What’s My Motivation?: Differentiating between what the player wants, and what the character wants in an RPG setting

As a sometime Dungeon  Master (DM) for Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, I have trouble coming up with enticing reasons for the player characters (referred to as toons) to pursue certain objectives/goals/etc. You can dangle a carrot all you want, but if they want broccoli, they aren’t chasing the carrot. I believe one major issue with this situation is the inability of the players to separate their own motivations from those of their toons. Let me reinforce that I am not blaming the players for my shortcomings as a DM; I have been cursed/blessed with players that tend to care less about what their toons  want in life, and just want to be pointed to where the things that need smiting reside, as they enjoy the combat side of things.This works well with my “loosely-framed” story-telling (code for incomplete) so roleplay isn’t critical. I believe that because of this, perhaps myself and my players are missing out on what could be a much richer activity. I don’t have a problem with the wholesale slaughter of orcs and the like, but  I sometimes wonder why their toons do what they do, and I wonder if the players think that too, or whether they realize that they and their toons may sometimes have very conflicting opinions.

I have often read that authors are surprised by how a character from their novel has  reacted to a certain situation, or made a startling decision, etc. I have always thought this was completely bogus; you wrote the story, how can your characters surprise you? Then along came the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic (simply called TOR).

I played literally thousands of hours of World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game in the world. In those thousands of hours, I did not one second of roleplaying. The only options available in WoW are to either take a quest and get a reward, or not to. What class you choose effects only the game mechanics, and has no bearing on what choices your toon would make, as there are no choices to make. There is no internal conflict, no chances to probe your toons deeper motivations. There are instances where a story is being told, but the toons are only observers of the story, and have no influence on how the story ends. I enjoyed my time in Azeroth, but it got stale and I hung up my sword.

Last Christmas, I purchased TOR for myself to dip my toe back into the MMORPG pool. From the first minute of the game, you realize that your toons decisions have an impact, and can radically affect the outcome of the game. Your toon is bombarded with choices (or at least the illusion of choice) whenever you interact with characters in game, with lasting results. The decisions you make determine whether you lean towards the light or dark side of the Force, for instance. As you progress along the path of either side of the Force, you unlock special items, so a player might be inclined to always make choices favoring the light, which makes your toon a goody two-shoes, or towards the dark, being an amoral douche. While both paths can be satisfying, I feel always favoring one or the other leaves a toon unrealized, and limits the amount of roleplay.

For my toons, I have assigned each of them 3 major tenets to live by, to guide their decision making. The two characters I play most often are a Jedi Consular, and a Republic Trooper. The consular, Farnsworth, is a diplomat first, warrior second, whereas the trooper, MacDuff is a career soldier through and through. Farnsworth tends to favor light side choices, and MacDuff dark, but not always. First I will list each toons tenets, then how they reacted in identical situations.


1. Always allow your enemies a chance to surrender: He is a diplomat, so he always offers his enemies a way out. If they refuse to back down, then they get the business end of his lightsaber.

2. Do not lie for anyone: Farnsworth  believes in the truth, and loathes deception. He will not lie for anyone, regardless of who they are.

3. To defeat the Empire sometimes requires us to think like the Empire: This tenet has gotten him a fair share of dark side points, but he believes that no means of defeating the Empire isn’t at least worth considering.


1. I serve the military, not the Republic government: MacDuff is a career soldier; the military is his family. If he has to choose between what’s best for the Republic, and what’s best for the troops under his command, he chooses his troops, every time.

2. Civilian lives are forfeit: If you have refused to take up arms to battle the Empire, MacDuff has nothing but contempt for you, and has no qualms eliminating those civilians that get in the way of his objectives.

3. No enemy deserves to live: if you are an enemy to the Republic military, you are dead, simple as that.

In one “dungeon” in TOR, the ship you are on is under Imperial attack, and you have to get to the bridge, which has been sealed off. To unseal the bridge, you must travel down to Engineering, which has the engine bay, along with the engineers, behind a force-field, per emergency protocol.Lowering the force-filed will also disable the locks to the bridge. Now you are presented with a choice: run around, fighting through enemies to the three terminals that need to be activated to lower th field, or hit one switch conveniently in front of you that vents engineering to the vacuum of space. The rational is that once the venting cycles, the computer will reset, unlocking the bridge. Obviously the engineers prefer the former, while a bureacrat/spy onboard urges the latter, for time is of the essence. Both Farnsworth and MacDuff decide to save the engineers, earning light side points; Farnsworth because it’s the right thing to do, MacDuff because saving the lives of Republic seaman is more important than killing Imperials.

