The Importance of Motivation

By "Zoran Bekric" (

Perhaps it's just my dramatic training coming through, but to me it seems self-evident that motivation is incredibly important. It is what defines a character and drives a story.


In the classic formulation, 'drama is conflict.' This is often misinterpreted to mean that, in order to be dramatic, a story has to have combat in it. This is untrue -- as the sheer number of highly effective stories that exist without a single punch being thrown should demonstrate. This is not to say that combat is unexciting -- a good fight can be very eye-catching and stimulating -- but without any sort of context, it's ultimately meaningless.

Richard Marquand, the director of "Return of the Jedi," tells the story of how, during the making of that film, he was discussing the climactic light sabre duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader with George Lucus. Marquand was explaining how he intended to make the duel very exciting, with all sorts of clever tricks and manoeuvres. Lucus responded with: No, what makes the duel exciting is the fact that Darth is Luke's father and that Darth and the Emperor are trying to lure Luke over to the Dark Side of the Force and that Luke is trying to protect his recently discovered sister Leia. Without that context, the light sabre duel -- no matter how cleverly it's staged -- comes down to just being two guys hitting each other with sticks.

In order to be satisfying and even memorable, conflict has to have a context. We have to care about who wins and about what's at stake. Without that, a good fight scene may be momentarily stimulating on a glandular level, but it's ultimately meaningless.

Instead, the formulation should be understood as a shorthand way of referring to the classic story structure that has dominated Western fiction from Renaissance on.

The structure goes like this: a story starts with a character who has a goal (Jerry wants a sandwich; Indy wants to find the lost Ark of the Covenant; Doc wants to avenge his father and claim his legacy). The character takes action to attain this goal (Jerry goes to the kitchen; Indy heads off to Nepal to obtain the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra; Doc calls his friends together and opens his father's safe), but encounters an obstacle (Jerry finds that he's out of bread; Indy discovers the Nazis are also after the Headpiece and there are more of them than there are of him; as Doc is examining his father's papers, a high-powered rifle shot smashes through the window aimed at Doc). The character attempts to overcome the obstacle (Jerry heads off to the corner store to buy bread; Indy fights the Nazis and gets the Headpiece, but the Nazis get an impression -- ouch! -- of it as well; Doc chases after the assassin, trying to learn why he was trying to kill him and what the connection with his father's death was), but the obstacle proves to be greater than it first appeared (Jerry discovers that there's a baker's strike on), a prelude to an even greater obstacle (Indy arrives in Egypt only to discover that the Nazis already have an elaborate dig in progress at Tanis) or an apparent dead-end (Doc captures the assassin, but the assassin manages to kill himself before revealing any information). The character then takes up the struggle against this new obstacle and the story continues.

The character's struggle against the obstacles in their path generates conflict. Without obstacles, the character would achieve their goal as soon as they took any action towards it and the story would be over very quickly. It would also not be very exciting or interesting. This is what the formulation 'Drama is conflict' means: without appropriate obstacles to overcome, the story is boring or, if you will, undramatic.

Conflict may give a story drama, but what gives it meaning and makes it engaging is the goal the character is pursuing. This is the character's motivation. Without obstacles a story may be very short, but without motivation, a story doesn't start at all. Without a goal, a character need not take any action and, if they do take action and encounter an obstacle, there is no reason for them to struggle against that obstacle. The character would be better off taking the course of least resistance and finding something else to do. Motivation is what sets a character towards a specific goal and drives them to struggle to achieve it.

Romeo loves Juliet (and she him) so he struggles to be with her. Captain Ahab wants revenge on Moby Dick so he pursues the Great White Whale relentlessly. Henry Jones Sr. wants to find the resting place of the Holy Grail so he travels the world, delving into obscure archives. Victor Frankenstein wants to uncover the secret of Life so he gathers body parts from cemeteries and stitches them together. John McClane wants to survive and be reunited with his estranged wife so he fights the terrorists that have taken over the office building and tries to rescue the hostages. And so on.

