The only way I seem to be able to motivate my players to go on adventures is the promise of gold or XP they don't seem to want to go anywhere unless some kind of physical reward is promised.

For example: A little girl is dying of a disease and her father asks the adventurers to go to a hidden cave to harvest a special form of glowing mushrooms that is used to cure the disease, my players will say "how much can you pay us" or "what do we get out of it" in this case the father was so poor he couldn't give them anything, the players let her die...

...So that's my current dilemma so my question is...

How can I motivate my players in a way that doesn't entail a physical reward?


11 Answers 11


Start by asking your players why they're only interested in material rewards. If this group of players is not terribly interested in RP or story, and mostly want to play a game that allows them to collect money and XP, then you won't get very far trying to introduce story goals. On the other hand, it may be that your players feel that unless they ask for a reward up front, they do not get anything out of the adventure (which may mean that you as DM should drop more treasure/XP/whatever in general).

If they profess to want story goals, then start by adding goals that directly impact one or more PCs. For example, instead of poisoning some random farmer's daughter, use the fighter's younger sister, or the wizard's niece. Or even have a PC himself be poisoned. Basically, make it clear that the penalty for failure will be more than "nameless one-shot NPC dies".

Then, once the players have agreed to take on such a quest, find a way to reward them anyway. When they go looking for the mushrooms, perhaps they find the skeleton of another adventurer (and all his treasure) who had been poisoned like the girl, who had died trying to get the mushrooms. Then, later during a different adventure, they come across someone else who's been poisoned, and they can sell the location of the cave or any leftover mushroom stock.

This eases the players into the idea that not all adventures will have explicit this-for-that rewards. Once they accept the idea that not all rewards will be stated up front, but that treasure will still be dropped at interesting and exciting points during the quest, your players will be more willing to take on quests that don't involve direct material rewards.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You seem to know what's up and down, thatgirldm. OP: I believe the problem that you are facing, has something to do with the players' expectations of "what D&D is all about". \$\endgroup\$
    – Undreren
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 9:18

As I see, this is a problem of motivating the players and not the characters.

players will say "how much can you pay us" or "what do we get out of it" in this case the father was so poor he couldn't give them anything, the players let [the little girl] die...

This is not a question of whether the little girl will die. And not even of what moral pits the characters will descend to. This is a question of why the players won't care for your story. Are they not interested in the plot? Are they not interested in this specific game or campaign? Or worse, are they not interested in gaming at all?

If the characters won't shake a leg to go on adventures, it shows that the players just don't care if they will never hear the story you want to tell them. They don't care for the efforts you put into preparing for the game. 'cause if they had, they would do anything to hear it. They would even metagame and go against character motivations just to go on the adventure. I know this would be far from optimal, but then there would at least be an interest, and an initiative to participate. And this could lead them to start a dialog with you, and tell you how to motivate them.

Apparently, this is not the case. I really don't know what to do here. Likely, it's time to take a break - in the story, in the party or in gaming itself. But first you should probably talk to your players and tell them your problem, and inquire their thoughts on the issue and on how they think to proceed. Let them know that there is no wu wei in gaming.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you mean "wu wei" ("action in non-action"), rather than "Wei wu wei" (the pseudonymous Taoist writer)? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. It's an excellent phrase that I'm going to remember. Gaming is one of the very few things that does not allow for wu wei! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 0:43

You need to find out what the players want. Ask them. If all they honestly want is gold and XP, then at least now you know.

Depending on your game world, you could reinforce that actions (and inactions) have consequences. If word spreads they heartlessly let a child die for day's worth of effort on their part, that could color the kind of responses and work they receive in that region of the world. Being greeted to a new city as child-murderers—as the story spreads and is embellished—could change their attitude.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or it might not! If the players buy in and own their heartlessness, then you can work that into their future adventures. Or you could tell them that's not the kind of game you want to run. Talk to the players! \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 23:12

From the description in the question, it appears that the players are either 1. not engaged in the game to the point where common human decency bleeds through to allow for acts of altruism to save dying little girls, or 2. their characters are evil or selfish enough to require payment to give a damn about such things.

