GM Tricks: PC Motivation/Context


“You meet in a tavern” is a D&D classic. Also a classic: PCs that met in that tavern immediately trying to get one another killed, either subtly or overtly.

Unless what you want is a PvP game, I’ll argue that throwing a group of PCs together cold and expecting them to immediately bond with no real external factors is a fool’s errand. Cold party formations are much more likely to lead to players having less fun as they struggle with the cognitive dissonance of continuing to adventure with characters their character really doesn’t like (even though in-game they could split at any time) because leaving the party means quitting the game. The meta-game problem of “why am I continuing to hang out with this maniac?” is exacerbated when you have no good in-game reason.

Of course, I’m a big proponent of group chargen fixing these problems. Having your players make a balanced group of PCs with existing deep ties means you get to skip a lot of the bad tension. Hell, maybe they did meet in a tavern, but years ago, and have already worked out their major issues and kicked out the real troublemakers. But, either instead of or in addition to the intrinsic ties from this kind of chargen, you can also think very hard as a GM about providing extrinsic motivation and context.

That is, if the player starts to think about whether her character even likes these other characters and wonders why she would continue along with them, there should be an immediate and obvious answer. That way, the player can get back to engaging with the game rather than fantasizing about the adventures she’d rather be going on with characters that her PC likes better doing things that she’s much more interested in.

There are a bunch of easy options to provide this motivation and context:

Shared Patron

A very easy answer is to give the PCs a patron or mentor figure that suggests they all get together. This is more than just the mysterious old wizard they met at the tavern (nobody really gives a damn what Elminster wants them to do). This is instead someone from their backstories that they have a lot of built-up trust with and/or obligation to. It might be multiple people that are, themselves, connected (“your sires suggest you form a coterie” is a classic Vampire motivator).

You can get this patron in a couple of ways. The most organic is to suggest the NPC play a prominent role in the PC’s backstory before getting to the table. If you don’t have time for that kind of seeding, you can also take the more abrupt tactic of, “by the way, Elminster’s helped you out a lot in the past, and you have every reason to trust him. Figure out how that works in your head.” In either case, it’s good to include a pretty strong carrot for the relationship: what ongoing patronage does the PC expect from this character?

The player should have an expectation of beneficial transactions with the patron in the future sufficient to guide behavior. Beyond cash and XP, what does the PC want that the patron can provide? This could be specialized training, introduction to an elite group, and so on: figure out what the player’s long-term character development goals are, and make the patron key to obtaining them.

The most important thing is, even if the relationship with the other PCs is taking a long time to gel, the player can at least justify that her character would keep going because it makes an important patron happy, and she’s not interested in walking away from that relationship.

A caveat for this motivation is that the patron should have some reason why she can’t ever be of much direct help with the adventure. Maybe she’s politically powerful but not very clued-in or adventure-savvy. Maybe she’s rarely available except in snatches because she’s off putting out fires of her own. Maybe she’s flat out prevented from interfering directly due to the larger context. Importantly, what you want is to keep the players from deciding, “hey, if this is so important to our patron, why doesn’t she get her butt out here and help?”

Shared Organization/Home

An even better answer than a single patron (or small group of them) can be to lodge the PCs in an entire organizational structure. The adventuring guild is the most common of these types. WoD games often feature larger political groups, usually with outright group bases. It’s also classic to just say that the PCs are the only adventure-savvy kids from the same small town (which they have a vested interest in keeping safe from various threats).

This tends to change the dynamic of the game to become much more centralized to the home location of the organization. While fine if you’re doing a primarily city-based game, you need to make sure the organization retains the proper shape for longer-distance plots (e.g., a mandate for distant exploration and problem-solving, as typified by the Pathfinders and the Harpers). A small town thieves’ guild could lose motivating importance if the PCs have been months far away with no support.

The organization does everything a patron can do as far as carrots, with the additional bonus that PCs can be incentivized entirely with rank within said organization. It can also help a lot with games that have rotating casts of PCs: the group assigns PCs to the mission (that just happen to be the PCs of the available players), or a group must be formed out of whoever’s at the guildhall this week/in town and not otherwise engaged.

