Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Reason We Kill

In order for a game to work smoothly GMs must be as involved in character generation as they are in designing adventures. Nevertheless, many GMs labor under the misapprehension that their responsibility starts with the first encounter, leaving the players to their own devices up until this point. This may occasionally prove to be ruinous for an otherwise good game, just like skipping the prologue and going straight to Chapter 1 may ruin an otherwise good book.
If you let players create whatever characters they want and assume they will suit the sort of adventure you’ve planned, there’s a good chance you’ll force people to either break character or break the game. Even very young players can feel that a certain job is just not right for their characters due to safety, morality or simply personal preferences. Contrary to popular jokes, not everyone is motivated purely by XP and treasure. If a PC accepts a job simply to stay with the party or because they feel that this is what the GM wants, that is a serious problem.
The easiest and bluntest way to achieve group cohesion is to be upfront with the players about the kind of adventures you want to run and help them make characters with suitable motivation and abilities. It’s important for characters to not only accept the initial hook, but also suit the genre you have in mind. Fantasy is not a genre, it’s a setting. Genre can be dungeon crawling, mystical investigation, drama and so forth. Even if you’re running a sandbox game, you’re still likely to have some genre preference. Hell, even if you have nothing planned at all, the PCs still need reasons to go about doing dangerous stuff and not stay home or retire as soon as they get their first decent payment.
Character motivations should be logical and compatible. If you allow senseless or unsuitable motivations, you might find yourself dealing with a less functional group than one with no motivation at all.
As a side note, I consider a good motivation a line or two on why a character does what it doe. Long-winded character histories are very rarely useful and almost always fall into the realm of tedious fan fiction that is more fun to write than to read.
Variations of the old “my village was destroyed by orcs so now I’m an adventurer” is the most common and least reasonable motivation used by both kids and adults. Not only is it more background than motivation, it is also the backdrop of a refugee, not of a hero. A game about refugees can be fascinating, but the motivation of refugees is usually safety and (less commonly) vengeance. They are not looking to get in further trouble. There’s a plethora of further reasons why this background/ motivation is terrible, but they are outside the scope of this article. Suffice is to say that logically, a person with this sort of motivation alone, will not answer an ad calling for heroes to slay a dragon terrorizing a foreign kingdom.
Motivations that include personal quests that may not interest the whole group are flat-out useless. Unless all PCs are siblings, “I am on a quest to find the man who killed my father,” is as good as having no motivation at all.
Perhaps not to best choice for a church intrigue game...
Source: Red Wombat
Okay. Enough talk about terrible motivations and tired tropes. Let’s talk about motivations that work.
Even such a banal motivation as “I like killing things that are bigger than me” would be better than either of the above. In fact, if your game is about killing monsters and looting lairs, it’s actually not a bad motivation. However, it might create a bit of undue tension if another character’s motivation is “I want to make a better world because the government won’t.” While the eternal refugee is a less likely candidate, he may become quite suitable if what has destroyed his village was not orcs but that particular dragon.
To help the players design the right characters, don’t say, “Design heroes in a fantasy world.” Say, “Design characters interested in killing dragons.” There’s no reason to hold your cards close to your chest since the hook will be revealed in the very first scene of the game in any case. Just like a synopsis may “spoil” the first few chapters of a book, your announcement may “spoil” the first few minutes of a game. Unless you have a concrete reason to keep the players in the dark regarding the sort of game you are planning – reveal the hook, setting and genre in advance. In fact, if you’re running a short adventure, it’s perfectly alright to start in medias res after the characters have already accepted the quest. The feeble illusion of choice created by role playing a job interview for a job you can’t reject without running the game for everyone is honestly not worth your time or effort. It’s railroading of the worst kind. If you don’t have a plan for player refusal, don’t give them fake freedom.
Now, going back to our three characters, all three will probably accept a job to kill a dragon that has kidnapped the King’s only daughter. It’s big and powerful, it’s an enemy of the people, and you have a score to settle with it, so why not? However, while the suicidal hunter, the noble hero and the vengeful refugee will all agree to go on this mission, they are likely to get into a colossal fight when it turns out that the dragon and the supposedly kidnapped princess are actually lovers skimming a devoted, but close-minded king.
If you’re running a stand-alone adventure about prejudice, this may be a very rewarding and emotional finale. If it’s an adventure in an ongoing campaign about cleansing the kingdom of monsters, it may lead to irreconcilable differences in the group and cause it to eventually break apart. These are the kind of things that you have to consider in advance during character generation and when deciding whether to approve a certain motivation or not.
The actual races and classes of the group are not less important than motivation from a story point of view, since they not only define the characters’ powers and weakness, but also their interaction with the world. For example, if your setting has no tieflings in it, it’s worth letting the players know about this, especially if they’re playing a very social character. If the King is heavily bigoted against dragonborn, this is another hot plate you better get off the table in the very start. If the orcs in your setting are a race of poets and philosophers, than a stereotypical orc barbarian better have a damn good excuse for his terrible manners. You wouldn’t want a barbarian with only nature-based skills in a purely urban adventure and you wouldn’t want an assassin in a game about reconciling a powerful merchant with his estranged paladin son. Remember, as a GM you can’t and shouldn’t accommodate all possible characters and it’s perfectly within your right to deny certain motivations and character that don’t fit into your artistic vision.
That happens...
Returning yet again to our romantic dragon adventure, a good intro would look like this:
Motivation: You’ve been hired by the King of Genericburg to kill the Dragon Ironicus and rescue the Princess. You may play mercenaries motivated by monetary reward, members of the Good Faith tasked with killing powerful non-humans to prove the superiority of the humanoid races, relatives or friends of the King or the Princess, or enemies of the dragon looking to settle old scores.
Classes: You may play all classes. However, arcane magic is punishable by death by the Good Faith, so arcane spellcasters must hide their identity. The adventure is going to be combat-heavy so make characters capable of defending themselves. Most of the adventure is going to take place in the wilderness and offer little interaction with technology or large communities.
Races: No dragonborn or tieflings, as they are killed on sight by the Good Faith. All races other than humans, elves and dwarves suffer from harsh discrimination. Unless you’re one of the former, then you’re a foreigner hired by the King.
Alignment: Any except chaotic evil, as long as you’re willing to kill a dragon and will get along with other members of the party. Members of the Good Faith must be Lawful. The Good Faith is evil (what a surprise!) but you don't have to be.

Keep playing awesome games my friends, and may your table be as calm as your games exciting.


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