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Background

I'm the DM of a role playing group. Improvised rule set.

I've created a world for my players where I have tried to be as close to 16th century reality as possible, with the additions of magic and phantasmal beasts being extremely rare and stigmatized to even talk about among commoners.

The characters

Two characters are present, a third was playing but had to pause due to becoming a daddy.

Here is a good place to mention that I encouraged my players to write a public story and a private story. There is one part of their background that no one else in the party knows.

First we have an assassin posing as a priestess. Her priestess side was supposed to be a cover, but she has now noticed that she has to actually play an inept priestess 90% of the time and the assassin she wanted to play only gets to come out when she sneaks away from her partner and gets a private session.

In order for her cover to be believable she cannot show that she can stand on her own in a fight, not that she can much, as she is specialized in poisons and sneaking, not combat.

The second character is the son of a jeweler who got down on his luck, lost too much money by gambling and was disowned by his father. Now he lives his life as a vagabond and survives by being very good at bluffing and sleight of hand tricks. He is decent at throwing knives but that does not help him in a stand up fight much.

The problem

In a realistic world, where the main characters are encouraged to do what is really in their characters to do, meaning for the most part, stay out of trouble and be cautious about strange things. How to get the characters to be passionate about going on a perilous, life threatening journey?

What I tried

  • Mystical robed figures transporting strong boxes
  • A Family on the run from assassins
  • A wealthy guild of merchants ripe for a heist

I've told them (per realistic game system expectations) that I will enjoy killing their characters if they do things that are out of character. I've also told them about my trouble of getting them to be curious about things. We all agreed we want to stick to playing realistically though.

The passiveness of the players remains, I could hardly get them to save a tavern owner from local thugs without the help of some NPC muscle.

TLDR Question

What's a good way to motivate realistic, overcautious characters to risk their lives?

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I would strongly suggest you to use famous Same Page Tool. Sit together, read the questions, discuss them. Now it looks like you all are trying to play different games, and no one is happy about it.

Your assassin has no goal, no connections, and why would she ever stick with someone she doesn't trust enough to reveal herself? Jeweler's son has no goal, but it seems his player at least isn't so disappointed. But what did he wanted to play when he rolled his character? It seems you don't know. You need to talk with your players and get to know such things. Your players need to talk with you and know what kind of campaign you have in mind.

Don't be shy to make some retcons or start again

It's your fun. So once you all know what kind of fun do you want to have, and made sure you are on the same page (using the tool or not), make it so. Don't stick to the game that's failing you.

Don't send mixed signals

If you allowed characters that would not be willing to investigate mystic figures with boxes, and you told your players that characters acting out of character will die, don't put mystic figures with boxes on your stage. This looks like GM's excuse to kill a character, from a player's point of view.

Yesterday I had to tell one of my players "Sorry, but that character wouldn't survive the campaign I want to DM. I can tell you why, but I'd rather avoid spoilers." And another player heard "Sorry, but in this campaign I don't think you would really have a way to benefit from this." These statements opened discussion and in the result players have characters that will still be fun to them - and I'm going to have campaign I'll be able to narrate, and have fun doing it.


People risk their lives for four basic reasons (and one extra):

  1. They are paid to do it. Like, your assassin's guild gives you a target, or you are a mercenary. Or private investigator. Or king's investigator.

  2. It's their social duty. It was every knight's duty to defend those who can't defend themselves. It is a noble's duty to know what happens on his land.

  3. For their family and loved ones be it blackmail or sister in trouble

  4. Because they will die anyway if they don't

  5. Or there is just something with their heads. Think adrenaline junkies, people with mental health issues, homicidal maniacs. It does happen.

You just need to make sure your characters can have these motivations, and that you could use them to give them common goal.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This Same Page Tool seems to be a very good tool, I will definitely talk about the questions where I am unsure of if we share views in the group. I may be new to this board, but on stackoverflow, answering with a link is bad practice, the information for the answer should be contained in the answer itself. How does that work here? \$\endgroup\$ – firelynx Jan 23 '17 at 9:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @firelynx This answer is much more than a link. If you got too fixed on the link, then read my answer again, skipping the first paragraph. It'll still work. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jan 23 '17 at 10:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ after your edit, the answer is much more helpful as a stand alone answer. Thank you \$\endgroup\$ – firelynx Jan 23 '17 at 10:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer +1; I will add from experience 5. They are psychopathic lunatics. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Jan 23 '17 at 12:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rob - always. I'll add fifth point after lunch \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jan 23 '17 at 12:03
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Usually, an RPG features some expectations for its player characters to fulfill. For example, in typical Dungeons and Dragons games the PCs are assumed to be outstandingly powerful compared to the average commoner and motivated to leverage this power as a part of an adventuring party. That's three "assumptions" that make the game flow smoother: a powerful character doesn't have to worry about the dangers of adventuring as much, a motivated adventurer never chooses a boring, secure life in a town instead of a thrilling quest, and a party-oriented adventurer will collaborate with the party in the face of adversity, emphasizing the co-operative nature of the game.

