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Ways to Play


by Chris Chinn
Apr 15,2003



Welcome back to our third installment, and this time we cover Character, both for GMs and the players. Mostly we look at tools for expressing characters in a fun and entertaining way, and a means of keeping focus during play.

Interesting People

You watch a TV show or a movie to see interesting people doing interesting things. Roleplaying games are the same way. The key to this is to express a character's personality primarily through dialogue, actions, and decisions during play. Tons of back story don't matter, all that matters is how you bring forward a character's personality during play itself.

Character is about character

The key component of a character isn't the stats, abilities or points, but rather their personality, the "who they are" that makes them interesting and memorable. Remember, the game is about interesting people doing interesting things, so character covers about half of what you're there to see, right?

My advice as far as creating characters is less about how to choose abilities according to your game, and more about how to make an interesting personality that you will have fun playing and that folks will remember.

Motivation is the compass

Motivations are the "why" behind a character's actions, and they tell you a lot about a character and what they value. Having a solid motivation for your character works like a compass, to tell you a lot about where your character stands in regards to a situation, decision, or another character.

A character's motivation tells you where they stand.

A motivation isn't just a thing that a character "wants" to do, its something vitally important, emotionally charged, that the character is either willing to risk something of his or herself for(life, limb, reputation, honor, etc.), or else is willing to harm others for(lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc.). Whatever the case, the character isn't willing to back down, and is willing to go to some extremes for, based on the motivation.

Empathy through motivation

A wealthy politician steals millions from the taxpayers, a poor man steals a loaf of bread for his newborn child. Both are thieves, but which person are you more inclined to feel angry about, and which one would you feel sorry for?

These emotional responses you react with are what make this kind of stuff interesting and engaging. Notice that although both are stealing, the motivations are what make the difference. In the case of characters, motivations are the key to establishing empathy and emotional bonds from the group to the characters.

You want the group to care about any character you create and play. Emotional responses(good or bad) make them care.

Sympathy and Antipathy

The emotional bonds that the group forms with the characters are either going to be positive or negative. Characters who fail to go one way or the other will be forgotten.

The big determining factor of which way this will go is based on the types of motivations the character has. Some motivations will elicit sympathy, others will elicit antipathy. This will create characters who are "loaded" to be liked or disliked, although its not guaranteed. The second factor is whether a character is simply taking risk for themselves or if they are also harming others in the process.

Here's some example motivations, this list is by no means comprehensive, but covers most of the major ones:

Sympathetic Motivations:

-Basic Survival
-Ideal(freedom, life goal, knowledge)

Antipathetic Motivations

-Personal profit
-Unabashed Greed
-Fear(cowardly or violent)
-Ego/petty pride

Notice that on neither of these lists is "madness". Madness isn't a motivation by itself, but certainly can determine how a character goes about fulfilling a motivation.

What if I want a character with more than one motivation?

That's fine, and a great way to create in-depth and interesting characters. The only thing you need to be careful about is making sure that you convey the character's inner conflict between the two motivations.

Such a character either ends with one motivation or the other winning out, or being destroyed in the process. Either way, the inner conflict of such a character is important to the game, and the players almost always have a significant role in deciding that outcome.

A good example from fiction is the classic undercover cop who ends up falling in love with a criminal while on a case. The conflict between duty, justice, love and loyalty all comes forth in that situation.

How do I use this in play?

Well, if you have the character's motivations on the top of your character sheet, you can ask yourself, "Is there some way that this motivation plays into this scene?" If so, then you know how to run things.

The second question to ask yourself is, "How far will this character go to achieve this?" Would your character lie, cheat and steal to achieve justice? And would it be justice in the end? This is the stuff that makes characters interesting to play.

When you choose a motivation, you are basically stating what is most important, and the focus of conflict for your character in play. Notice how different this is than choosing a character who is "good" or "evil". Two characters may go for justice, one may help folks along the way, another may become obsessive and vindictive, causing more injustice than the initial crime.

Conveying Motivations

Having motivations is great, but if you don't bring them forward in play, they don't matter. Conveying and communicating them is what makes them exist. Conveying motivations tells the group about the character, what kind of person they're dealing with. Because of this, motivations are crucial to establishing conflict and making interesting things come of it.


This is one of the most obvious ways of revealing motivations, but also one which is very unreliable. Rarely do people ask each other their motivations, out and out, and even rarer do people tell them to one another. Much of the time motivations have to be inferred from the person's actions, body language, and related dialogue.

Typically two methods have been used in traditional stories to make up for this:

The Meaningful Speech.

The "meaningful speech" is often used in comic books or near the end of feel good movies, where either the villain explains why they're doing what they're doing, or the protagonist(or someone close to him) gets up and makes the big moral statement speech. This sort of thing is really pushes the limits of plausibility and is really "preachy".

"And they mocked me my whole life, but I will prove them wrong! They'll soon see that my Neo-photonic bomb does work! And the whole world will as well! Muhahahah!"

The Hidden Dialogue

Hidden dialogue occurs when the audience sees dialogue that the protagonists aren't aware of. In other words, the players get to hear about a dialogue between two npcs. This allows players the ability to infer character motivations that npcs may not be willing to share directly with the player characters. This also is a way the GM can make sure that the players don't miss something important about a character either.

"You've got 5 days to come up with the money, or you'll never hear from her again."
"Allright! Allright! I'll do anything, just don't hurt her!"
"Fine, there's this little job we've got for ya..."


This is basically the same as the hidden dialogue, except its a character talking to him or herself. This monologue could be a full out speech, similar to the inner dialogue/narration used in detective novels, or it could be as simple as a few words muttered that no other character would hear. This method works equally well for GMs and players and both can find it useful for conveying motivation.

The player characters are leaving on a trip. One of the npcs waves, yelling, "Come back safely!"

Then whispers, "...because I love you."

Motivations and Conflict

Depending on how you use motivations in your game, you can get very different styles of play. There are 4 ways to divvy up sympathetic/antipathetic motivations in a conflict.

All Antipathetic characters

Everyone the player meets has antipathetic motivations. This sort of game makes for gritty, dark, and cynical games. It makes great crime drama and gangster stories, but is hard to pull off. Most of the time, it just makes the players not care about any of the characters at all and emotionally disengage from the game.

All Sympathetic characters

All the characters the players encounter have sympathetic motivations. This game is also hard to run, but makes for great tragic stories, where conflict is unavoidable. The best way to pull off these sorts of games is to play in a setting with a highly structured social hierarchy and rules, where good folks are forced against each other to fulfill their duties and vows.

Clear sides

One side of a conflict is has all sympathetic motivations, another side has all antipathetic motivations. This sort of conflict is really simplistic, and rarely used, except in some cartoons. The hardest part of this sort of thing is that it pushes the boundaries of plausibility, the villains become one dimensional monsters, the allies become faceless do-gooders. In the end, the players often disengage emotionally because it becomes too obvious of a form of manipulation. This is probably the hardest of the styles to pull off.

Mixed Bag

All sides in the conflict have characters with sympathetic or antipathetic motivations, working together for different reasons. This sort of play lends itself towards high drama, shifting allegiances, and highlights the characters and their decisions as the focal point. Hard decisions need to be made about how to work with both sympathetic and antipathetic characters. It is also very easy to create sub conflicts this way as well.

Next time Well, thanks for stopping by, next time we take everything we've covered and start giving examples on how to make it work, and some of the finer details of using it in play.

Go Play!


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