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I am currently DMing a campaign for a player that I will call Will and 2 others. To start off, Will is not really a problem player despite this question being tagged as such. He is engaged in the game, he does not cause problems for the others and the game has been going smoothly so far. I know Will has trouble keeping track of his sheet, his modifiers, etc, but since we started using the Avrae bot this has no longer been a problem.

However, Will is not good at creating characters with actual motivation. Will's character's just a simple native of the starting town who lives with his artisan parents. Most of his character "backstory" was trivia like favourite colour or random habits. The character is pretty much a self-insert, including the fact that he is pretty lazy and unambitious.

Will said that his character's initial reason would be to run some errands for his parents that were related to the "start of the campaign and initial quest" information I gave to everyone. Once that was done, I got his father kidnapped by some criminals. I am afraid that eventually, in order to keep Will's character involved, the campaign will end up feeling very Will-centric. The other players are much more flexible, meaning that their characters have more of a distant long-term goal and can be drawn by pretty much any plot hook or quest.

Some background: I've known Will for more than 2 years now and before playing DnD, we have been doing freeform RPs. All his characters were either political wish fulfilment (leader of his dream country) or meek, shy, lazy and unambitious characters. Will was the one who recently personally requested that I run a DnD game for him, and he refused a one-on-one, saying that he wanted to socialise. Will is aware that his character is not adventurer-like and does not want to be a My Guy problem player, hence why he added that his parents were making him run errands. However, Will does not know how to create a more adventurer-like character with long term goals. He simply has trouble roleplaying as a character too different from himself (generally, he doesn't know how to put himself in an imagined character's shoes).

Question: how can I help a player roleplay a character with long-term goals, as a series of short-term goals will eventually run out of steam and make the campaign feel this-player-centric ?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Help" implies actions from the player in the first place. What were his own incentives? Does he want long-term motivations for his character? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    May 9 at 11:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ What is the problem? Is Will struggling to rationalize why their character is staying with the party? Does Will not feel engaged? Does Will actually want their character to have long-term goals? Do you struggle to run games with characters of the sort that Will makes? \$\endgroup\$ May 9 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why not give Will a string of queries covering all the points you yourself look for in character motivation? How long the string is and whether you use open-ended or multiple-choice questions, or what, is your choice. \$\endgroup\$ May 11 at 16:45

6 Answers 6

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Here are a few methods that have proven to work for me:

  • You provide the long-term motivation for his character background to him. Classic is a missing and beloved person, that they are searching for (sister, father, etc.) and traveling around the world to learn something about while funding themselves with adventuring. Or it could be a big goal like owning a barony or something. Or the character has unsettling dreams that beckon him to go somewhere or do something. If they have difficulty to come up with such stuff, and you don't, and they don't mind, you can just help them with it.

  • Their character has no long term motivation, but from the initial adventures develops friendships and relationships with the rest of the party. As he has nothing better to do, and his friends can use his help, he decides to come along on whatever it is they are up to. The upside of this option is that it is entirely independent of campaign story arcs.

  • Their character has no intial long term motivation, but as part of the inital adventures gets drawn into a larger plot, and to save and protect those he cares about, has to pursue it. This can be anything from a looming invasion wiping out his country to an evil archcleric trying to end the world. If your campaign has a larger plot and is not just a sandbox of random adventures, you likely already know what this would be.

P.S.

If this is even a problem depends on how you want to play. There are enough tables, where the deeper motivation of the PCs is not important, as long as there are monsters to slay, treasures to loot, and XP to collect. From you asking the question, it seems it is a problem for your table, or at least for you. If it is mostly you yourself who feels the need to have motivation for his character, but neither he nor the other players fret about it, then you could just let go of that, and move on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for being concise, accurate, and comprehensive - and for the all-important last paragraph. I only have one thing to add: The three "big generic motivations" for adventurers are fame, fortune, and thrills, because adventuring gets you all of those things - and because they fit with nearly any PC personality with no changes necessary. If a player is happy with their character adventuring because they want one or more of those three, congratulations! You'll have an easy time GMing for that player, because those motivations trivially apply to every adventure with zero effort on your part. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 9 at 22:45
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You could force him to have a motivation, but that isn't really what you want

You're the DM, so obviously if you wanted to you could force your player to have a motivation. You could threaten his family, or his life, or the entire world. You can do whatever you want. You can also write your friend's backstory for him, giving him a rich set of motivations that he'll be entirely unattached to because he didn't come up with them. But I think you know all that. You didn't ask "how can I force my player to have a motivation." You asked how you could help your player come up with their own long-term motivations.

