Why Are We Doing This?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 20, 2011

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?

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1 BeanBag September 20, 2011 at 9:59 am

Our current campaign solves this problem, but of course adds 10 more issues to the mix. Running an open “sandbox” campaign lets the PC’s decide what they want to do. There are usually a few active storylines, villians moving in the shadows, and action all around. Then it is up to the PC’s to take action, or just ask around for something else to do.

It takes a lot of effort to get it right, but it does solve this.

2 Rhetorical Gamer September 20, 2011 at 10:37 am

What you call the “immediate motivation” has never really been a problem for most of my groups. We struggle more with a situation similar to your Neverwinter problem… maybe.

What we’ve struggled with is keeping the party together. I mean, when all the PCs have different goals and desires they might finish a story arc that brought them together and then sit back and say, “so, it’s been real but, I got stuff to do… you know, over there.”

That’s what we’ve run into most often and what I try to head off when I’m DMing.

3 Thorynn September 20, 2011 at 10:42 am

In the “save the slaves” scenario above, the narrative can be strengthened by tying sub-plots to the main plot. For instance, the Tyrant could be a Lieutenant to the Evil NPC trying to get the artifact. In aiding the rebellion the PCs would gain a chance to get information from the tyrant, or perhaps a map or journal with clues to the artifacts whereabouts. Side-quests that have nothing to do with the main plot are a waste of everyone’s precious time. Tie the small fights in with the greater struggle.

4 iserith September 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

“Big picture motivation” properly discussed and fleshed out at the start of the campaign gives the DM creative license to put the PCs in situations where it is assumed they will go along with the hook. This is why I like in media res. In order to game tonight, you have to take the hook. So if everyone knows that, why have hooks at all? Skip it and get to the action. “You’re doing A because you’re B and you don’t like C. Roll initiative.” Some people call that railroading. I call it logical conclusions. If you’re divine crusaders, why wouldn’t you want to cleanse the graveyard of undead unless you as a player are just being difficult? Do you want to game tonight or not?

On the same page with knowing that you have to bite the hook to game tonight, players should take that understanding and help the DM find or create immediate motivation. “Cleanse the graveyard of undead? Hell yeah, I hate undead and that graveyard has been a menace for years.” Maybe another player comes up with something on the fly about how his brother was killed by a zombie in the graveyard years ago, something that wasn’t previously discussed. Is it highly relevant? No. Could it be? Yes. But in “the now,” the players have done their part to help make the session move forward with action.

5 Suddry September 20, 2011 at 6:40 pm

As DM for the home game mentioned I will say: “It was planned.”

The party had 3-4 options and chose the one most immediately affecting them. It was the right RP choice in my opinion.

The issue of motivation can be a real zinger for a DM. It ties in to the non-railroad/sandbox style of game. Players want lots of choice but having all those choices seem like viable important options to a party of powerful heroes is tough to pull off. In our game any of the would have provided motivation had the party followed up on them – and the path they followed has had consequences on the others.

I’m confident you will have fun. 😉

6 Naz September 21, 2011 at 1:35 am

For me, some of what is discussed here hinges more on the DM’s Motivations than the PC’s. As a DM, you have to be willing in a sense to “Bite the Bullet” a bit at times. Suddry points out that there were multiple choices that would have worked, and that should always be the key.

