Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Just give me money, that's all I want

A while ago, my longest-lasting character, Sir Fnord the Totally Awesome (I've been playing him off and on since '81) managed to fight his way through an army of demon-cultists and an avatar of the Demogorgon to a hoard of millions and millions of gold pieces. That's a lot of gold pieces.

Prior to that, the game had revolved largely around scrabbling for enough cash to survive and (hopefully) to replace vital equipment, with the occasional windfall allowing us to break loose once in a while. Though never really at starvation levels, it was a pretty hand-to-mouth existence. Suddenly having effectively unlimited financial resources changed the nature of the game quite substantially, because it removed at one blow the major motivator for the party up until that time.

All of a sudden we were on the Other Side. Now we became just the sort of juicy target we'd been looking for before we became ludicrously wealthy. It also meant that all of a sudden, we had to think about what it was that we wanted from life, instead of just going with the flow and reacting to circumstance, and hoping to survive.

So where am I going with this? What I'm pondering on is the issue of character motivation.

When the characters are poor, motivation is easily attained by the offer of a potential material reward. Even for supposedly upright and morally uplifted characters like paladins, getting money and magical gee-gaws is the main aim, and moral or ethical issues tend to be sidelined. It's a pretty simple matter for the GM to shunt the party from one dungeon to the next, and his or her main problem is to keep the party poor enough to make them readily manipulated.

If the party starts getting well enough off that they can afford to pick and choose adventures to avoid risking themselves (an attitude I find difficult to understand, frankly — what's the point of playing this game if you're afraid to risk your character?) then the GM's options become somewhat restricted. Some of the options are:
  1. They can increase the potential rewards to overcome the chicken-heartedness of the players, but that risks falling into a Monty Haul spiral; exactly the same problem will recur, and it will only get harder to deal with.
  2. They can start laying track for a railroaded game, but that's an inelegant solution to say the least. The players will tend to feel manipulated and may become unsettled and rebellious, and the GM is likely to come to see his players' characters as glorified NPCs.
  3. They can rob the party and make them poor again. This can work pretty well, even if the party aren't reduced to absolutely pauperish levels, because if there's one thing players hate it's having their precious stuff nicked, and revenge is a powerful motivator. This is a good opportunity to introduce a recurring villain, a Party Nemesis, somebody they can really get into hating. It can add an ethical dimension to the campaign if the Nemesis is not actually a Bad Guy, but frankly for most parties it won't matter a damn whether he's evil or not — they'll still cut his gizzards out for having the effrontery to steal the most worthless of their posessions.
  4. They can remove mundane wealth from the equation completely, as was the case with Sir Fnord, and throw the issue of character motivation back into the laps of the players. This can be risky; there are quite a few players who really don't want to have to make those sorts of decisions, and it may make them a tad uncomfortable.
There are, no doubt, other options available to the GM, but those are some I can think of off the cuff.

Of the four options I've delineated here, number 3 is probably the most useful I think. It leaves the GM with a good deal of control over the development of the game, and a recurring villain is a very useful source of plot hooks for later on down the track when one is feeling a bit uninspired — just reintroduce the Nemesis and watch the party respond like a rabid pack of Pavlov's dogs.

Number 4 is a good option if you feel that the party is getting into end-game territory since it provides an opportunity, for those who want to, to semi-retire their characters. New characters can be introduced as the old one's henchmen, guarding their master's huge wealth and so on. And for those who don't want to retire, not having the aquisition of money as their primary motivator means they can start concentrating on the ethical and philosophical development of their characters.