Players need ownership over their characters' motivations

The unfortunate truth, as you point out in your question, is that external motivations alone are not ideal for driving a campaign forward. Characters need internal motivations that spur them to act on those external motivations. And internal motivations aren't really internal motivations if they've been assigned to a player by the DM. You can tell your friend "your character really wants to become a legendary hero and prove everyone who ever made fun of him wrong," but if that backstory doesn't originate from your player, especially given that you've described him as having a hard time inhabiting the mind of a fictional character, he's not actually going to behave like he has that motivation during play. You'll end up continually having to remind him what his character's motivation is, and -- worst case scenario -- basically end up roleplaying his character for him.

So you need to give your player some ownership over his character's motivations, but how do you do that if he can't come up with any motivations on his own?

Instead of asking him to build a backstory from scratch, give him options

In my current campaign, the villain is a mischief-maker who travels from town to town tricking folks into drawing cards from the Deck of Many Things. As part of character creation, I curated a list of bad cards from the Deck, and wrote a brief synopsis of how each card might have impacted a character's life. Maybe they were from a wealthy family whose scion drew the Ruin card, destroying their fortune in a moment. Maybe a character's spouse drew the Balance card, and has now become a total stranger. Each player was required to either pick one of these card events as part of their backstory, or make up their own using another card from the Deck.

This meant that each character started the campaign with a unique, built-in reason to pursue the BBEG, a reason which was rooted in the backstory of the character they'd built. I didn't hand them those backstories, but I did provide a constraint on their backstory that allowed them to be creative within a framework that was guaranteed to serve the narrative.

In your campaign, you know what themes and events are probably going to be important. Try crafting a few sample backstories that tie into those elements, and offer them to your player as options. Make sure he knows that he doesn't have to pick one of the backstories you offered - you're just giving him examples of the kinds of things that will result in a strong character with clear ties to the events of the campaign. This will either give him an easy way to build a backstory without having to be too creative -- he can just pick one of yours -- or give him a jumping-off point to create his own character. Bonus points if you find a way to work in the player's OOC fantasy of ruling his dream country into these backstories, since that's clearly something he's excited about roleplaying.

Overall, it's really cool that you're looking for a way to help your player with this. He clearly wants to play with you and I'm sure he'll appreciate the effort you're putting in.

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Have the parents ask for any of a variety of normal things.

Their main motivation is following their parent's choice. No need to make that dramatic. Have their parents push them.

"Hey son. You're doing so well as an adventurer. You make us proud. You should keep adventuring, earn lots of loot and make the name of our family famous."

Getting rich and being famous are perfectly normal motivations and don't require much drama.

More passive players often are happy to just roll with the game.

As you said, he just wants to play. That makes for a great and easy game. Just have external people like his parents encourage him to follow the adventuring path. You don't need to invent elaborate family related kidnappings for him. You can just have them ask him to keep up with it.

I've had lots of passive players like you. They just wanna play a fun game. They generally are fine with basic motivations.

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There Is No Secret To Motivation

The ultra-condensed version of character motivation is always the same. The core elements are:

  • Find out what the character loves, and then threaten it.
  • Find out what the character needs, and hide it.
  • Find out what the character hates, and rub their face in it.
  • Find out what gets the character in trouble, and haunt them with it.

That's really it, in a nutshell. Everything else is a refinement, or a variation, or a technique, or a way to tie those critical elements back into the RPG story you want.

So what you have to do is find out what those things are, so you can leverage them. You don't need a complete list of all four-- in a pinch, one will do. And it's important to remember that sometimes these are concrete ("I love my sister, and I will risk my life to rescue her!") and sometimes they are abstract ("I hate slavery!")

Here's the rub: Some players are very good about this. Some players love designing this into their characters up front, or will respond really well to a set of leading questions, or a long conversation. I myself start with a set of questions some of which are specific to the game, others of which are very generic.

Some players are so-so, and you'll have prod them and dig at them for a while.

And some players are just not good at this, for a variety of reasons-- they might not have time, or their experience of playing just might not work that way. For some players, they can only develop motivations in-game, or they might not ever-- they're just along for the ride.

