"DM in Residency" with Guest Writer, David Lane
Why Adventure? An Essential Question
A while ago I had a player, let us call them 'Bob,'* who wanted to make a new character. So, Bob rolled up some stats, chose a class, a race, a background, and flaws and filled in the character sheet like the PHB required. Bob also wrote a backstory to their new character. Great. Wonderful.
We started the session and I incorporated Bob's character into the rest of the established party. The players weren't new to each other and so I thought everything was going to be fine. But, as the session went on, I realized that the old party and the new character were not gelling. By the end of the session, I understood why.
What motivates your Players Character?
Bob didn't know why his character adventured. Why were they out there in the big bad world? Why did they need the help of several other people to help achieve their goals?
Then the other light-bulb moment: it wasn't Bob's fault. This was my fault for not asking the correct questions prior to incorporating this new character into the session. As a DM, it is my responsibility to know the background motivations behind the character; and, if I don't know them, to ask the player the relevant questions. In this particular situation, Bob didn't know their characters motivations either. I had a few problems here that were slowly building up. Let's discuss them one by one.
I didn't run a session 0 for this new character
I've already covered Session 0 in detail a previous article. The problem here is that even though Bob knew the world that I was playing in, knew the players and knew me as a DM, I assumed that this would be enough to ensure that everything would run smoothly. That this new character would be able to seamlessly integrate into the campaign.
I should still ask the questions that I would ask in a ‘Session 0’, even to experienced players. Actually sit down with my player and find out how they would like to incorporate into the game, so I as a DM, can place their character best to not only have them join the party, but also so the party can join them and be invested in helping this new PC. If I did this, I would have found that there was the following issue;
Bob didn't know his character motivations
In here lies the crux of the issue. Bob made a character but didn't know why the PC wanted to adventure. Even with a background of where they grew up, what they had done for the past few years of their life and what made them leave home; there was no solid reason in place that said, 'this is why I want to adventure.'
This was also a large issue of the new PC and the current party not coming together - the new PC couldn't give the party a reason for wanting to help them, or, needing help from the party. Bob had made a character that didn't need to adventure, hence, missing the very essence of D&D. Bob had essentially made a character that was like a wizard who wanted to stay in their tower reading, or an inventor in their basement tinkering, or, a farmer... who... farms.
So, after the session, I went back to Bob and ran a post-session Session 0 to try and adjust the motivations of the PC and I'll admit, it got frustrating.
After a while, I provided Bob with a list of reasons why a character might adventure:
You need/like/want money
You want fame
You enjoy the thrill
You need others to help you do or get something
You're good at it/something
You're protecting something/someone
You need protection from something
You're in search of something
You're running from something
You're trying to impress someone
You're righting a wrong
You're looking for revenge
You're solving a mystery
You're trying to save and/or search for someone
You're trying to prove something
You want to be part of something bigger
You're ashamed of something
Not an exhaustive list, but still a pretty good one. And I think an important question for any player and DM to know about a character’s motivation. This is the heart of how plots is created, how conflict arises, and how stories and games are driven.
Once a player can answer this about their character, a lot of other parts about their character fall into place and people build quickly on their character concept. It's all very nice to know that Bob's character, Artemis is a 6'2" human with wavy blond hair and blue eyes, carries a rapier and a whip and comes from a well-to-do family; but these details don't answer the question of; 'Why do they adventure?' If Artemis' life was so wonderful at home, why did he leave? What made him come all this way from the cushy life of a grand manor, plentiful food and servants to cater for his whims?
The D&D character sheets have Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws to complete, but even these (unless you're randomly rolling for them) can be difficult to complete until you answer the fundamental question of 'Why do I adventure.'
I didn't know the character motivations
So how does this affect the DM? If the player doesn't know the motivations of the PC, then as a DM I cannot try to incorporate a reason for the player being there. Additionally, for the party to be invested in the new PC and for them to work together for a common goal.
In Curse of Strahd, every player has a common goal, get out of Barovia. When a new character arrives, they meet up with the current party, join forces to kill Strahd and get out of Barovia. In Dragon Heist, it is 'lets find the treasure together!' (well... sorta). With a pre-written adventure, there is an unwritten rule that ‘this is the adventure,’ and players tend to stick to it.
Pre-written modules are a great way of finding a common goal
Sometimes however, it can be a little harder than that, particularly in a homebrew world. As a DM who especially loves running story hooks from characters backgrounds, character motivation is especially important. I love having my players invested in their PC's due to the story being directly built from their background. Knowing why they are there is key to my Dungeon Mastering and providing the players with an immersive experience, and an experience where all the players and PC's want to play together.
While you don t need to, and while you don' t have to, when you DM I encourage you to ask your players "why does your PC adventure?" If they can answer that straight away, great! It will allow that player to tell you about the motivations of the player. If they player cannot, try to work it through with them and answer the question, 'Why does that PC adventure?'
*Not their real name, but Bob is a short name so it is easier for me to type again and again rather than Augustine** or Christina**
**Still not their real name(s).
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