Externalizing Motivations

September 12, 2011

“Real roleplayers don’t need motivation mechanics!”

There’s a funny old school attitude I see sometimes.

“I don’t like D&D, because it’s just about beating up monsters, you only get experience points for fighting. I’d rather roleplay!”

“Ok, here’s this game where you get experience points for chasing your goals, agonizing over motivations, falling in love, and roleplaying.”

“That’s not real roleplaying! That’s a boardgame! You’re not roleplaying anymore because you’re only doing it for points! The game is telling you how to roleplay!

In this school of thought, the only way roleplaying can happen is if mechanics never influence players in how the characters make choices.

That said, it’s also pretty tough to make work- everyone has to be exceptionally mindful of remembering to constantly display/reveal character motivations, stick to them, and support each other in the process.

When this is tied to Actor Stance only, each player trying to “just play my character”, results in the characters constantly pulling away from each other and not doing much to address each other’s motivations.

Paul Czege Principle

A useful idea is the Czege principle, which points out that in roleplaying, it’s not really fun to be both the architect or creator of a problem or conflict AND the person who decides how it resolves.

This is part of the reason many games continue to use stuff like dice or cards to determine results- even if you end up being the creator/resolver, the randomizers force restrictions on the actual outcomes.

In a sense, when you follow that old school idea of no motivation mechanics, you end up with all motivation choices being conflicts players themselves create, and resolve themselves, because there’s no other “handles” for the rest of the group to really grab on to.

The fun of hard choices in fiction

In fiction, we often like to see characters make tough choices. Because we are watching/reading a story, we’re not 100% sure which way things will turn out, and the more in doubt the outcome, the more tension we experience as an audience.

In roleplaying games, the reason the Czege Principle applies is because there’s no tension if you know absolutely which way you will go.

What motivation mechanics do, is they apply a pressure upon you, as a player, and create a tension, which might make things a little unpredictable for you, the player, even.

The character’s motivations have been externalized- something which might be influenced by something other than just you, the player.


A commonly used method is to reward motivations. Several games initiated this type of mechanic- The Pool, Hero Wars, Riddle of Steel. Currently Burning Wheel and Fate are probably the two most popular examples of this.

While giving points for doing things is pretty simple, the more interesting results are when two or more motivations conflict – do you support your wife in child labor, or do you volunteer for a mission that could secure you lands from the King?

A common mistake is assuming that reward mechanics are “locked in” – that once you choose your motivations, you are trapped to just those. Most games that use these allow you the option to change them, naturally as the character’s motivations change.


Another type of motivation mechanic is the “temptation” or offer – if you do X thing, then either you -might- get something, or you will get Y thing in exchange.

Polaris uses straight offers in this regard, each player making deals back and forth with another player who has the role of being the antagonist.

Drifter’s Escape, on the other hand, uses temptations, with 2 GMs asking for certain favors in exchange for giving a series of cards. This one heightens the tension because the GMs are allowed to lie about how good their card hands are, before you get them.

Reward systems tend to focus on the raw pursuit of your motivations, while temptation/offer systems focus on your character taking unexpected choices or motivations along the way.


Restrictions limit or hinder actions your character can take.

The most infamous example is old school D&D alignment, which apparently has colored a lot of peoples’ perceptions of all motivation mechanics as removing the ability for character change and growth.

In actuality, these can range from numerical penalties (“You’re at -2 to fight your beloved, since, you know, you love him.”), to situational restrictions (“You agreed to help with the plan, but if it goes sour, you can change your mind.”).

Usually the biggest contention is around social mechanics and restrictions brought about by them.

Successful social mechanics:
1. Let you decide whether you’ll entertain an argument at all
2. Limit requests/demands to something reasonable
3. Have an opt-out either as a mechanical option or part of the situation (“You agreed to help with the plan, and it’s clear the plan has failed, you don’t have to help anymore.”)

Again, though, this is just about externalizing motivations – with these kinds of mechanics, you have other players and characters jockeying to influence your character and provide tension.

Questions to Answer

Externalizing motivations means you end up having to play to find out who your character is.

“Will I stand true to my friends in the face of evil?” I don’t know! Am I tough enough? Am I hard enough? What prices will I pay to do so? Are they worth protecting after all?

Sometimes folks like Vincent talk about being unsafe with your characters, and I think this is really the kind of stuff these mechanics produce- you start play with an idea of who your character is, but over play, you discover it as much as anyone else in the group.

Sometimes your character is more amazing than you thought, sometimes they’re a terrible person, sometimes they’re both.

Some people imagine this “destroys immersion”, but I find it’s just fine with it- sometimes I find myself doing things I didn’t think I had the courage or sense to do, and sometimes I go, “Wow, I can’t believe I can be such a dick.”

Anyway, hopefully this gives you some idea of how these mechanics work and what they do.

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