What are the assumptions in your game, then?

You want the characters to be realistically afraid of danger, which is cool. You also want the characters to place themselves in danger, which is also cool because the game would probably be rather boring if they played overtly cautiously. However, these two expectations, when put together, can put your players in a difficult situation because they can be very hard to put together.

It sounds to me like you are threatening to kill the PCs for taking "unrealistic" risks, but want them to take some risks anyway - that requires a lot of assessment from the players to know which risks are fine and which ones are not, and can come off as arbitrary. I'm not saying it can't be done - you just need to make it clear to the players what sort of behavior you feel they should avoid as "unrealistic" so that it doesn't hurt the whole. Communication is the key here. I recommend taking the time to sit off the game for one session and discuss it openly, perhaps with an aid such as the Same Page Tool.

It could also help you to include some extra motivation for your player characters: have every player come up with a few plot-hooks that their characters would respond to strongly, and if the game is stalling due to them playing too cautiously, leverage these plot hooks to give them a push. For example, a character could be a sole provider for a sick, beloved relative - if the players are hesitant to progress with a quest to loot a bank for serious lucre, said relative's illness could worsen and the bank job becomes a necessity to get money for the medicine. This gives you a means to "push" the characters in-game when needed; just be reasonable when pulling the hooks!

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What is a good way to motivate people to risk their life? Put their life to risk.

There are several classic and not so classic hooks that would put them in danger, especially in a barely magic, medieval world. A case of mistaken identity, getting into things over their head. Being framed for something and having to prove their innocence. Somebody in higher society taking a dislike to them. Natural disasters, a plague in the streets, being caught in a riot. Insulting the wrong person in a tavern, or some bored and drunk sailor accosting them. Or something as simple as picking up the wrong satchel from the ground, picking up the gold and ending up with something a lot of people want to have (spy documents, weird magic item, love letters to the wrong person). This is their story, so unlikely things should happen to them. Most people don't want to simply play everyday life, and as the GM, you can make even a most mundane things, like going to the outhouse the start of an adventure.

In the specific case of these characters they come with their own built-in hooks. Somebody coming for the jeweler because of his gambling debts, so now he needs a lot of cash fast. Somebody wanting revenge on the assassin, so she needs to defend herself, and make sure nobody else tries that. There are a lot of possibilities that would make the characters put their life in danger, because they already are in danger.

There is an obvious answer to most of these questions, which you have to think about, because the characters (if they are realistic) will think about it. "What if they just leave town?". Be prepared for that eventuality. Have the guard search for them, have bandits, or a war outside. Make up a snowstorm or an army. Or simply make escape an adventure.

In my experience after the first few tastes of adventure, characters and players are more likely to stop playing it safe, and start doing things on their own. Taking away their safety works well for that. Stories like these should get them started on the road, but don't pull them often, because it is grating for most players to be always on the run.

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Follow up, my own solution

I realized that what I need is not to lead the characters, but the players themselves. The Assassin posing as a Priestess loves hearing me describe how blood comes rushing from unsuspecting victims as she plunges her dagger between their ribs. All I needed to do was put a row of armed big men looking the other way between her and the place I wanted her to go (in a figure of speech).

Another very helpful factor was to bring in a new player who plays a more forward character (and is more forward as a person too) and who could take the leadership role of the party more. Someone who would plunge head first into danger and the other players would feel like defending her.

TLDR

Play the players, not the characters.

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The vagabond character may:

  • have been a bit too free with his father's business, having gambled away something belong to an underworld NPC
  • have stolen something a little too rich for his low position from someone on the street
  • gambling debts (as pointed out by IanDrash above

The priestess is much easier to manipulate:

  • she could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • her family could have been abducted, based on her alternate profession
  • she's an assassin - a contract can come her way!
  • assassins are financially motivated

It looks like one of the biggest problem you may have is their disassociation. The two characters are almost opposites in their backgrounds; one is an assassin hiding in plain site, most likely sticking to middle class circles. The other is a down and out. Obviously the chance exists that they could meet in church, but, crimes allowing with the vagabond character, would he risk the wrath of the god(s) by entering a church?

You may also like to ask: why is the priestess so cautious if she's an assassin? Shouldn't she be taking an interest in making money in dark ways?

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How do you get anyone to do anything? What would compel you to commit to a grand adventure?

  • Pay them. Raise the price until they can't possible say no.
  • Compel them. Perhaps a high lord or priest has commanded them to participate.
  • Threaten them. Similar to compulsion, but threaten bodily harm if they refuse.
  • Threaten them (some more). Take their family or friends hostage (in game, not in real life, please).
  • Confuse them. Drop them off in the middle of nowhere. Maybe a portal takes them. Maybe they are kidnapped. Maybe they get lost in the woods. Put them as far away as possible and put the adventure between them and home.
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