I remember long ago when I was in school we were told that when writing it’s important to answer the 6 Ws for things related to information gathering – Who, What, Where, Why, When and How. These are questions that provide an informational framework and yet so many times when running a game or writing an adventure or a plot we forget them or at least some of them.
Of all of them, the one I most frequently see unused is “why” and it’s the one I love to use when putting something together. Whether it’s a game, a story, a campaign, a villain or a setting, asking Why is one of the first things I do and something I repeat often during the process.
Why Ask Why?
Asking why helps to ground your story and gets you to thinking about the logic of the things you include. It answers questions like motivation and goals, it provides internally consistency to answers about the game setting and the story beats. It’s not the first question you usually ask (that’s usually a who/what/where) but it is the most important question if you want the various aspects of your game to have some weight.
I find “why” is a great question for adding some depth to NPCs and Organizations, even countries and worlds. It lets me organically change the rules in a way that has a reason other than “the rule sucks”. If I did away with spell slots and used the spell points option then asking “why” from a game world viewpoint gives me some lore and some ways the game is different from the standard. Why do this world’s monks use Intelligence rather than Wisdom for abilities? Why aren’t my dragons color coded? Why was this temple abandoned? Why is all this loot laying around? Asking why adds some depth to your game or adventure.
Why is the question most directly informing motivation. Even if you do nothing else with asking why, make sure you ask why your villains, NPCs, organizations, monsters, gods etc. are doing what they are doing. Even if the players never ask, you need to know these things. Knowing why the king is involved in a story, or why the ancient order of laser sword monks is in hiding, or why the BBEG is hunting for the lost artifact is absolutely essential.
When you know why an NPC or monster is doing what they are doing it becomes much easier to figure out how committed they are to that action and how far they are willing to go and what they are willing to do to accomplish it. Why is the wolf attacking? Is it hungry? Is it controlled? Is it driven made by unknowable evils in the woods? Each of those provides a different motivation for the action and thus spins the story in different directions.
I think it’s very important that you have a sense of logic in your games. Not in relation to the real world, but within itself. The world has to be internally consistent. It makes things more real for the players and it also works to get them invested. Players will question when something doesn’t make sense and that requires your game world to be internally logical. The easiest way I find to achieve this is to look at something through the players’ eyes and then ask “why”. Those answers will help you answer the inevitable questions the players have when things seem “off” or “weird”. Those answers to why something isn’t the way it should be gives the players something to dig into, something to follow up on and something to chase.
The Rabbit Hole
Asking why is a great way to add depth, motivation and consistency to your game but it can lead you down a rabbit hole of asking why after each answer you come up with. You need to know when to stop asking why and be content that knowing there is more to uncover gives you something to work with in the future.