GM Merit Badges–An Open Letter to My Players– Past, Present, and Future

A few days ago I started to see a bunch of posts about “GM Merit Badges“, and when I followed the links back to their progenitor, I found a post by Strange Magic  where he is talking about a means for GMs to tell their players what kind of game they are in store for, and in particular what kind of GMing style the guy behind the screen has. As a card-carrying Eagle Scout, I think this idea is fantastic and I am happy to add description of my style using Strange Magic’s ideas.

Before I break down the merit badges that apply to me, I think that it should be noted that these badges could be an interesting tool to intentionally alter their own style. For example, a GM like me who almost always rolls his dice behind a screen– mostly out of habit, for the record– could look at the alternatives presented and deliberately decide to change his style for a night, or a one-shot, or even a whole campaign in order to stretch their own GMing muscles and do something different both for themselves and their games, in order to find which styles they actually enjoy best, instead of the one they’ve always done. I know I’m guilty of it, and I think these badges might be a kick in the pants for me to see what actually works best for me.

My GMing Style

Breaking my style down by using these badges has been a blast– really made me think about the kind of GM I *am*, as well as the kind of GM that I work hard to be. I have listed the Badges, for the most part, in order of importance as I see it. The most important I put on the top of my diagram, so you can see not only WHAT is important to me, but in what order I put them in my brain.

GM In Charge: In my games, I am the first and final arbiter, period. Our time together at the table is too valuable to spend it bickering about rules minutiae and I don’t tolerate it. If I make a bad call or you have a question, say so. I will usually either A) make an on-the-spot correction and fix the mistake if the game hasn’t gone too far past the issue, or B) will make a “for now” ruling and tell YOU to find the ruling in the books–but not until the session has ended and we’re not in-game anymore. Then, by email, let me know about what you find in the rulebooks and we’ll address it at the beginning of the next session, or I might address it to the group by email. I promise you, the fastest way to annoy me to the point of asking you to not come back is to bicker the rules with me during a game session. HELP ME KEEP THE GAME MOVING. 

Story FirstI play (and run) roleplaying games in order to tell stories about heroes. I learned this about myself when I was on my first tour in Iraq, when we were putting friends in bodybags almost daily, and playing D&D to escape the horror that war can bring. I am not interested in Player-vs-Player violence, Evil Campaigns, sociopathic PCs, Lone-Wolf-Doesn’t-Play-Well-With-Others characters, or any of that nonsense. That’s not why I play the game, and if that’s what you want, go elsewhere. Period. I won’t tolerate it, and I will ask you to leave. I won’t railroad you (too awful much) or eliminate player choice, but before we begin play we will talk about the kind of character you want to play and the kind of story you want to play in. In exchange for that input into the game, I ask you to NOT deliberately dead-end the party, slay NPCs indiscriminately, or otherwise act like a murderous, anti-social hobo. I tell stories about the good guys (for the record, Batman happens to be a good guy), and if that’s what you want, we’ll have a good time.

Improv: I really debated putting this one first, but decided the other two were more foundational for my gaming style. Improv is definitely a close third, however. One of my biggest strengths as a GM is RE-acting to the decisions and actions of the characters and making the world reflect the reality of those decisions. I believe that a character should have an impact on the world, and this is primarily how I do that– determining the consequences of actions and putting that into the game. This ties in to Story, above– if your character murders someone, expect there to be consequences. Not of the “a rock falls and you all die” kind, but in a “the town watch has your description and a price on your head wherever you go” kind of way. Your decisions matter, and the choices you make determine a lot of game content.

Drama: Again, this ties in with Story. A story is no good without highs and lows, successes and failures, triumphs and pitfalls (sometimes literally). Thus, expect for your character to fail sometimes. Not because I put something impossible in front of you, but because the highs are higher when you’ve been to the depths and come back again. YOUR CHARACTER IS NOT GOING TO WIN EVERY TIME. Also, expect me to, at times, set up a climax-type scene or Big Boss fight, and during those times the rules might very well change to reflect the drama of the situation. Characters first, story second, rules a distant third is how I roll.

