Behind the Screens – Meditations on Motivations

One of the persistent challenges faced by GMs everywhere is the constant struggle to get your group to do something you want them to. You’ve planned out an elaborate series encounters but your players decide not to go in that direction. You plant what you think are obvious adventure hooks and the PCs decide that they’d rather work on personal goals this session. You have the local magistrate beg them on hands and knees to get rid of the nearby goblin infestation and the players callously ask, “How much are you paying?”

Pharasma knows it can be a struggle.

I got another reader request (*yay* reader mail!) asking about how asking how she could motivate her players into going on the adventure she had planned. There was a cave that lead to a dungeon. And there was something in that dungeon that she wanted them to encounter. What was that thing? And how could she make it enticing for her players?

The fundamental question here is, “How do I motivate my players to do the Thing?”

Ultimately it’s an issue of engagement which is why I’ve stressed moderating player (as well as your own) expectations so much in previous articles. If your players are engaged in your story and your game, they’ll come up with their own reasons for wanting to do things. Let the players tell you why a particular adventure or quest is worthwhile.

What? Players doing your work for you? How does that happen?

Well, getting to that point isn’t as tricky as it seems. Just ask your players what they want. I know that there’s this notion that GMs are infallible, creative powerhouses, of all comprehension. Or at least I’ve known some GMs pretend to be that, or try and live up to that mantle. But really, just ask your players. You don’t necessarily have to come out and say, “Okay, what do y’all want to do this session” – although some of my most memorable games have started this way. If the campaign hasn’t started yet you can have your players fill out an in-character questionnaire. There are lots of published lists out there if you’re struggling to come up with some of your own. Seriously, Google “RPG Questionnaire” and I guarantee you’ll have enough material for hours and hours of reading. Encourage your players to take their time, maybe even incentivize them with bonus XP for filling it out – it is literally character development after all…

When you get answers back, work them into your narrative. Is the party’s Fighter a former pirate? Introduce an NPC who is a pirate-hunter. Does your party’s Rogue have a soft-spot for penniless innocent children? Have the local orphanage be collaterally destroyed by the villain’s next scheme. Listen to your players, and incorporate their ideas into their story. It is their story after all.


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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