I've been planning to run an pathfinder campaign of epic proportions spanning about a year in a high-fantasy world made by a friend. My original plan was:

  • The PCs steal an artifact of value and are hired by the Mafia.
  • They ascend through the mafia's ranks, using various intrigues and plots to advance their own well-being and that of the mafia, manipulating, blackmailing, &c., people, lords, cities, countries, devils, angels, and, eventually, gods.
  • As they progress in their work, they identically find the Godfather's true identity - the literal father of all the gods, who, imprisoned in a magical dagger in the Drake War, wants to undo the world
  • They somehow beat him.

After asking some friends for their thoughts, I realized that this kind of railroading is horrible ("What if they decide not to steal the artifact?" "What if they don't join the mafia?" "What if they don't find the Godfather's identity?", &c), so I came up with dissociation entities, e.g.:

  • The mafia would prefer a demonic horn guarded by the city, and can not allow the demon himself to be resurrected
  • A cult wants to resurrect the demon, and therefor wants someone to steal if from the city
  • The city is hiring guards
  • Various armies are recruiting

This way, there are a couple of scenarios that can play out, including the one I layed out, and even if the PCs decide not to work for the cult in the first place, my whole plot isn't ruined: they can do all of the same things working for another army instead.

The question is, why are they going to do anything at all? A Lawful Stupid paladin goes out into the world seeking glory and fame, and searches it. Why does a group of unscrupulous rogues go out and do anything at all? Why not just settle at petty theft?

Clarification: What can I use to drive the PCs from petty theft to something more interesting from a plot point of view?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you have two different questions here. "Why do non-heroic type PCs go from smaller to bigger crime" or whatnot, and "How do I involve PCs in a plot?" It seemed like the question was more 1 than 2, you've since re-clarified but really 2 could stand to be asked standalone. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm also wondering, are looking for character motivation and development specific to anti-heroes? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:32

6 Answers 6


Good question. There's usually a deeper motivation behind going out and stealing things. Your characters will probably fit into one of the following three buckets and this will give them a reason to start.


A greedy character often wants to use money as a way to keep score. Thievery is an easy way to get it AND bring somebody else down a level.

This can be considered the default for most D&D style rogues.


Somebody who is good at a skill will often want to improve it. They could have started out being trained by older mentors (small hands and an innocent look make for great pickpockets) or stole for survival. After more and more use, this then becomes the only skill that they think they can use.

At any moment, a chance to use and improve those skills becomes something that someone will try to take. The bigger a risk, the bigger the thrill when you succeed.


This is usually the way beginning rogues get involved in "the business". It's better than starving and there aren't any other chances. Once you've started stealing, it's easier and easier to justify doing it just one more time.

If anybody knows, blackmailing the character to do some more dirty work gets easier. Each time they break the law they get deeper and deeper. This is often how dirty cops in fiction get buried.

How To Use The Motivations

The motivations themselves can help you get players onto the edges of a big quest.

Telling a greedy character about a legendary dagger that is rumoured to be able to kill the gods is a sure fire way to get him looking for it. Make the clue-chain reasonable and he will beeline straight for it.

Tell a survival oriented character that he and his family will be well taken care of. They just need to do another little job first... oh, and another. Because we have your darling little kids.

A character that wants mastery will generally be intrigued by a challenge. NPCs complaining that the security in a particular building is too tight and they can't see a way in should be enough to perk his interest. Have him find something interesting that hints at a bigger challenge somewhere else and he'll be raring to go.

Beyond The Motivations

The most effective way to make players focus on a Big Bad is for it to threaten them specifically. Well, not exactly them, but their way of life and the world around them. There

During the initial phase, whether they end up working for the Mob or going freelance, encourage them to build up ties (and show off any backstory). These are what you are going to threaten.

Have one of the PCs mothers invite him for a visit occasionally. 2 minutes of "She offers you tea and asks after you and the boys you grew up with. What do you tell her?" should be enough to help set the relationship and make her exist in the player's minds.

They might also build up a relationship with a favourite fence, pawn shop owner or barman. They could take ownership of a building as a hiding-place, to cook drugs or run a brothel in. Whatever they feel like.

The purpose of this phase is to let them build up bits of the world that are important to them. It's important that they choose these, so you'll need quite a few pieces of colour that you can expand on as their interactions deepen.

Later on, you start to use the ties to build tension. For example, have the mother talk to the PC about strange men prowling around (and there's nobody there when he checks) a couple of times. Tell them they can't find their fence, that nobody's seen him all day and that his place was tossed.