If it is an issue of engagement:

The players may not enjoy a mission-orientated framework of play, and in order to accept this form of structure to the campaign are balking at anything their characters are expected to do 'for free' - even if that means saving sick little kids. While you might try talking to them about their portrayals of truly vile humans, I suspect that generating a world in which the players generate their own actions may help. This requires getting player input on what it is that they actually do wish to do, and shaping the world to reflect and support that. Don't leave out the things you would like to see them take on - but do not make them the central (or only) thing for them to do.

Expose them to the lore of the world, rumors, hints of profit to be had, and so on - all without obligation, time pressure, or competition. These things just are. There is a sunken ship believed to be laden with stolen gold somewhere off the coast. A new trend of eating rare and unusual mushrooms has broken out in the capital; top dollar will be paid - the stranger the better. A famed robber was captured in the hills and taken to prison, but his stolen loot was not recovered....

These do not have to be grand ideas, just things that appeal to the players as goals for their characters.

If it is an issue of character:

It may be that the character concepts in the group do not match the campaign that they are in. Remedies for this range from simple to difficult, but will not take much time.

If the concepts and campaign do not match, something has to give. I would recommend:

  • Ensure that in-world consequences arise from their callous behavior. Their reputations will proceed them and the only work they will be able to find is the vile kind that pays well in gold with a bonus of paranoia and betrayal. Later in the campaign the opportunity for them to meet people from their past who can react to how they have changed might be effective.
  • Definitely speak to them about goals that they want to undertake and make it possible for them to find opportunities to work toward those goals on their own, or for pay.
  • Remember that the 'characters have to eat too' works both ways. To provide a full experience of the characters the rise and fall of fortunes is an important part. The characters seem to get the idea that they need money. Let them work hard for it, let them be free to want it, let them seek it from those willing to pay it, and remember that the world should be making them spend it.

It may be that the players are interested in building the characters more than anything else and want to be assured of reward so that they can achieve the next level. Not all players are given a reason to outgrow this focus in play, so it may be necessary to build away from it slowly. Add in a focus on additional aspects to play to demonstrate other things to enjoy. The success of a clever plan, the engagement of a cool resolution system, the thrill of a powerful scene, the spawning of a family, and so on can all be things that players find are enjoyable above and beyond the immediate reward of character improvement.


Give in to the inevitable

Common RPGs like D&D and its ilk just don't support this kind of thinking: gold and XP are the only methods to advance characters' ability to influence their environment unless the GM works really hard to make it otherwise. Asking players to waste precious real-life gaming time spending resources without a return for their effort flies in the face of everything the mechanics stand for.

If you don't throw the party a bone and offer compensation for the time, effort, and resources spent, you're asking them to play a very different kind of game and you'll likely hit a brick wall.

So use non-traditional rewards

XP should probably still be on the table (if a party doesn't level every two to four sessions, they usually get restless), but there are plenty of ways to represent wealth other than cash and equipment. A few common examples follow, but you're by no means limited to these.

  • Reputation: Aside from getting discounts, reputation opens doors. A well-known group of heroes will have more quests brought to them and will be given access to opportunities and resources they wouldn't otherwise get ("Of course you can look through the Royal library for the ancient spell, we've heard about how you saved that little girl. The king was impressed.")

  • Information: The location of treasure, the Truename of a powerful being, who the Prince's mistress is, where to find a unicorn or how to mix a Daught of Living Death. Information is power, and can lead to quests, items, wealth, influence, or any number of other things.

  • Titles: Titles sound snazzy. And they often come with a house or keep, a small cadre of non-combat employees, a tax to collect, duties to the king (especially mustering soldiers)... You can make it as onerous or fun as you like, but being titled gives both resources and responsibility that some might find entertaining. Use carefully, as many RPGs don't really support this option very well.

Avoid overusing consequences

Some other answers here focus on the consequences of the party's ignoring such a quest. I don't advise that you go this route very often: it's tempting because it lends verisimilitude to the world, but it usually turns into just punishing the players for not doing what you want them to.


You know they want gold and XP, and you know they don't care about helping people. It sounds like they're driven by greed above all else, so let's work with that. Here are three ideas:

Hint at greater rewards to come. Imagine the party defeats a group of bandits and is going through their loot when they find two items: a sack full of coins, and a small notebook full of scrawled notes about assembling a powerful magical artifact. The coins are more useful at the moment, but the notebook might be more useful in the long run. It suggests that a greater treasure exists, but doesn't actually give it to them just yet.

