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Here's how I handled the motivation thing - I recount this just for fun, not because it's particularly great.
My ST campaign began in Bard's Gate with the party being exiled for one full year to the Camp for various petty crimes, social offenses, etc.
According to tradition, those exiled to the Camp are part of the New Army of Light. Anyone who behaves in particularly good ways, helping advance the interests of Bard's Gate, gets time off for good behavior.
That was the initial motivation. Kill some bad guys, get home sooner.
But in truth, this ritual of exile has been going on for decades and no one takes it very seriously. Few of the exiles ever return. And the folks of Bard's Gate mostly don't take the Desolation as a grave menace.
It's a threat, but a minor concern, and also a useful foil for the elites of the city when they want to raise taxes or blame an outside enemy for Bard's Gates' troubles.
The wrinkle, of course, is that this particular New Army of Light discovers that something has begun to stir in the Desolation. It's not just a sullen badland. Something new and menacing is brewing.
So my PCs have slowly transitioned from being exiles to being partially assimilated into Bard's Gate's growing military and espionage build-up against the Desolation. They, of course, grasp more viscerally than the city's nobles just how big and ugly the threat is.
With that much meta-plot, my players have totally embraced the motivation. They still have tons of sand-boxy flexibility.
Now when they're, say, rescuing members of the lost Bard's Gate caravan, it's not just for gold -- it's because the members of that caravan almost certainly know something more about the Orcus cult's growing conspiracy.
One thing that I plan to add is a section of urban adventure/intrigue back in Bard's Gate as the PCs struggle against the machinations of the nobility who are bungling their response to Orcus's menace so badly.
I think this will be a good counterpoint to the Desolation story, and it will help my PCs catch up a bit in level. (Their progression has been pretty slow so far...after ten sessions, they're mostly 8th level, with some verging on 9th level...)