USR Wednesdays: Motivation

What drives your hero to do what he or she does? For many RPG characters, the answer is simple: to collect the treasure, to stop evil from destroying the world, or even because it’s just the right thing to do. Of course, the quest-giver in step 1 of the six-step adventure design can also provide motivation for a specific adventure.

But sometimes you need to give the heroes a “kick in the pants” to get started. Though you can do anything in a role playing game ― that’s probably the best part of playing them ― some guidelines need to be in place. A hero can’t be good at everything, which is why stats have different ratings, and Specialisms only apply in some cases.

A character needs to get along with the other characters in the party, too. A lone wolf is a cool concept, but it doesn’t work in a typical adventuring group, where everyone contributes something unique to every adventure. And in most games, the player characters need to be heroes, doing something that helps themselves and society as a whole. A thief may steal, but not from his buddies. Heroes carry swords and guns, and know how to use them, but the weapons are specifically meant for orcs, Nazis, and evil minions, not anyone and everyone.

If your players need a push in the right direction, supported by game mechanics, try giving them a motivation. This is their particular reason for doing “hero stuff.” It may relate to their Specialisms, but it doesn’t provide a bonus to die rolls itself. Instead, whenever a character does something that relates to his or her motivation, award the hero a Narrative Point (probably about once per game session). A motivation is a tool to get characters (and players) moving, and to help give characters more well-rounded personalities. You can even take a Narrative Point away if a player doesn’t play the character according to the motivation that’s been selected, though if you’re using motivation in your game, your players probably are embracing the characters they’ve created.

What are good character motivations? The model for this is the classic Ghostbusters RPG from West End Games, way back in 1986. It had five Goals for characters, which are just as relevant for modern-day heroes:

I don't have an actual Ghost Die, though.
Still fun after all these years.
  • Fame: You want to live forever, you want to learn how to fly. No, actually, a fame-seeker wants to be known by everyone. You achieve this motivation when you get outsized attention: you’re on TV, bards compose a song about you, or crime lords summon you by name, because they’ve heard of your badass reputation.
  • Money: Every RPG character has this as a motivation at some level. But you’re especially interested in wealth and the possessions it brings. The abstract nature of USR means you don’t need to keep track of cash (unless you want to). But you can also achieve this motivation by talking the hotel owner into paying the heroes double their normal rate to bust ghosts, or by acquiring a rival company, whether that’s by making a deal or threatening to take proof of the CEO’s dirty deal to the feds.
  • Serving Humanity: Humanity, or whatever species you are, benefits when you’re around. This is the motivation of the classic paladin or good cop, to protect the innocent and be a shining light of goodness in the world. But don’t forget that slaying demons and keeping eldritch horrors at bay is just as helpful to humanity.
  • Sex: This means what you think it means, if you want it to (think of the classic Dead Alewives skit: “If there’s any girls there, I want to do them!”). It can also mean charming people who don’t want to be charmed. It can have nothing to do with wanting to have an intimate relationship with another person ― this motivation can be achieved by convincing the king that you’re the right man for the job on your charm alone.
  • Soulless Science: The advancement of knowledge (even magical knowledge) is what matters. You don’t want people to suffer as a direct result of what you’re doing ― switching the brains of two living organisms without their permission is the work of evil ― but a house can move into another dimension while you study the effects of the transport, as long as it gets put back at the end of the day. You like taking things apart… putting them back together isn’t always as interesting.

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