3 Powerful Character Motivations
There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
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