Character development: what’s my motivation?

We would be ashamed of our finest actions if the world understood all the motives which produced them.

-Rochefoucauld, Maxims

When taking on the role of a character, improvisational actors often ask each other, “What’s my motivation?” The answer serves as a guide for how an actor might believably portray a character, since motives dictate actions.

In a Dungeons & Dragons game, players portray characters, usually with intent to be as realistic as possible, given the setting. The responsibility of the Dungeon Master (DM) is even greater in this regard, as a DM may have to assume a dozen or more roles in a single game session, and poorly portraying these NPCs can detract from the players’ suspension of disbelief during the game. Fortunately, both DM and players can benefit from the actor’s tactic of defining character motivation first in order  to create consistent, believable characters. And a convenient method for doing so emerged at a most unlikely place: a management leadership training seminar this author once attended.

The seminar, produced by John Maxwell’s organization Maximum Impact, described an array of leadership tools and philosophies, among them an unusual deck of cards supplied at event registration. Instead of the various numbers and suits, these cards featured the names of 48 leadership values. In one of the break-out exercises, seminar attendees were asked to remove 24 cards from the deck that named values they felt were important. From those 24, they were asked to remove the 12 they thought were most important; from the 12, they needed to select six; from six, they had to choose three; from three, two; and from those two, they had to select the single leadership value most important to them.

For the participants, it was an excruciating exercise, but it truly helped us to identify what was most important for our respective styles of management.

That same principle can be applied to the creation of believable player- and non-player characters (PCs and NPCs) in a Dungeons & Dragons game. The DM need only assemble and print a list of character values, from which the DM or players can cross off values until they have two or three that best defines what the characters being created think is most important.

The motivation list used for this writer’s campaign includes the following values:

  1. Achievement
  2. Authority
  3. Balance
  4. Comfort/Safety
  5. Commitment
  6. Courage
  7. Fairness
  8. Family
  9. Fun
  10. Happiness
  11. Honesty
  12. Independence
  13. Legacy
  14. Loyalty
  15. Organization/Order
  16. Passion
  17. Perfection
  18. Political or Personal Power
  19. Recognition
  20. Religion/Faith
  21. Service
  22. Social Status
  23. Trust
  24. Wealth

This is no means an exhaustive list, but it provides a starting point for character development. 

It is also possible to randomly select values from this list by rolling 1d12 and 1d6. If the d6 score is 1 to 3, read the d12 result as-is; if the d6 roll is 4 to 6, add 12 to the d12 result. Doing so produces a random number from 1 to 24.

Not only does such a list aid in PC and NPC creation before the game, it is especially useful when the heroes try to speak with an NPC the DM didn’t expect the heroes to address. The next time a player says, “I’ll stop a townsman on the street and ask (fill in question here),” the DM can quickly choose a name, drop a couple of dice for the table above and have a believable character.

For example, the heroes choose to stop a craftsman named Pyotr; three rolls on the table show he values faith, perfection and wealth. It’s safe to assume that he’s a meticulous worker who takes pride in his craft, sees value in his wares, and will probably be favorably disposed toward clerics, paladins and other religious types, particularly if they are affiliated with his temple of choice. Pyotr probably wouldn’t be so friendly toward shady-looking characters, since he values his wealth.

Different rolls create a much different Pyotr, though. If the rolls honesty, fairness and comfort, he’ll probably tell the heroes the truth as he knows it, so long as doing so doesn’t give someone an unfair advantage or endanger his personal comfort and safety. And he probably wouldn’t linger to chat with such unstable and dangerous folk as adventurers.

Have you ever employed a device like this for character creation? If so, consider sharing your experiences in a comment to this post.




10 comments on “Character development: what’s my motivation?

  1. Now there’s a product idea, if there’s anywhere online you can make custom packs of cards that is.

  2. Here’s an interesting product that might give a nice finished feel that one could keep in the box for another time.

    Blank printable playing cards 🙂

  3. jonathan says:

    Thanks for this post! I stumbled it while doing some research for a post I’m working on over at TCM.

    I actually already do something like this for NPCs. Basically, I choose how important/complex an NPC is and then pick one or more cards from a deck of Archetype Cards. They are produced by Caroline Myss and are available through I think they are supposed to be for some kind of new age personality test… but Berin Kinsman ( pointed them out to me last year through his blog – I snapped them up and found them to be very cool for NPC creation. For some reason I never considered using them for PC creation…

    thank you! This is one of the things I LOVE about the blogosphere!

  4. […] Alric @ The RPG Athenaeum has a great article written back in 2009 that offers 24 different motivations to figure out what the character thinks is […]

  5. […] Alric @ The RPG Athenaeum has a great article written back in 2009 that offers 24 different motivations to figure out what the character thinks is […]

  6. […] lastly I’ll roll another d24 on the list of motivations from Alric, which is… […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s