Worlds of Design: “What’s My Motivation?”

What is a player’s motivation when they first play an RPG? What do they think is going to...

What is a player’s motivation when they first play an RPG?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Not Just for Actors​

This phrase is often associated with an actor in a film or play, but in the context of tabletop role-playing games the questions are: What does a player they think is going to happen? What do they want to happen? What do they want to BE?

What Motivates Me​

I recently ran across a 12-minute YouTube video that combined music by Thomas Bergersen (“Never Back Down”) with a mix video created from trailers for the Knights of the Old Republic Star Wars series of video games. The video showed a desperate series of fights between the good guys (the ones with the green light sabers) and bad guys (red light sabers). It reminded me a little of westerns where it’s clear who is good and who is bad, if only because they wear white and black hats! There was even a good guy character who looked like a cowboy, right down to the long coat, hat, and two “six guns”—though his hat was black.

Knights of the Old Republic is old in video game terms, but the series is often cited as some of the best of the Star Wars games. I looked up the music and found that the original was less than three minutes long. The song’s lyrics (not intelligible in the mix video) are about heroic defense. Turns out that Bergersen is very well-known and that he tends to write epic orchestral/voice music in short form.

The lyrics made me think about my original reasons for wanting to play RPGs, because of the “urge to defend civilization.” When I first played in 1975, I knew what sort of character I wanted to be, a magic user, because in my mind the magic users are “the brains [and center] of the operation.” But more generally, I wanted to be a hero, specifically someone fighting to defend “civilization” against the enemy, whether the enemy was invading “barbarians” or “civilized” aggressors, or creatures more exotic. There’s a war on, and I want to be on the side of right. While ambiguity is normal in the real world, I don’t want that in RPGs. I’m not interested in shades of gray. No mere treasure-grubbing for me, either.

I’ve branched out since then of course, playing neutrals and even evil characters, but the heroic “soldier (of god)” is still my main motivation when I play an RPG.

Your Motivation May Vary​

So in the title of this piece I am not referring to the way actors ask about the motivation of their character. I don’t play a role the way an actor would, I participate vicariously in the situation—it’s me in there, by and large. For example I would never play a character with low intelligence as stupid, because I wouldn’t behave that way, and in some sense that character is me.

I recognize this is not a common mode of play. As the hobby has expanded greatly, we have more and more people who engage the game in different ways. My wife, who was not a gamer, just wanted to do an enjoyable activity with friends that reminded her of Lord of the Rings, and had not heard of D&D (this is how we met, as I taught a group to play).

Common Motivations​

Thinking about other motivations, certainly some people want to be Indiana Jones-style “grave-robbers" or more general “King Solomon’s Mines” (19th century novels) adventurers. Others may want to be “the boss,” which could range from bandit to guild chief to monarch.

Probably the most common motivation of gamers is that players want their characters to be able to do whatever they want without consequences—kind of like criminals.

When people play RPGs with more storytelling elements, they may trade agency for the GM's story; that is, they don’t have as much influence over the outcome of the session. The GM may enable them to make up a detailed backstory, and adapt that into the game story. They may be motivated to be whatever the GM wants them to be. In this regard, they have a motivation similar to that of an actor or actress, living different lives as necessary for the success of the play or movie.

With as many players as we have in RPGs, there are surely hundreds of different motivations.

Your Turn: What was your motivation for playing a role-playing game?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


I don't mind it, as long as it is not a disruption to the group as a whole and detracts from gameplay or enjoyment of the rest of the group.

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