What motivates a hero to go on an adventure?

One thing I’m really bad at when running tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeon World is finding a good reason for my players do something adventurous. Adventure stories are full of heroes leaving their homes for some reason or another. So, I thought I’d take a look at the heroes in stories I knew and figure out why they leave home to go do whatever it is they do.

Turns out, I only found 8 different motivations that got those heroes to leave home and go kick butt or whatever. Some motivations were stronger than others.

Use these to really motivate your heroes to get into gear and do something heroic. 🙂


Motivation #1: You’re well-suited for a job that we have.

You have a particular set of skills…

Motivation #2: You’re more than you seem.

You have special powers, you’re actually the daughter of someone famous or powerful, etc.

Motivation #3: A dark force is threatening you or something you care about.

This is usually a big bad guy or organization, someone sentient, someone who is out to get you or something you care about. This is the primary motivation for most heroes. Combine this with other motivations for greater effect!

Motivation #4: A distress call from a stranger.

“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi,” etc. The emphasis is on stranger: you don’t know them. Otherwise, the motivation becomes #3.

WEAK BY ITSELF: Not every player cares about strangers.

Motivation #5: Revenge for past injuries.

They hurt me in the past, now I’ll get them.

WEAK BY ITSELF: Not every player wants to exact revenge.

Motivation #6: A natural disaster is imminent.

Not a dark force, just a force of nature.

WEAK BY ITSELF: The players can’t stop it, only evacuate or shore up, and there isn’t really a reason it’s happening.

Motivation #7: Receive a mysterious gift.

Emphasis on mysterious. Gifts are great, but they don’t prompt heroes to go on adventures. The gift must pose a question: Who gave this to me? How does this work? Who else is looking for this? and the answer must involve some legwork.

Motivation #8: Retrieve something valuable.

An object, a location, a person, just so long as it’s valuable to the hero.


What about some Examples?

Most fantasy stories use more than one of these motivations in succession to get their heroes off their butts and out the door. Here are a few examples from (mostly) fantasy stories you might know:


SPOILERS AHEAD!! PROCEED WITH CAUTION!!


Lord of the Rings

Frodo: Receive a mysterious gift (the ring) → A dark force is threatening you (Nazguls) → A dark force is threatening the world (Sauron)

The Hobbit

Bilbo: You’re well-suited for a job that we have → You’re more than you seem (a Took) → Retrieve something valuable (Erebor)

Thorin Oakenshield: A dark force threatens you and your people (Smaug) → Retrieve something valuable (Erebor) → Revenge for past injuries (killed his people)

Harry Potter

Harry Potter: You’re more than you seem (a wizard) → A dark force is threatening the school/world (Voldemort) → Revenge for past injuries (killed your parents)

Star Wars

Luke Skywalker: Receive a mysterious gift (R2D2) → You’re more than you seem (your father was a Jedi) → Receive a mysterious gift (lightsaber) → A dark force is threatening you (Empire)

Anakin Skywalker: You’re more than you seem (force powers)

Pokemon

Ash: Receive a mysterious gift (Pokemon + Pokedex) → You’re well suited for a job that we have (fill the Pokedex)

Chronicles of Narnia

Lucy: Receive a mysterious gift (passage into Narnia) → A dark force is threatening Narnia (the White Witch)

Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones: You’re well-suited for a job that we have (find the ark) → A dark force is threatening the world (the Nazis finding the ark first)

The Neverending Story

Atreyu: You’re well-suited for a job that we have (Childlike Empress’ request) → A dark force is threatening your whole world (the Nothing)

Bastian: Receive a mysterious gift (the book) → You’re more than you seem (the author-ish of the story)

The Golden Compass

Lyra: Receive a mysterious gift (the compass) → You’re more than you seem (only you can use it)

The Name of the Wind

Kvothe: Receive a mysterious gift (training from Ben) → You’re more than you seem (surprisingly adept at advanced sympathy) → A dark force is threatening him (whatever killed his family) → Revenge for past injuries (killed his family)

Ocarina of Time

You’re more than you seem (invitation to Deku Tree) → A dark force is threatening the tree and Hyrule (tree sickness) → A mysterious gift (Ocarina of Time)

Majora’s Mask

Retrieve something valuable (Epona) → A dark force is threatening me and then the area (skull kid)

Over the Garden Wall

Retrieve something valuable (their way) → A dark force is threatening you (the Beast)

Superman

Clark Kent: You’re more than you seem (Kryptonian) → A dark force is threatening the world (villains)

Men In Black

Mr. Smith: You’re well-suited for a job that we have (MIB agent) → A dark force is threatening the world (aliens)

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: You’re well-suited for a job that we have (solve crime) → Revenge for past injuries? (Moriarty) or Receive a mysterious gift? (Moriarty)

The Karate Kid

Kid: You’re more than you seem (capable of greatness) → Revenge for past injuries (the bully)

Fievel Goes West

Fievel: A dark force is threatening your community (the cat)


Did I miss something?

If you find a hero with a motivation that’s not listed here, or if you think of other examples from stories you know, let me know in a comment below, and I’ll add it to the list! I’ll keep this article updated with new motivations we find for heroic characters everywhere.

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