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The Three Motivators: A Character-Building Tool

There are many ways to build a good character, but one aspect that often gets overlooked — or conversely, over-worked — is motivations.

If you know what motivates a character — PC or NPC — you can extrapolate a lot of other things on the fly.

The trick is not to make your motivators too broad or too focused. Too broad, and they’re meaningless (“She’s motivated by a desire to do the right thing”); too narrow, and they either dominate the campaign or never come up at all: “I will reclaim my dwarven homeland” is either going to be a major focus of the game, or will be ignored.

Either way, the end result is a useful character trait that, in actual play, winds up being useless — which is where this little tool comes in. You can use the Three Motivators with just about any RPG.

The Three Motivators

Pick three motivators for your character (NPC or PC) — two concepts and a goal:

  1. One broad concept that contains just a little specificity, such as “Protect the elven people at all costs.” “Do good” would be too broad, because there’s nothing at all specific about it. This is your character’s root motivation, the one you can fall back on to answer the question “What would I do?” in just about any situation.
  2. One specific concept that can be intepreted in a variety of ways, like “Prove my parents wrong by winning glory despite my alcoholism.” The key here is not to lock yourself into just one possible outcome, or limit yourself in how your character is motivated by the concept.
  3. One specific short- or medium-range goal, such as “Find the source of the evil in the Centauri Sector.” This gives you a hook you can grab onto right away. If you’re creating a PC, make sure the hook works for the GM’s plans; for an NPC, this obviously won’t be an issue.

That’s all there is too it. The Three Motivators technique isn’t designed to create a complete character, but rather to flesh out a character during the creation process — and to give you a set of simple, robust tools to access during play.

As a GM, it can help you improvise. If all you have for an NPC is these three motivators, you can react to situations based on those motivators and still convey a strong sense of what the character is about — which is essentially what your players do every session.

You can also take a shortcut, and just use one or two of them. A minor NPC created on the fly probably only needs #3, the goal; many NPCs will be fine with just #1 or #2 plus #3.

As a player, using the Three Motivators will add depth to your character in a way that has immediate applicability during play — unlike some elements of many PC backgrounds, which just never see the light of day. Your goal can help you drive the action forward, and gives your GM an automatic adventure idea or story arc to work into the campaign, while your two concepts will help you decide what your character would do in a variety of situations.

Sources of Inspiration

The Three Motivators technique was inspired by reading Eclipse Phase [1], which explicitly and cleverly addresses character motivations; playing Burning Wheel [2], which codifies motivators as Beliefs and gives them mechanical consequences; reading Mouse Guard, which employs character goals and motivators to drive every aspect of play; and reading Chris Chinn [3]‘s work on flag framing and conflict webs, which I can no longer find online.

You’ll also spot Chris’s character concept generator [4] right smack in the middle of #2. That nifty little generator was one of the most direct inspirations for the Three Motivators tool.

Have you used a tool similar to the Three Motivators? How did it go? What do you do to drive stories through your NPCs (as a GM) or your PC (as a player)?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The Three Motivators: A Character-Building Tool"

#1 Comment By bif On October 7, 2009 @ 7:45 am

I hate to be plodding, but could you give a comprehensive example, i.e., one character with all three motivators? I’d like to see them in action. 🙂

#2 Comment By Nojo On October 7, 2009 @ 11:50 am

I’ll try. Skimmer, a Void-master from Rogue Trader.

1. Fly anything and fly it hard.
2. Be the starship pilot everyone is still talking about 100 years from now.
3. Outrace the other Rogue Trader ships thru the Dark Eldar blockade, through the asteroid belt, and to the crypt world of Sasani XII.

That was cool. I now know what to do when the situation calls for a choice between caution or crazed flying.

#3 Comment By bif On October 7, 2009 @ 1:39 pm


Awesome! I’ll try one…

For my CoC 1920’s character:
1. Persevere no matter the adversity.
2. Reclaim my standing in society.
3. Figure out why I was released from the asylum despite my condition getting steadily worse.

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 7, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

Nice examples, Nojo and bif!

[6] – …and I’ll use my newest PC, a 4e deva shaman (in Eberron):

1. Prevent another Day of Mourning at any cost. (The Day of Mourning is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reinterpreted through the lens of a fantasy world’s World War I.)

2. Use subtlety to preserve peace in the Five Nations, despite my instinct to go out in a blaze of glory. (Deva are immortal via reincarnation — every time they die, they come back as a fully socialized adult deva. My shaman is four years old at the start of the game.)

3. Assess the greatest threat to the Treaty of Thronehold, and begin working to mitigate it.

#3 is a bit weak because we’ve only done the prelude to the campaign, and while I know the general direction of the game I don’t yet know where we’re starting or what we’ll be up to for the first few sessions.

#5 Comment By Lunatyk On October 8, 2009 @ 1:24 am

one of the things I do like about Exalted is that it requires every character to have a Motivation 🙂
(and less grand Intimacies)

#6 Comment By Qi Chin On February 5, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

This method is really awesome, I’ll give it a try once my campaign starts and I need good NPCs.

Btw, I think the conflict webs post you’re looking for is here: [7]

#7 Pingback By Dark Sun Campaign Development: PCs, The Stars of the Show | Alphastream On October 30, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

[…] Stew talks about Three Motivators, a very similar concept based on Eclipse Phase (awesome game!), in turn influenced by Burning […]