Early on in the game that I run, I found, as is mentioned in the article, that the low level PC’s need almost no motivation beyond “More Power!”. My party is now into mid-Paragon however. At around level 12 I realized that unless you were talking about the Eye of Vecna, ‘More Power’ wasn’t cutting the mustard. Adding to this was the fact that the party, at the end of the heroic tier, had vanquished a foe that had been vexxing them for 10 levels. I had introduced a new enemy, but was still far from giving this new villian a face, and the party, all of them eager to expand on thier own goals, didn’t seem to interested in heading out into the wilds to trudge through another dungeon.
So, rather than change my game, I changed my approach. I planned my usual 4 to 5 encounters, and then basically noted 1 or 2 additional ‘RE-SKINS’ that I could use to keep the encounter exactly as written, but I now had 2 or 3 different versions of each encounter. Regardless of what the party wanted to do, I’d still get to run my encounters, but through the beauty of 4ed. I could easily change the mini’s and maybe the environment and still make them all story specific.
As far as how do we reach the point where the party decides what they want to do? Well, here is what has worked well for me. First, things first, if pursuit of power has fallen off as a motivation, then maybe being reminded that you aren’t the most powerful group in the universe (or even the kingdom) will get them moving. In other words, make them mad, insult them, humiliate them. It might piss them off, but that in and of itself can be a factor that can bring a group together. Secondly, assuming you know what each of the group members is driving towards, find ways of tying these interests into your overall campaign. Most DM’s have a path that they want the campaign to follow, but as soon as you get the PC’s involved, this plan is going to go wildly astray regardless. Don’t leave the tracks, just adjust, and then let them feel as though they took the reigns themselves. If a PC’s motivation is returning honor to his tribe, let him discover that part of the tribes decline was actually caused by your current villian, or his associates. Is the brooding half-orc of the group, looking to find proof that her father wasn’t a pillaging murderer, but instead a missunderstood hero? A clue may point to a necropolis, that just happens to be the same place the main villian is getting his army of undead from.
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to petition the party a bit, or more expressly, petition one or two of the parties members. If the overall motivation isn’t grabbing the party currently, maybe some of them could suggest something that could. Finally, if the party has reached a point where the ONLY motivation they seem to be responding to is of the IMMEDIATE kind, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the overall motivation.

7 Kiel Chenier September 21, 2011 at 2:48 am

I let my players decide their own character motivation/background, then incorporate it into the world.

Immediate motivation, or random background motivation tied to the campaign world, I usually let the players role on a chart. That way having a random motivation becomes part of the game itself, just like other random roles.

Reason for coming to random starter city in the first place d10 table:

1. Dirt poor, you venture here because you’ve heard it’s the only place offering work. You’ve heard an adventuring company run by a local dwarf is hiring.
2. Your homeland was razed to the ground, leaving you alone and homeless. Here is as good a place as any to begin anew. Plus, you’ve heard those responsible dwell here.
3. A far-flung relative has sent you a letter, urgently asking you to come to the city right away. You know this to be a very grave request.
4. You’re on the run from the law. This is the only city wild and lawless enough for you to blend into. Question is, are you truly guilty?
5. Your home was bought up by the majocracy, displacing you. You’ve come here to petition the magisters here for your home back…though you’ll need coin and reputation.
6. You’ve been offered a tremendous sum of gold to assassinate a medusa noble known to live in this city. Getting close to her won’t be easy without better social standing.
7. You have inherited a large plot of land in the city. The deed has been sent to you, but it must be co-signed by the magistrate for you to claim your property. Getting to her is no small feat.
8. On the run from various thieves guilds/old employers. Perhaps this city is a good a place as any to avoid/work off your debts. They will eventually find you, though.
9. As a traveler, this fabled city has too many enticing hotspots and locales for you to pass up. You’ve come from far away to see the sights and, who knows, maybe put down roots.
10. A past lover lives here. You swore you’d never come back to this city. Now, with his life in jeopardy, you’ve changed your mind.

8 Kilsek September 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

I’ve had that ocassional feeling as DM and player, too – the whole, why are we doing this again? Why do we need to fight these guys/things?

You make an excellent point: we’ve come to a point in D&D 4e where questions of motivation for each encounter are higher on average. Why? Rules and system mastery are higher, as the game’s been out three years. Everyone’s more comfortable, mechanically.

So it’s not surprising we want something more now than ever in 4e, something more classically D&D: a sweeping story with meaningful choices and options throughout.

9 mbeacom September 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I collect my players backstories. Then I allow them to try to fulfill their characters goals (find my lost father, get revenge on an enemy, etc). As they do so, I place obstacles in their way and call it a campaign.

Failing that, someone shows up and offers them a lot of gold to go kill stuff.

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