Now, this particular pattern of goal-obstacle-struggle isn't the only way to structure a story. As I said above, however, it has been the dominant structure in Western fiction since the Renaissance and, more pertinently for our purposes, pretty much the only dynamic employed in pulp stories. Pulp writers were often experimental, but -- in all the pulp stories I've read -- they confined their explorations to style, not structure.

A character's pursuit of their goal need not be all that there is to a story, though. A murder mystery set in Hong Kong, for example, may involve a detective moving through all levels of Hong Kong society and travelling to all parts of the city in search of the solution. The detective's goal would be to find and arrest the murderer, but what the story is about may be to present a complex portrait of the many layers of Hong Kong. In this sense, a character's pursuit of their goal -- and behind that, the character's motivation -- is what pushes a story along, but there's more to the story than just that.

The character's motivation is the engine that drives the story, but, just as there is more to a vehicle than its engine, so, too, there is often more to a story than the lead character's motivation. However, just as a vehicle cannot move without an engine, a story will stall without appropriate character motivations.

Many pulp stories -- perhaps even the majority -- are simple accounts of a character's pursuit and ultimate attainment of a goal. A significant number of pulp stories, however, have additional goals: building mood, giving reasonably accurate portraits of exotic regions or industries, setting up twist-endings and so on.


Well, you may ask, what does any of the above have to do with roleplaying games?

If you subscribe to the school of thought that holds that RPGs are a form of storytelling, then the answer is: Everything. The story structure outlined above is valid in prose, films, radio dramas, television, stage plays, comic books and so on. If RPGs are just another storytelling medium, it follows that it should be equally valid in them as well.

If you don't hold to that idea (and I don't -- I think RPGs are games that produce story-like effects, a subtly different thing) then the answer is: A surprising amount.

In his essay "I Have No Words & I Must Design" (which can be found at Greg Costikyan offers the following definition of a game:

>    Do all the myriad forms of gaming have anything in common? Most
>    assuredly. All involve decision making, managing resources in
>    pursuit of a goal; that's true whether we're talking about Chess
>    or Seventh Guest, Mario Brothers or Vampire, Roulette or Magic:
>    The Gathering. It's a universal; it's what defines a game.
According to Costikyan, a game involves players pursuing a goal and making decisions and managing resources in order to overcome the obstacles between them and that goal. In many games these obstacles are the actions of other players, but they need not be. The formulation is not quite identical to the goal-obstacle-struggle story structure outlined above, but it is very similar -- and it is this similarity, I believe, that makes roleplaying games possible.

In most games the goal players pursue is simple and straightforward: to defeat the other players and win. RPGs differ from such games, however, in that they have no fixed goal. If anything, RPGs are broadly cooperative rather than competitive. This would seem to create in RPGs a situation in which participants don't have anything to do, but the situation is analogous to a story in which the characters have no goal and the solution is the same: give the characters motivation.

An RPG works with player characters pursuing a goal and the gamemaster presenting a series of obstacles for the player characters to struggle against. This generates conflict and drama and serves as an engine to drive the narrative along. This creates a situation of pseudo-competition in which the players and gamemaster appear to be in opposition. In reality, however, the gamemaster has a vested interest in the player characters' ultimately emerging triumphant over all the obstacles in their path and players have a vested interest in the gamemaster setting strong obstacles so that their characters will have something to struggle against. Occasionally, participants loose sight of this deeper vested interest and the competition becomes not-so-pseudo with killer-GMs and whiny players who consider any obstacle as proof that they are being personally persecuted.

Character goals grow out of character motivations. Since this is the engine that drives the game (or the story, if that's how you prefer to think about it), character motivations obviously need to be given careful thought.


RPGs are a social activity. This may seem to be a truism, but I've interacted with a number of people who don't seem to be able to grasp this point or its implications. As a social activity, RPGs have more in common with a musical group than they do with solitary authors writing fiction.

