing. Also, you can’t make the characters do whatever you want and figure the audience won’t notice that they are behaving at random if there’s enough robots hitting aliens with train engines. Because the characters in YOUR game have free will. And if they won’t play the adventure you have planned, you’re s$&% out of luck.
Goals and Motivations and Why They Are Not the Same
A lot of GMs confuse goals and motivations. So do a lot of players. They tend to think that goals and motivations are the same thing, or, at best, two sides of the same coin. But they are very different things.
A goal is an endpoint, a thing to accomplish. Slay the princess, marry the dragon, find the treasure, win the tournament, catch the murderer, get the magic rock, stop the Blue Hammer Guy, whatever. Every adventure has a goal. You probably recognize it. Because the goal of the adventure is the resolution. Well, that is, the resolution occurs when the goal is accomplished or lost forever. But the goal and the resolution are closely tied together.
A motivation describes why a character seeks a goal. Sort of. We’ll come to the sort of in a bit. Let’s just pretend, for now, that’s a complete definition.
A motivation describes why a character seeks a goal. Motivations are the reasons. I want to slay the princess because she’s evil and I want to serve the greater good. I want to marry the dragon for love. I want to find the treasure because I want wealth. I want to win the tournament for personal glory. I want to catch the murderer for justice. I want to get the magic rock for power. I want to stop the Blue Hammer Guy because I am brain damaged.
Now, that SEEMS cut and dry. But motivations and goals can be hard to separate sometimes. For example, I might want to get the treasure because I want the treasure. But I might want the treasure because I can buy my brother’s freedom from the slavers. And I want to do that because of my loyalty to my brother. So one goal’s motivation might just be another goal with a motivation of its own.
This gets especially complicated in character backstories because players don’t often spell out motivations. A lot of times we assume motivations are just understood. Generally speaking, if I say my goal is to rescue my brother from slavers, no one will ask why. We assume it’s out of love or family duty or something.
On top of that, sometimes, the motivation and the goal are pretty hard to separate. For example. Scrooge McDuck wanted cubic acres of money. But he didn’t want them for any reason. The money wasn’t really the goal, the money was the motivation. Scrooge, ultimately, was greedy. Greed was his motivation. Though, if you want to get into a full, complex exploration of Scrooge McDuck’s character, we could start by analyzing the fact that he didn’t want to be rich. He wanted to be the richest, as evidenced by his rivalry with Flintheart Glomgold. It was less about greed than it was about being the absolute best. He just chose money as his way of keeping score.
So, motivation can get pretty complicated. You can have a character who wants to find the murderer because he’s being paid and he wants the money because he wants to buy his brother from slavers. But he only wants to do that to prove to absolve himself of guilt because he thinks its his fault his brother got captured and he went free. See? Complicated.
But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you understand there is a difference between a goal – be it a personal goal or an adventure goal – and a motivation. Motivation provides the drive, the motive force, the push toward the goal.
Role-Players Are F$&%ing Liars
Now, remember when I said that the definition of motivation I gave was incomplete? Well, when it comes to role-playing games and creating adventures, there’s a huge complicating factor. Role-playing is is complete and utter horses$&% and role-players are liars. All of them. Every last goddamned one. And if they disagree, that’s just proof of how much they lie. Its a wonder GenCon is even allowed to take place given the amount of pants-related spontaneous combustion that should be happening in its halls. Role-players are full of s$&%.
In theory, an adventure begins with a hook. The hook presents a goal and offers some sort of motivation. Sound familiar? Goal. Motivation. And every so often, one of the players will suddenly say “you know, I don’t think my character would go along with that.” They explain that their character doesn’t give a s$&% about the greater good or about money or about treasure or about being a douchenozzle. They play it off as “being true to their character.” And maybe they really think that’s the case.
But it’s bulls$&%. Utter bulls$&%.
The problem is the player’s motivations, not the character’s motivations.
