Cause and Cause and Cause and Effect

Last week I discussed causes leading to multiple effects, and how a situation can spiderweb its way out from those. But there’s also a converse—that it’s possible for one effect to have multiple contributing causes. Who says there has to be only one reason for everything happening?

Sometimes, a number of different things push circumstances to the same conclusion. This is most often used by GMs trying to get their players on a certain path but giving the illusion of choice—all roads may not lead to Rome, but they definitely led to this outcome. It’s less often used in stories, as it can often seem contrived.

There might be one main cause that leads to the effect, but a number of others that modify it. It’s almost as easy to trace backward as one-cause-one-effect, but at the same time, the other causes do matter; sure, the general pattern would have been different without the primary cause, but the specifics would have been different without the lesser causes, and sometimes even those are enough to change the entire direction of events. So one event might be causing a character to be afraid of someone, but it’s a bunch of little other things that help dictate how she reacts to being afraid.

Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, with no real major cause; instead, it’s the combined effects of a number of small-effect causes that add up to one major effect, and the tricky part is guessing which if any parts of it could have been removed without events going differently. The complexity of these multi-cause effects means that it can be hard to set them up properly, particularly on very little warning; but on the other hand, if you can’t string them together very easily, they’ll probably be just as difficult for people trying to detangle them. As an added bonus, they give an organic feel to a situation, making it seem more like the real world than a flow chart. There are quite a few people who appreciate this kind of effect, particularly if you show a knack for chaining in somewhat unlikely or subtle causes.

So don’t just think about putting multiple effects on a cause; consider also letting multiple causes come together for an effect (or, if you’re going effects first, let the effect have multiple causes). Who knows what interesting twists it might unlock?

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