Simply put, this means that harmony is more important than individual skill. If, in a musical group, one person is playing classical piano, another rock and roll and a third is playing medieval ballads, the result will be a cacophony no matter how good or bad each individual musician may be. The same is true in an RPG group. Participants need to have a consensus on what type of material they want to create. Without it, their individual efforts will clash and produce only discord.

This is where genre comes in. Genres give participants a common base on which to build a consensus. Genre isn't a straight jacket -- over time, a group of gamers will develop their own distinctive take on any given type of material -- but it is a foundation, a region of common ground, on which they can start to build that take. (This is, of course, assuming that the participants are willing to do the work necessary to establish the common ground by reading the source material for the genre -- which not all people are willing to do.)

Considerations of genre are important when contemplating motivations because motivations, or at least types of motivations, vary from one genre to another. Just think of Love Stories and War Stories. The kinds of motivations found in each are very different. If a character driven by a romantic motivation is placed against a background of military conflict, the resulting story is generally regarded as a Love Story, not a War Story. In this sense, genres are to a large extent defined by the types of motivation that their lead characters possess and, thus, by the kinds of goals they pursue.

This means that characters created for a particular genre need to have motivations appropriate to that genre. "Call of Cthulhu" Investigators need to be the type of people who will look into odd happenings and pursue Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Characters in "Werewolf: the Apocalypse" need to care about protecting Gaia, fighting the Wyrm and their standing within the tribe. Knights in "Pendragon" need to want to uphold Chivalry and pursue Glory. Characters in "Star Wars" have to want to join the Rebel Alliance and oppose the evil Empire. And so on.

If characters don't have the right types of motivations, the kinds of stories told in each of these games will not work. The types of plot hooks that would attract a Call of Cthulhu Investigator and the kinds of obstacles they would struggle against would be meaningless to a traditional Pendragon knight and vice versa. This is not say that creative cross-pollination between genres is not possible or desirable -- just that, since RPGs are a social activity, the fact that such cross-pollination is occurring must be understood and agreed to by everyone in the group as a whole.

Genre provides a baseline of expectations against which the narrative of an RPG develops. It's like a jazz session: the baseline is familiar to all the participants and the interest is in the variations and improvisations people can do on and around that baseline. If the baseline is going to be changed, all the participants need to be aware of what the new baseline is so that they can adjust their play accordingly.

What this means is that when people agree to play within a particular genre, they have a responsibility -- one might even say a contractual obligation -- to create characters with appropriate motivations. In terms of Pulp gaming, this means that players need to create characters who will have motivations that drive them to, in Brian Misiaszek's words, "rescue damsels in distress, mount expeditions to recover the lost treasures of the Xinca's or save the world from an invisible mad man." When players create characters without such motivations, they have, in effect, violated the group contract.

This idea of 'contractual obligation,' of course, cuts both ways. When a gamemaster agrees to run a pulp game, they have committed themselves to providing a world in which the types of goals Pulp characters are likely to pursue are not only possible, but available; in which the types of obstacles Pulp characters tend to struggle against exist; and in which the kinds of resolutions Pulp characters (and readers) want will occur. If the gamemaster fails to provide such a world, it is the gamemaster who will have violated the group contract.

This last point should be emphasised. There is more to a genre than just the types of motivations exhibited by the lead characters. The difference between a War Story and an Anti-War story, for example, is not in the motivations held by the characters (which are likely to be pretty much the same in both cases), but in the way the character's holding those motivations are treated by the world and the narrative. A gung-ho patriot is likely to be treated positively in a War Story and negatively -- as foolish, naive or even psychotic -- in an Anti-War Story. In this sense, for each genre there is an anti-genre -- whether that anti-genre has actually appeared or not.

[Incidentally, this is something I'm afraid of in the upcoming 'Pulp' game from White Wolf. Based on the track record of their previous products, White Wolf games generally have characters who are either just self-serving or driven by a psychological need for validation -- the entire Nature-Willpower mechanic. Neither of these are particularly appropriate for a Pulp game, but they would be suitable for an Anti-Pulp game.]