See, players can (and always do) make excuses for just about anything. They can rationalize any choice their characters make. Because, in the end, the major determining factor for everything that happens at the game table is what the PLAYERS want. If you, as a GM, presented the opportunity to play an adventure that was everything that Alice ever wanted to play, she wouldn’t let a pesky thing like character get in the way. For example, if she loves stealth and infiltration and being motherf$&%ing Batman and you promise an adventure in which she has to help infiltrate an enemy stronghold, overcome impossible odds, terrorize the villains, and then steal a prisoner right out from under the villain’s nose, she’d forget in a heartbeat that her only motivation up to this point has been greed. She’d rationalize it. “Well, there’s probably plenty of gold in that stronghold and I’ll have the opportunity to rip off a few dozen guards and maybe loot a vault or two,” she’d say, “so I’m in.” Done and done. Players can pull off those mental gymnastics without effort. When they want to.
Are you feeling defensive? Are you feeling skeptical? Are you feeling angry that I would dare to suggest that people play anything other than their characters? Tough s$&%. It’s true. And if you want to write your own adventures, you’d better get over it. Players do what they want and drag their characters along for the ride through the power of rationalization. In the end, the players’ desires will always trump their characters’ desires. And that’s as it should be. Because the players have to have fun with the game, not the characters.
This is controversial. I know it is. But let’s be clear, I’m not saying that you should completely ignore character motivation over player motivation. In a lot of cases, you COULD, but that won’t always work. What I am saying is that an adventure has to motivate BOTH the player AND the character. And you should always err on the side of motivating the player. It’ll make your job a lot easier.
By the way, please don’t leave a comment trying to tell me how you’re the one player who never, ever let’s their own motivations get in the way of being true to your character. Because players are liars. And worse, part of rationalization is that you can’t tell when you’re rationalizing. So you can’t be trusted even if you think you are telling the truth.
So what does a good motive do? A good motive makes the players want to play the adventure and it also allows their characters to accept the adventure. And, like I said, that first thing is really the more important thing. Because if you make the players want to play the adventure, they will give you more wiggle room when they whether their characters are willing to go along for the ride. The trouble with most GMs is that they tend to bury the lede.
Burying the lede is a term from journalism. It refers to a news story that starts with something less interesting and less important than what the story is about. For example, if I’m writing a new story that talks about a bunch of heroes slaying a massive dragon, I don’t start by talking about how cattle deaths have driven up the price of beef and caused a famine.
The lede, in your adventure, is the coolest part of the adventure. Its the thing that makes your adventure unique or exciting or awesome. It can be a powerful villain, a difficult mystery, a fantastic setting, or an emotionally wrenching moment. It is a tantalizing promise.
When you come up with your motive, you need to know two things: why would the characters want to do this and why would the players want to play this. Cool? So let’s talk about how to motivate characters and how to motivate players.
How to Get Imaginary People to Do Things
In theory, every character has one or more motivations, one or more drives. And, in theory, every player brings those to the table. And you can always count on that to…. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Sorry, I couldn’t keep a straight face. In practice, players are inconsistent dips$&%s. Some players are really good at coming up with motivations. Some players don’t bother. Some players come up with goals, but no motivations. Or assumed motivations. And many, MANY players are inconsistent in pursuing their motivations. The trouble is that most players don’t understand motivations. They are not actors or authors or screenwriters. But they do the best they can.
That’s why I said that if you come up with a game people WANT to play, their characters will somehow get dragged along for the ride. That’s the best thing to count on. Build adventures players want to experience and they will drag their characters along.
But, it’s important for you to at least recognize character motivations. Because there are players out there who do have a modicum of understanding of character and they WILL give you a hard time when it comes to adventure motivations. And, more importantly, because it’s better to offer honest motivation to both the player and the character than to trick the player into f$&%ing with their character.
In general, character motivations come in three basic types: things, ideas, and ego.
A character motivated by a thing wants a thing. The thing can be a real physical thing or it can be an intangible thing. But the point is, it is something that has to be gathered or won. Money, magical items, and ancient relics are things. But so is glory, recognition, reputation, property, titles, and so on. Those are all things the world gives the character. Notice that often “thingly” motivations are actually a way of working toward a goal. And that’s okay. The character who wants money to free her brother from slavers technically isn’t motivated by the desire for money, but in the short term, money is still a motivation for her.
