Motivating PCs

"Freedom" is the second of the The Three Fs : Three F's because it's often essential to ensuring people have fun. In a session, it shows up frequently in the form of letting the players make decisions that you might not have predicted as an SH, and which might go off the beaten path from what you have planned. While that freedom is great and vitally important to Vaxia, it can also be problematic if the PCs go so far off-script that there's nothing there of interest waiting for them, or the SH is forced to improvise everything and chaotically toss elements in their path, hoping it all still makes sense and all the numbers are sound without any planning at all. That starts to endanger the fun.

The only way to ensure PCs are acting as the players want them to while also letting them enjoy the benefits of the challenges and NPCs you planned is to give them a compelling reason to head in the direction of the plot.

The key to motivation is first understanding that everyone is a bit different, so make sure you include a variety of reasons for the PCs to get involved. The classic spread includes:

  • The chance to save or protect someone (even evil people have people they like)
  • Treasure! (money, items, ancient knowledge, etc)
  • The chance to kill stuff (often more of a motivation for players than characters)
  • Fame and notoriety (even if it's just with the locals)

When you break them all the way down to their core elements, that list easily covers 90% or more of the motivations used in nearly any session. If you get into part of a series of sessions (or "saga"), you can add "answers" to the list, when the PCs who've been in previous sessions in the series start to crave an understanding of the bigger picture. Answers, in this case, are really just another kind of treasure.

Setting the Hook
Motivation is most key at the very start of a session when the action is kicking off. Most of the PCs are in the midst of going about their daily lives, and they'll need a very good reason to break that routine and get involved in potential dangerous situations voluntarily. One solution is to bring the problem to them ("the inn you're in catches fire!"), but many dangerous situations don't fit well within comfortable city walls (hence the big draw of cities in the first place), so be prepared to give them a reason to venture out to wherever the session is actually set to take place.

Often the best solution is a messenger, of sorts. A wounded man staggers into the PCs' path in a panic, wailing about bandits who hit his caravan on the road. Instantly, you have the potential for people to protect someone (if the members of the caravan were taken prisoner), the chance for treasure (the cargo the caravan was carrying), the chance to kill stuff (see: bandits), and fame and notoriety (at least with the caravan). If you want to be fancy about it, give them a chance at fame with the whole caravan company, who may then proactively hire them to protect a future shipment, which becomes its own hook for a future session.

Messengers come in all shapes and sizes, from the frantic survivor, to the rich merchant looking to hire someone to take care of a problem for them, to a man in the street shouting "over here!" at a crowd that just happens to include the PCs. They have the added benefit of serving as an answer bank to let the PCs get clarification on what sort of situation they'll be heading into, which can open up opportunities to sweeten the pot. If a building explodes nearby, the PCs only know that a building went boom. If there's a messenger, they can learn that there were people inside who may still be trapped in the basement, and that the explosion might have been caused by the powerful artifacts the mage who owns the building was experimenting with.

Clarity and Caution
Even after the initial hook is set, PCs can sometimes stall out and lose momentum by becoming confused about the situation around them. If you notice the players becoming overcautious, taking longer to post or taking more post to do what should be simple, quick actions, it's possible they're feeling lost or intimidated by their understanding of the scenario.

If the players don't immediately know what to do next, either because they don't understand the situation or they don't see a clear path to any solution, you may need to take a moment to clarify things to get them moving again, a little like unclogging a drain. Things are rarely as obvious to your players as they are to you, since you have all the answers on how to solve the problems and know how difficult or easy they are to overcome. You will likely find yourself having to be more blunt and direct than you might expect.

It can help to post a quick, one or two sentence summary of the situation at the end of your narrative post with a snapshot of the current options (or at least, the elements in the room that are most relevant), just as a reminder to players of what they can do to keep things moving forward.

Meeting Halfway
Keep in mind that getting the PCs moving toward the plot is only partly on the SH. The player, too, has a responsibility, if they want to be in the session, to try to meet the SH halfway and get their character motivated to follow one of the many hooks the SH should be providing. Between the two of you, you should almost always be able to get the character a reasonable reason to get involved. If not, don't let all the burden rest on yourself. If you're properly respecting the Three F's, you can't force them to get involved, you can only meet them halfway. The rest is up to the player.

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