Why versus What

Creating characters in RPG’s tends to focus on answering a lot of Whats. There are the hard Whats, like stats, HP, abilities, skills, and so on. We need those brass tacks and bits of crunch, because that is what lets us work ideas within our chosen game system. There are also the softer Whats, like what is a character’s background, what do they like to do when they aren’t adventuring, what is their relationship with their family, or what ties do they have with the other player characters. All of these are great questions to ask about a character, but there is something else that needs to be asked that doesn’t get asked as much as it should. That is, Why?
The Why of a character’s background tends to be overlooked, especially when character creation is done right before the game starts, or the players and GM are used to a murder-hobo style of play. That is unfortunate since Why something is, is almost always more important than What something is, – especially in the creative process. Knowing what a character can do is one thing, but understanding why their imaginary little life brought them to this point is another. Information without context will often lack meaning.
One reason Why gets ignored is because answering What is the easy part. Finding out Why is harder. Almost all the Whats can be inherently answered during character creation. Even the softer Whats might be answered with a handy little chart, or else it’s something easy like eye or hair color. Why is a different story. A chart might give a player an idea they can build upon, but to truly answer a Why required some serious thought. And the better the answer, the more thought it takes.
Why is vital because it keeps the Whats from existing in a vacuum, which is more important than most people think. Vacuums must be filled. Players, and sometimes GM’s, who know the What but not the Why of a character will fill that void one way or the other. Sometimes we’ll see the birth of a deep character as the player or GM answers those questions on the fly, without resorting to the old tropes we all love to hate (and hate to love). That’s not always the case. Most of the time, it seems that we get players who go into chaotic stupid mode, and commit a string of sight gags and random bits of destruction or general mayhem, because it would be funny or cool. I’ve actually asked players why their characters did something along these lines, and the answers were, because it’s funny or cool.
Always ask yourself Why when making a character, no matter what system you’re using. Why did my character choose this class or profession? Why did they join this group or organization? Why did they learn these skills? Why pick these abilities? Go beyond the obvious, like the reason why my character is a wizard is because I want to play a wizard. It’s easier to figure out where you’re going if you know why you’re there in the first place.

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