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“Why” and How It Can Improve Your Game

Willful suspension of disbelief is a concept that comes up a lot when talking about fiction. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s the idea that you sometimes have to stop your mind from saying “That’s ridiculous”, “That could never happen”, or “That is totally not real” in order to enjoy something. It boils down to ignoring reality or fact as your conscious mind knows it. Something that violates your suspension of disbelief can ruin your immersion, mood, or perception of the movie, book, TV show, or video game. How does this apply to tabletop gaming? A lot of people, if not most people, really need things to make sense regardless of medium and I think that tabletop gaming is no different. Things need to be consistent and make sense within the context of the game, campaign, or story presented.

Which brings me to the importance of “why”. I think that it’s a vastly underused question when creating something for a game. Not just for a GM, but for players as well. Asking why can bring depth and detail to your game that makes the campaign or character feel more real and subsequently keeps players from dropping their suspension of belief. It helps you think things through and avoid plot-holes or inconsistencies that take you or your players out of the moment. It can bring out potential complications that you hadn’t foreseen that could derail a session or even an entire campaign. In some ways, it’s like world building in that you’re fleshing out a basic framework. You’re creating details and using that knowledge to make your world, your characters, or your campaign that much believable and better.

I refer to it as the “drill down” method. When you decide something for a game, ask yourself “why” and drill down through the first layer see the reasoning that lies beneath. And then when you’ve drilled down and gotten a better understanding or know more… ask “why” again, this time about the new information. Continue asking why until you feel you have a full and complete understanding of whatever is at hand. At the very least, it means that you know about everything that’s going on so you can improv and go with the flow of the game. But it also has the benefit that drilling down may bring up ideas, plot lines, and cool details that you might not have ever considered if you hadn’t tried to push forward and learn more. It’s like a productive and useful version of the obnoxious little kid who questions everything you say.

Drilling For Story Gold

I know, that sounds sort of confusing. so let me write a couple of examples to demonstrate. As a GM, I’ve decided that my players and their brand new level 1 characters are going to have to deal with goblin raiders that are attacking merchants coming to and from a little town. I don’t have anything else planned, no idea where to take the campaign after that. I could leave it at that. It’s enough to get a game started, surely. But what happens if I ask why. Why are the goblins attacking the merchants? After some thinking, I decide that it’s because the goblins are fleeing their regular territory because a tribe of orcs is taking goblin slaves. Again, I could stop there and probably be okay. But it might be good to keep drilling down and see what comes up. Why are the orcs taking goblin slaves? After thinking, I decide that the orcs have a new and very aggressive chieftan and he wants goblin arrow fodder for his plans of conquest. Having drilled down twice, I’ve already got plenty to work with here. I have enough to get started. I can now hint to the players that the goblins aren’t the only threat and that there’s something else.  Further, now I as the GM have an idea of where the campaign will go after the goblins are dealt with and can plan accordingly. That’s something I might not have known unless I kept asking “why”. If I wanted to, I could keep drilling down yet further and see what else is dug up, but I think that will be sufficient as an example for now.

Okay, so that’s something large scale, but it can be useful on a much smaller scale as well. What about NPCs? Let’s examine the previous example about the goblin raiders from another perspective. I decide that a merchant named Bob will be the one to approach the players and hire them to stop the goblins and recover as much merchandise as possible. Why is Bob the one doing that? Bob is nearly broke and is desperate to make some of his money back. Once again, things could stop there. Already it could improve how I, as the GM, roleplay Bob. That underlying anxiousness, that worry, that could come through in how he interacts with the PCs. But for the sake of this example, I’ll drill down further to see if I can come up with anything more interesting. Why is Bob almost broke? Maybe Bob has a gambling problem and he owes a big bag of gold to the local thieves guild. Now we’ve got something unique going that might not have come up had I not kept asking why. It’s uncovered another potential complication for players to deal with, which may take the campaign in new and interesting directions.

What do the players gain out of these two examples? Hopefully a sense that the world and the NPCs in it are as real a thing as can be. That there are details and layers that reward their exploration and interest. But players themselves can benefit from asking “why” when they’re working on their characters. Why did your player take the .45 automatic instead of the .38 revolver? Why did you take Power X instead of Power Y or Power Z? Why did your character decide to become an adventurer instead of doing something “normal”? Why has your character left their family behind to do what they do? Ask yourself “why” a few times as a player and you might be surprised at what fun things come out of it.

So what do you do now that you’ve thought of all of this? Write it down. Make notes on a 3×5 card. Type it up into a text editor. Keep a small notebook or folder. Don’t just trust your memory with the small details. Writing it down reinforces it in your mind and gives your creativity a second crack at the situation, which may end up with you thinking of even more to add to what you’ve got. Writing it down also means that you’ll have it right at hand. If you have a 3×5 card with “Bob the Merchant – nervous, pushy, broke, gambling debt to thieves guild” right at hand you won’t forget any of the important details as you play and it allows you to add more as the players interact with the NPC, plot, environment, or whatever.

How Far Is Too Far

Now, you may be taking away from this that every decision, every little thing should be questioned and turned over like it were the suspect in a murder. That’s not necessarily the case. For one thing, doing that would be a hell of a lot of work and for a GM running a game is often already a lot to do. Another thing is that not everything needs that level of detail. Some things can just be left ask is, no needing to ask why (especially if it’s patently obvious). Even some things that do benefit from the extra layers of depth don’t always need a lot of questioning. So asking “why” is definitely worth doing, but use some common sense about what you question and how much you question it.

Another thing you might take away from what I’ve written is that every “why” must be answered seriously and in depth. This isn’t necessarily true either. You might ask “why” and say “Well, a wizard did it” and that might be enough for you. You might ask “why” and say “because I think that’s pretty damned cool” and that’s fine too. You might ask why twice with some things, four times with others, or just once with still more of them. The exact answers to the question aren’t as important as the process of you, as player or GM, taking the time to think. If what you come up with is consistent, if it makes sense, and if it works for you and your group, then that’s all you need.

What it boils down to, really, is that when you’re creating something for a game, either as a GM or player, make sure that “why” is one that gets sufficient attention along side who, when, where, and what. Not everything needs a lot of attention, but even a small amount can do a lot for your game and the enjoyment thereof. It can help keep people in the moment, it can help bring forth new opportunities for roleplaying, and it can generate fun ideas for stories or plots. So I recommend everybody try it, see what it can do for your game.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

3 Responses to ““Why” and How It Can Improve Your Game”

  • Sweet article. I’m planning on linking to this from the Schrodinger’s Gun articles.

  • […] “Why” And How It Can Improve Your Game by WolfSamurai at RPG Musings talks about how asking “why” can improve games. […]

  • […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}From RPG Musings, an interesting take on asking yourself questions about the world you’re building: Asking why can bring depth and detail to your game that makes the campaign or character feel more […]