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Underlying Motivations in Roleplaying

  • April 29, 2016

    On Character Motivations AKA Get Off Your High Horse

    Crusaders, priests, cultists, monks--The Elder Scrolls is full of characters devoted to a cause. They fight against those they view as heretics, protecting their views and their gods. However, as we can see in the real world, nobody’s actions are truly altruistic. Even the most pious of individuals has an underlying motivation, even the most devout monk seeks fame or fortune. This is true in the world of TES as well. Miraak, the first Dragonborn, claims to be a servant of Hermaeus Mora, but his actions are more self-serving. The Thalmor use the name of their gods to persecute those who threaten their empire. No one, and that means no one, does something merely to do it, no matter what they tell you. But where does this fit into roleplaying in Skyrim? Read on!

    Underlying Motivations in Character RP

    All too often, we as roleplayers settle for one-dimensional backstories. Now, this is definitely better than no backstory, but it’s not the best we can do. Most backstories try too hard to avoid the cliches of “Bandits/vampires/Thalmor/Thalmor bandit vampires killed my parents, now I seek revenge”. Though these conventions are quite disgusting in their own right, they are not the most necessary things to avoid. Instead, in-depth roleplayers should strive to avoid one-dimensional motivations. After all, a backstory can be adjusted as your character quests, molded to fit how you want the playthrough to go, but rapidly shifting motivations for why your character is embarking on that quest/battle/treasure hunt can lead to confusion and insecurity about what your character is meant to be. As such, we should attempt to set our multi-dimensional motivations in stone, so as to avoid shifting and unfocused playthroughs.

    That is not to say that shifting motivations are bad. However, they should be, in some way, a “last resort”, a way to escape poorly planned motivations. But shifting motivations can also be a great resource for a player that knows how to manage them. A character being shaped by the world around them is a great storycrafting mechanic. This will be touched on later in the section Conflicting Motivations in Character RP.

    How do we manage underlying motivations within the game? Let’s take an example. For this example, we will use the following character: A blacksmith’s apprentice. He lives in Whiterun and worships Stendarr. This character is very much a blank template, and easy to show off this method.

    Obviously, the smith, being a follower of Stendarr, has a primary motivation for his actions. His first goal is to appease his god. He does this by creating weapons, jewelry, and armor. However, he works longer than anyone else, to the point of daily exhaustion. You could chalk this up to ambition, but it is actually due to his extreme inferiority complex. This young smith works so hard because he was constantly told he would never be the best smith, and needs the approval of the people of Whiterun before he will ever be happy. That is his first underlying motivation. However, that is not the only “hidden” reason that he does what he does. He also seeks to enrich himself, so that he can feed his growing alcoholism. If he doesn’t work as much as possible, he will be unable to afford the liquor he “needs”. This is called Rowed Motivations...there are multiple underlying motivations, but each is separate and affects him in a different way. His devotion to his faith calls him to complete his task, but so does his need for approval. This need for approval is what drives him to drink, leading to a need to work more in order to pay for his alcohol. Each of these motivations can be appeased fully with the right drive within the character, which separates them from Conflicting Motivations.

    Rowed Motivations can be illustrated in the chart below:

    The second type of motivations are Column Motivations. These are a set of linked motivations that are birthed from the one “under” it. Let us take this example: a mage of the College of Winterhold. She is young, in her first year at the College. She is an Argonian. She firstly wants to further her magical knowledge because her parents held a long tradition of magical prowess. That is the first in the layer of motivations. The second motivation, directly “above” the other is the student’s worship of the Magnus. She never felt in tune with the Hist or her brother and sister Argonians. This led to her search for what she wanted to worship, and she found that Magnus was a fitting “deity”. Her desire to be accepted into a religion is what drove her to study hard, using her parent’s tradition as an excuse to learn more about Magnus. This is the second layer. There is more to her quest, though, that cannot be seen. On her way to the College, she was contracted by the Synod to spy on the workings of the College. This is not quite a conflicting motivation, as both can be carried out successfully without direct interference, but it can cause some problems. Is it an abuse of Magnus’ power to use it for spying upon her allies? Or perhaps a disgrace of her parents’ long traditions? That is for you, the player, and you, as your character, to find out.

    Column Motivations can be illustrated in the following chart:

    These two methods, Rowed and Column Motivations, are great gameplay mechanics to use for adding depth and personality for these characters. As you may be able to see above, these two methods follow a general theme. Each has one of the following types of motivations: Pious, Personal, and External. Pious motives are those that are for the fulfillment or advancement of a god (or gods!)’s demands/wishes. Personal motives are those that are the result of your character’s desires. External motives are those that are put upon the character by another, non-godly force. They can be political or otherwise in nature.

    None of these types of motivations need take precedence over another type, nor do they need to be limited. A character using the Rowed or Column Motivations methods can have only Pious motives, only External, or any mixture of the three. However, multiples of one motivation type can lead to Conflicting Motivations, which will be touched on directly below.