Once they find out who their enemies are, you can bet your ass they are going to go out there and deal with them.


At the end of the day, to go beyond petty theft and feathering the nest, it's all about people. Who they like, who rubs them the wrong way, who seems to have a similar agenda, who can get them owing (and paying) favors.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't exactly ask why they steal, but why they'd start stealing, and doing other more interesting things, on a grander scale, since they lack loyalty, etc. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking for buttons you can push to give them good reason to pay attention to particular plots (like the Titan Godfather in your example)? \$\endgroup\$
    – Simon Gill
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 18:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, exactly. Oh, and there's no actual police as such. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 22:46

I am currently running a long term Pathfinder campaign (just passed three years) where the PCs are all pirates called Reavers on the Seas of Fate. Let me discuss how that campaign has been motivated.


At first, they were just random goons trying to make a living by working on board a merchant ship. They determined that sucked and that unlawful means would be required to better their station in life. In your case, you're asking about past that point, not "why crime" but "why not just small crime?"

Petty Thievery

Once they got to Riddleport, they discovered that little fish get eaten by bigger fish. Doing petty crime on your own makes you enemies with the cops and with other criminal organizations. That sucked. So they started working for a local casino owner and petty crime owner, Saul Vancaskerkin. This gave them more latitude and some security from the cops.

The crime guy wasn't too heavy duty, but gave them a variety of extortion kinds of jobs. However, they couldn't do whatever they wanted, and he took a substantial cut of their earnings. So that sucked too, from the point of view of "but we want it all." It helped me tie them into plots (Second Darkness AP, first and second chapters).

Escalating Dirty Work

When it comes down to it, characters want more money, power, reputation, etc. Good adventurers get it from "killing bad guys," and naturally that's initially looting goblins for their boots and eventually looting demons for their soul gems. Bad adventurers get it from escalating crimes.

But more importantly, the prime motivation of every PC, freedom. They want to be able to do whatever the hell they want to do when they want to do it. Players hate to have any restrictions on themselves. When you're a small criminal, you have a lot of constraints on your activity. Not only the law and organized criminal gangs, but when you're a bad guy you don't have a lot of recourse when bigger bad guys decide to victimize you. You can't call the cops when someone steals your stolen money!

Even the slightly increased latitude from working for Saul wasn't "enough," and the players started working all kinds of other deals, freelancing and sometimes giving Saul his cut and sometimes trying to keep it secret. They did some things for friendly cops (dirty and otherwise) to gain more of that freedom. They did some things still for survival (when evil serpent men kidnap your friends or try to blow up your city, you still kill them even if you're evil - I ran the Freeport Trilogy of adventures as part of this).


But, but... freedom. The second they got the opportunity to murder a pirate captain and part of his crew and get the ship, they jumped at the opportunity. They could go ravage and loot beholden to none. But once you have a ship and crew, that takes loot to maintain and placate.

Of course when you're a new pirate crew and not as powerful and established as others, you have navy problems, problems with other pirates, ports won't take you seriously/sell your black market loot. So you have to keep getting more powerful, more rep...

Putting The Vicious In Vicious Cycle

Do you see the cycle? It's really just the usual D&D leveling cycle at its heart - you get more but then you get larger problems and if you get still more you can overcome those...

Long after we started this, Paizo came out with the Skull & Shackles adventure path which is similarly pirate themed. You start out as impressed crew and want to get free, then you want your own ship, then you want to be accepted by the pirates of the Shackles, then you want your own fleet, then you want to become king of the pirates...

In the end it's just like the real world, people want more. Settling at a given level is either a) out of a healthy self awareness and satisfaction at a given level of comfort (rare in adventurers) or b) because you're a screwup that can't get farther in the rat race (usually overcome by grinding some more goblins in D&D). It's the normal and laudable desire of people to achieve something new and greater. You just have to make sure your plot hooks are stuck into the bait of "bigger and better crimes" and you'll be fine.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your campaign sounds awesome, but it sounds like a) your characters define themselves as people who go out and figure out how to get more loot, and b) you motivate them, in some part, by boredom, which sounds like a not-very-good idea. However, the idea of freedom-restriction is an excellent one! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 22:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, and their's always the inevitable question - why am I getting this loot? When the answer is "to get more loot!", things can't really turn out well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 22:44
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @Glycan Well, to be fair, that's not a hero/anti-hero problem then. If you are looking about how to motivate characters who just want to stay home and watch TV, that's a different problem. Most PCs usually have the will to do stuff, whether they are heroes or anti-heroes. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 0:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you not equally confused as to why people in the real world want to get more money? More money, more problems... But it makes life just better enough that people keep running after more. If the problem is "but your PCs are acting like people and not game pieces..." well yes. But the point is that more money/power/status solves some problems. When constructing a plot/campaign, you have to build that in. It's not "boredom," it's "problems." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 2:56

What can I use to drive the PCs from petty theft to something more interesting from a plot point of view?

