I’m going to let you in on a very big and also very obnoxious secret. All right? No one is going to like hearing it, no one even likes saying it. We’ve all collectively agreed that instead of talking about it, we’ll just have some of us know this fact and some people think the inverse is true, and the former group will be happier than the latter when it comes to roleplaying. But it’s all based on fake ideas. Ready for it?
Character motivation is malarkey.
Oh, sure, it’s important. It informs a bunch of what you’re doing with a character when you roleplay, yeah. Saying otherwise would just be lying. But every time I see people citing character motivation as a reason for not engaging in a plot I mentally (and often audibly) sigh. The same goes for no-selling a conflict with character powers, using character history to horribly derail plots, and otherwise using cheap ways of getting out of stories instead of, you know, engaging with them.
See, here’s a thing to internalize about characters in any story, roleplayed or otherwise: They exist to make stories interesting. A character should either cause stories to occur, cause stories to be more interesting, or have interesting reactions to them. A really good character does all three, but one is enough.
All of that runs counter to most of the writing advice that I’ve been given through most of my career and schooling. It’s all good advice in the abstract, as within that framework you do want characters to have rich inner lives and abilities and skills and different reactions and so forth. But it’s those three things that actually make a character worth bothering with, and characters who fail to fulfill those goals are superfluous.
Of course, the bright side is that with a character you roleplay, you are in control. And yes, all that talk about your characters taking over is malarkey, too. You still get veto power. Your character is not leaning out of your computer screen and typing for you.
Let’s say that you’re roleplaying in Star Wars: The Old Republic. (Let’s also pretend it still has a roleplaying server. I am exceedingly bitter.) You’re playing a bounty hunter who in-character has a long history of hunting and taking down Jedi, and the person you’re talking to is a Jedi padawan who’s giving you lip while a smuggler offers encouragement. I’ve seen far too many people march into “well, my bounty hunter would now introduce this Jedi to the world of recreational vivisection; that’s just the sort of character she is.”
And sure, all right, I get that. She’s not going to laugh. But there are lots of other ways to make this scene into something interesting. Maybe she does want to bisect this padawan… but she also knows that he’s got to have a master somewhere nearby, so she’s staying alert and trying to figure out where. Or she could say that killing him isn’t worth the charge in her blaster. Or she could be impressed at the stones on this kid, or even take pity on him for someone who would shoot first.
None of them requires you to change the character of her motivation. But all of them make for a more interesting interaction than just turning the whole thing into an awkwardly defined combat encounter, much less one that will no doubt go into arguments about who should be winning.
The trick to character motivation is that most of the time, the characters don’t want to get embroiled in stories. They want to be comfortable and not have their lives disrupted. But the players feel the exact opposite way, and the more you shut down things by being unmotivated or unruffled or whatever, the less fun your character is in narrative situations.
That’s what I mean when I talk about the idea that motivation is a big bowl of malarkey. It’s not that your character doesn’t have motivation, but justifying instructing everyone to stop the plot because My Character Wouldn’t Do This is a load of fertilizer. You’re using that as a crutch to justify what you wanted to do in the first place.
Sure, that might be justified, but that is a justification. Just like you could just as easily go along with things.
I think some of this stems from a difference between tabletop roleplaying and online roleplaying, and it’s not one that’s strictly related to power levels in the abstract. Tabletop roleplaying, as a game, encourages you to make characters that are effective and varied problem-solvers. The nature of the rules means that there are usually a lot of limitations on the power you can bring to bear at any given moment, but the point is still that your average group of characters is meant to have people able to solve the problems of your average adventure.
In a story, meanwhile, the writers at least theoretically know that the powers of characters don’t actually matter. The writer is in control and can still put these characters through trials and tribulations no matter what stated abilities the characters have. When you’re watching the Avengers, there’s no need to talk about how Hawkeye can contribute compared to Iron Man; the story makes it clear what they both contribute and why.
So there’s a temptation with roleplaying characters in MMOs to also make problem-solvers, but there are no system-based limits on your ability to solve problems… and the external forces creating those problems is not the adjudicator of how your abilities work. You make characters designed to solve problems and then can declare that the problem is solved, resulting in experiences wherein no one is ever in any danger.
And it’s more fun to play along.
That’s not to say that the characters can’t express a lack of motivation or boredom or ability to solve the problem in seconds. Heck, maybe it’d even make more sense if they did. Maybe your character is a superspy in a room full of average mercenaries and could legitimately kill everyone in the room without breathing hard. But isn’t it more fun to let her play her cards close to her chest, pretend at legitimate danger, and let everyone think she’s less capable than she actually is?
Or, if not, she might not be able to protect the people in the room who she does value, even if she claims otherwise?
Or perhaps she’s been injured, or she gets unlucky, or she has some other external reason to let the peril be entirely real instead of contrived?
We all get the right to have veto power over stuff in roleplaying, that’s an accepted fact. But the point of that power isn’t to derail things but to ensure that you’re not stuck in a scenario wherein you’re just not having any fun. Let your characters be in danger. Let them go along with things instead of just walking off or derailing the story because “my character wouldn’t do that.” You have control of what you’re choosing to do based on existing motivation.
Otherwise, it’s not that your character won’t do something. It’s that you don’t want to and you don’t want to own it.