Monday, August 22, 2011

My GM Merit Badges

Just too many great GM-related memes circulating all of a sudden! Hot on the heels of the Hill Cantons Challenge comes this brilliant concept courtesy of Stuart of the Strange Magic blog. Mirroring the merit badge system of the Scouts, the idea is to choose those aspects of running games in which you excel as a sort of shorthand to describe your GMing style. Here are mine:

 I like to play rules "by the book" for the most part. Although I won't bring a game to a screeching halt to look something up, if the rule is easily accessible via the Index, chances are I'll take the 30 seconds required to look it up. Even then, if the rule seems too complicated for the situation I'll probably hand-wave it, but for me it's "rules, then rulings" most of the time.

 I was converted to the One True Way of letting the dice fall where they may when I ran a campaign via OpenRPG, which has all dice rolls occur on the screen in front of everybody. Lo and behold, it did not wreck my campaign, nor cause hurt feelings amongst the players. If anything, it added to the game experience and the overall fun. This badge also, I feel, covers devotion to random results, of which I am a big proponent. Considering my narrativist leanings, I feel this particular facet of my GMing is the only thing that keeps me from being a total railroady douchebag. ;)

When it comes to intra-party dynamics, I'm all about the drama, in service to a better story at least. I like a group that will create connections between their characters and NPCs in the campaign and then milk those connections for all they're worth. I know I've done a good job as GM when players talk about NPCs as if they were real people.

By and large, I like to encourage playing characters who are destined for great things. Note this does not necessarily mean Epic Heroes. The PCs in my last Cthulhu campaign saved San Francisco from an incursion by Yog-Sothoth and made the Tenderloin District less filthy-awful than it is in our own reality, but in so doing all but one of them died or went insane - and the lone survivor ended up stranded 85 years in the future!

 As I mentioned in my own Hill Cantons Challenge post, I can hardly be accused of shunning pre-published material. For one thing, I've always felt most comfortable riffing off established worlds. Secondly, I wouldn't get to game nearly as much as I'd like if I was having to create adventures and settings from whole cloth. Why re-invent the wheel when you can tinker with one that's already been built?

One of all-time favorite Jeff Rients essays is How to Awesome Up Your Players. Two things give me great joy as a GM: working random results into an established scenario (see above) and facilitating my players' awesome experiences at the table. If players want to do Activity X, I'll go out of my way to make that happen (even if I personally think it's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard - you never know, it could be I was wrong to despair and the idea was awesome after all!). And if, during idle chatter, they come up with a theory about Villain Y that totally kicks my own idea's ass, I'll happily (and quietly) adopt the players' idea and run with it.

One of my OSR conceits. I don't believe in designing "balanced" encounters. If a new-made knight in one of my Pendragon campaigns wants to take on Gawaine, he better be prepared to get his ass kicked. Although I like to facilitate awesome experiences and great destinies, I firmly don't believe they should be handed to the player on a silver platter.

This ties in directly with my Destiny and Drama badges: I want my campaigns to tell a story in the end. Mind you, that's in the end. Someone once said that RPGs are stories that are told in retrospect, and never have truer words been spoken. I don't mind players going off-track as long as its eventually in service to a good story.

As much as I respect rules and published settings, I also understand they're not carved in stone. I have no compunctions about tinkering with rules or settings/adventures as written, either before the campaign starts or (even better) based on actual gameplay experiences. It's for this reason that I tend to prefer simpler, more robust systems - there's less of a chance that changing one little rule will throw everything else horribly askew.

Although Stuart first envisioned this as a way to facilitate online pick-up gaming, I can see its use as a tool of self-analysis. For example, I was surprised to see that I had both the "by the book" and "rules tinkerer" badges, but after thinking about it, it made sense. I also mentioned in a comment on Stuart's blog that these badges form a sort of ersatz graphic tracker of one's preferred style. Returning to the badges periodically to see which ones still apply, which ones you'd drop, and which ones you'd add is a great way of tracking your changing style and preferences as a GM.
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