Drive is another word for motivation, my friend, and like a few television commercials say "What motivates you?"

I am going to attempt to lay out some basic motivators that correspond to the Human Psyche with that slight fantasy twist as evidence.

You cannot forget your basic motivations for basic existence: Food and Security.

While food may not be that exciting on its own, consider food becoming scarce, requiring bigger heists or longer hours to afford the same meager meals.

  • How do you motivate them? An empty belly and a bare fridge.

Security is a great concern for those that like to sleep the whole night. A good night's sleep interrupted by vagabonds, murderers, other thieves, demons, monsters, and what have you is something you can only stand for so long. The cost of Security is also never shallow. Guards to fend of murderers and monsters, sigils to fend of demons and other creatures of the night all cost money.

  • How do you motivate them?: Tortured, if broken sleep.

If you take a step up from the basics: Money & Sex.

Money. (... yeah, I think everyone's basically covered this bad boy. Next!)

  • How do you motivate them? Broke until employed.

Sex is a motivator for every young red-blooded boy ages high-school to withered old man. Sex motivates women just like it motivates men, but occasionally in much more sublte ways. Love, or the attraction to a particular member of the opposite sex (or same gender) has garnered box office hits, written books, sailed ships, etc, etc, etc. The more broad appeal to lust isn't lost on anyone who's experienced any media featuring "ladies of ill-repute" in red-light districts and the like. You can definitely get people to pay for the service rendered by these ladies of the night, and their services aren't cheap. Though sometimes, you don't always pay with money.

Sexy isn't the same for everyone, or for both genders, for that matter. For Male GMs with Female Players, remember that "Sexy" isn't the same for them as it is for you. Sometimes sexy is funny and caring, or mysterious and dangerous. Treat "sexy" as the word "attractive" and you may have an easier time of motivating female players with "sexy" npcs. After all, the quiet, brooding, motorcycle-riding, witty loner with a mean right hook doesn't have to be as big as some guys to get the same sort of reaction. The key words that you may have to switch around to motivate female players are "sexy", "attractive", and "successful". (Attractive men are successful. Sucessful men are sexy. Attractive men are Sexy.)

On the more personal side you can reward players with "Sex" by making them more attractive. Human beings are the veritable epitome of maximizing sex appeal. We have had makeup for eons, powder rooms for centuries, mascara that elongates your sensual lashes for decades, and Axe Body Spray(tm) for years. A bottle of "Spanish Fly" and the promises it brings is definitely a reward based solely around sex. Getting items that enhance sex appeal is most definitely a reward well understood and eagerly received. Especially when we spend anywhere from $50.00 to 1 arm and/or leg in real life to acquire such goods.

(To clarify: I'm not saying have graphic scenes in your game, but enough under the rug and understood exchanges should be more than enough to satisfy this.)

  • How do you motivate them?: Hot babes, ... for a price.
  • How do you motivate them?: Successful Men that are available if you could just get them to notice you...*

And before we climb any further up this ladder of Motivations, let's take a break for a second and think about rewards and punishments, ie, "The Boons" and "The Banes".

  • Nobody likes getting punished, -- (taking away stuff, getting bad stuff)

  • unless they think it's a reward. -- (getting bad stuff to hurt enemies)

  • People like getting rewarded, --(giving good stuff, taking away bad stuff)

  • unless it feels like a punishment. -- (taking away bad stuff that helped you before)

ex: You can gain 5 mercs by joining the Don (and doing what you were going to do anyways) OR you could get a kick in the teeth by 5 goons for encroaching on the Don's territory.
IF those goons drop sweet loot and don't kill anyone, it's probably really a reward.
IF those goons seriously wound the innkeeper and you get kicked out onto the snowy streets, it's probably really a punishment.

Remember to give rewards occasionally for doing the "right" thing. Tying back to the sex motivation, that really hot barmaid could totally dig bad boys. -- Reward players for joning the group and make sure they understand it comes from joining That group. String rewards together to form a chain of motivations.

Carrot and stick my friend. Show them the hot babe. They want the hot babe? Go this way. (Man is she hot...) Occasionally, give them the carrot. (Her name is "Angelique") Not ALL the carrots, just the one. -- Oh look, another, bigger, juicier carrot! (Her name is "Nautica")

Another rung up the ladder...