Genre expectations may seem awfully restrictive, but the idea is to see them as a challenge, not as a restraint. Pulp characters need to pursue certain types of goals, but the exact reasons why they do so (their actual motivations) are up to the player to determine, as is the way that the characters chooses to go about pursuing those goals.


Okay, this is probably where my dramatic training comes in, but, to me, deciding on motivation is the biggest and most important part of creating a character. I would suggest that it represents about 40% of the process. I don't mean that it takes 40% of the time (though coming up with a good motivation can be difficult), I mean that once I have a good motivation, I'm almost half-way to having the finished character. Of the remainder, I would say that 30% comes from determining the character's personality (which tells me how they will go about pursuing their goals) and the final 30% is the work of establishing attribute values, assigning skills and filling out the details on the character sheet. Once I know what a character wants and how they act, the rest seems to follow, more or less, automatically.

[A bit of clarification; in "Pendragon" terms -- for those that are interested -- I would describe the distinction between motivation and personality as being the difference between Passions and Traits. A character's Passions serve as motivation, telling you what goals the character will pursue -- Love (Guenever), Hate (Saxons), etc. -- while the character's Traits indicate how they are most likely to go about pursuing those goals -- Arbitrarily, Energetically, Proudly, Honestly, Recklessly, etc.]

I think of this as an inside-out system of character creation: I start at the core of the character (their motivation) and work my way out to the surface and the little details that help complete the character.

In my experience, most people seem to approach the process the other way around, working outside-in. They start with the details of background, attributes and skills and only then begin to worry about the character's personality and that's where I think many of them stop. Or at least it seems to me that they never actually get around to considering their character's motivations at all.

To an extent, this approach works in many fantasy or *punk (Gothic-punk, cyber-punk, steam-punk, etc.) games. Characters in such games can be pulled into the narrative by appealing to their greed -- most player characters come equipped with greed -- or sense of survival -- the characters are attacked for whatever reason and have to deal with it. This works and the lack of other motivations even serves to reinforce a cynical and gritty genre feel. However, it doesn't work for Pulp.

Pulp heroes have motivations that are idealistic and even altruistic. Doc Savage wants to help people. In all the Doc stories I've read, in only two of them is Doc drawn into the action by a strong personal involvement ("The Man of Bronze" where Doc's father is killed and he seeks out the Valley of the Vanished and "Land of Terror" where Doc's old chemistry teacher is killed). Most of the rest of the time, Doc gets involved because someone asks for his help. Doc Savage wants to help people and he will go to extraordinary lengths to do so even though he has no personal stake in the matter.

The Shadow fights crime and he will get involved in all sorts of things for no other reason than to thwart some criminal enterprise. The Shadow will go out of his way to find crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice. The Spider is the same. If Richard Wentworth were half-way to the Carribbean for a vacation with Nita van Sloan and he heard of some murderous rampage back in New York city you just know that he would abandon the trip and hurry back to New York to deal with it. The only way that The Spider would see the Carribbean would be if the villain had a secret base there.

This attitude extends beyond the big name characters. The following is from the Deacon Smith story "The Deacon and the Demon" by Steve Fisher which appeared in the back of "The Spider" #44 (reprinted in 1998 by Pulp Adventures Press):

>    He was a private detective whose fees were high, but he was not
>    disappointed with this place for he had not expected to make
>    anything on this trip. He taxed those who had it, and taxed them
>    plenty; that made up for any charity work he might do on the side,
>    and lately there had been a lot of it.

The story involves Deacon Smith dealing with a kidnapper and, sure enough, he doesn't collect any sort of fee for it -- except, perhaps, good will.

Yet, when many player characters are confronted with a plea for help or a crime in progress, their response is likely to be along the lines of "It's not my problem" or "I don't want to get involved in that -- it looks dangerous!" This, more than anything else, is what destroys the Pulp feel of a game for me.

