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It’s In The Cards: Character Motivations for Traveller

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue, and was reprinted in this expanded form in the July/August 2022 issue.

Traveller: The New Era offers an option for going beyond the basic Universal Character Profile (UCP) in character generation (for both NPCs and PCs), and providing some broad motivations to influence the character’s actions. The basic method is to draw two cards from a standard deck, and assign the motivations based on the suit of the cards drawn, with relative strength of the motivation being determined by the relative rank of the two cards. The court cards and aces are handled as special cases.

As written, the method can be considered minimally adequate for the purpose. However, the motivations provided can be considered poorly chosen, as some of the special cases (court cards and aces) seem to have little connection with the overall motivation – Cowardice, for example, is handled as a special case of Greed, and Pompous is listed as a special case of Ambition, when it is more an attitude or personality trait separate from any motivation.

Additionally, with only two motivations drawn, there is little scope for interaction between them – in any given situation, the choices are (a) one or both are irrelevant; (b) the two motivations are in conflict; or (c) the two motivations complement each other, or reinforce each other.

Finally, Violence and Sociability are at best poorly expressed as motivations; the terms are more likely to be applied to personality traits that influence how a character might act (methods) on motivations.

The procedure can be improved, without doing significant violence to the basic method, by expanding the list of possible motivations and/or increasing the number of cards drawn (and thus the number of motivations brought into play).

Expanding the List of Motivations

Choosing what motivations to include is not necessarily easy, and some things that the word ‘motivation’ is applied to may in fact be more accurately described as ‘classes of motivation’ – the example that springs most immediately to mind is ‘ideology’: it is not merely ideology, itself, that motivates a person (or a character), but the specific philosophy that the character holds (e.g., environmentalism, communism, fundamentalism in their particular religion, et cetera). Nevertheless, such motivation classes may still be included, and offer the referee (or the player – the process can, as Traveller: The New Era indicates, be used for player-characters as well, to offer a roleplaying challenge) options for fine-tuning the application of that motivation to the context of the particular campaign.

One might end up with a very large list of possible motivations; how then does one choose which motivations to use for a particular character, given that a deck of cards has only four suits (and therefore four possible motivations)?

A person will usually choose careers, actions, hobbies, et cetera, based on their motivations. Since choosing a character’s motivations in Traveller is done after the character has been otherwise generated, reverse the process, and choose the motivations based on the prior career. Note that a person’s motivations can be changed by significant events in a person’s life, so having one motivation that is truly inappropriate given the character’s generated background, and one motivation that is not outright inappropriate, but not clearly connected to the generated background, would not be unreasonable (with the other two motivations chosen being entirely appropriate to the character’s generated background). For example, a possible set of motivations to choose from for a Scout character might be knowledge (appropriate), adventure (appropriate), greed (neutral), and vengeance (inappropriate).

Although comparatively rare, there are decks of cards of various types that have more than four suits (or suit-equivalents). If one such is available, feel free to use it, and start with a larger pool of motivations. The number of cards per suit is not relevant, save that there should be enough to offer a reasonable gradation in relative strengths of the various motivations, and the number of cards in each suit should be the same (thus, a tarot deck with the Major Arcana being considered a ‘fifth suit’, should not be used without stripping the Major Arcana down to fourteen cards). Obviously, it should be possible to place the cards of a suit into an order that progresses from “weak” to “strong”.

When entering the selected motivations on a character sheet, note only the motivation and its relative strength. It’s best to use terms like “strong”, “moderate”, “weak”, and their comparatives or superlatives, but numeric indicators will work as well – just be careful not to read them as though they were skill levels.

Increasing the Number of Motivations Chosen

The greater the number of motivations that a character has, the greater the number of ways those motivations can interact. However, as the number of possible interactions increases, so too does the difficulty of applying them to a particular situation and arriving at a course of action (or a justification for a course of action already decided upon). Limiting the number of motivations to two, as described in the original Traveller: The New Era procedure, offers little opportunity for such interactions; more than four motivations interacting raises the complexity too much in the opinion of the author. Three motivations would seem to be somewhat better than four; there is a fair amount of latitude for interactions, providing for a more three-dimensional character, without raising the number of possible interactions to the point where working out the interactions can start to interfere with actually running the adventure.