Allies can be incredibly useful, especially when you don't want to do things yourself. After all, why bump off the local thieves guild, when you can ally yourselves with them and get a cut for helping them out with problems. Forming allies that grant you goods and services is what people do on a daily basis (Ever play on your friend's Xbox?). This is what nations do (Trade treaties). This is what your players can do.

  • How do you motivate them?: Show them who has what they want, how easy it is to be their friend.

Authority is more ephemeral than money, but can give the same results. You could pay a fleet of mercenaries to ransack the town OR you could command a platoon to commandeer a town to stage a further assault and re-supply you troops. The power of doing so isn't lost on anyone facing a powerful enemy -- After all, that's why you team up in the first place: more hands make for light work, especially if that work is slaying a dragon or taking down a kingpin. The power that authority wields can be felt in the number of people at your command and or the power those sub-units command. Even if this authority is authority over the self, after being ensnared in a command structure this is pretty compelling.

  • How do you motivate them?: Show them how big their authority could be.

Longevity is a bit more esoterically than the other motivations. It usually comes towards the later stages of life. In human beings, according to Erik Erickson, after you've had the chance to make it in the world, form your own identity, and find love it is time for you to make your mark and leave a history behind you. This stage of life is identified by the amount of Care you leave behind for your progeny. Do you leave behind an empire of gold, or a swamp and a salted field of ashes and despair? This is the late life crisis, and it motivates very well once you've reached that stage. In reality it is the source of commercials for life insurance, worrying about "who's going to take care of my loved ones once I'm gone?", and nagging your descendents for even more grandchildren.

  • How do you motivate them?: Tell them how little will be left when they're gone.

The final Boss last rung.

Self Actualization, according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, is the pinnacle of achievements. Back to game mechanics terms, it's gaining the final level and maxing out your stats. In terms of plot, it's your great destiny -- wielding that +infinity vorpal sword and cutting off the head of death itself.

  • How do you motivate them?: Show them what it's like when someone achieves their destiny, and how epic it really is.

What can I use to drive the PCs from petty theft to something more interesting from a plot point a view?

Food, Security, Money, Sex, Allies, Authority, Longevity, Self-Actualization, Pain, and Pleasure

Promise with it, dangle it in front of them, give it to them when they do 'good', take it from them when they do 'bad'. Spin it however you want, but it should stem from those eight things.

(As ALWAYS, make sure your players are okay with it before you start stringing them along. If they aren't having fun when you do it like this, do something else! If it's NOT FUN, it's NOT WORTH IT.)

Sources: General knowledge of Psychology (degree), Wikipedia (as linked).

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is the kind of answer I'd upvote repeatedly, if I could. It is thorough, detailed, and thought-provoking. I would say that your entry on Sex is a bit banal: you almost equate sex and money by focusing on those who pay with sexual favors. While that can be how sex is for characters, particularly anti-heroes, it doesn't have to be. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I'm still a bit skittish about applying Sex to my own games. I guess that shows up here. I'll probably give that one section a work over in an hour or so. Thanks for your words of encouragement! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 18:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, trust me, so am I: to date, it basically hasn't (barring one module we ran that seemed to imply that a psion was mind-control-raping his daughter; we killed him hard, with the DM's explicit encouragement). But I think it's like the one (minor) flaw in this answer, so I thought I should bring it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 18:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, nice update. I would say that there's a slight implication in the opening that sex is a motivation primarily, or even exclusively, for males. That's certainly not the case (nor do I really think you're trying to imply it). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 18:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not fully satisfied with this latest update, but I'm pressed for time. I'm looking for that perfect linking idea that puts everything neatly into place. This version's a bit too ... messy. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 16:57

Like many things, you can motivate your players with carrots and sticks.

Why not petty crimes?

You can drive them away from petty crimes by just the desire for advancement. Petty crimes after all will never make them rich or powerful. So, they already have an incentive to move up the hierarchy.


But the players wanting to move up may not be enough, especially if you want them to go a specific route. A petty thief that wants to move up might in a fantasy world might readily go looking to steal from a Lord instead of neighbors once confident enough. This is definitely upward movement (or downward from a moral point of view), but not of the kind you want.

So, you offer them a clear opportunity to advance in a specific direction, perhaps a mafia recruiter offers them a position that pays better than what they're making on their own.

When opportunity isn't enough, add a threat.