A number of RPG supplements and gamemaster guides have sections on 'Motivating Player Characters' as if that is somehow the gamemaster's job. I disagree with this attitude. Given the traditional division of labour in RPGs -- where each player controls a character and the gamemaster controls the world -- I think motivation falls within the player's sphere. Beyond which, when playing, I tend to resent efforts by the gamemaster to push my character into situations -- especially since all of my characters have a demonstrated capacity to get into odd predicaments all by themselves.


Motivations exist to compel action; to set a goal and to drive the character to try and attain that goal. Whether the goal is actually attainable or not is irrelevant (does anyone really think The Spider is ever going to entirely eliminate crime?) -- motivations exist to compel characters to *try* and attain them.

So long as this dramatic requirement is kept in mind, developing appropriate motivations for a character is fairly straightforward. Just look at what types of actions the character will be expected to do in a game and ask yourself "Why would someone do that? What sort of drive or goal would push them to do these things?" The answer you come up with is the character's motivation. If you can't come up with any sort of answer, you're probably in the wrong game.

Some players -- in my experience, anyway -- find it helpful to approach motivations as if they were "Pendragon" Passions. In Pendragon, a Passion is defined as being made up of two parts: a feeling or attitude and a subject or focus towards which the feeling or attitude is directed. Possible feelings or attitudes include Compassion, Duty, Guilt, Hate, Honour, Ideal, Love, Loyalty, Rage, Rivalry or Vengeance. Possible subjects include another Character, a Group, an Institution or Organisation, a Philosophy or even an Abstraction.

Passions are recorded using the format:

Feeling (Subject).

Examples of passions would include: Rage (Nazis), Ideal (Justice), Loyalty (Friends) and Compassion (Victims of Crime).

Using this approach, motivation is broken down into two questions:

i) WHAT is the character concerned with?


ii) HOW does the character feel about it?

The answer to the first question is generally determined by the nature of the campaign in which the character is going to participate. If the campaign involves characters fighting the underworld and going around solving crimes, then clearly the 'What' is going to involve things such as Justice, Crime, Law and Order and so on. If the campaign involves characters travelling the world foiling the plots of the Nazis and the machinations of the Comintern, then the 'What' is going to involve such things as Politics, Nations, Ideologies and the like. If the characters are Occult Investigators then the 'What' will concern the Occult, Supernatural, Monsters, Evil and the like.

It is possible to draw characters into adventures outside of their area of concern. A Crimefighter can be drawn into fighting Nazis if the Nazis are involved in some criminal conspiracy or if the character sees the Nazis as little more than glorified gangsters (not an uncommon perception at the time). A Secret Agent can get involved in a criminal investigation if they think issues of National Security are at stake or that some foreign power is somehow involved. Both the Crimefighter and the Secret Agent can agree to investigate the haunting of their Aunt Agatha's new house as a favour to her. These sort of adventures can have a wonderful 'fish out of water' feel to them as characters who are very competent in one area are suddenly thrown into a situation outside of their expertise.

However, a steady stream of such contrivances begins to feel forced after a while and, I believe, does violence to the characters. It becomes harder and harder to accept that a character is actually concerned about crime, for example, if they never actually fight any crime (except, possibly, in the downtime between adventures). Equally, a Secret Agent who never gets involved in any espionage ceases to be a viable Secret Agent.

This is why I think it is important for characters to be fitted to the campaign they are involved in. Or, more accurately, I believe that all the participants in a campaign (players and gamemaster) need to develop a common understanding of the campaign they are creating. Often, developing such an understanding involves compromises on all sides.

The answer to the second question is what serves to distinguish one player character from another. While all of the characters involved in a crimefighting campaign need to be concerned with crime, the aspect they are concerned with and How they feel about it will obviously differ from one character to the next. One character may have a Vengeance (Gangsters) motivation, another an Ideal (Law and Order) while a third has Compassion (Victims of Crime). The three characters will obviously work well together in some sections of an adventure and clash bitterly in other sections -- both of which can be an important part of an enjoyable RPG experience.