The caveat for patrons is even stronger with organizations. Particularly in a city-based game, there can be a huge push for just going back to the guild and rounding up a posse when the players have identified a threat that seems dangerous enough that they don’t want to just rush in to engage it. And while it’s pretty easy to explain why a single patron can’t help, it’s much harder to explain why, in this big group of adventuring types, nobody can spare a moment to help when it’s clear that the threat has become more serious than first believed and threatens the whole town. One trick to avoid this is time-sensitivity: by the time the PCs have identified the threat, it should often be risky to take the time to go back and round up additional aid, because the bad guys will advance their plots much further in the interim. Another is to simply structure your adventures so calling in the cavalry is an acceptable solution when time isn’t a factor, at a cost to the PCs in XP and loot because everyone else from the guild is going to get a share. As long as the players are in control of whether or not to call in the big guns, they probably won’t begrudge a big final battle being turned into a narration about how the combined might of the guild crushes the problem.

Another problem unique to this setup is the tendency to lose party agency. When part of a larger organizational structure that regularly gives them missions, your players are going to become less prone to self-determination. There will be a drive of, “we brought the plot to the attention of the guild, and if they want us to pursue it further, they’ll tell us how.” There really isn’t a good fix for this if your organization has a command structure, other than a mid-campaign crisis where the command structure is obliterated and the PCs have to take charge (which obviously opens up its own issues of the resources now available to the PCs). Just make sure that’s the kind of game you’re comfortable running.

Mutual Enemy/Problem

Perhaps the leanest solution is for the group to share an issue that they need to solve for their own reasons. “You get to talking and realize you all want to punch the same guy in the face,” is a very simple start for a campaign. You can even do short solo introductions where you just let the players play out their previously idyllic lives until the villain shows up and does them wrong in an on-screen way.

A slower burn version of this is the “we were all working the same case” angle, where each of the PCs’ backstory motivators winds up all pointing at the same problem. One PCs’ dead parents were killed by the guy that kidnapped the next PC’s brother and is living in the ancient temple the third PC has sworn to reconsecrate. This can be harder to set up than it being obvious who did them all wrong, because you have to figure out a reason for them to actually share information rather than constantly ignoring one another (or fighting one another then running away when they show up at the same investigative location that you thought would bring them together). A brief dip into the patron motivation isn’t a bad idea in this case: an NPC party that also has a related issue isn’t really an adventurer, but has done enough research to identify the PCs and suggest everyone work together with her funding to deal with the problem.

The caveat for this is a big one: if the problem isn’t the end-of-campaign villain, there’s a risk that the party won’t gel by the time the issue is solved to at least one PC’s satisfaction. “Well I rescued my brother… good luck to all of you, we’re going home.” By the time the initial problem is close to being solved, you need to have gotten several other campaign hooks into the PCs so they’ll be inclined to continue past their stated goal. Or you need to be fine with PCs getting subbed in and out as these mini-goals are completed (likely with rules for replacing your PC with one of equivalent power, so players aren’t afraid to lose progress).


This can just be the strong form of the previous motivator: someone’s sending assassins after the PCs, and they need to band together to punch people until the assassination attempts stop. But in a broader motivating sense, this speaks to something innate to the PCs that sets them apart from others and, consequently, drives them together. The classic X-Men plot, and also seen as a key motivator for Baldur’s Gate, there’s something about the PCs that inspires others to hunt them. Maybe they are hated and feared. Maybe they hold a secret power that others want to kill them to steal. Maybe both.

With this motivation, the game is strongly colored by the problem. Every interaction is colored by the fact that the PCs are other, whether or not the NPC realizes it. When there are many powers in the world seeking to kill or capture them, logically even friendly encounters become tinged with the worry that they’ll trigger some kind of alert that brings their antagonists back down on them. And the thrust of the campaign inevitably becomes solving for the problem or transcending it, rather than any other central goal. You can’t just use this as an excuse to put the party together and then expect them to go off on typical quests to slay princesses and rescue dragons without those quests being informed by the greater context of what drives them together.


