Advice on Player Motivations

Published October 15, 2013 by in For Gamemasters

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One of the most common problems when dealing with players in a game – any game, really – is that of motivating them and keeping them on-mission. Numenera has tried to evolve for this problem by linking the awarding of XP to the exploration and problem solving components of an adventure. While dealing with one part of the problem, it creates another that players and gamemasters alike should be aware of.

How Much Are You Paying?

This is the most straightforward problem. With so many game set in worlds and times where money is a constant concern (or occasional means to an end), and since being a “hero” is basically the character’s job, players can get used to making money be the lynch pin to involvement. Gamemasters can also fall into using this as a crutch, finding it easier to just offer enough money for an adventure to be worthwhile rather than weaving it into the story and flavor of the group. That’s a big problem in Numenera, when money isn’t particularly standardized, and not often useful, but the PCs have that old habit burned in. There are a few things you can do about this.

Have “The Talk”

That is, spend some time going over PC motivation in the game – the idea about being explorers, researchers, and “treasure” hunters. Have them create, as part of their character, a reason to want to explore. Also talk about the generalized theme of the game and how it’s not at all money-centric. Come to a bit of a social contract in game that PCs will help move things along. Face it, haggling with Person X over an extra 15% simply isn’t the fun part of the game, so why waste time there?

Emphasize the Shallow Economic System

In a lot of games, there’s a good reason to have a lot of money – you can buy powerful stuff. That’s not really true in Numenera. It’s a pretty quick and cheap race to the best armor, for instance. The best stuff falls into the “special” equipment category. While they are relatively pricey, as such things go, there isn’t a lot of variety to those items. You want an iPad? You gotta mow a few yards.

Who Can Pay?

This is pretty simple. Just like the players shouldn’t be motivated by money, neither are NPCs. With that in mind, folks that wish to hire or enlist the help of the PC group simply can’t offer more than what they are offering. They don’t have huge caches of shins sitting around to break out. Even “wealthy” or “powerful” NPCs may be so by virtue of the technology they own or control, and they might not be too shy about making PCs sorry for being greedy. Aside from limiting the budget, plan ahead and offer a service or item that you know the players are keen on. A barter or in-kind system can help a lot here.

Regional Barriers

I think this could be more valuable than it first seems. Think about Doc Brown in Back to the Future 2. He has a suitcase full of money from different time periods. In total, it’s a good chunk of money. But any one stack is only particularly valuable (as legal tender – not withstanding collectible value) within its general time period. In the same way, shins valuable to a region in The Steadfast might be entirely useless somewhere in The Beyond. You can make that as granular as you need to make it useful as a mitigating tool. Some places may simply not value them at all, while in cities it’s a must have.

Physical Limits

If I have a dozen rolls of quarters, I can easily take them to the bank and exchange them for two small, paper bills. Lighter, and easier to carry. Real money tends to have an exchange system very befitting storage. Shins don’t, basically. You could argue “bigger” shins are more valueable, but it’s exactly because of size. There isn’t much of an exchange system. So if players want to horde shins, force them to account for storage and transportation of that money. Make it a burden to keep so much of it handy.

Loot the Room!

If players get used to not extorting money (and even if they don’t), they might figure out that basically any time they are anywhere with “stuff,” they can find things. This results into a default sort of response where they just immediately decide to spend X time searching for stuff, since there’s no general cost to “virtual time” in game. That’s basically the trick. Rooms, buildings, etc can always have hidden dangers.  Find ways to add a “cost.”


Rooting around with unknown technology should be dangerous. Have you ever tried rewiring a lightswitch without really knowing what you’re doing, and accidentally grounded yourself? What would happen if a PC did that reaching into a wall-mounted fusion reactor that used to power an entire city? Maybe a little extreme, but recklessly rooting through a room should have dangers.

Did You Hear Something?

Open enough doors, you might just find what’s been spending time in that space lately. And it might be ugly, with big teeth, and the ability to sap energy from nearby devices.


There’s a trick used in The Nightmare Switch that can be applied to most searching situations. Whether PCs search very carefully versus recklessly should impact what they find. What they find just sitting around waiting to be useful should be very different from what they find by reaching into panels and pulling out something that’s plugged in there. A broken bottle can be a great weapon, but it’s no good as a bottle anymore.

Red Wire, Blue Wire

Sort of like popping a monster out, who knows what kind of defenses might come to life given enough time to charge up. Force the characters to make choices between buttons or wires or actions that could force them to stop searching early. Maybe it’s not an obvious defense, but an old power cell that starts a buildup to discharge. Maybe it’s just a harmless alarm that goes off. The PCs don’t always know harmless from harmful.

The Cypher Rule

Be a dictator about the daily cypher roll. Two (three for Nanos) or more cyphers on their person at the start of the day, make them roll for interactions. If they start getting clever about spreading stuff out (rather than holding it all, or putting it in a box or something), theft should be a real risk. This will make them think twice about collecting, and encourage them to use stuff frequently. Along those lines, if they find a new cypher, and it would put them over two, make them roll for an interaction immediately.

I’m Tired of Looking

This one would probably be up for debate, but you could put something together like making a character spend 3 points of intellect for every 15 minutes they want to search, or some ratio like that. Not even tied to a roll, necessarily. But just tie the act of searching to something more “tangible” in game terms than simply saying “I’m gonna go look around.” There are, no doubt, a bunch of variations on this that might work better or worse in different situations – consider where they make sense.

What About You?

What techniques or advice would you offer groups and GMs to help “keep their eye on the ball?” For these particular issues, what have you found to be especially helpful? What are you maybe having difficulty with? Groups are all very different, and some might never run into the issues mentioned here – if so, share your advice.

2 thoughts on “Advice on Player Motivations

  1. Ryan Chaddock says:

    I love the light switch scenario. Guess I shouldn’t laugh since it sounds like it happened to you.

    1. Michael Fienen says:

      Multiple times in one day.

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