There are many ways to motivate players. Loot motivates some players. Experience and leveling motivates most players. Other kinds of rewards are plentiful – titles, acclaim, success, narrative focus, resolving story arcs – the list is endless. Punishment also works as motivation. You can punish players for making bad choices in the game by withholding rewards mentioned above, or more subtly boring them by not providing expected stimulus. The easiest way to keep players “on the rails” as it were is to make everywhere off the rails dreadfully dull.
One of the most rewarding ways, from a GM’s perspective, for a player to find motivation is by hating the villains. When a nasty NPC you’ve created and run succeeds in earning the players everlasting enmity… it is pure joy.
It is easier said than done. Most villain schtick is so beyond-cliche that players hardly waste the energy yawning. Loot and experience are easy and quantifiable methods of motivation. Whereas a roleplaying motivation like this requires several steps.
#1 Make them care about themselves. This right here is the major reason attempts to motivate players by giving them a juicy bad-guy often short circuit. There is nothing the GM can do to force players to care about their own characters. You can encourage it. You can ask questions. You can provide gentle guidance and set a positive example in how to create fully-rounded interesting characters, but the player has to decide all on their lonesome at the end of the day to care. This isn’t entirely true. The GM can also help lubricate this process by giving the players success. If they taste success they will become attached to the process of attaining that success to which their character is the vehicle. Time, familiarity, and positive reinforcement will eventually help a player come to care about their character even if they didn’t at first.
#2 Make them care about others. If your player cares about their character this next step isn’t so hard. The same process of time, familiarity, and positive reinforcement will work here. Want the players to care about an NPC – have the NPC make them laugh and provide them with rewards. The more subtly this is done the more effective it will be, but even a ham-fisted “this is the helpful NPC” approach will have some effect.
#3 Threaten the object of their affection. This part is where the cliche kicks in. Everyone has seen the Green Goblin dangle Mary Jane a million times. Cliche’s are popular because they work, but you have to be creative about dressing them up a bit to hide their predictable nature. Try not to go after the obvious target (girlfriends, parents, village where the hero grew up etc…). Go for something a little more personal and unexpected – the Paladin’s honorable reputation, the thief’s good-standing in the guild, the helpful magistrate who always looked the other way. Even better if you go for something that players will usually assume is off limits – make the Dwarven womanizer impotent, the cleric’s deity suddenly doubt his faith.
#4 Set them up for success. Help the party develop a good plan and convince them they will thwart the baddie’s intentions. Give them allies, and every reason to believe they will be successful. Ensure the plan goes smoothly. Give them the advantage in a combat. Make the villain express fear, doubt, or pain so the villain seems weak. Don’t overdo it. This is not the time to be melodramatic or the players will catch on to the trick. Just give the normal signals you give when the players are about to win a combat.
#5 Drop the floor out from under them. Make the villain win in an agonizing irreversible way. At the last minute the bad guy completes the sacrifice and permanently destroys the soul of the helpful cohort. Then make the villain get away before the players can take revenge.
#6 Let them stew. It is important you do not reward them immediately with any opportunities for cathartic revenge. Their hatred of the baddie really blossoms in this step right here as they explore different ways to rectify their loss and find each avenue a dead end. It is possible to repeat steps 3 through 6 several times building up a bigger hatred, but it is inadvisable to do so too many times in succession. 2-3 times is probably a maximum. Eventually players catch on and either stop caring or just redirect their frustration at the GM.
#7 Threaten them directly. After proving that the villain is capable and willing to hurt the players indirectly and giving them time to build up a good hatecrush, let them know the villain is coming after them directly. If you’ve done your job well the threat will be believable and players will be cautious, but also excited about finally getting their cathartic confrontation.
#8 Reveal the flaw. As opposed to step #4 where you misled the players into believing they would triumph, in the final confrontation you should encourage them to believe that history is about to repeat itself and they will once more lose to the villain. Then, in a reversal of step #5 let the players in on a secret – the flaw in the villains plan, the blindspot, the achilles heal. Present it for them to take advantage of. Let them pounce and win.
They will never love hating an imaginary character so much.