Finally, if your campaign supports it, you can just start with the PCs being trapped somewhere together. This can simply be the start of one of the other motivations (e.g., beginning with being imprisoned and then hunted after escaping, a Usual Suspects introduction to a powerful patron, or establishing the enemy that had them falsely imprisoned in the first place). But it can also be a major leg of the campaign itself.

As its own thing, the important factor is that the PCs are cut off from broader civilization, and are the only adventure-savvy folks that can investigate the problem. Common tropes involve shipwrecks, avalanches, unexpected transport to alternate dimensions/worlds, and just being in prison as a long-term plot. This can also be a fine introduction to a megadungeon (as the PCs get stuck on the wrong side of a cave-in, and now have to explore the whole complex for an alternate way out instead of just going back to the nearby town). Importantly, the reason the PCs don’t just leave is because they physically can’t. They’re stuck with each other, whether or not they like anyone in the group.

As with all the other short-term methods, if escaping isn’t the whole point of the campaign you need to put in other story hooks before the PCs get out to keep them together long-term.


Have any other motivators that I missed that you’ve used to success in the past? Please let me know in the comments.


GM Tricks: Starting a New Campaign

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding have been floating around over the weekend. Coincidentally, a friend asked me for advice on his campaign intro document. Those two together got me thinking about the following.

If you’re the sole GM for your group, and whatever you want to run is what gets played, then this advice may not be tremendously useful to you (though it’s still recommended for getting your players totally on board). It’s meant mostly for groups like mine, where several of your players also like to GM, everyone has limited time to game, and they have to be choosey about what campaigns they commit to playing.

The Pitch

If your players have been bugging you to run a particular game, this is the easy part. “You guys want to play X, right?” you will say, “Well that’s what I’m running.” Most of the time these will be games with an existing setting; your players already have visions of the kind of characters they’d want to play and things they want to do in the world. Even if they weren’t specifically asking to play, using a game with a defined setting that your players already understand makes it much easier to get them on board (or convince them that this isn’t the game for them).

But what if you’re trying to sell them on something you’ve invented? This is most common for fantasy games, but of course fits any sci-fi, modern, historical, etc. games where you’re doing most of the heavy lifting of setting design to match your own vision. This can also include existing games that your players are unfamiliar with; you have to explain to them why you like the setting enough to run it.

Your first step is the high concept. This is your classic Hollywood pithy summary of the game idea, ideally in one sentence. You can go the reference route, using non-game media (“It’s like Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings!”) or existing games (“It’s like Vampire: the Masquerade meets Birthright!”). If nothing you can think to reference that your players would know seems close enough, you can expand the ideas into a short form (e.g., “You’re an elite cadre of Doppleganger-hunters within a kingdom at war; anyone could be a shapeshifter, even your party members!” or “You’re Dukes that have just broken free of a mad king and turned to the Vampire Lords for aid in the civil war.”).

You’re looking for the “…go on” moment, where you’ve piqued their interest enough that they’re ready to hear more.

That’s when you give them the elevator pitch: a couple of paragraphs of information about the game. You’re still in concept phase; you should be pointing out the things about the game that you love the most and anything you know your players are also particularly interested in. What are your players going to get to do in the game? What are they going to get out of it that they haven’t out of every other game they’ve played? Act like your players are your busy boss and you have one minute to sell them on your dream.

You’re looking for the “tell me more about…” moment. Then, and only then, do you whip out the twenty page player document you wrote up or start going on at length.

What you’re trying to create is a spark of interest that will carry them through the lead up into the game and have them bursting with ideas during chargen. Sure, they’re your friends and might feel obligated to play whatever you put out there. But if they’re anything like my players, they’re busy people that are only going to get around to reading what you’ve written about your setting quickly if you give them a good reason. Working from a high concept to an elevator pitch to a background document also ensures they know what you really want to focus on, and what themes they should be looking for in the grander document.

Ultimately, though, you don’t want to feel like your players are in your game because yours is the only game in town, even if it’s true. If you treat them like you know you’re competing for their free time with other hobbies, games, and leisure-time activities, you’ll have a lot more inertia at the start of your campaign. And, if nothing else, early investment in the concept leads to player characters better tuned towards what you want them to do, which should keep you from having to throw plots at the wall early on hoping one will stick.

