When I start preparing a new campaign I like to first think about what kind of role “adventurers” are going to play within the fictional society and what motivates them to do all these suicidal things that PCs tend to do. The easiest way is of course to say “Duh, it’s a game. This is what PCs do.”, which get’s us the classic murderhobos. Looting for the sake of looting and because there’s not really anything else they could do instead. Which is too simplistic for my taste.
On the other end are the designated chosen ones who go on adventure because they are heroes and it’s the heroic thing to do. Which also doesn’t feel terribly interesting because it makes everything in the campaign predictable by everyone following an unwritten but implicit script.
Then you can also have the whole party be members of an organization who believe in the organization’s goals and ideals. Which I find to usually work quite well, but it’s the GM deciding what the campaign will be about and also requires some preparation of specifc antagonists to oppose the goals of the party. I don’t find it ideal for a campaign that is more open world and about exploring strange underground environments.
One idea I had for my last campaign was to tell the players that their characters have been send out into the world to search for magic and knowledge that would benefit the people back home, with completely free rein on where to go and what to do. I quite liked that approach as a servicable compromise between player choice and giving guidance through motivation, but I think it can still be improved upon.
So I’ve been looking at some of my favorite fantasy protagonists who go on dangerous adventures and they are not risking their lives over and over for either gold or the desire to rescue people in danger. They do it because they are driven by restlessness and an obsession to learn about things that normal people don’t want anything to do with. They are compelled to keep searching for whatever holds the world together in its innermost folds.
A great example would be good old Conan. He is not after wealth and doesn’t do anything to keep the gold he gets his hands on. Usually it’s also not out of compassion for people in need of help but because the challenge intrigues him. And most of the time there is nothing to stop him from just turning around and leave with his life, but he always has to keep pushing forward to see how things will turn out. With Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (who I don’t like, but anyway) it’s usually a combination of being curious and not bright enough to understand the danger. And while Kane usually goes on adventures because he can’t take the boredom anymore, he keeps going ahead in the face of danger because he’s obsessed with overcoming any worthy challenge of his great power. Even Elric, who is playing out his destiny as a chosen one, keeps on fighting because he has to know if there’s a meaning to all of it.
As a character motivation I find this search for answers marvelous. It’s very open ended, does not pigeonhole PCs into any stereotypes, and has plenty of precedents in fiction. And it’s also exactly the same thing that drives most players to return to the table for every new session. Particularly when you’re running an oldschool game, player’s aren’t playing for the mental exercise of tactical combat and they are not playing to unlock new extras for their characters. They are playing because they are fascinated for what they might find lying ahead, either in a dungeon or an unfolding story.
I think as a GM, particularly with new players, I think it should really help to tell the player that they are going on a hunt to uncover the mysteries of the world when they are creating their characters. It provides some kind of purpose and very open objective in an open world campaign, instead of leaving the players floundering around trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.
Now how a GM can actually present a world that makes a quest to know the unknowable worthwhile is a different question to which I don’t have any good answers yet, but I think it’s one that is very much worth pursuing further.