Once you retake the bridge, you have to board the Imperial star destroyer to lower the tractor beam, allowing your ship to escape. Before you depart, a member of the crew suggests that you make sure the bureacrat/spy does not make it back, after the stunt she pulled in engineering.

Farnsworth lets the bureacrat live; although he does not agree with her, and gives her a stern warning, letting her live is the right thing to do. In MacDuff’s eyes, the second she was willing to kill those engineers, she declared herself as an enemy, and he kills her as soon as is convenient. Farnsworth earns light side points, MacDuff dark. Personally, in this instance, I would have probably done what Farnsworth did, but other times in the game, I lean towards MacDuff’s point of view.

The example is meant to highlight that the characters did what they would have done, not what I would have done. Given the number of video games a typical person plays, a player likely does not invest a lot of time in discovering their toon’s prime motivations. The player is motivated to beat the game, usually in the most optimal manner. What TOR illustrates is that the desire to get better equipment and stronger powers is not motivation enough, we must consider what type of person our toons are going be. Further establishing that TOR is about storytelling and not just combat,TOR has a “legacy” system that allows the player to establish familial relationships between all their players. Are your toons beloved siblings, heated rivals, a father and son set out to rule the universe?

The realization of a toons motivation is considerably more important, but considerably more difficult, in a tabletop RPG setting. Tabletop RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons, are a much more intimate affair than a typical video game. The game occurs in a social setting, and a player may spend years roleplaying the same toon (the game I currently DM has been going on sporadically for over two years). Because of the long lasting relationship a player will have with their toon, compounded by being in the same room as the people they’re playing with, the player is at a much higher risk of their personality dominating the personality of their toon, whether it makes story sense or not.

The point I’m trying to drive home is that even though a thorough backstory is not necessary for a toon, a basic framework is crucial. If all your toons mirror what you would do, you’re never in for a surprise. If, however, you establish tenets for your toon, their reaction in a given situation may surprise, or even shock you, creating a richer story for everyone involved. Remember, the question is not what would I do, but what would Farnsworth do?

About Wes J.

Your Focus Determines Your Reality
This entry was posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What’s My Motivation?: Differentiating between what the player wants, and what the character wants in an RPG setting

  1. Matt Fuller says:

    I really think the problem of Character motivation vs. player motivation lies in 4th Edition itself. I’ve made no secret that I’m not a fan of this particular incarnation itself, but the rule set is really only geared toward combat and selling minis.

    When WotC “streamlined” the rules, stripped down skills and pretty much handed every character the ability to do a little bit of everything while being VERY combat heavy, I felt it really shackled my ability as a player to fully flesh out a solid, playable character. Rather than developing my dwarf in your campaign along the lines that made sense for the character, I found myself referring to an online database which ranked powers according to versatility and asked started selecting accordingly. I was levelling with the same sort of powergaming attitude that is rampant in WoW, which was also the reason I stopped playing that.

    Finding what motivates the characters is absolutely the most challenging aspect of running a tabletop game. It’s there right at party formation and sticks around throughout. The best a GM can do is to create enough compelling moments that will help both the players and their characters bond, thus setting the wheels in motion for an organic story to manifest.

    • Wes J. says:

      4th Edition is obviously a result of WoW’s heavy-handed influence.What SWTOR illustrates is that roleplay can be a viable part of what would otherwise be a combat-centric game, separating itself from WoW immediately. In SWTOR, as you level, you earn “companion characters” which are your sidekicks in combat. When you make decisions in game, you earn or lose favor with your sidekicks if your decisions go against their tenets, creating pressures to lean one way or another. Roleplay is at the forefront.
      I don’t believe that 4th Edition has an inate aversion to roleplay, but I will admit that combat dominates what types of feats a character will take, in an effort to maximize damage. This, however, is a result of player’s being in the mindset that they must be the most lethal they can be, which is a direct result of WoW. I’m a big fan of the stripped down rules of 4th Edition, I just think players need to be reminded that lethality isn’t everything; an imperfect character creates a more dramatic character.

  2. Robert says:

    I’ve always had difficulty getting in to a character when roleplaying. I think it is an innate fear of “performing” while at the table. The point when I really start getting in to a character’s psyche is when presented with a difficult moral choice. When this happens I have the general knee jerk reaction of what I would do, but then I will start to think about how my actions affect the world I am playing in, then I start to think about how my character would react.

    • Wes J. says:

      I completely understand the sentiment. I know we disagree on the importance of backstory, but I believe at least having tenets are critical. This way you can create the mental partition separating player from toon. If you don’t mind some homework, would you write out 3 tenets for your toon in our campaign?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s