Greed is close to envy. When the party turns down helping a poor farmer, wait till the next adventure, when they meet a knight on the road. He's a noble champion, and it turns out that he helped the farmer that the party ignored. He's going to the same city the party's going to. There, they get to see the king giving public accolades to the champion, along with some kind of small reward. In the next adventure, they hear that this champion has been called on to go on some great quest. Now the party has a rival to compete with, and the competition itself can be a motivator.

Access to treasure is limited. There's a major prize being offered for whoever can rebuild a bridge, but only an expert would know how. Only the members of the Crimson Order have access to the ancient archives. Only those who have the king's permission can hunt in the royal woods. Limit who can access treasure and gaining access will drive the party (even though it's all about treasure in the end).

Give XP for completing quests. Why wouldn't the party get XP for helping cure the sick girl? If the system you're using doesn't allow for XP for things like that, I humbly suggest you try changing the rules.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Access to treasure is great! "There's great treasure in the king's woods in an old dungeon, but bringing it back will prove we broke the law and poachers are hanged... We'll have to get a royal writ of permission to go in, or take the risk. Hm, who can we bribe or make friends with?" Greed-envy is also a great idea. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 17:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with the last point: Completing a side quest is a great reason to award XP, especially to XP-greedy players. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 15:12

Personal motivation, relationships, and background.

...and these three are very closely related & intertwined.

Draw on the background of your players. If you haven't made up any for them: it's never too late to sketch up and progressively detail and develop one. Make the NPCs matter to them through connections: family, organizations, society, similar situations, etc.

A little girl is dying of a disease, and her father, a nephew of one of the adventurers, asks the adventurers to get the cure... (If they don't help, their family might even disown them.)

A little girl is dying of a disease, and her father, the brother of the love interest of one of the adventurers, asks the adventurers to get the cure... (If they don't help, there goes the chance for romance. Heartache is a bad thing.)

A little girl is dying of a disease, and her father, the sheriff of the city the PCs are staying in, asks the adventurers to get the cure... (You don't want to cross the sheriff, if you intend to stay in his city. You might leave and never come back, of course...)

A little girl is dying of a disease, and her father, a poor, slightly mad scientist, capable of developing a cure for the entire village, asks the adventurers to get the resources for the cure. (If they deny him, the desperate people of the village might even attack them. Sure, you could slaughter the village... but that doesn't look good on your CV, usually.)

A little girl is dying of a disease, and her stepfather, a poor hermit, asks the adventurers who worship the same god, to get the cure... (If they don't help, their god might get slightly pissed off.)

Yes, consequences

Allow them refuse the call to adventure, then have them face the consequences. It should teach them a lesson. ;) After a few lessons, they'll consider their options more thoroughly. (Careful, don't overuse this. Let some refusals go without serious consequences. Such is life. Keep it real.)

So, the little girl died...

...two days later, her ghost starts haunting you. You can hardly harm it, and even if you kill it, it returns the next night. You start losing sleep (you get negative modifiers), and your weapons that touch her begin to corrode.

...and the disease has started to spread. Now a whole village is dying. And one of the PCs isn't feeling quite well either.

...and her father, the sheriff, who used to be a poor, slightly mad hermit dabbling in science, has put a curse on one of you. And he threw you in jail for a few weeks, so you missed that other, very important meeting.

...and her father got very sad, but you didn't give a damn. Heartless bastards. (As @Joe said.) So, here's a random encounter. ;]


Consider switching to a different system or setting in which gold and XP are not the focus. For instance, a military setting like Savage Worlds' Weird War II or a supers setting like Mutants & Masterminds are not about accumulating wealth and XP is handed out based on how well they did overall, not on their body count.

Obviously, this is a fairly extreme measure and would require buy-in from your players. But I've found that oftentimes this gold and XP attitude is a goal that is engrained in D&D's "kick down the door and kill everyone inside" mentality and switching to a system or setting where there is a different goal does tend to change player behavior.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I am currently trying to decide which system I want to use Ars Magica or Dogs in the Vineyard. But normally I play D20 and this is always a problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Antonio
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 12:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I think that this is a problem with d20 games in general. It's just the mindset that's developed with it and the "goal" of a dungeon crawl. Heck, early versions of D&D made experience for Rogues and such directly tied with how much gold they got, so it's natural that players would make that the goal of the game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 19:11

You have to make intangibles worth something. If the only thing that is really worth anything to the players is advancing their characters with gold and XP, that's the only thing that will motivate them.