Seeing an opportunity for advancement with some rewards dangled will get a lot of people moving, but maybe its not enough, especially if the opportunity seems to be high risk. In that case, you can increase the reward, but that might not be enough especially if the characters are comfortable where they're at.

So, now you add a threat. The mafia recruiter can get them away from the Sheriff.

Or if they become complacent later, introduce a competing group. Now they have to keep growing just to make sure the other group doesn't swallow them up.


The simple answer is Risk:Reward ratio.

When you are a lowly bum, the best you can do is pick pockets. Sure, some will keep picking pockets and will always go to bed hungry, but look at real-world examples: Why does the Mafia Don run a vast organization instead of running a car-valet scam? Risk:reward. If you are the guy boosting the cars, your risk is high. You bring in the car and get paid for your time (usually less than a few hours) so reward is low. You look to get a better job. Maybe you want to run the chop-shop. Less chance of getting shot while stealing the car, more chance of getting higher profit from the parts/sales of the cars once ready for the black-market. If the budding mastermind then opens a string of locations (assuming he does it intelligently and not foolishly), then if the cops raid shop A, he's in the office across town where there are no cars of questionable legality. Since he runs a few shops, he's also raking in more cash. At some point, ill-gotten monies will be enough that it starts raising questions, time to start laundering the money. But once you are laundering your own money, you likely have a few scams on the side that give you a spiff here or there. Opportunity knocks: You and a few coworkers have social thing (such as playoff brackets game or fantasy sports league) that starts out as everyone throwing in 20 bucks and winner takes the pot. Then former workers/friends start participating, finally you have a full-fledged book-making scam. Maybe your chop shop has a legal auto repair business as a front. Maybe once you start money-laundering you start accumulating enough laundered money that investments become the main form of income for you (while you operate your organization for next to nothing).

Another reason why you go up the ladder would be simple boredom. I work in Computers. About 10 years ago I started my career. I did good work and made decent money back then, but if I was doing the same gig and getting the same paycheck today, I would have beat my head through the wall at least 5 years ago. I would be bored out of my skull and not able to pay my bills. I'm sure that criminals have something similar motivation in their lives (but since I'm too boring to know from personal experience, I'll just assume this). It is the boredom that players will feel towards the ground-level scams that will cause them to keep reaching for the bigger, badder thing. As said in comments (thanks Mxyzplk), a 10th level group will not want to clear out dens of low-level badguys. They've moved onto dragons (and their much larger piles of loot).

Your players are likely to start out on their scams, then come to a point of where picking someone pocket just isn't fun anymore. There's almost no risk on a DC 15 roll when you roll a d20 and add 15 or more to it. Sure, a smart DM will house-rule that you don't need to roll if you are almost guaranteed to pass the roll, but then the player will likely get bored with "auto success" rolls after the first few times it happens. Either the player will look for another thing to get a chuckle (like pick pocketing the guards on duty instead of the drugged out indigent in the park), or figure out the next thing on their own. From my experience, players who are involved in the world will generally give the DM more content than s/he wants. But some others will enjoy being the 1-trick pony. Let them, they will do that one trick really well and will likely help the rest of the party just to continue to get the chuckle from that one trick.

TL;DR: Assuming your players are engaged in the plot, they will likely keep moving along the plot you have thought of more or less and when they don't follow the plot, they will give you better/different plot instead. You should roll that into your overall plot when applicable or take advantage of it as a break from the plot otherwise.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A good part of the question is, "how to get them engaged in the plot?". Oh, and if someone tried to motivate me by boredom in game, I'd just stop playing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 22:51
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Glycan, I think you need to screw your head on straight about "boredom." It's the nature of escalating challenge. Tenth level warriors don't go clean out goblin dens any more, as that would be boring. It's not boredom that is the motivation, it's the desire to achieve something new and bigger. If you think that's bad you are simply confused. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 11:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk, thanks for the clarification. You said in a sentence what I couldn't in a paragraph. I'll edit to better clarify. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 11:45

Using a meta way to address this and in keeping with this answer, I would state that I am running a game in which the main protagonists are up and coming thieves looking to climb the ranks of the local crime syndicate. If your players are not keen on this, you can change your plot so that they are the opposition to your NPC party that is doing your original main quest.

You are telling a story (your plot) and the protagonists must fit into it. Your players should buy into that plot and create their own story within that framework.

What I am advocating is letting the players themselves come up with reasons why their characters move from petty theft to something more interesting. As a referee, you do not have to do anything but provide the opportunity for them to do so. It is their job to follow up on your hooks, or make their own. But they can only do this if they are aware of the framework (aka plot/story) that you are running.


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