Every now and then I find myself in a bit of a tight spot. I try and I try, yet I constantly seem to hit a wall. No matter how I present things and events, the PCs won’t act heroic or courageous. Have you been there?

Many years ago, I bought a brand-new campaign setting for AD&D. It contained a short adventure, which I decided to run for my group. It starts at a tavern (no surprise there!), but suddenly a woman screamed out in terror in the street, just outside the tavern. The PCs grabbed their weapons and ran outside, discovering a merchant‘s wife in distress, her head bloody and she was crying for her husband. She explained that bandits attack them and dragged her husband into an alley and pleaded to the PCs for their help.

They asked if she could pay them, and she admitted that she could only pay them 50 gold pieces. After trying to get her to raise the fee the PCs refused to help her, since she couldn’t pay each of them 50 gps, for they figured that since she was a merchant’s wife, she must be rich. The session ended sooner than expected that night.

I was still wet behind the ears that time and relied heavily on the module to tell me what to do, but nowhere in the text was that possibility ever mentioned. And what to do when the main characters, who are supposed to be the main protagonists decide that doing what is right, heroic and courageous isn’t their thing or not worth their time? That the only motivation they have is either money or magical items? Or that the players have become so attached to their characters that they barely dare to do anything that might risk the character’s lives?

Session 0

A while ago, Hjalti wrote about the importance of Session 0. In Session 0 you can lay things out and discuss with your players what theme you would like to go after in next campaign. You can also learn what kind of characters your players would like to play, e.g. are they more inclined to play evil murderhobos than do-right heroes?

In Session 0 the group can decide together these things and if, at some later point in time, they stray away from the path or the theme that everyone agreed on in the beginning, sit down and talk with your players. Perhaps you can find out how you can either make necessary changes. Maybe this is something that your players don’t even notice.

After all, this is a game and it’s supposed to be fun for everyone. Talk to your players and follow through.

Using game mechanics

I’ve seen many gamemasters mention that they use game mechanics to reward the traits or behavior that they would like to see in their players, e.g. modify the rewards structure to reward players for doing heroic deeds, hand out more xp to those characters that display the desired behavior, hand them special story/hero points which they can use to modify the story in one way or another.

This kind of conditioning can prove quite fruitful, for many players are hungry for experience points or whatever reward you use and by rewarding heroism your players quickly learn how to progress their characters.

This method can have its drawback, for your players won’t do everything for a reward. Why would a troupe of seasoned adventurers walk into the lair of a shadow dragon that has kidnapped all the children in the village for only a few thousand gold pieces? You can run into times when the players deem the reward not high enough or in balance with the risk taken.

Using storytelling tools

I’ve often found published modules lacking, in that making the PCs a part of a society. That is probably the single most effective tool to promote one kind of behavior. If the PCs act heroic the people around them, villagers in the small hamlet, the whole shire or everyone in the city, recognize them as heroes, e.g. if I would run that module I mentioned earlier today and the PCs would react as they did, the people present would scorn them and show their disdain clearly. After all, why wouldn’t they? Just as I would make sure that the same people applauds them and cheers them on, if they do decide to help the merchant’s wife, because to every action there’s a reaction.

If you make sure that the characters are a part of something larger, and that the people react to their heroic deeds, it’s easier to get your players to choose courage and heroism. Because after all, the players want to FEEL like heroes and as a gamemaster and a storyteller it is one of our jobs to convey that feeling. Killing the shadow dragon is no easy feat and gives you a sense of accomplishment, but returning to town with the proof of its demise and the children it kidnapped, to a village cheering and celebrating, that is what makes you feel like a true hero.

So, don’t forget to spend some time in acting these scenes out. Make sure that the characters get their moment where other people in the world acknowledge their deeds, make sure that that people hear about them, make sure that next time they enter a tavern a bard is singing a song about their exploits and that people feel awed in their presence. Being a hero shouldn’t in most places be so common that killing a giant, saving a clan of dwarves from a dragon or bringing back a lost artifact from the the Horrible Dungeon of Death and Madness goes practically unnoticed.

Motivation

Long as you know what motivates your players and their characters, the chances that you run into this problem are slim. Whether their motivation is gold, xp, fame or fortune, you should use that to your advantage. Perhaps one character is eager to rescue the kidnapped children, while the other characters aren’t ready to risk their lives for such meager awards as a few thousand gold pieces, then the local bard could inform them that the shadow dragon did raid the Horrible Dungeon of Death and Madness a few years ago, bringing troves of treasure to its lair.

Just remember, that if you push too hard, your players might feel railroaded and, in a way, you need to figure out how to balance on the tightrope between moving the story along without making the players feel on the tracks to whatever end you have in mind. Sometimes players simply don’t find a hook interesting or that their characters won’t follow up on what you had in mind, and, remember, that’s alright! You can’t plan every possible contingency and things are bound to go wrong every now and then, as Helgi wrote about in this great article. Don’t fret about it and don’t be annoyed because you had things all planned etc. This is just a game, you know.

Besides, you can always use what you had planned later.

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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn has for long sailed the Astral Sea, eager to broadcast his heretical gospel to the uninitiated.
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