How to Write Motivation Into Your Games
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1202
Brief Word From Johnn
I played in a Pathfinder 2E one-shot on Saturday using Foundry run by my friend Mark. My guy was a big brute wielding a dwarven scattergun trying to save our town from a zombie horde. I played him like Dolph Lundgren meets vodka.
And according to the elf, “Your aim is as bad as your play.” Said in jest as I pointed my barrel straight at him, of course. 🙂
Many bullets were sprayed. And many zombies lost their head. But the worst attack by far came from Doc. Deep within the theater director’s lair, he dared put a whiskey glass down without a coaster.
We saved the town. Barely. Hats off to the great GMing. And elf, I’ll see you at the next bar….
To further help with your adventures, let’s talk about something important: helping your players feel comfortable enough to take risks with their character. For example, by insulting the strongest guy in a hundred mile radius who wields a dwarven scattershot gun.
Putting your life in danger like that deserves two things:
- One final shot of vodka
That’s what Jonathan’s tips are about today in the next section. So let’s get into those now.
Have a game-full week!
Hook Players Easily Into Your Adventures With This Two-Sided Technique
By Jonathan Harden, sojournersawake.com
Each player has their own reason for joining your game. Perhaps they want to spend more time with their friends, or they have a creative streak they want to express. Some love the rolling of dice and gambling aspect of random chance, while others enjoy well thought out plans and execution. All of it is storytelling.
In good storytelling, I ask “Why do the characters show up to the action?” And more importantly, “As a Dungeon Master, how can I hook them into my story in such a way that it becomes our collaborative story?” Action is good, but Motivation is better.
Every good adventure successfully hooks the characters in the story. Just like when fishing, the hooks must be appetizing so the players easily “take the bait.” The hooks then have to be tempting enough so players can honestly play out their character’s values rather than chasing empty and meaningless action.
In the following tips I would like to discuss two main hooks:
- Active plot hooks happen to the characters.
- Passive plot hooks draw in the characters.
Active Plot Hooks
Let’s start with the active plot hooks. The goal is to generate action with incidents, events, and occurrences with a direct action interrupting the characters’ everyday life. These are things in the world that happen to the characters, or at least around them.
Some possible hooks include:
- The birth of a baby
- The first holiday after the war
- The dawn of a new day
These events happen because you as the dungeon master decide it does.
I enjoy using these hooks because they can demonstrate the passing of time, which helps immerse your players into the story. Time, after all, is the great equalizer.
Also, do not be afraid to sprinkle your session with mundane events to continue hooking characters into your game. Some might include:
- The price of rations increase in town
- Registration on the party’s sailing vessel has expired
- A note arrives informing a character they received an inheritance
- Two carts crash into each other at the bottom of a hill
One of my favorites to keep hooking the characters is to announce, “Your stomach rumbles with hunger, for it is time to eat.” This simple autonomic response can drive the players into the heart of a story. Active hooks invoke an immediate response because of their invasive nature on the characters.
Passive Plot Hooks
Let’s continue to define hooks. There is a story that you are telling. To draw players in without directly spoiling any details, the dungeon master provides tempting hooks to lead them into the storyline. These hooks can be active, such as events that occur, or passive.
Passive hooks create player interest that relates directly to their story. Such hooks do not happen to the characters, but rather, they draw them in. At their best, they offer tempting morsels of storyline players cannot resist. These passive hooks invoke the players to act.
To set up a passive hook, explore the characters’ values.
Do they respond to needs of justice? Then a crime committed acts as a passive hook.
Do they resonate with keeping up the natural order? Then a necromancer practicing in the town graveyard draws them into the story.
[Comment from Johnn: For tips on creating character values and working them into play, check out this article from the archives, Character Stories — How To Keep Players Highly Engaged.]
Passive hooks need not link to place or time. Instead, they aim to directly reach the characters themselves. Passive hooks do not happen to the characters. Instead, they sit aside quietly until the characters decide to act. Naturally, then, these are the main hooks that drive the plot.
Ingredients in a Plot Hook
Now that we have defined hooks, here are some flavored ingredients you can add to solidify the success. These work because you know your player characters. By directly asking the players of their character’s values in a Session Zero or later, you can better prepare hooks that are sure to, well, hook the characters.
- Family and friends
- Money and wealth
- Physical health
- Places they love
- Places they want to travel
- Monsters they hate
- Items they have or want
- Items they want to encounter
- Answers they seek
- Knowledge they seek
- Vengeance they seek
A word of caution: Fridging is the practice of killing off or hurting a minor character to motivate or torture a main character. The term comes from the world of comics, describing an issue of Green
Lantern in which the hero’s partner is killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for the protagonist to find. Yikes.
While many stories in movies kill off a character to further the plot, I would personally exercise caution in using family bonds as a plot driver. While I think great stories like Conan and Braveheart both involve deaths of a loved one to motivate an entire story, these are also true stories in people’s lives. Please tell these stories respectfully.
Upon deciding hooks, remember that characters have the ability to ignore passive hooks, but cannot ignore active ones because of their invasive nature.
Again, in Session Zero and beyond, revisit the character’s values through various NPCs and even direct conversation. If the character says they value knowledge, seeking to knock off their parents might not be the best course of action, but threatening to burn down the local library may. If a character says they value their village, launching an all out raid upon that village would be appropriate, but threatening their mental sanity might go too far. What kind of story are we telling together?
Without creating false action or gratuitous noise, here are some other benign and humane active hooks to continue generating action and the passing of time in your story. These are particularly enjoyable in a realism genre and should reasonably happen to anyone in any given time period.
- A patron gets sick
- A page is missing from your textbook
- A rival frames you for cheating
- A secret admirer delivers a gift
- A piece of equipment or weapon needs repair
- A new skill is available for training
- A family reunion occurs
- A characters wardrobe is outdated
In every great story, there is a believable motivation on the hero’s part. And the best stories speak to all of us, resonating with our values. I hope this read was useful to hook your players’ characters into a story with grace and ease.
When deciding on how to spend your energy, remember; action is good, but motivation is better.
May your story continue!