Player Advice: 9 Secret Motivations for Your PC

Sometimes an adventurer is exactly what he seems. Others have a dark secret or secret motivation that compels them to a life of adventure.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I’ve talked before about how to design your PC’s background and how to add depth to your starting equipment. Today, I’m talking about secret motivations!

A secret motivation can be a great way of adding depth and role-playing fun to your PC. Such secret motivations not only act as a reason for the PC to adventure but can also form a vital facet of his personality. Some possible secret motivations include:

  1. Cursed: The PC is cursed. Whether this curse has an tangible mechanical benefits or not, the PC has been compelled to leave home. The curse may linger until he has completed a certain quest, slain a particularly creature or achieved some other goal.
  2. Fractious Family: Not everyone comes from a loving family. Some are factious while others are abusive, controlling or manipulative. Fleeing such a family is an excellent reason to go adventuring.
  3. Love or Marriage: The PC may be fleeing an arranged, loveless marriage. Alternatively, he may be trying to prove himself worthy of his true love.
  4. Mystery: The PC could be investigating some strange mystery that requires him to travel to many faraway places.
  5. On the Run: Accused (either wrongfully or not) of a crime the PC has been compelled to flee his home.
  6. Revenge: The PC is seeking revenge against a certain person or organisation. They may be hiding – and thus the PC is searching for them – or he may adventuring to gain enough power and wealth to crush his enemy.
  7. Shame: The PC is fleeing some terrible, secret shame and has decided the anonymous life of an adventurer is for him. If the shame is linked to a well know public event, all the better
  8. Tragedy: Some terrible tragedy has befallen the PC – the death of a loved one, the destruction of his home and so on – and the PC cannot bear to stay at home. Instead he wanders the world.
  9. Wealth: The PC lusts after the finer things in life and thus adventures to gain the requisite loot. This is quite a common overt motivation for adventuring and so the PC should have a compelling reason to keep his wealth secret. Perhaps he seeks to buy a certain property, has massive debts on which he intends to default and so on.

When considering a secret motivation for your PC, remember they are much more fun if your companions can gradually learn about them.  When designing them, consider ways of enabling your GM to bring them into play on occasion. In this way, the GM can provide side quests and encounters specifically tailored for your PC – perhaps vengeful relatives are chasing your PC or occasionally he disappears for a week or so on private business. (Just remember, you need to make sure your GM knows it’s a secret motivation, otherwise he might blurt it out in the first session – which happened to me once!)

Help Fellow Players!

Have you used a different secret motivation for your PC? Let us know what it is in the comments below and help your fellow players develop cool secret motivations of their PCs today.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

11 thoughts on “Player Advice: 9 Secret Motivations for Your PC”

  1. I have to disagree with number one.

    I find a lot of players out there are creating characters they really don’t want to be, on many levels.

    The idea of leaving home due to abuse is so easy to right, yet having seen the other side of it due to my studies in psychology, it’s not fun, or nice. It’s a cop out, it’s a means of saying ‘I have nothing better’ when they’re making up a character.

    Take for example my last character I played. She’s a Wood Elf Paladin, comes from a noble family and found religion. She’s also first in line to the family title. She’s got a number of brothers and sisters, she’s often acted as mother if you will, to her younger siblings, when their mother is not about.

    She even had a casual lover, one she’s thinking about making a little more formal, namely, marrying him. She needs a little bit of time to sort out if she’s really ready for it, if that’s what she really wants. So, when the chance comes up to go on a crusade, she takes it, with a promises to be back in the next two or three years. After all, she’s an elf, what’s a year when you could have close to a thousand?

    She simply wanted to explore, enough reason to get her out there and adventuring. Boring in my mind, is better. You should be able to relate to your character, as well as to the group. Too dark a back story, people don’t play it right. There’s a whole level of distrust, self reliance, self loathing, a lot of people don’t get and will never get, thankfully.

    1. “I find a lot of players out there are creating characters they really don’t want to be, on many levels.”

      That’s an interesting point, Leon. I suspect – and I have no evidence of this – that a lot of use instinctively think adventurers must have some major kind of impetus to leave home. After all, the profession isn’t exactly safe. I certainly wouldn’t want to leave home to risk my life on a daily basis, but I’m guilty of playing characters I really wouldn’t want to be (or meet).

      1. I think boring is better for character creation. I guess I don’t have so much of an issue with sliding into a more medieval mindset. Socially, they were pretty advanced in a few areas, judicial duels could have men facing women, women in positions of local authority, who performed the work, etc according to my research.

        In my mind, adventuring is a recognised profession as well. That it represents a way to make money and travel at the same time. If you’re lucky, it’s pretty gentle or you end up a knight, famous by the standards of the time. If you’re not, it’s pretty nasty and brutal. All it is, is a statement of how you want to earn money and live in comfort in that world. Nothing more or less. Caravan guards, mercenaries, all them count as adventurers in my mind as well.

        Medieval life wasn’t that safe any way as well, even in peace. So another issue I see is people taking a more…… too modern attitude towards things. Sure, a lot of people didn’t move around that much, yet some laws about serfs escaping and being gone for a year and a day, again, from memory/research, suggests that travel was possible and easy enough to do.

        I also think that having a craft skill and looking to open your own shop, join a ship is enough reason to leave home as well. Don’t we do this to a degree in the modern world?

        Boring is better, sure it doesn’t offer obvious hooks to the GM, but if you as a player can tie yourself into that world on a deeper level by taking events from the game and making them personal, isn’t that better for them? The game runner that is.

  2. This ones similar to shame but very different.

    Redemption: The PC has done something terrible and has turned to the life of an adventurer, seeking the opportunity to prove their good will to themself, their gods, their family or their love (who may have excited them for their transgressions)

  3. I had a group that were teleported to a different realm and worked hard to get back — dealing with different customs and unheard of ‘monsters’ was fun on my part as DM.

  4. I rather think Pc’s should have Good and noble reasons to leave too (aside from Dark secrets). Searching for a missing one, who left on their own reconnaissance (perhaps as a romantic challenge between two thieves?) Another option is Noblise oblige (Obligations of the Nobility) wherein you need to adventure because righting wrongs is something the nobility should do as well as meting out the Kings justice to the best of your ability to show you know and have learned how to be responsible on your own.

  5. I had a PC who’s background was he was looking for his lost girlfriend. The player joined up with an existing group of players and went on to try to completely take over. The group had already been paid half up front to kill some monsters and had only a few days to get the job done. The player pushed and argued against everyone that they needed to go and save his girlfriend. Not only was he being a selfish player, he was going to put the group in breach of contract. I already had it covered with a subplot if he would just chill. I had to drop the player for this and other outbursts.

    I like backgrounds that stay in the background, motivate good roleplay and provide hooks for a GM to get players invested in a campaign. They should not never be used as an excuse to take over the entire game. The shared story of the group is #1 and sometimes a good GM will make a PCs background front and center.

    I like this list. Thanks for sharing.

  6. i’m not really sure about whether or not this falls under the ‘trying to prove himself’, but i think that trying to gain honour in general, as a larger umbrella, could be a good motivation. I am going to use a character in the future who is suddenly searching for honour. Though this would be following a tragedy, honour for honour’s sake could still be a secret motivation.

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