A character motivated by ideas believes there’s something in the universe more important than the character. Justice, truth, freedom, order, goodness, beauty and so on. Alternatively, the character believes that some things need to be purged from the universe. Injustice, evil, slavery, tyranny, whatever. These are ideals. They aren’t things, but they are still outside the character. Likewise, characters who supplicate themselves to some divine ethos are generally motivated by ideals.
A character motivated by ego is after self-actualization. The character is motivated purely by an internal desire and judges only himself. The character who works for enlightenment, personal perfection, who will take on any challenge just to challenge himself, to satisfy curiosity, to explore the world, these are things that don’t exist outside the character. They exist when the character looks inward. Many spiritual characters go this route as well, but there’s a subtle difference between idea and ego when it comes to spiritualism. A character motivated by ideas looks to purify the world (for example). A character motivated by ego looks to purify himself.
As a GM, you should make it a point to understand the motivations of your characters. And you can’t stop simply with what they write in a backstory. Because players ALWAYS lie. Or, at least, they get things wrong. You should constantly pay attention to what the characters do during the game and how that shows their motivations. If the character never shies away from a challenge and, in fact, gets waspish when told something is too big for him to handle, the character is in it to challenge himself, whatever the backstory says. If the character claims to be gathering money to rescue her brother, but she often ends up taking on jobs for free because she a good person at heart and hates to see people suffering, she’s idealistic.
Keep a list of the character’s motivations and constantly reassess it. That helps you tailor your adventure to the characters.
How to Get Real People to Do Things
So, that’s character motivation. What about player motivation? That’s something gamers rarely discuss except in the broadest terms of understanding why people sit down to play a role-playing game at all. But that’s exactly what player motivation is. And it’s weird that the idea of player motivations rarely enter the discussion of how to build an adventure. After all, you are building adventures for both players AND characters.
Now, I’ve written extensively on the major reasons why players sit down to play RPGs. They are called “engagements.” And you can go back and read my article about the Eight Kinds of Fun for a good, solid analysis. But we don’t need to look at the whole article to talk about adventure motivation. Because some of those things only come out over the whole, long span of the game. Generally, an adventure gets by making a tantalizing promise of challenge, discovery, fantasy, narrative, or submission. If you read the article about fun, you’ll recognize those terms. If not, let’s run through them quickly in terms of an adventure.
A challenging adventure is one in which the PCs are going to have to prove their mettle, to work hard to overcome something daunting. A promise of challenge usually contains a powerful foe, a difficult obstacle, or an unsolveable puzzle or mystery.
A discovery adventure is one in which the PCs learn more about the world or go to some unexplored place. A promise of discovery is usually about the unknown. Either exploring an unknown place or making a new discovery.
A fantasy adventure is one about being immersed in a wonderful, imaginary world and losing yourself in your character. A promise of fantasy is usually about interactions with the world and making interesting choices, because, remember, losing yourself in the character is about making choices for your character. This is a little bit more intangible, because there’s lots of ways to promise fantasy. But anything that lets the characters get deep into the world and interact with lots of elements promises fantasy.
A narrative adventure is one that promises a solid story structure, a well-paced narrative. Usually, a promise of narrative is a promise of a strong characters, strong motivations, and a solid climax. Most adventures actually imply a narrative, especially the way I’m telling you to write them. In fact, it’s only really unstructured adventures that don’t show any clear goal from the beginning that don’t promise a narrative.
A submission adventure is one that is casual and fun to play and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Dungeon crawls and action adventures are great submission adventures. Though they don’t have to be. A promise of submission is straightforward goal and a clear path to it that is strewn with obstacles to overcome, one after another.
Now, on top of these engagements, you have three general types of gameplay. D&D refers them to rather stupidly as “combat, role-playing, and exploration.” Now, I know what they MEAN. They mean what I’m about to say: combat, interaction, and problem-solving. Those are three main ways that people in D&D deal with adversity: killing it, talking to it, or … dealing with it any other way. Yeah, that’s clumsy as hell, but that’s the way the game is structured. What do you want from me?
