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by Mike on 20 June 2022
Character motivations are vitally important to run a smooth D&D campaign. Characters must have good reasons to explore the world and engage in dangerous adventures. Their motivations should be in-line with the campaign's premise. If we're running Tomb of Annihilation, the characters should have good reason to risk their lives in the jungles of Chult to restore the souls of the dead. If we're running Rime of the Frostmaiden they should have a good reason to help the people of Ten Towns survive the endless night. I spoke before of the importance of character motivation when running Descent into Avernus in particular.
There are, however, some universal motivations around which players can build characters that work with just about any typical D&D adventure. There also exist motivations that work poorly.
This article serves both players and dungeon masters. DMs can work with their players to ensure their characters' motivations are solid and fit the campaign. Players might read this article and consider what drives their characters so they'll have more fun in the game.
Of course, all of this should be discussed during a session zero.
Here are a few typical D&D character motivations that work particularly well across campaigns.
A drive for exploration, discovery, and adventure. When characters want to adventure, when they have a natural curiosity of the ancient world around them, just about every D&D adventure becomes a joy for them. Even when diving into the lower layers of hell, their wanderlust drives them to explore. Building characters around a desire to explore, discover, and adventure cannot steer you wrong in just about any D&D game.
Seeking treasure and riches. We sometimes scoff at the materialism of characters seeking treasure and riches but that's often a perfect reason to go on adventures. Materialistic rewards can drive characters into the darkest dungeons and accept quests from the lowest bartender to the highest king. As we know from the real world, greed drives well past the point of comfort so there's no end to the riches and treasures a character may seek. Scoff not. Greed is a fine character motivation as long as it doesn't go against the other characters. Rogues stealing from party members is a no-go.
Heroism. Some hold in their heart the desire to make a better world. This is a fine character motivation for most D&D games. Evil is out there and it must be rooted out and destroyed. Villages must be protected. Evil must be thwarted before it grows beyond its current limits. People must be saved. Holy relics must be acquired.
Why not all three? When building a character, consider using all three of these ideas to ensure your character is driven to engage in nearly every D&D adventure out there.
Some common character motivations end up being counterproductive to a typical D&D game even if they might seem like good ideas. These are motivations best avoided or handled carefully between DMs and players.
Solitude. Characters built around solitude and isolation don't work well in groups. Loners don't fit the model of the adventuring party and it ends up a strain most of the game. If a character does prefer solitude, you then need to add a motivation to ensure they stay with the group anyway. Better yet, build in the connection to the other characters as best of friends or even family.
Personal greed. Characters whose greed is stronger than their bond with the other characters almost always ends up a problem. Greed is a fine motivation as long as camaraderie stands stronger.
Pacifism. Combat is at the heart of D&D and while some characters can attempt to avoid violence, that's often broken at some point in the game. Sure, there's a new peace domain in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything but even that character is likely to swing a mace once in a while. The pacifist character seems like a good idea until you realize how many options it cuts you off from that are core to D&D.
Revenge. Revenge works if the big bad boss is the one against which you seek your revenge. Otherwise you have a motivation that may or many not fit the rest of the story. If you work out this motivation with your DM ahead of time, it can work fine. Otherwise the DM has to come up with a whole side plot just for you.
While DMs build sessions and adventures around the backgrounds and motivations of the characters, it's the responsibility of the player to build backgrounds and motivations that work well for the group and for the story. Together, the DM and each player can wire in the characters to the central themes of the campaign. When they mesh well, there's no limit to the adventures we can share.
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
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