Monday, January 11, 2010

On character motivation (and sound advise from Messrs. Zak and Raggi)

Reading this post from Zak's Playing D&D With Porn Stars gave me another "aha!" moment. It also brought up (not so very) pleasant memories of games I ran in my younger age back in the day. In not a few of these games, I'd often hear a player quip "Why are we in this dungeon again?" to the others, followed by laughter and derision. Things eventually changed. I grew up a bit more, picked up more of the GM-ing craft. Certain players I gamed with grew up too and eventually gave up the fine art of role playing games altogether and became self-professed normal people pursuing normal lives. Eventually, it dawned on me that their absence from my gaming life entailed no big loss at all. In losing them, I later gained better players who turned out to be better friends as well.

My point is that, for the longest time, I struggled with trying to help my players find their characters' motivation for doing what they do in the games I ran.

Zak argues a very good case for adopting what he terms as the 'Roguish Work Ethic' in enhancing the very reasons why your character adventures in the game world. Hence, he makes the following observation:

"Now I don't actually want to talk about playing villains, I want to talk about playing Roguish Heroes. Grey Mouser, Conan, Cugel, Han Solo, and the stereotypically larcenous Old School D&D PC.

Now a Roguish Hero is not the same as a villain, and I am not saying everybody should play Lex Luthor but, functionally, pulpy roguish protagonists and villains have an important thing in common: they want something from the world. Gold, power, the admiration of attractive members of the opposite sex--something. The Upright Hero doesn't really want anything--or at least not anything that would bring him/her into violent conflict with the world as-is. The Upright Hero is not usually proactive, s/he waits until s/he sees injustice (even if it was an injustice that was there all along)."

And continues with this:

"There's a reason why the stereotype of Old School D&D is a bunch of amoral bastards running around killing things and taking their stuff--and it's not just because of the x.p. system. It's because people who just want treasure don't need to be given a reason to go into a cave or a lair or an abandoned city or the HQ of the local Wizard's Guild and they can pick freely which one they want to do first, since the fact that the lair contains a despotic vampire that plagues the countryside and the cave just has a dumb animal with big teeth in it doesn't automatically impose a moral imperative on Roguish PCs to deal with the vampire first"

And this archetypal "bunch of amoral bastards running around killing things and taking their stuff" is by no means to be confined to D&D. I've had the pleasure of GM-ing such amoral bastards who had, at one time or another, taken a multitude of guises and forms including, but not limited to, German Fallschirmjager, Soviet Frontoviki, survivors of the US 5th Mechanized division near Kalisz, proto-Dunedain in Beleriand, Travellers in the Spinward Marches, mercenaries for the PanGalactic Corporation, and questing pilgrims in the Known Worlds. Different worlds, different characters, different systems -yes, but still the same concept applies to all.

He hit the point spot-on as regards character motivation. Ultimately, the player who plays proactively, who works to make things happen, makes the game move forward, perhaps just as much as the referee does as he runs the game. To me, this is as much an attitude, as it is an effort to bring the game to life. Everyone wins this way because everyone works together to make things happen.

He also makes a further distinction from the standard "Sandbox" gaming style which, I confess, have never given much thought to in the past, but presently have all but embraced in my current games. He calls this the Quicksandbox, and taking a look at my Mutant Future world, I can see what he's talking about:

"Then there's the Quicksandbox. The world isn't dominated by a single evil, it just completely sucks. This is the basic post-apocalyptic set-up. (It also could just be any old world if you're desperately poor.) Basically--anything any PC tries to do (find water, ammunition, eat pie) is so hard and beset with so many mutants or gangsters or cave bears that heroic effort is required just to do anything. In this case, it doesn't matter if the PCs are Upright Heroes or Roguish because either way they have to act Roguish (i.e. plot, scheme, choose their battles) because otherwise they'll just die immediately. Survival is the plot hook. The only trick in making this kind of thing a true sandbox would be making sure the GM gives the PCs enough information about what's around them that they have different options about where to look for various commodities. Supermarket? Army barracks? Spooky old house?"

He goes on to postulate a Quicksandbox world which sucks AND is dominated by a single evil. Reading this elicited yet another "aha!". My players seem unanimous in describing my games (and resultant gameworlds) as "gritty" ones. This one really seems to be up my alley.

Character motivation.

Without it, even the most intricately designed gameworld played in the most potent game system becomes inert much as a supercharged engine is without gasoline fuel.

Ultimately, I still believe that the process at arriving at, and maintaining the necessary proper character motivation in a given game is one shared by both players and referee, working together to produce something that can be truly great. As a gamemaster, I had agonized quite a bit about this (and I've seen fellow game masters still struggle with this). But the reality is that the gamemaster can really only go so far. The players have to pull their share - after all, arriving at this desired goal is truly a joint effort.

I can't help but remember what Edward James Raggi said here sometime back, which I feel applies to this point:

"If a player complains that he’s bored and that nothing is happening, look at him and say, “I agree. So are you going to do something or not?

It is not the referee’s job during a session to provide excitement for his playing group. His job is to administer the setting and resolve character actions. If the characters are taking no action and are not interacting with the setting, then the referee has literally nothing to do. The players are wasting his time.

Other common standards of pacing become obsolete when dealing with a player-driven adventure xxx

I guess all this kinda reinforces the concept that a face-to-face rpg is really a cooperative effort between everyone who comes to play at the game table.


  1. Good points. I have referred to this as the "logic leap" where the player has to let go of his/her out of character aprehension and mistrust of every offer, stranger in a dark corner, or map they encounter. Whether you arep laying a cuthroat gold-hungry bastard or a simple farm boy you have to be willing, at some point, to take that first step.

    I always try to remember that even Bilbo left home to go exploring and he was a hobbit. Are you players braver than a homey hobbit?

  2. I like your idea of the logic leap, Eli. I agree with you that letting go has a lot to do with playing more effectively in this way. To gather up enough will to simply take that first leap - is the first step. Surprisingly, many so-called veteran players seem to have this problem. Could it be that the game systems that are coming out now have too many "safety nets" that inadvertently end up coddling the players (as opposed to the characters they play). I don't want to this to come out as dissing 4e but I sort of discovered that so many safety nets were built into the new system as opposed to even 3e. As a result, it was much harder to die in 4e in the interest of not "killing off" the story with a premature TPK (pardon the pun). As I see it though, the players tend to form an altogether different attitude to the game. Although they purport to play intrepid adventurers they, as characters can be quite timid and over-dependent on a DM who spoonfeeds them tips and cues in order to lead them on in a pre-set storyline.

    I'll remember your example of Mr. Baggins in the future. It really brings home the point!

  3. I think the veteran players are often more hesitant as they have seen it all have a lot more knowledge of what sorts of things can be behind those doors out there.

  4. Good point regarding PC motivation. Come to think of it it makes the entire D&D concept of alignment come out in a new light. I used to think of it as a limit only. Paladin envious of Chaotics free to do what they want. Depending on how you look at it from my point of view it becomes a challenge to the player to stretch the definition of "Awful Good". Agree with the 4e analysis. Too much padding. I remember the first time I played as I was expecting to need a resurrection by the end of the session. And by my count using 2e rules I needed one! I was quite surprised to survive without needing it.

    I agree with Eli Arndt that veterans usually let the newbies run into the trouble then step in to rescue them, and preferring to let sleeping dogs (dragons) lie while they extract what they came for.