Means, Motive, and Opportunity.
The M-M-O triad are the foundation of mystery stories and crime fiction in general, and have been for centuries. To be fair, most stories rely on the fallability and limitations of the triad as a means of solving those mysteries, especially on the first and third of the trio. Motives, after all, can always be inferred.
I was reading issue #455 of Roleplaying Tips, in particular “Let It Ride” by RJK, and “Mess With Your Players’ Heads” by John Lewis from Roleplaying Pro, when the confluance of the two articles made me realise something: The Means-Motive-Opportunity trio can be used as a template, a blueprint, a guide to the best method of engaging your players.
Since this was an entirely new perspective on the subject (something that is always valuable), I coudn’t wait to share the insight with our readers. (Besides, I didn’t want anyone else to beat me to it!)
To satisfy this leg of the M-M-O tripod, you have to give the characters the tools to shape their own destiny as they see fit. That doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest, baddest magic weapon; more important are Information and Resources. The latter might mean gold, it might mean experience and expertise, it might mean magic, it might mean political influance, it might mean professional contacts. It most probably means some combination of all of them. These should not be handed to the characters on a plate, they have to be earned; but there should always be some means by which the characters can take what they have and ‘work’ them to achieve the next rung up the ladder.
Up the ladder to what end? To give your players the Means by which to fully engage in the campaign, you also have to give your players the tools to shape that campaign. That means that the players should set the agenda in terms of ultimate goals, chosen from the menu placed before them by the campaign setting that the GM has created for them.
At the start of every day’s play, the GM should ask himself what will take place in the course of play that day to enhance the players’ and characters’ tool-chests. What does he expect them to achieve to advance their cause? And, at the end of the day’s play, he should reflect on the same questions in retrospect; what did they actually do to further “the story of the campaign”? What is the shape of the chapter just written, and how does it inform the shape of the next chapter to come?
In order to be successful, the campaign also has to give both players and characters a Motive to engage fully in it. Unlike the crime-busting context, this can be the hardest to achieve. To provide Motivation for your characters, they can’t be mere cookie-cutter collections of statistics, they have to be Simulated People, internally consistant and with developed personalities and ambitions. To the characters, the Campaign should represent a Journey; equal parts self-discovery, personal growth, achievement, adventure, awe, and wonder.
Equally, the world has to be as plausible as the GM can make it, not just to the characters, but to the players; they need to be Stimulated People. He has to bring the world to life – its tastes, sights, sounds, and smells. It, too, needs an internally-consistant logic. Even if neither players nor characters know what it is, they can still detect its presence – and feel its absence. It’s fortuitous that a solid conceptual foundation saves the GM work, or it would be almost impossible to achieve; but, by making choices quicker and easier, as well as more consistant and logical, the GM can more easily focus on the essentials when the time comes to make decisions. On-the-fly responses within play can be made more quickly, because the logic of circumstances defines what the right answers should be.
In addition, the GM needs to give the players the motivation they need to engage in the campaign. That means rewarding their efforts appropriately, arousing and then satisfying their curiosity, giving them the sense that they are making progress – a checklist can be useful for that – and giving the players the sort of adventures that they want to have. A lot of advice to GMs focusses, one way or another, on properly providing motivation to players.
At the start of each campaign, the GM should establish what each character’s objectives are, should map out a rough plan of how that will be achieved in-game, and should use that information to plan the major scenarios. If a player doesn’t yet know what he wants his character to achieve, the GM should periodically check in with that player, gently prodding him until the player can come up with an objective. These don’t have to be the primary plotline of the campaign, but they should, at the very least, be prominant side-quests and sub-plots. As much as possible, the GM should integrate them into the main plotline, ideally as stepping-stones to completing that final plot. And, at the start of each session, the GM should ensure that there is some progress for at least one of the characters toward his objectives. Someone in the party should always be able to look back on the day’s play and say to themselves that they are a step closer to achieving their goals.
Sometimes, these goals are relatively trivial, or to be achieved fairly early in the campaign; as soon as that happens, the player needs to define a new goal for his character. For example, in my Shards Of Divinity campaign, one of the players has, as his primary objective, joining the Assassin’s Guild. Well, that will happen as soon as the group reaches the city, in a scenario that I’m already planning; he already qualifies in terms of game mechanics to take the Assassin prestige class and is taking Shadow Levels until the time comes. What will he want to do once he’s succeeded? The player has stated that he deliberately chose a relatively easily-achieved goal purely to give him time to get to know the game world, an entirely sensible approach, so we’ll see what he comes up when the characters start playing on the bigger stage. For the record, the other PCs objectives in the campaign are, for the cleric: to assist his deity in achieving her goals of committing suicide while ensuring that his own power is not affected; and, for the mage, to become undisputed lord and master of all existance (NB: It is an Evil Campaign).
Particular notice should be paid to aparrantly-contradictory character goals; no matter how much it shakes the conceptual foundations of the campaign, the GM has to reconcile these. For example, the cleric’s initial goal in Shards Of Divinity was (at first) simply to do his Goddess’ will, and support her in her work; that is clearly contradictory to the goal of the mage. Only by completely redefining the nature and attitude of the Gods, and in fact the very nature of Divinity itself, can the two be reconciled. So that’s what I did; character Goals can and should be a source of inspiration to the GM.
It will usually be the case that each goal will be broken down into a succession of lesser ambitions. But, trivial or sweeping, the PCs should all achieve their objectives in the course of the campaign (or die trying), and should be perpetually aware of making progress in that quest.
Opportunity bridges the gap between Means and Motivation. The latter concerns what the characters want to achieve; the former gives them the tools to achieve those things; and Opportunity is the chance to use the tools they have acquired to fulfill their goals. They might succeed; they might fail, but they need to be presented with a fair chance by the GM.
That, most emphatically, does not mean that it should be easy. The GM should, in truth, throw obstacles at each of the characters left, right, and centre.
Judging these obstacles is a fine art, dificult to master, and absolutely essential to success as a GM. As a general rule, they should never be so completely impossible that the player loses heart, but that general rule has a lot of exceptions, which the GM can use to pace and maintain some control over the overall campaign. The more difficult and distant the GM wants to place the objective that they relate to, the more insurmountable the obstacles should be; and the campaign then becomes all about finding the path to victory over, under, or through those obstacle, a route that is only discovered when the overall plotline of the campaign is ready for that next step.
The very best GMs find a way to hide the path to the achievement of the ‘next goal’ of the party within the achievement of the current goal, so that there is an overall sense of group achievement, with each party member contributing.
Means, Motive, and Opportunity: give all three to your players, and to their characters, and they will find you guilty – of running an unforgettable campaign!