A List of Possible Motivations

This list should not by any means be considered exhaustive; there is no question that an imaginative referee will be able to come up with other motivations for a character. Overlap between motivations should not be considered a flaw or error; rather, take such overlap as indicating that the sophont mind is a complicated thing, and it won’t be easy to compartmentalize everything.

No ‘special cases’ to be applied to the court cards and aces are described; the author feels that that part of the rule needlessly complicates it, to little (if any) beneficial effect, and is better omitted.

The character is uninterested in staying safe, in known areas; s/he wants to go beyond the borders of the known into the new and different.
The character’s desires are aimed at helping others in need. He/She has a very finely-tuned sense of the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’, and will not accept them as equivalent.
The character is interested in avoiding situations deemed “risky”.
Fame or Notoriety:
The character wants to be known and recognized. In some cases, the character may not care if the reason is negative.
The character has a desire to acquire (usually) money or (occasionally) some specific material good. Possible courses of action may be evaluated on the basis of whether they enable or ease such acquisition. Interaction with other motivations may mean that the character doesn’t necessarily wish to retain what has been acquired, but the desire for acquisition will still be strong enough to be notable.
The character holds a philosophy which strongly influences his/her thinking and actions, and will tend to evaluate potential courses of action based on whether they are consistent with the philosophy, or will promote the acceptance of that philosophy by others. The most likely choices of ideologies are political or religious, but others are possible. This is something of a catch-all category; feel free to include specific ideological entries separately and/or omit this one.
The character wants to know. There may be a target (field of study), or just a general desire to see and experience and learn things that he/she doesn’t already know.
Love and Hate:
These are really flip sides of the same coin – the character’s feelings are strongly centered on some other individual or group, and his/her actions are aimed at establishing a certain condition in the character’s relationship to the object of the emotion. Treat these together as a single motivation in the list, and separate them out only if selected as a motivation for a character. If drawn multiple times, treat each as having a separate target.
The character is acting to meet expectations imposed upon him/her. The expectation may be freely taken on, or imposed under duress, but in any case is not automatically a response to a belief in the way Ideology is.
The character believes that a (generic) person’s situation can be improved, and is willing to ensure that the opportunity to do so is available.
The character wants to be in control, or to dominate, and be acknowledged as having that control or domination.
The character perceives that he/she or someone that he/she feels an obligation to has been severely wronged, and the character Intends To Do Something About It.

Examples of How Motivations Might Interact

Here are some ways that two motivations might interact to influence a character’s behavior. Any of these could have a third motivation (or more!) influencing the ultimate response to a situation, but remember that the more motivations you have interacting with each other, the more complex it will be to work out the result.

Adventure with Knowledge:
The character might want to be an explorer, going to new places to find out what’s there. Or, they may become a researcher on the ‘bleeding edge’ of a field of study, theorizing and testing what’s beyond the limits of what’s already known in the field. (In the latter case, they may be [seen as] a crackpot, with theories that don’t make sense and don’t pan out.)
Power with Greed:
The character sees power as a vehicle to get whatever the target of their greed is. Or, their greed may be for the control or influence that power (in the political sense) provides, and is driven toward ever-higher positions.
Adventure with Cowardice:
Believe it or not, there is a way that these can interact: The character rarely, if ever, takes risks, but when their current environment or career becomes ‘boring’, they change it.
Power with Compassion:
The character believes that the best way to help those in need is to control their situation, or the resources that can be distributed to help them.
Philanthropy with Obligation:
The character ‘got their start’ because of a grant or other program established by someone else. Now that they’ve ‘made it’, they feel a need to ‘pay it forward’.

A Special Case: The Decktet

The Decktet is an artistically-complex deck of card where most cards carry two of six suits, and all cards are reversible (like Tarot cards). If you choose to use it for drawing motivations, you can use the two suits to indicate that the two represented motivations interact, and the orientation of the card might represent whether the interaction is positive/reinforcing or negative/destructive. As with any deck and the resulting motivations, it’s entirely up to the referee or player; the cards merely serve as a mechanism for generating ideas.

Closing Remarks

The discussion here focused on a single character’s motivations, and the results can clearly be quite complex. But that’s not the end of using motivations for characters; consider the question of what happens when two characters, each with their own motivations, start interacting – and what the basic nature and direction of their interactions may be (e.g., supportive or opposed). If you want to investigate this idea further, it can bring a whole new depth to your role-playing!