Motivations and Character Interaction in RPGs

Sunday , 22, October 2017 6 Comments

Kate writes in with a question about tabletop gaming:


What kind of rpg stuff do you enjoy doing around the table if not character interaction?

When you object to characters having motivations, what exactly are you objecting to? That they have any motivations at all, or the type of motivations?

Great question! But answering here is tricky as my concept of role-playing games in general appears to be absolutely foreign to you.

But don’t sweat it. When I got my first role-playing games way back in the dawn of time– Moldvay Basic D&D, Car Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Heroes Unlimited, 3rd Edition Gamma World, and second edition GURPS– I had no idea what they were or how to run them either. And doing what I thought I was supposed to do didn’t always work out as well as I wanted it to.

There’s a lot of ways you can go with these things. One way is to ignore all the rules and just do whatever it takes to just keep the game going. Another way is to strip things down, go back to the earliest rule sets ever created– Moldvay Basic D&D, first edition Gamma World, fifth edition Tunnels & Trolls, and classic Traveller– and then play them precisely as written and in the spirit with which they were created.

What is role-playing like when it comes to those games and that particular style?

Mostly it takes five minutes at most to roll up a character. There’s really nothing to them. And with a rules-light system that’s heavily dependent on referee rulings in a context where everyone is assumed to be reasonable, they really don’t need a whole lot. The elaborate skill and proficiency systems we take for granted just didn’t exist.

These extremely simple characters do not have anything but the barest of backstories. You are a “fighter”… that somehow got a little training. You’re a thief that just couldn’t hack it as a sorcerer’s apprentice and took to petty crimes as a vocation. You’re an ex-scout that somehow managed to survive twelve years of service in an extremely dangerous line of work. You’re a pure strain human in a weird post-apocalyptic world where everyone else is horribly mutated.

Now… overall scenario these characters are getting dropped into is itself very dangerous. Death rates are significant enough that not only do player characters routinely get eliminated, but entire parties of them can go out in a blaze of glory. But those that die more typically die undramatic and entirely ignominious deaths– left behind by the rest of the group in a kobold pit trap while everyone else runs away or some such.

The games do not do anything to encourage the players to come up with an elaborate character at all. And the game play itself indicates that efforts in this direction are generally a waste. So what do people even do in the old games if they’re nothing at all like what people tend to do with the new ones…?

Well, there’s a lot of exploration for starters. Fantasy games tend to feature dungeons that can very quickly dominate the focus of play. Travellers move from world to world trading and occasionally stopping off for a short adventure that is whipped up in response to a patron encounter. Gamma World has a sprawling wilderness that is teeming with bizarre and dangerous things.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the old rpgs and the new ones is that the players are not at all locked in to a pre-existing story. They have complete control over which direction they go, which things they followup on, what their objectives are, what things they investigate….

The combination of complete freedom, significant chance of player-character (and even party) death, and an effectively infinite area to explore results results in one thing above all else when you get a group of four to six players sitting around the table throwing dice: players spend a lot of time planning where to go, what to do, and how to do it in such a way as to maximize what they want and minimize what they don’t want.

This is why the Dave Trampier cover for the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook is the most appropriate one every made for any rpg ever. Sure the game features moments where the players loot bodies and entire rooms after a big fight. But the two guys looking at the map and talking about it…? That’s pure D&D right there!

Now, there are motivations and there are motivations. The ones that emerge organically from the rules and the overall game-play are just plain awesome. But not everyone understands how to get into that. A lot of people fail to grasp that these games really do work and that the mechanics really do consistently deliver exciting and dramatic adventures.

The kind of motivations I object to are the ones that are imposed on the game by “wannabe author” type referees and goofy “method actor” type players. Role-playing games are games first and foremost, not sketchpads for somebody’s fantasy novel in progress and not some sort of elaborate Sanford Meisner type exercise. The worlds and characters do tend to take on a life of their own at some point, but that’s almost entirely due to the game rules and has little to do with the acting or the nuances of the setting backstory.

Alongside exploration and combat, character interaction takes up the bulk of a session’s action. But it mostly comes down to how the group wants to handle negotiating with a group of wandering orcs in a dungeon or a non-player character space princess or whatever. Neither playacting nor ponderous setting information tends to come into it at all. A style of play that emphasizes these things over and above everything else is moving towards being an entirely different type of game that has little relation to the classic rpgs that define the genre.

  • Cambias says:

    Recently there was a joke on the Pathfinder Facebook group about the hardest “difficulty level” of gaming: when you’re not allowed to talk about your character’s dead family.

    That gave me a sort of epiphany: from now on I’m going to insist that my players focus on the future goals of their characters, rather than past history. Especially since the characters are starting as first level; their history is “I left home last week.”

    What do you WANT? If you’re a first-level thief do you dream of pulling off the biggest score in history? If you’re a fighter do you want to someday conquer a kingdom? If you’re a wizard do you want to attain the power of the gods? And so forth.

    That’s useful to the gamemaster, and can remain useful for years of play.

    • Jeffro says:

      Here’s the short version:

      “Older games evoke motivation through action whereas newer ones define motivation by player fiat.” — Neal Durando

      And note that this is a direct parallel to the pulp ethos.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Emergent play leads to emergent characters. A few concrete examples might help:

    Back in the 1e AD&D days, rangers could choose a favored enemy right out of the gate. That’s fiat. We learned pretty quick to wait and see what favored enemy would arise during play. A chance encounter with an orcish warband led to a near TPK – it made sense that the surviving ranger would choose orcs as his favored enemy.

    The first three levels of my longest running campaign were marked by forgiving PCs who let defeated and demoralized monsters run away. When I brought them back as recurring villains, the players decided to solve all of their problems the first time – they stopped taking prisoners and started gutting enemies who fled. When I asked why they were so blood-thirsty, they pointed out it was the only way to make sure they didn’t get mobbed by defeated foes later.

    We ran a low-magic campaign, and the players struggled with it. They really liked their magic kit so much that the low-magic campaign became one big quest to recover all of the lost artifacts that they could – even if the artifacts were simple +2 swords and third level scrolls.

    I’ve had off-hand role-play comments completely change the direction of the game. Even random scrolls! In a moment of wanting to add flavor, I mentioned that the scroll was written in hieroglyphics and that they’d have to travel far and wide to have them translated. They figured that meant it was a REALLY powerful spell and abandoned their current quest to travel across half a continent to find a scribe that could translate that one scroll.

    None of those decisions could have been made prior to the start of the game. They all arose from the play at the table. That’s how I think of emergent motivations rather than player fiat.

    • Taarkoth says:

      “Back in the 1e AD&D days, rangers could choose a favored enemy right out of the gate. That’s fiat.”

      That’s also 2nd Edition.

      1e and 0e rangers were effective against all giants and humanoids and so in a btb game would be able to apply their ability a good portion of the time the entire campaign.

  • Kate says:

    Thanks for a very thorough reply!

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