As a final note, I would like to say that, while the "Feeling (Subject)" format is an effective way of thinking about motivations, I don't think it's the most genre appropriate way to describe them in Pulp. Instead, I prefer to follow the lead of the actual stories and ask players to come up with pithy little expressions that sum up their character's motivations. Things like Doc Savage's "To help those that need help, punish those that deserve it," The Shadow's "The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit" or the Spider's marvellously succinct "Death to the Bringers of Death!"

Two examples from an old Pulp game I ran some years ago:

Special Agent Tiberius "Tibby" Algernon Rand (played by David Summers):

"The Republic Shall Not Fall!"

David's idea was that when the city of Rome was finally sacked it was because a senator had opened the gates of the city to the barbarians outside. He couldn't remember whether this was history or just some old story he had read, but David's interpretation was that the Republic (meaning Rome, America or Western Democracy depending on context) could withstand external assaults by the 'barbarians,' but would fall if the leaders of the Republic placed their own personal self-interest ahead of the greater good.

From this David created 'Tibby' Rand, scion of an old and wealthy New England family who was convinced that the greed, ambition and general indifference of members of the ruling class would ultimately doom the Republic if people like him didn't take an active hand to preserve it. So "Tibby' joined the FBI to help preserve the Republic, despite his family's objections and disapproval. Now he fights external threats to the Republic, but he reserves his special ire for those born into positions of wealth, privilege and power who through their actions or neglect bring the Republic into danger. No matter what anyone else does, 'Tibby' Rand is determined to see that "The Republic Shall Not Fall!"

Judas Zachariah Lincoln (played by Martin Dunne):

"Abraham Lincoln's Grandson."

Martin's original idea was "Captain America." When I explained that the proposed game was Pulp, not comic book super heroes, he clarified it to mean a character like Captain America. Martin wasn't interested in the costume or the powers or the shield, what he wanted was a character who could express very patriotic sentiments with such sincerity that they weren't corny -- "like Captain America." Martin also wanted to play a somewhat reluctant hero -- one who could swing between Isolationism and Interventionism, one who would fight to make the "World Safe for Democracy," but who felt like a martyr to the cause. This all coalesced into the idea of Abraham Lincoln's Grandson -- a character who felt dominated by his legacy and compelled to carry on his ancestor's fight for unity, liberty and justice, but who was afraid of being overwhelmed by that same ancestor's almost mythic status.

Now, as far as I know, in the real world, Abraham Lincoln has no surviving descendants, but in an RPG, that's easily fixed. We had Lincoln's youngest son, Thomas 'Tad' Lincoln, survive his illness in 1871 and grow up to sire three children: Judas Zachariah (b. 4 July 1899), Didymus 'Thomas' Ezekiel (b. 6 Apr 1901) and Margaret Jezebel (b. 21 Nov 1905), before dieing in 1919. Judas Zachariah currently practices law in New York, playing down his famous ancestry for fear that people will think that he is exploiting it. Yet, that same ancestry obsesses him and drives him to secretly fight the injustices he encounters in his free time. He is the inheritor of a proud legacy which he often experiences as a burden, he is "Abraham Lincoln's Grandson."

Well, that's it. Comments, critiques and suggestions welcome.



Post Scriptum

I originally intended to post this essay last Thursday, but my friend Neil Fraser -- who I believe I have mentioned in this forum previously -- suffered a heart attack on Monday 30th August and died. Neil was a lurker on this List; not officially subscribed, but he read it over my shoulder, so to speak. Between the funeral, sorting out Neil's effects and dealing with the shock of his death, the essay got delayed.

Now that it's done, however, I would like to dedicate it to his memory. He was the sounding board I developed many of my ideas against and, though he didn't always agree with me, he was always prepared to give me a fair hearing. So:

                 dedicated with love and affection to
                            Neil A. Fraser
                             1958 -- 1999
                          goodbye old friend

  (the above is (c) copyright 1999 Zoran Bekric, except for the bits
     quoted from others, which are (c) 1999 the respective holders)

                              Zoran Bekric
                          ars longa, vita brevis