    Conflicting Motivations in Character RP

    Not all characters are the same, and so not all characters may have their lives fully figured out. This can lead to a direct conflict between two or more motivations, which leads to interesting interactions and RP within the world of Skyrim. Let us take the example of a follower of Boethiah. This young necromancer was born into the cult, and so we can assume that he should have no disloyalty. While on a mission to clear out a bastion of the daedra Molag Bal (House of Horrors in Markarth), he is pulled in by the offer of immense power. In Boethiah’s cult, he was essentially a punching bag for the followers and her Champion, and the offer of Molag’s mace is enough to sway him. This leaves us with two directly conflicting Pious motives. However, this RP goes beyond “Whose quest do I complete?” and continues through your whole playthrough. Let’s say that your character chooses the path of Molag Bal, abandoning the worship of Boethiah. Do you feel remorse after letting the Boethian priest die? Perhaps your sudden shift is now filling you with fear about the future, and you try to turn back, only to be lured in again by the mace’s promise of doom for your enemies. These Conflicting Motivations are the basis for a great RP within Skyrim.

    Final Thoughts

    Tl;dr -- no character’s motivations should be one-dimensional. Doing something in the name of your god is all fine, but doing it solely for that purpose is lazy character building. We should instead strive to have their character interacting with the world under the influence of multiple motivations, be they Personal, Pious, or External. Your Dragonborn should not be killing Alduin merely because he is prophesied to. Your Dragonborn should be killing Alduin because of that, but perhaps also because he is an old, dying Nord, who has one last hope to reach Sovngarde. Your thief should not be a thief because he likes shiny things, he should be a thief because he likes shiny things, but also because he lost a great love many years ago, and needs the resources to go looking for her in the locked corners of Skyrim.

    By adding multiple motivations, be they Rowed or Column, you have made your roleplaying objectively better. In short--roleplayers, get your characters off their damn high horses.

    Also, tell me if there's anything wrong with my logic or writing, and I'll try to fix it. Does this guide make sense? What do you think about all this? Thanks for reading.

    PCTY Out.

  • Member
    April 29, 2016

    Excellent article, PCTY. Really gives an insight as to how deep roleplay is if you add a few more personal motivations into the mix. 

    Good stuff!

  • April 29, 2016

    This is a really interesting perspective on developing RP! I really like how it's organized in such a simple yet effective way. I admit that it is hard to break out of one-dimensional characters and into deep RP like this. I certainly had trouble with it. In fact, I still do at times.

    RP is very personal thing, and a lot of fantastic characters can come from simply knowing oneself. Your Nord for example - ambition fueled by feelings of inferiority, managed through alcoholism. That's a pretty dark path to go down, but brilliant for RP because of how all of the pieces work together. These interactions are present within all of our lives, and I like how you've interpreted that here. It's certainly got me thinking differently about how to develop RP.

    There's really only one thing I can suggest to make this better, and that's some sort of graph. A visual explanation of how Rowed and Columned motivations work. It took me a minute to understand what "Rowed" was until I saw it relative to "Columned" and I think a visual example might really help solidify your ideas. Again though, very well done. 

  • Member
    April 30, 2016

    This is an interesting article. Food for thought and worth revisiting down the line. I confess when it comes to RP I am not the most imaginative person. Sometimes I think there is a lot to be said for one dimensional characters and a clear and obvious progression can be incredibly rewarding for small bits of McSkyrim. 

    However I think too that I often miss the depth a character can achieve. It comes from spending so long in lore that the understanding of the setting and the nature of reality really makes RP hard. A lot of suspension of meta concepts can be a real pig.  

  • April 30, 2016

    Added some charts to help illustrate Rowed and Column. Thanks for reading!

  • April 30, 2016

    Yeah, I get that. The hard thing to do is make a character that's unaware of meta-lore, while you as a human are quite aware of it all. That's part of the goal of this, to help you get more and more into your character so you can ignore (as painful as it is) the lore, and instead focus on your character's goals. 

  • Member
    April 30, 2016

    Honestly it is helpful. I recently went through Skyrim in a way which reconnected me to it like the old days. For a long time of have missed the simple fun of immersion and character. Guides like this are genuinely useful in terms of bringing me down to earth.

  • May 1, 2016

    You're welcome! And well done with the charts, they really help bring the whole piece together. 

  • Member
    October 8, 2018

    The charts seem to be gone. There's just a blue square with a question mark on my end for each, and when I click each, it says the page can't be found.

  • Member
    October 9, 2018

    mitch blatt said:

    The charts seem to be gone. There's just a blue square with a question mark on my end for each, and when I click each, it says the page can't be found.

    Unfortunately during the site move we lost a lot of images from previously posted discussions, and this seems to be another victim. I can't remember if Probs made the images himself or not, but if so it's unlikely we'd be able to recover them from somewhere else.