How to Motivate Your Players – Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1207

By Jonathan Hardin,

[Comment from Johnn: this is part two of a series Jonathan started here with How to Hook Players Easily Into Your Adventures.]

The Power of a Motive

Begin your game by highlighting why the player characters choose to adventure. Is it for glory and fame? Wealth and Riches? Absolution? Knowing the motivation of the player characters helps you design quests and encounters that speak directly to what players want. Watch your games run with more group engagement when you build character motivations and make those part of your quests and encounters.

Where Do You Place the Motivation?

Activate motivation each session by hinting at it in your narrative introduction. Do you remember how to write up an introduction to start off your sessions? Place the motivation there.

For example, a character’s motivation is to learn the stars. Bringing to light the motivation could look something like this game:

GM: The week drones on as the warrior carries buckets of sand for the lizard overlords. Warrior, your body begins to break under the stress and you must succeed with a strength test or take a point of exhaustion. However, roll with advantage since you are able to see the stars at night.

Player: That makes sense, because one day my character wants to learn the magic of the stars!

Bake the Motivation Into the Quest

Assign motivations to player characters without any. This helps those players focus on playing rather than writing up backstories, and ensures every PC has something to struggle for.

Your encounters and quests will not go to waste now since you can build them to perfectly suit the PCs. This method works especially well with new players who are still grappling with the rules.


Players in a new sci-fi game show up with characters generated but without motivations. So the GM assigns motives:

  • Space Marine Alex wants to discover new life in the galaxy
  • Space Marine Jordan wants to obtain rank in the empire
  • Officer Blake desires to gather information for a secret organization
  • Medic Max wishes to find a cure for an illness

Each player character can enjoy the game while the game master assigns the motivations outright and then builds the encounters around them.

In this example, we create a quest to visit an abandoned space colony and return mysterious cargo to the outpost. This quest provides encounter rewards that discover new life, serve the empire loyally, obtain information to sell, and find a clue to curing Max’s illness.

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Collaboration is Welcome

Gather your group to participate in the development of each character’s motivations. To do this, ask each player to choose a person, place, or thing to anchor in their character. This ensures, with the creativity of your players, that motivations still drive the quest.


NPCs are often the easiest anchor because linking a PC to this person fosters empathy and hooks them into the quest. Whether this person is a victim or a villain, they either need something or are causing problems. They make great quest givers and quest makers.


Locations in peace are not a good anchor. They should be threatened with conflict. Once a conflict arises, the place can anchor player characters to the quest. Also, places yet to be discovered provide an excellent lure for a character to get out and adventure.


Jewelry, relics, tomes, and other special items, if desired by the player characters, can keep the dice rolling as the party searches for whatever is missing. Increase the dynamic of this anchor by another faction desiring the same thing.

Motives are the Promise of Reward

Each motivation powers the game. The reward is reaching the goal of that motivation. If the player character serves a friend, the reward is the continued friendship. If they protect a land, the reward is that land. If they desire a thing, once found, that thing is the reward.

Motivations are like the covers of a book. From open to close, they provide structure so we can tell the story. May your story continue!


Tips from and for our fellow Roleplaying Tips GMs to help us have more fun at every game.

One Sentence Character Motivator

From Gold Wizard of Adventure Will S

Hi Johnn, great article as always!

Something in this reminded me of the “one-sentence motivator” which I have found to be a pretty useful shortcut to creating interesting characters by putting some emotional weight behind their goals:

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Just Do Stuff

From RPT GM Terry Street, DM since 1980

I love new players and I actively attempt to recruit as many as possible. To me it’s daunting the amount of stuff that you can throw at a new player, so I talk to them early on and I tell them several of the things you’ve listed.

Then I tell them you’re going to forget 90% of this, so the number one thing for you to remember is DO STUFF! You can’t do it wrong if you are doing stuff! The rules, table etiquette, etc. will seep in as you continue to play with us.

Love this newsletter and your advice, thanks for the work.

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How to Measure Map Distance

RPT GM Sarah asked me:

“…how to translate distance on the Breath of the Wild map. Obviously there’s a set amount of time it takes to travel in dnd with various kinds of transportation and actions while traveling.

“I can’t quite figure out how determine how long it would take to travel on average, say to The Great Plateau, then apply that to the rest of the map. I might just order a massive poster of the map from the game and say every inch is three miles or something just to start.”

Thanks for the question, Sarah. Three things you might try:

1. Put a distance legend on your digital map. I’m kind of an “ish” GM when it comes to travel. So I’m happy to look at the marker and estimate using it with me old eyeballs.

2. Open the image file in Chrome or browser of choice that supports add-ons. Find a “ruler” add-on. Web developers use these all the time for image dimensions and whatnot. With such an add-on, you can drag and draw temporary ruler lines and you’ll get a readout of the length in various units. You might say, for example, 100 px = 1 mile at 100% zoom level.

3. Use a free VTT like Roll20. Upload your map and enable the grid/hex overlay. That’ll let you count hexes or squares between points.

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Multi-GM Campaigns

RPT GM Max asks:

We are running some kind of experiment. We just started a new campaign free roaming around Westgate in Faerun in D&D 5e. Since we all have little time but high spirit we thought about a way to split the GM responsibility by 3. We are all more or less experienced so we thought it could work out.

Every GM gets some kind of arc one after another. 4-10 sessions, then the next GM starts. All in the same group. GMs who are not GMing become PCs. Maybe you have heard about similar projects and have some tips for me and my fellow GMs about the organisation, wealth distribution etc.?

Cool beans, Max. Thanks for the question. I have run only a couple of co-GM’d or shared world campaigns. Most notably, the Ars Magica RPG (awesome btw) has this baked in with their “Troupe” system. Each player takes a turn GMing a “season” of gameplay. There are three tiers of PCs:

  • Magi => each player gets their own powerful PC
  • Companions => players share a pool of more typical heroic characters
  • Grogs => players share a pool of commoners who serve as hirelings, plot devices, and so on

There are also meta goals called Covenants. All players work together to protect and grow their group’s Covenant over decades or centuries.

It looks like you can get Ars Magica 4E free by subscribing to the publisher’s newsletter. Check out the sidebar here:

I’m not saying to switch to Ars Magica. But instead to check out the troupe play section and see if there’s anything there you can scoop for your campaign.

You might also be interested in checking out RPT#273 » 5 Tips For Co-GMing Games. Those are my initial thoughts. Hope they are of interest, Max.

That’s it for this week’s newsletter.

If you want to chat with fellow RPT GMs about today’s tips or ask me questions, join the conversation here at my forum.

Johnn Four

Have more fun at every game!