Notice those aren’t the only things that happen during D&D. But when D&D becomes a game – that is, when the PCs face a conflict and have to resolve it – those are the ways they deal with it. Role-playing is NOT the same as interaction. Role-playing is decision making. It happens constantly. And exploration is the act of interacting with the world. It also happens constantly.
Anyway, the point is that every player has preferences. And a game that promises to deliver on those preferences will make them salivate. The trouble is, while most of the players in a group have SOME similar preferences, they rarely all have the same preferences. So a good adventure motive, covers several different engagements.
Every adventure generally promises a narrative structure. Beyond that, lots of things overlap. For example, if you promise a difficult mystery, you’re engaging challenge and discovery. An urban crime drama promises challenge, discovery, and fantasy because it offers lots of chances to interact with the world.
Generally, a player motivation will promise either a general tone or feel or it will promise a specific climax. And the key to a good motivation is to make sure the tone or the climax covers several different engagements and offers several types of gameplay.
One other thing to keep in mind? As you run games for the same group over and over, your adventures don’t have to make as many promises as they used to. See, every GM has a style and tends to favor certain engagements over others. And the more you deliver on those engagements, the more the players will just assume EVERY adventure promises some of those engagements. The dirty secret is, the longer you run games for the same group, the easier it becomes to motivate the players. And once you can motivate the players, it’s easier to motivate the characters. But, when you first start out, you have to sell every adventure.
Motivation by Example
Okay, so let’s build a couple of motivations. The thing is, I can describe the ingredients and I can describe what the ingredients do, but actually putting them together into solid motivations is kind of more art than alchemy. Its more magic than science. But, keep in mind, the motivation is for your notes. It’s part of building the adventure. It’ll help you build the first scene, but the players will never actually see the motivation you right down. You’re writing it down as a tool for you to use later.
In the last article in this series, we picked two resolutions we would use as running examples of how to build an adventure. Remember? Let’s add some motivations to our resolutions.
So, the first adventure ends when the dragon that is terrorizing the village has been killed or driven off OR when the dragon becomes infuriated and lays waste to the village before moving on. Got it?
What sort of motives does that adventure promise? Well, to the characters, this adventure is already loaded. There’s the aspect of rescuing innocents, serving the greater good, and freedom for the idealists. There’s a treasure horde, probably filled with money and magic items, and the fame and glory of defeating a dragon. And for the egoists, there’s all the self-actualization that comes from beating an unbeatable foe and rescuing the downtrodden. It’s a good, solid, all around adventure for most character motives.
What about for the players? Well, obviously, there’s the general challenge of defeating a dragon. But beyond that, everything else is sort of straightforward. Dragon terrorizes village, heroes defeat dragon, the end. That might be good for players who only want challenge or who want to submit to a simple game, but here’s my problem. When I ran this adventure, my players weren’t all about challenge and no one was a beer-and-pretzels submissive. They wanted strong narratives and to engage with the world. In other words, they wanted heart. I couldn’t just sell them “look, dragon fight, cool huh?” To do that, to tug on the fantasy and narrative heartstrings, I would need to focus more on the villagers. The people under the dragon’s thrall. And their plight. And maybe put some difficult choices in the way of the players. Because my players, as much as they like a good combat, also like interaction and problem solving. And the dragon scenario is lacking in those aspects.
So, character motives are: greater good, treasure horde, and beating a powerful foe. That wraps up everything character wise.
Player-wise, I want to motivate the players in terms of fantasy, narrative, and challenge. Challenge is easy. The scenario is inherently about challenge. But fantasy and narrative need to come into play too. As do interaction and problem-solving.
Believe it or not, that’s enough. I’m done with this step. Remember, the motivation is just an outline. It’s a tool for you to use in building the adventure. You need to just have some notes about why the characters care and why the players want to play so that, later, when you actually start building your adventure,
What about the other adventure?
