My GM Merit Badges

I really loved the idea, first debuted over on the Strange Magic blog, but which quickly took the RPG blogosphere by storm—briefly—of using some quick and dirty icons to represent the GM style that you aspire to.  Because I find that my style is more or less consistent from campaign to campaign, and represents both how I prefer to run the game and how I wish my GMs would run the game, I'm going to archive them as a "page" on my blog that is easily accessible all the time.

The attached images are, therefore, "my" merit badges; the ones that would get sewn onto my merit badge sash to represent me as a GM.  Reading the image the icons are Story, Scary, Player vs. Player, In Charge, Improvisation, Intrigue, Run, Disturbing, and Characters and Drama.

And while it's possible to go read Strange Magic's description of those badges and get a quick capsule review of my style, it's even better if I ramble about it a bit and elaborate on exactly how I see those elements as crucial to my games.

My game will tell an interesting Story. That is, I don't purposefully write a story, but if an interesting story isn't somehow the product of the game experience, then I consider it to be a failure.  I'm kind of weird about not leading the players by the nose, but at the same time, I throw them hooks that are interesting, and present them with scenarios that are not just random encounters, or purposeless vignettes.  A lot of structural elements from TV and books make their way into how I run—I try to help pace the game (and the session) to make the experience intriguing and interesting, yet at the same time firmly in the player's hands, not mine.  It's a bit of a narrow line to walk, sometimes.

My games will be Scary. I'm a big fan of blending in lots of horror elements, and the dark fantasy genre, as vague as that label may yet be.  This should be obvious given that I consider my play-style paradigm to be much more firmly rooted in the Call of Cthulhu game than in Dungeons & Dragons.  If you don't like scary themes, or find them too much to handle, then my game probably isn't really designed for you.  No offense; it simply is it what it is.  NOTE: This applies more to the DARK•HERITAGE campaign setting (and the CULT OF UNDEATH campaign setting) than it does to other campaign settings that I noodle with here.

There will be Player vs. Player combat allowed in my games. I won't exactly encourage it, but I'm not going to stop it. I don't believe that RPGs are games about teamwork. Or rather, the teamwork is at the player level, in creating an experience that is interesting and fun. That does not necessarily mean teamwork at the character level, and characters that do not get along are often the most interesting kinds.

The GM is In Charge in my game and "rule zero" is in effect. I'm a much bigger believer in rulings than in rules anyway.  Bogging down the game while I figure something out "correctly" is much less important to me than making a hand-wavey ruling using the tools of the mechanics in a way that seems to make sense.  And for that matter, I prefer rules to take a backseat, and for players to not necessarily always be aware what rules and mechanics are in play at any given time.  I don't tell them—necessarily—what saving throw DCs or ACs are, or things like that.  I want to keep the mechanics more in the background, and the in-game, in-character stuff firmly in the foreground.

My games rely on a lot of Improvisation rather than prescripted content. At most, I'll have a one-page outline of what I think is likely to happen that will often last for three or four sessions. I prefer my players to drive the game to activities that they find interesting, based on hooks that I dangle in front of them, of course. But it's important to me that they have lots of hooks to choose from and do what they want to do. Of course, that also means I can only plan so much, so I have to make up a lot of stuff on the fly based on how my players choose.  And even the scanty plans I do have often don't amount to a hill of beans when the PCs decide to do something I totally didn't anticipate.  When this happens, rather than try to "force" them back on track, I'm a fan of forcing the campaign itself to mold itself in their image, and react to them.

My games include lots of Intrigue. In fact, I greatly prefer intrigue, skullduggery, and cloak and dagger affairs to "dungeoncrawls" which I cordially dislike.  Maybe cordially is pushing it sometimes.  Thrillers, spies, mafioso-type criminals, assassins, plots—those are my meat and potatoes in terms of what I find interesting to game about.  Think of your favorite mainstream spy thriller in movies or novels.  Stuff like Robert Ludlum or Lee Child.  Movies like The Godfather.  Apply those types of stories and that kind of tone to a fantasy setting steeped in horror.  That's what I really want my games to be like.

Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are stacked against them. I'm not really a fan of killing PCs, but I won't hesitate to do so if it's the obvious result of player actions. And, once again, horror, folks. In horror you don't always stand up to the monster and gloriously battle it to the death. That is, you don't if you don't want really short, boring games.  I don't believe in fairness quite as much as I believe in verisimilitude.  That doesn't mean I'll punish you in the name of some kind of moral high ground in terms of play-style, but it does mean that you aren't necessarily meant to kill everything you encounter.  Don't try it.

My games could include Disturbing content. Again; I like a fairly strong horror vibe. I consider my games to be often skirting the line at the far edge of PG-13.  They are not meant for kids.  I'm very much against including gratuitous shocking content, though.  I dislike it in cinema and I dislike it in books.  I won't ever be gratuitous.  The disturbing content isn't necessarily the focus of any of my games.  I give fair warning up front though—it could be there, and you either need to be prepared for it before it happens, or recuse yourself before we start.

My games focus on interesting Characters and Drama. In fact, that's what I like about the game. I couldn't really care less about tactics. I approach the game from an authorial standpoint, and while I also really love the collaborative effort of working with players (either as GM or as a player myself) instead of "writing my story", at the same time, I like the game best when we're focused on trying to tell an interesting story. And that goes hand in hand with interesting characters and drama; in fact, with interesting characters and drama, a decent story is almost an inevitable product of the game.

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