In the past couple of weeks character motivation has become a big issue in my home game and at D&D Encounters. Despite an engaging and interesting story, the players found themselves asking why their characters would actually do the task the DM set before them. What’s lacking was an immediate motivation.
The way I see it, characters in D&D have two different kinds of motivation – big picture motivation and immediate motivation.
Big picture motivation will answer questions like why is this party of misfits adventuring together. It’s usually a much broader and more generalized motive. Examples of the big picture motivation include things like “We’re together to fight our common enemy, the Red Dragon that’s ravaging the countryside,” or “We’re on a quest to find the lost sceptre because he who possesses it will become king.” As long as the PCs know and understand the big picture motivation then things generally run smoothly and no one wonders why a Drow, Dragonborn, Halfling, Eladrin and Minotaur are in the same adventuring party. They have a common goal or a common big picture motivation.
The challenge I’ve been facing in my games is the immediate motivation. In some cases there isn’t a clear immediate motivation and in others the big picture motivation trumps the immediate motivation. What I find happening more and more frequently is that the DM comes up with an amazing encounter but can’t convince the players that their PCs should actually go through with it because he can’t give them a suitable immediate motivation. I think we’ve come to a point where we’re not going to just go through the motions and run through encounter after encounter unless there is a good in-game reason for doing so. We need to start paying more attention to the immediate motivation of the PCs.
Sometimes there are easy ways to satisfy the immediate motivation. At lower levels material gain is a good motivator. Most PCs have few coins and likely no magical items. Presenting them with an opportunity to acquire items or the money needed to purchase items is often reason enough to get them engaged in the encounter in front of them. But after a few levels this becomes less appealing. Once a PC reaches paragon they’ll likely have magic items in almost every slot so it’s not like they’ll jump through hoops to earn a magic sword that no one really needs. This is when the DM needs to really give their encounter design and overall adventure design a thorough once over to ensure adequate immediate motivation as the campaign progresses.
Here’s an example of how this issue affected my recent home game. The PCs are on a quest to find a powerful magic artifact before it’s discovered by a villainous NPC. Regardless of what comes up along the way finding the item is their primary objective. If the villain gets the item he’ll use it to destroy his enemies and kill thousands of innocent people in the process. This is the big picture motivation.
A couple of weeks ago the DM introduced what is basically a side quest into the campaign. A group of enslaved people ask the PCs to help them revolt against their evil tyrant overlord. Now out of game I know that the DM has a long, multi-level story arc planned out where the PCs will join the rebellion and fight the evil masters. However, the players are all saying “This is terrible for the slaves, but we can’t afford to help them right now because we have a bigger and more important mission.” We lack immediate motivation to help these people other than “because it’s the right thing to do.”
The DM appealed to the characters themselves. Even though we had no personal ties to these rebels, two of our long-term NPC associates had joined their cause (which is how we became involved in the first place). The heroes learned that their friends were captured and would likely be tortured and killed if they were not rescued. This provided us with an immediate motivation to help the slaves. I don’t know if the DM planned this from the outset of was just quick on his feet but in either case it worked.
In D&D Encounters: Lost Crown of Neverwinter the PCs are trying to do their part to keep the city of Neverwinter safe as it teeters on the verge of a civil war. Although some PCs have character themes that give them good reason to care about the outcome others do not. The problem I had over the past couple of weeks was that the adventure forces the PCs to follow a specific avenue of pursuit. I realize that with any pre-written source material there needs to be some spoon-feeding, but I found that there was no immediate motivation for some of the recent encounters. The PCs were already offered money but they seem to be forced away from the tasks that will allow them to collect their reward. I’m still struggling as I search for an immediate motivation.
I guess that most DMs try to have an immediate motivation built in to their game whether they realize it or not, but on those occasions when none is apparent what do you do? I know that I’ve even resorted to coming clean with players out of game and just telling them that if they complete this encounter, things will become clearer afterwards. I hate to take this route but if I’ve create a really cool encounter I don’t want them to walk away just because they can’t find any immediate motivation for their PCs to do it.
The immediate motivation that I use most often is the ticking clock. Any adventure with a built-in timer gives the sense of urgency and provides an easy immediate motivation. After all if the PCs don’t complete the action quickly the bad thing will happen. Whether it’s natural disaster, a scheduled execution, the signing of a peace treaty or finding a stolen item before the owner knows it’s missing, nothing provides motivation like a time limit. The ticking clock has the added bonus of minimizing the 5-minute work day, if that’s a problem you’re facing at your gaming table. If the PCs only have hours before the bad thing happens then they won’t have time to take an extended rest. The new Lair Assault makes excellent use of the ticking clock motivation.
When a DM creates an encounter he expects that the PCs will actually proceed and fight the monsters. Usually all it takes is putting the encounter between the PCs and their objective and that’s all the motivation they need. However, as the PCs become more powerful and the players become more sophisticated, DMs need to be cognisant of the need for strong motivations. Simply doing the encounter because they can get boring and players will expect something more challenging. By taking into account an immediate motivation the DM can all but assure that the PCs will willingly take on the next encounter he puts before them.
Have you played in a campaign where the lack of motivation became a problem? How was the issue resolved? For DMs who are already taking this into account when they create encounters, what kind of immediate motivations do you use? What kind of immediate motivations might you suggest for other DMs struggling with this problem in their campaign?
- Character Motivation
- I Want Individual Rewards in D&D
- The Hangover: The Movie That Begs to Be a D&D Adventure