D&D Narrative, DMs, AND Player Autonomy 4: Player Goals

In the final installment of this series, we’re going to talk about player goals. In other words, the encompassing goal that the player has for their character. Some characters have complex motivations; a fallen paladin on a quest to find out whether their God failed them at a critical moment in time in the past. Others have very simple ones; get gold. Some players have meta goals, such as playing a class they’ve never played before; other players are simply rolling the dice. Either way, player motivations are just as important as (if not often more important than) narrative goals.

  1. Player Skills
  2. Player vs. Player Conflict
  3. Player vs. Narrative Conflict
  4. Player Goals

What Are Player Goals?

Back when my friends and I were still, like, young, character motivations were one of the very first things discussed, attached to the appearance of the character and their basic background. Today, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of parties skip character motivations entirely, instead relying upon the plot to deliver or reveal it. Some of this is a passive faith that players have thought their characters through, but more often it’s simply treating the game as though you are the player: as though you’ve stepped into the shoes of a protagonist.

Character motivations are an incredibly important component to building a character that makes sense; a character that you can roleplay. A character description tells you who you are, but it’s a character’s motivation that tells you what you want. If a player doesn’t understand what their character wants, they won’t know what their character would do.

I find that character motivations are most frequently skipped when introducing new players to the game, perhaps out of fear that a new player will become overwhelmed. But character motivations are a tool, and skipping this type of character background actually hurts the player more than helps them.

Equally importantly, without a character motivation, the DMs can’t make an educated guess regarding what their party will do. DMs know that they cannot rely upon their players to do a certain thing, but a good DM -- and an experienced DM -- can predict the actions of their players quite well. It’s in that area that the magic often happens, when a DM has so perfectly predicted what you have done that they can craft an immensely clever story around it.

Player Goals and the Narrative

We already touched upon player goals when we discussed how they could potentially conflict with the narrative. Consider the story of Jezebel, a brothel madam whose only interest was to go home and tend to her girls.

It’s a character. It was even a pretty well developed one. But the story, as it were, was that a group of heroes was being recruited to go to the front lines of a battle. Jezebel’s personal goals -- to go back home -- conflicted with the narrative at every point. And every plot point became a stopping point, in which the rest of the party had to convince and coerce Jezebel to continue (even though they, themselves, had no reason to want her to go).

So what we’re really discussing today is when player goals become disruptive to the narrative and when player autonomy goes too far.

“Our Party is Chaotic Chaotic. ...Our Party is True Chaotic.”

Why has “murder hobos” become such a powerful meme?  Because nearly every roleplay group today eventually becomes reduced to exactly that: murdering assholes with no regard to the consequences. But that’s not how roleplay is supposed to go; that’s how a first person shooter is supposed to go. When players become murder hobos, they’re almost always already metagaming.

And again, that’s not to say there’s any “right way” to roleplay. But those who are finding themselves dissatisfied with the state of the game may do well to ask themselves: is it because we’ve reduced it to a murder simulator? Are we playing Grand Theft Dragon?

“Murder hobo” is held up as an ideal (“yeah, we’re such murder hobos”), but it started out as an example of a party gone wrong. It certainly wasn’t something that you were supposed to revel in. DND players become murder hobos when they have no idea what else they’re supposed to do and when their characterization has been lost. DND players become murder hobos when the only player goal is simply to blow off some steam by doing horrible things to NPCs.

There are very few parties of characters that should be OK traveling from village to village setting the tavern on fire and killing all of the guards. Unless every character is chaotic evil, this should lead to some very strong complaints from at least a few of the so-called heroes. Yet this happens so often that it’s become a classic trope.

The Player’s Responsibility to the DM

So the last few articles concentrated primarily on the DM’s responsibility to their players, but now we’re discussing the player’s responsibility to the DM. Because there is such a thing as having too much autonomy.

A hero can, of course, decide to kill an innkeeper instead of taking their quest, but would they? Would it make a more interesting and exciting story, or would it simply make a weirder story? Players can do a lot to derail a DM. Any campaign can be derailed given enough persistence. But again that’s acting in bad faith.

This is where it becomes the responsibility of players to self-limit their own autonomy; to police themselves regarding the actions of their own characters. Because there’s a million ways to justify just about any action you can take, even in character; but these actions are probably not interesting or productive to the narrative.

In our little four part series, we’ve discussed a lot about how DMs, players, and the narrative all work together, and it’s a constant push and pull. It’s this pushing and pulling interaction that makes it interesting, that makes it a living game and immersive fiction.

But the most important undercurrent throughout has been that DMs and players need to respect each other and make space for each other; that they need to work together to create a story that is interesting and unique. DMs and players need to keep each other’s goals and desires in mind, even if not necessarily meeting them, and need to avoid being intentionally disruptive to each other for selfish reasons. When all of this can come together, it simply works.