Make connections (and the lack thereof) important.

("Connections" is just another word for "relationships", but it has a more obvious practical value to venal mercenary types.)

In our own history, if you didn't have a title over someone, kinship with them, prestige through great deeds and reputation that precede you, allegiance through marriage or tradition, or share the same lord, you were nobody. If you didn't owe or command allegiance to someone, at least distantly, you were in a grey area where you're not really a "citizen" (they didn't use that concept then though) and you're not officially declared outlaw. You're just kinda of worthless and unimportant to anyone – and no-one mind if you're dragged into a dark alley or killed on the road. ("You want to get into the city? Too bad! You're a foreigner, not a merchant, and you don't know anybody here. Get lost or be treated like bandits!")

Make relationships about access to resources, so that gaining relationships, fame, and prestige is valued as a practical matter by the players just as much as increasing their killing skills. If they don't want to be treated like bandits by every lord and peasant they meet, give them opportunities to make powerful friends who can lend them their name and authority, validating them as "worthies" that can go places and be taken seriously.

If they aspire to be somebody, they might start caring who thinks what about them.


Have an NPC boast about going to a cave to save a girl from an unknown sickness from some mushrooms they collected there. Then, have the boast about finding some really cool treasure in that cave.

This way someone else becomes a better hero in their story. Eventually, this NPC will become the rival. They will rack up tons of rewards, respect, and fame. They will start to regret everything he/she accomplishes and obtains. Then, when they don't want to do an adventure, just have the rival show up. They'll start to rethink their decision out of jealousy and hate for this NPC.


Talk to the players

If the players mostly want hack n' slash and to run on the character progression treadmill then they just might want a different genre of game then you are offering. In that case you have several options including:

  • Straight up telling them you prefer a more story oriented game and asking them to at least give it a try.
  • Give them what they want and turn the story into window dressing wtih explicit rewards.
  • Get someone else to GM
  • Find a new group instead of or in addition to this one.

The type of game being played is generally part of the social contract (which is often implict instead of explicit). When different people have different ideas of the social contract and in particular of what type of game is being played it can lead to awkwardness.

Give experience mostly for finishing quest goals.

In D&D the traditional way to get experience is to kill monsters. Why you are doing the killing doesn't matter from that standpoint. If the group wants to run on the character progression treadmill, quests are a way to get more wealth and an excuse to kill the monsters.

So, if you want to shift to more story oriented goals, it helps to emphasize that completing the goals, not killing monsters are what gets rewarded. So, of course no character will say it, but they will know that healing the girl will get them experience even if not gold.

To really play up the aspect if you want, tell them that from now on there is bonus experience for good roleplaying, for creative solutions to the problem, and for avoiding killing while completing the mission.

If you have played Planescape: Torment (a computer game based on AD&D) it did award experience for killing, but it awarded more for completing the quests and achieving goals. It was possible to go through the game with only a couple of fights and make it to a high level if that is what you wanted to do. Dishonored "punishes" for unnecessary killing and Hitman gives recognition for only killing the assigned target.

Make Karma a Real Force in the Game World

If not done very carefully, this could be a bit heavy handed. But it also works. If the characters let an innocent die when they could have saved her, Karma will punish them in some real and direct way (a plague on the group). If they save an innocent with no other expectation of reward, Karma will semi-overtly step in and they will stumble over treasure within the next week.

Like I said, this can be heavy handed. And it feels retributory (like your punishing the players) if it isn't fully justified in the story. But you can justify it in the story if you do it rigth.

A new deity of justice enters the pantheon and begins dealing out both rewards and punishments for acts he notices. Not every little thing will be noticed, but when he notices he acts. You can then play up the results (evil deities whose followers are being punished oppose the good one, a religious war begins. People might even start getting paranoid about what they do or even think, somewhat like that twilight zone episode with the mind reading kid.)


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