Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic: The Cause of Your Gaming Woes?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0877

Here’s something key to understand about yourself and your players.

People are motivated by some combination and degree of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Learn what these are for each person in your group to better tailor your game rewards.

Rewards that fit, like the right key to the right lock, help your game become a satisfying campaign.

An extrinsic reward is out there, outside of us. It’s an object. Something we acquire. Often imposed by others we fail to defend our thoughts against. Points, FOMO, peer pressure.

An intrinsic reward comes from within us. It’s intangible, often hidden even to the person who wants them. We want it because of the lasting and fulfilling feeling or experience we get from it.

Which Is Which?

It’s often tough telling them apart. Imagine two players, Zorgon and Angerelica. Both want to level-up their characters, desire more magic items, and to hear the lamentations of their foes.

Zorgon wants power as proof to others he’s an amazing player. He also wants power to dominate others. Unless he can exert control over someone or something else, he’s frustrated. It’s a win or you’ve lost world for Zorgon.

Angelica sees a powerful character as testimony to her skills. She loves challenging gameplay to learn and improve from. She’s just as happy to make an assist as she is to be the goal scorer. She hates losing because it means she made a mistake or she still does not understand something.

We are all driven by emotion, which is internal.

But what pulls on those strings?

Is it the the false need for the shiny new thing for social status or to get it before anyone else? Or is it a healthier motive for self-exploration, self-improvement, to make oneself truly happy as well as those around us?

Who Is What?

Needless to say, your extrinsic players will be the most problematic over the long run.

We all have a mixture of Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. We all want purpose and status at the game and within the game. But those governed by external factors have needs based on that which they do not control. So, inevitably, they will be disappointed.

Think about the player who sulks from bad luck and complains that you or the game is  unfair.

Or the player who gets bored easily and becomes disruptive.

And the player who expects a specific social contract, such as the GM always presenting encounters balanced and solvable for the party’s current level.


The embarrassing part is I can raise my hand to the bad gaming sins above. However, these past few years I’ve been wicking away my extrinsic desires and working on deepening intrinsic ones. I still have a ways to go.

I’m skeptical that extrinsically dominated players not motived to become self-aware, or do some navel gazing, or see how their words and actions affect others, will change.

Perhaps you have some methods that have worked. But we should not discard these players either. Not without first challenging ourselves to make it work. We cannot control others. But we can demonstrate, be the example, be gracious hosts, and be great game masters.