There are only two things I've ever been able to do for these players, if I know they're acting in good faith:

  1. Get a little heavy-handed-- you may have to tell them that if they can't come up with a motivation, you'll have to give them a list and ask them to pick one. ("You can be a member of an organization that gives you tasks, you can have an NPC that you care for and are willing to risk yourself for, or you can be old friends or a relative of a PC and willing to go along with them.") I haaaaate doing this, and it's probably not what you're looking for. It's not great, but it's better than nothing. You need to have a look-them-in-the-eyes (or equivalent) conversation about this, though.

  2. Get a little meta-- you may have to make it clear that you're willing to give them a few sessions, or maybe even a level or two worth of playing, to really get into and attached to the setting. But in the long term, you expect them to find a motivation, and in the short term, you expect their cooperation, not a stonewall of "But why would MY GUY be interested in this?" I've generally had better luck with this than with the more heavy-handed approach. But I don't mind bringing a little meta-motivation to the table if it gets things moving.

You can, of course, do both-- gently shove them into an initial motivation, but be clear that they can also develop one as they go along that suits them better.

And remember-- if, in the long term, the player is constructively engaged in the game even though there's no deeply personal character motivation, as long as everyone is having fun, that's still a win. Take the win. It's only if the player is really stonewalling and impeding the game that this becomes a serious problem. This would be a serious flaw in a novel, but you're not writing a novel, you're running a game.

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Give your party motivation

A bard in a campaign I was once in made the observation that some characters are born with motivation, some find motivation, some have it thrust upon them.

Don't just give them motivation.

Thrust it upon them.

Whatever the characters hold dear, threaten it, and put a clock on it.

Maybe there's a dragon that is threatening the countryside. Oh, look, there goes another farm. Whole villages are leaving. And guess what, your character's village is directly in the way. Your character's parents don't want to lose the farm of generations, and Dad's too stubborn to leave anyway. Coincidentally, the Queen has hired a band of adventurers. And, it turns out that if the queen can't vanquish the dragon, then the council will probably depose her and put charming Lord Clever in her place, only your character has recurring dreams that Lord Clever is actually in league with the dragon and that it isn't just lunch the dragon is after, but to open a massive gate to the Abyss....

You don't have to plan it out all at once, or even at all. Just start with "the dragon", or whatever you want to use. Put a threat on the party, but a clock on it.

You may wish to tread lightly when coming up with threats that affect a character's backstory. It's one thing to have the dragon threaten the family farm; it's a different thing entirely to burn it to the ground.

The DMG

The Dungeon Master's Guide talks about creating adventures in a fair amount of detail and is worth looking at.

Published adventures

If you have access to any published adventures, there's usually a good synopsis in the beginning of the adventure that describes the motivation for the adventure. You might get inspiration from there.

Inspiration from books and movies

Take a look at your favorite books or movies. Often characters are reluctant, and have had an adventure thrust upon them.

In The Wizard of Oz, each character has a motivation; they seek: a heart, a home, a brain, the nerve. And there's time pressure, Auntie Em must be so worried.

Conclusion

Don't wait for the characters to find motivation, thrust it upon them!

Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please don't kill my character's family without talking to me about it in advance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    May 9 at 13:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SamAzon Added a paragraph "You may wish to tread lightly". Does that address your concern? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 9 at 14:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ It does. Thank you, Jack. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    May 9 at 23:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ In a way this sounds like what is already being done - the issue being that the character's motivations seem fairly self-centred (i.e. personal, rather than bigger ideals). As a concern for following this the question adds " I am afraid that eventually, in order to keep Will's character involved, the campaign will end up feeling very Will-centric". \$\endgroup\$ May 10 at 13:08
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Will's goals are maybe not what you expect

Will may just want to play with people to socialize, not to be in the spotlight. It might be interesting to check with him what he does expect from the campaign and not the game itself (socialize).

I've met a few people which are mostly enjoying spending afternoon eating together and chatting before / after session.
Or even just following a good story in which they can intervene. Why read a book when you can live it ?
These people are just enjoying spending time together following the others and helping to decide or fight.

If this is the case, please interact with Will's character but focus on the other character's long term goals and it will be all fine.

Note: you will have to have some people with 'initiative' in the group for this approach to work

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