How I Write an Adventure, part 3 – Motivation

So, we’ve taken an overall look at my process for adventure construction, and we’ve drilled down a bit on Objectives.  Now let’s talk about the next element: Motivation.

1. You need to know why these characters are doing this thing.

In its most basic sense, the Motivation is an answer to this question: Why are the PCs attempting this task?  Before you can run your adventure, you need to be able to answer this question.

It breaks down into several ancillary questions: Why are they working together on it?  Why isn’t someone else taking care of this?  Why is the task still around now, rather than being completed by someone else before now?  How do the PCs know about this task?

You don’t need concrete answers to all of these questions, but the more you answer, the more complete your Motivation is.

2. Your players want to go on an adventure.

Your players came together to game with you because they want to come together to game with you.  For the most part, they won’t be looking for ways to get out of going on an adventure – they’ll be looking for reasons why their character would go on the adventure.

They’ll work with you.  Talk to them – about what they want out of this adventure, and about some of the things you’re hoping to do with the adventure.  A little shared understanding will make developing a compelling Motivation a lot easier.

I’ve seen a gaming group roll up characters independently, and seen the GM’s eyes look slightly wild as he started to flail for some reason for us to be adventuring together – only to have the players cheerfully bail him out with “Let’s just assume we’re an established party, and we like adventuring together.”

It’s cool, man – we want to do this.

3. In a new campaign, there are two main variables: the Motivation, and the PCs.

You can tailor the Motivation to the PCs, you can tailor the PCs to the Motivation, or you can land somewhere on the spectrum in between.

Let me show you a few examples:

  • You open the adventure with the PCs being sucked from their mundane lives and dropped into some horrible extradimensional prison cell.  Their Objective is to get free, and get home.  The Motivation is pretty close to universal: you want to stay alive and you want to get home.  You can usually count on PCs having at least those desires – and cases where they don’t will be rare enough that you can handle them on a case-by-case basis.  You hated your home?  This is your chance to go find a new one – once you get out of this cell.
  • You plan to run a game set at a magic school, in a huge city in a fantasy setting.  You ask the players to roll up characters who’re students in good standing at this school.  Now you can make adventures into class assignments, have schoolmates come to them for help, or threaten their enrollment at the school.  Motivations become real easy – Your friend asked you for help or This is an assignment.  This works for almost any hierarchical organization.
  • Your game is going to be about a a menace, or series of menaces, to a particular settlement – a town, a village, a castle, a sprawling metropolis, a space station, whatever.  You can ask your players to create characters who are willing to struggle and risk danger to protect the place.  Their Motivation for adventuring becomes Because the village is in danger.

Part of what’s going on there is you can basically offer the players a premise, and they’ll make up their own Motivation.

The key is to communicate and discuss your requirements before the adventure starts.  Get in there with the premise about an order of patriotic heroes before one of your players conceives of and falls in love with the idea of playing an anti-government guerrilla.

I’ve seen GMs struggle because they don’t know they can tailor the PCs to the adventure.  They jump through all kinds of hoops to find that one hypothetical Motivation that’s guaranteed to hook every conceivable PC – not realizing they can just say “You’re all going to be members of this cult / resistance / magic school / circus / family / space navy / divine bureaucracy.  Please roll up your characters accordingly.”

4. Talk to your players before you do too much work.

As much as players are willing to develop their own Motivations (and they usually are), some premises will just not work for some players.  Sometimes players will come back with “I’m not interested in that premise,” or “I’m not comfortable playing a character like that.”  And that’s fine!  RPGs are a huge time and energy investment; it would be unreasonable to ask players to play in a game that’s uncomfortable or uninteresting to them.

If  you’ve got a huge pool of potential players, you can announce your premise and requirements and say “Who’s interested?”

But if you’ve got a set gaming group, it’s not a great plan to develop a whole adventure (or a whole campaign) that hinges on players playing a certain kind of character, only to have one of your players announce they’re not on board.  Talk to them first, and then do the work.

5. In an established campaign, the PCs are usually set, but tailoring the Motivation becomes much easier.

If this adventure isn’t the first in your campaign, then a few things are already in place – you’ve already got at least part of a setting, you’ve got some history, and you’ve got your PCs.

On the one hand, there’s less room to tailor the PCs to the Motivation.  The PCs are already set (give or take a player or two wanting to trade theirs in, or turnover in the actual group of players).

Fortunately, you likely have some idea about who these PCs are and what they want out of life.  It becomes a lot easier to predict what sort of adventure they’ll go for.  Suddenly you can go “This group is all about money, so I’ll dangle some treasure in front of them,” or “This group really hates demons, so let’s introduce a few.”  Did a hated enemy get away during the last adventure?  Dangle that enemy in front of them.  Did they develop a bond with some particular NPC?  Have that NPC call on them for help.

What’s more, they’ll likely have developed a bond amongst themselves – you won’t need a carefully-crated Motivation for all of them.  Just for one of them.  The rest will come along, because they want to help their friend and ally.

Tomorrow, we move on to Obstacles!