GM Advice: Short Tip - Justify Everything!

My very first RPG experience was with a little game called Heroes Unlimited. Having been a comic book nerd for a little over a decade at that point, I really dug the idea of playing a super hero. My very first character was a fellow named Mike Parker, who had the ability to fire powerful electric blasts, had quick reflexes, enhanced strength, and a minor healing factor (think more Spider-Man's than Wolverine's). His origin had something to do with alien experimentation.

 "You knew this was coming."

Being new to role-playing in general, I had just rolled randomly out of the book for powers and backgrounds. What I got was a cool character, but what I learned early on in my role-playing career was that I needed answers. Mike's powers needed to make sense to me. I needed to justify them.

I reasoned that Mike already had a healing factor, but having never been hurt badly enough for hospitalization, he never had a reason to discover this. He had spent his entire life assuming he was just a really healthy guy This was because I needed a reason for him to be able to survive the painful experimentation that the aliens that abducted him subjected him to. The power to fire electrical energy bolts stemmed from these experiments.

 "Shockingly long intro."

I decided that it would be a fun tool if the aliens were evil, and maybe recurring bad guys (at this point I was nowhere close to being a GM or understanding what that meant for a GM, but I had watched enough Joss Whedon programming to know that bad guys that keep cropping up are a good thing). The experiment went wrong, and Mike was somehow able to drain most of the ship's energy, the alien spacecraft whose energy supply is nearly infinite. This culminated in a sort of bio-electric energy that coursed through every part of Mike's body, allowing it to react quicker (enhanced reflexes), and experience bouts of enhanced strength.

By justifying why Mike had the powers he had, I was able to form a backstory. A hellish backstory that was just the beginning of a parade of long-suffering characters who get screwed over at every turn, by design no less.

But I digress.

"Everyone is a critic."

One thing every Game Master worth their salt should be asking when dealing with any part of their campaign world is why? Justification is your games is vital for establishing verisimilitude (making things somewhat believable). In olden days, you would stroll into a dungeon, open a door, and there would be a dragon. No one asked why the dragon was there, they just accepted it. That is until someone said, "Dafuq is this dragon doing here?"

Seriously, how did it get there? The doors are too small for it to fit through, and even if they weren't, it still has hallways to contend with. So are we to believe that it grew up in this room? Is this room all it every knew? How does it get food? Where does it take a dump?

"Suddenly, dragon."

On a concerning number of occasions, when confronted with the subject of justification, I have had the displeasure of witnessing GMs waving a hand dismissively and saying "Magic", as if that somehow answers anything.

"Magic" isn't an answer, kids. It's lazy writing and lazy Game Mastering. And not the kind of lazy Game Mastering I like!

Sure, it's "Magic", but what kind? How does it work? Where does it come from? Who or what cast it? Is it 'naturally' occurring?

Question everything, friends. Leave no stone unturned. If there are big ass giants living in a swamp, ask yourself why they live there. Have they always been there, and if not, what drove them there? Asking questions and justifying things not only helps things to make sense but can open up brand new stories. Those giants may have fled their mountain home to escape an ancient evil that has awakened deep in the heart of a dwarven city.

More questions mean more answers. More answers lead to more stories, which in turn give the Game Master a brand new set of plot hooks to dangle in front of their players. Sure, they're not going to take the bait for everything, but at least you have enough variety to give them enough to choose from for a good, long while.

You know me, I love random encounters. But the only part of random encounters I dislike is the randomness. Yes, I could justify the reason they are there as simply being a creature that dwells in that environment. Occasionally, though, I like messing with my players by introducing creatures that don't always hail from that habitat. Asking myself why these creatures would be in this area in the first place always seems to open up new stories and adventures, leads to the introduction of new NPCs, or even a villain.

In the end, the only person you really need to justify anything to is yourself. You are the one who knows this world and how to present it to your players. You are the authority, so really, you owe it to yourself to ask the big questions, know the ins-and-outs, and justify everything.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

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