This was an adventure about the PCs stopping a smuggling ring. As part of my urban campaign, the PCs ended up tasked with figuring out who was smuggling elvish drugs into the city and how they were doing it, giving that information to the fantasy police, and then breaking up the smuggling ring. It was basically an urban crime drama.
The motivations for the players are all there. It’s a mystery, first and foremost. It promises challenge and discovery just on the face of it. And because the PCs would be running around the city, interacting with various characters, and would have to operate (ostensibly) within the law, there’s a strong fantasy element. You can lose yourself in the character and the world in a story like that. And, of course, the very nature of the adventure promises interaction and problem-solving. And the fact that it was Pathfinder and I was running it promised some really good, solid fights and action scenes.
But the character motivations were a problem. At least, for this particular group, they were. The players had their own goals and their own problems. They didn’t feel any particular attachment to the city and had no particular respect for the law. They weren’t an overly idealistic group. And the ideals they held had little to do with smuggling and drug addiction. Sure, drugs are a problem, but they were a minor problem in the grand scheme of things.
And this is where I pulled a trick that only works when you’ve got a good, long-running campaign going. Remember how I said that sometimes a goal works as a motivation, like when someone needs money to buy their brother out of slavery? Well, if you’re running a campaign and you know there’s a goal that the players are pursuing, progress toward that goal counts as motivation. That’s specifically why I’m including this adventure in this article.
In this particular case, I knew the characters were trying to get information and they knew a city official had said information. They had been trying to reach that city official. Working with the city guard and solving a tricky crime would get them that audience and that favor. The city watch could hire the PCs as independent investigators and if the case went well, the PCs would make progress toward their own goals. Of course, the PCs would also get paid for their efforts. But the pay was secondary to the primary motivation.
Of course, it helped that I was giving the players the chance to play Sherlock Holmes and that was something they enjoyed.
Specific Always Beats General
Now, you might notice that, in both of my example cases, I tailored my motivations to the players and the characters I was writing for. And when you write for your home group, this is always a good idea. Once you know the players and the characters, you can bait every adventure with their favorite flavors of cheese. In fact, you should. As long as you don’t overdo it. Don’t try to nail every player and character motive in every adventure. Especially because the longer the game goes on, the more inclined the players and their heroes are to go along with things. One adventure can be about money for the three PCs who like that with a little bit of greater-good idealism thrown in. Another one can be about saving innocents with a minor reward offered. One can promise a lot of action for the players who crave combat most, while another can be an intriguing mystery. The more invested your group is, the more they will go along with you.
But what if you don’t know the group? What if you’re writing an adventure for a group of strangers? Like a one-shot adventure for a convention. Or the first adventure for a new group of players. Or an adventure for publication.
In those cases, it’s important to offer a mix of motivations because you don’t know what people are going to bite on. But it’s also important to remember the audience. The one-shot convention adventure is easiest. The players WANT to play the game and most players understand convention one-shots are different. The players will be motivated to play and will be more willing to make character excuses. An adventure for publication should offer a number of different player and character motivation options, but the GM will probably make some adjustments to fit the game into their campaign. The first adventure for a new group of players, though, should offer a broad slew of motivations.
The dragon example would work very well in those cases because it offers a lot of potential motivations. The smuggling ring is trickier because it speaks to a very specific type of player and the character motives had to be tailor made.
The Fewer, The Better
One last comment before I close this overly long article about motivation. It might seem like I advocate loading up an adventure with motivations for players and characters. But I don’t. In fact, the fewer motivations you need, the better off you are. First of all, motivations are like spice. Like flavors. The right flavors make people want to eat a thing. But too many flavors, too many spices, just clash. They overwhelm the dish. Second of all, you’re going to have to turn your motivations into a hook. You’re going to have to build a scene that conveys your motivations to the players and the characters. And the more motivations you have, the harder it is to put that scene together.
So, if you find your list has every motivation under the sun, narrow it down to the best, the strongest, and the coolest. That dragon adventure has a lot going for it, but people will assume the challenge, the treasure, and the self-actualization. All I have to play up is that there’s a dragon and there’s a strong emotional story under the dragon about the desperate people the dragon has enslaved. And put that front and center.