The Player Document

So now that you’ve gotten buy in, you have to actually give the players enough information to begin interfacing with your campaign setting.

Not all players like to read big documents. Even your most interested readers can get overwhelmed with too much minutia. The biggest trick to player information is that less is more; the shorter you can get your document, the more likely it is that all of it will get read all the way through. Thus, the trick is to keep it as short as possible while telling the players everything they need to know to make characters. Three pages is great. More than a dozen is pushing it.

You’re not trying to hit everything a new character would need to know, just what’s important for players to know when they’re making characters. They can always ask you more questions about specifics (and, ideally, you have enough space in your design for them to suggest ideas they think are cool that you then work in). Instead, you need your document to be three things:

  • Succinct: Break everything down into bite-sized nuggets. Here is a kingdom, here is a group players can belong to, here are some bad guys, etc. There’s a reason why White Wolf got so far on the splat model; every part of your setting that can have its own high concept makes it easier for your players to each focus on elements of interest. One guy sees that there are druids fighting against desert-creating mages and is all on board. One girl wants to be a pirate that fights the undead plague. Again, it’s better to let your players ask you for more information than to bury them under too much up front.
  • Cool: Everything you put in your document needs to burn with why the players should care. Why did you put this in here? What does it do that’s unusual and interesting? Why did you need to make your own setting instead of using an off the shelf one with tweaks? Your introductory document needs to show why you’re excited to run this campaign; your enthusiasm is hopefully infectious. If you put something in your document that you don’t have a reasonable expectation that your players will look at and say “that’s cool,” take it out or change it until it is cool.
  • Aspirational: Players, bless their hearts, are easily won over with the shiny. It’s a big win to let them start play as something awesome. It’s an even bigger win to suggest how they’ll become even more awesome if they’re in for the long haul. Special groups, vacant leadership positions, and long-lost abilities and items are great things to suggest in your document. If you’re planning a long campaign, you want your players to have long-term plans from the first session; these plans might change, but being able to make them is an excellent channel for creativity in character creation.

Character Creation

If you’ve created a document focused on the awesome of your setting, your players are already bursting with character ideas that fit directly into the kind of game you want to run. This is the point where you start to figure out exactly what you’re doing and making sure the player ideas will all mesh into a harmonious party (or not so harmonious if you expect a little PvP). If someone’s idea doesn’t really fit, you have to delicately shift him or her onto a concept that fits better with the others. Letting the player stick with something that doesn’t really fit can lead to problems that may be much harder to solve once you’re playing the game. But being too up front about “that concept doesn’t work, pick another one” might be touching the butterfly wings of the player’s interest in the setting. You know your setting better than anyone else, so can figure out what might work better while changing as little as possible about the concept.

You can also use group character creation. It really seems like the coming thing, and it’s starting to confuse me when new games don’t include mechanics to ensure that there’s a good reason to make a group of player characters that are already strongly hooked together and ready to cooperate.

As mentioned last week, you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let players create things that will appear in game. There’s no easier source of investment than a player’s idea becoming important to the whole campaign. Even beyond NPCs, look for opportunities to engage your players in creation of things in the world; leave vague spots in your campaign notes and let players associated with them pull them into focus with new ideas. As long as it doesn’t seem like it will make a player too powerful or break something the players aren’t aware of beyond fixing, it’s a total win. The player gets creative input and you get to not bother detailing something until you know the players are interested in it.

Character creation for a campaign is a little like tending a bonsai tree; you have to be delicate about it, but if you correctly channel the players you wind up with perfectly molded PCs that can hit the ground running on the plots you want to run rather than naturally grown PCs that don’t really fit into the game. Even if you’re trying to make a total sandbox, it’s important to guide the players into making characters with the right tools to play in the sand. If you’re running a more scripted game, you’ll save yourself a ton of stress if the PCs roll off the assembly line with easy hooks into the plot and temperaments suited to active pursuit.