Character Motivation

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 24, 2009

Why do PCs do what they do? When you’re creating a new character, do you even give this any thought? Fame and fortune are probably the most common motives for 1st level adventurers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but is that your PC’s only motivation?

In many cases the DM creates a long-term campaign with a huge story arc designed around a single motivation. It might be something as noble as recovering a stolen artifact or as simple as seeking revenge against the assassin who killed your mentor. These are both excellent examples of broad motivations that bring strangers together and keep the party working towards a common goal. But what of each PC’s individual goals?

Each PC is unique. In most cases they are different races and different classes. So it stands to reason that even though they all want to find the person responsible for killing their king, each of them has personal goals they want to fulfill along they way. PCs with a divine feel may want to spread the teaching of their god. PCs who excel in combat may want to test their skill against stronger and more dangerous adversaries. PCs striving for knowledge may want to travel the world to see new things and learn of all that the world has to offer.

Too often PCs are created, equipped and thrown into the game. Little or no effort is spent coming up with real motivations for your character. At the beginning this is fine. In some cases it may take a few games to get to know the character well enough to determine what his motives may actually be. But if you level up a few times and you still haven’t realized what motivates this PC then you’re doing yourself a great disservice. Rounding out your character makes him more interesting and a lot more fun to play. If he never becomes anything more than numbers on a character sheet then you’re missing out on the richness that role-playing games have to offer.

If you do seek a motivation for your character and can’t come up with one ask the other players at your table or the DM. D&D is a shared experience. Your friends may have some terrific ideas on what your PC is really striving for even if you don’t.

Remember that your motivation is not set in stone. In fact, it’s likely to change as the PC becomes more powerful. If your motivation was to recover a stolen artifact, what happens when you accomplish that goal around 5th level? Do you retire or do you continue adventuring? Your goals and motivations will continue to evolve as your character grows. Many DMs will pick up on your character’s motivations and work them into the campaign. This often leads to more memorable stories and provides fantastic opportunities for everyone to role play their character.

How important are your PC’s motivations? Have you even given any thought to what they might be? How have you PC’s motivations changed as the character grows?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shades June 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Absolutely.

When I create characters, I like for them to be more than a collection of numbers (not that the numbers aren’t important), I like for them to have personality. The more interesting the better.

I think a really good way to do this is find a quirk, flaw or oddity about the character and then look at how that shapes the character. By way of example I recently built a Drow Rogue with a fatal character flaw, he couldn’t lie. At all.

He didn’t dissemble, he didn’t stretch the truth, he was absolutely, brutally, honest.

Then I asked how that would shape someone from a society of Gypsies, Rogues, and Thieves. Answering those questions makes for an interesting character. It was a real hoot when he was introducved to the party. Someone asked him why he was adventuring, and he calmly turned to the questioner and informed that individual that he had been paid to kill him at some point in the future.

Good times.

2 Wyatt June 25, 2009 at 5:24 pm

I generally start a PC with some backstory, concept and motivation, then write it as necessary. For example, I had a character who I wanted to be a nun with guns for a one-shot game, so I made her a multiclass Cleric/Warlock Half-Elf (Wis/Con/Cha) with the feat to make her Eldritch Blast an at-will power, with a wand as the “gun”. Now that I had the concept, I thought about why she was a nun with guns, other than “because this is my juvenile fantasy.” After that, I wrote the rest of the stats (beyond getting an eldritch blast gun for a Cleric, I needed little else to satisfy me).
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..A Punishment Ill Fit (II) =-.

3 Ameron June 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm

@Shades
Starting with the quark is a great idea. I generally ad some kind of oddity or affectation after I create the character, but doing it your way might actually make character creation easier. I’ll try this the next time I make a character. Thanks for the suggestion.

An honest Drow… nice.

@Wyatt
I’m glad that character concepts go beyond “I want to use a big sword” and include some kind of motivation. Thanks for sharing.

4 Andrew August 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

My character in our most recent campaign, a Tiefling Dhampyr Infernal Warlock’s goal was to go to hell. I’m being 100% serious. He wanted to rle hell despite the fact he’d have to fight 9+ archdevils to get there.

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