Motivation Mechanics

November 5, 2010

One thing I read a bit in the “Roleplaying Rewards” thread from rpg.net was people complaining that motivation mechanics made their roleplaying stiff and robot-like.

So, let’s look at what should be happening when you play games with motivation mechanics.

1. You come up with a concept you’re excited about

“I’m going to play a noblewoman who is trying to rescue her brother who has been captured, and wants to win the heart of the 4th Prince!” Maybe you just came up with the idea whole cloth, maybe the game has some kind of lifepath mechanics, maybe you used some tool as a springboard for ideas.

So far, no different than any traditional RPG.

2. You create your character mechanically, including putting in appropriate Motivation mechanics as needed.

If it were Burning Wheel, you assign Beliefs, Shadow of Yesterday, Keys, Riddle of Steel, Spiritual Attributes, Artesia, Bindings, etc. etc.

These should reflect the things you were excited about your character from step 1.

3. Play your character as you envisioned in step 1. The Motivation mechanics and rules of the game give you rewards for doing so.

So… basically, you do what you were going to do even without the mechanics… and then the rules support you.

Don’t throw out your roleplaying skills you normally use just because there’s a mechanic attached to it. And if you’re not interested in the things you’ve put as your motivations? Revise them. You should tie them to the things you’re interested about.

“If it’s not that much different in HOW I play a character what do Motivation mechanics DO, then?”

First off, players who pursue their motivations get more power over the game (either by some kind of spendable story point or by character advancement) – the people who contribute the best get to better direct things.

Second, the players who aren’t so good at it? They’re seeing directly what behaviors to model and copy that constitutes good play.

Third, most importantly and most subtly, this is how you, as a group, reshape and customize your own play standards. You don’t just get a point for “talking romantic at the Prince”, you get the points/dice/whatever when you do it in such a way that your group recognizes it as “good roleplaying” by whatever definition you guys actually hold.

As above, the unskilled players see what good play looks like, but skilled players then start picking up more discrete aspects. You form an aesthetic for your group, that y’all are into, and it brings everyone on the same page.

Of course, all of this depends on Step 1 above. If you’re making characters you’re not invested in, if you’re assigning motivation mechanics for things you don’t care about, you’re not going to suddenly care about them.

If you don’t roleplay your character the way you think they should act, appropriate to the situation and the game, you’re not going to enjoy your character.

Yes, this means sometimes you’ll go against those motivations you laid out (“I love the Prince, but I’m not going to do this thing he’s asking”), which is great- it starts showing where the lines are, what you won’t cross, or, how much you DO feel about something. Which, is pretty much what most stories are about – how far will you go, what do you really feel, what kind of person are you really?, etc.

When you pick motivations in those things, you’re waving a flag, “I want my story to revolve around these things!”. If you’re asking for stories you don’t want, or playing a character you don’t like, it’s not the mechanics that are the problem…



  1. Hear, hear!

    I think where some of the people in the rpgnet thread are coming from is “GM hands out bonus XP for roleplaying at the end of the session” type of rewards. My experience with those has been that receiving them is not very fun or motivating, and that handing them out as GM is fraught with social peril because there’s no yardstick to go by and because you don’t want to make anybody feel unappreciated by leaving them out of rewards. (And you have to worry about the effect on how fast people are leveling… between the game balance question and the social question, actual honest judging of how someone’s RPing contributed to the session is a distant 3rd place).

    But rewards like fanmail in PTA, getting experience for hitting Keys in TSoY… that stuff in my experience is FUN! and motivating, and focuses the game by letting you know what to shoot for. So what’s the difference?

    It seems like the roleplaying-reward mechanics that are fun, are 1. more immediate feedback because they’re given out in the moment, instead at the end of the session; 2. are more transparent because they’re defined as being for specific actions, not just an undefined “good roleplaying”; and 3. give everybody some control over them, by either letting you choose what you’re rewarded for (TSoY keys) or 4. making it a mutual relationship, like PTA fanmail.

    Hmm, immediate positive feedback for transparently defined actions that you have control over, in a mutual relationship… sounds like I’m writing a guide for how to motivate people in the workplace or something, doesn’t it? Same principles, I think.

    • I didn’t mean to leave comments on! But, yeah. I’m way more a fan of immediate rewards- people have short attention spans, and to properly kick in the cause-effect response, people need to have something happen very shortly after in order to follow it, otherwise it seems random, even though it might be very deliberate. The other factor is that immediate reward also sets up momentum in play, right now, instead of paying it off at the end when your playing is done.

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