Mirror: Strange Magic’s post states, “I will mirror back player ideas I think are interesting in the game,” and what this means to me is that if you want to do some Improv yourself and come up with ideas and character background and story on the fly all by your onesy, FEEL FREE. I encourage it, and some of the best sessions come based off of those ideas. However, I reserve the right to modify or veto completely when such an idea occurs. Just because you SAY the Lord of Whitewater has three daughters who are in love with you doesn’t mean there are. However, there very well might be, and you will have to live with the effects of that.

Tactics: I firmly believe that collaboration and team effort is one of the foundation points of a good roleplaying game, regardless of genre, rules, or anything else. I like rules that reward team-focused play (one of the reasons I like 4E), but this really applies in all areas, not just combat. Having a plan requires players to talk to each other (which I encourage to be in character chatter) and focus on the good of the party as opposed to the good of the individual. It also promotes goal-setting and, again, communication.

Mystery/Exploration: WAAAY back int he day, when the original Dungeon Magazine started publishing columns on campaign preparation, one of the things that burned itself into my brain like a brand was every time you create a campaign element, create a secret to go with it. I live and breathe this rule, and one of the things I love about GMing is being able to hand out clues to a dozen different mysteries, and watch that moment of either “A-HA!!” or “OH S#%T!!” when they figure out the mystery. Expect for a lot of things to happen that you or your character don’t understand, and that you will probably ALWAYS have a lot of questions about that’s going on around you.

Maps & Pre-generated Content: I shamelessly steal from every resource I can get my hands on. Campaign elements, whole adventures (Paizo, I’m lookin’ at you), encounters, monsters, NPCs… everything. I use other people’s stuff without reservation, and do my best to cobble it together into as seamless a whole as I can manage. The vast majority of the time, my players never know, because the depth of resources at my (and your, if you’re a GM reading this) command means that I can cherrypick the best of everything and no two thefts have to be from the same source. It’s like a quilt– lots of different fabrics and patterns in a beautiful whole.

Scary and Disturbing: Everything comes back to Story. In the same way that I play roleplaying games in order to tell the stories of the good guys, in order for those good guys to really shine, the bad guys they face must be equally bad. I’m not talking about Snidely Whiplash twirling his moustaches kind of bad, I’m talking about serial killers and murderers and slavers and Tentacled Outer Gods and things that go bump in the night. I read a lot of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. They give great examples of what I’m talking about– mood and theme that makes your skin crawl and characters you revile and loathe.

Tinker: I have houseruled stuff as long as I can remember. I can recall putting together an Alien-style xenomorph and Wolverine-style claws for a Dark Sun game back when the original box set came out; that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I really enjoy tweaking and playing with rule sets to specifically craft the kind of game I want to play, and the kind of game my players want to play *in*. There will likely be house rules of some kind when you play in my games; make sure you know what they are and if you have suggestions for your own, let me know.

RUN: I love this particular merit badge. It, combined with Story, Tactics, and Drama mean that there will likely be situations in which your character is outmatched and retreat–or even running like a little girl– is the best option. It also means that the enemy will likely do the same at some point. It means the world is not carefully balanced for numerical optimization so that you can survive12.734593 encounters before resting. It means that if you don’t work together with your team-mates and play smart (Tactics), you will get your @$$ handed to you. Many of your enemies are as smart or smarter than your characters. Expect them to act like it. Don’t expect the same tactic to work all the time. It also means that SOMETIMES YOU WILL LOSE (Drama). On the other hand, sometimes you’ll manage to pull off a victory where I didn’t expect one (Improv). Both are equally cool, in my book.

Thanks again to Strange Magic for coming up with these GM Merit Badges. I’m really ticked with how this worked out, and this is a great primer for folks who end up across the GM screen from me.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan Gaming, Applying Theory, Brittanis, GM Advice, Group Dynamics, Rules, Tropes, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to GM Merit Badges–An Open Letter to My Players– Past, Present, and Future

  1. Swordgleam says:

    That’s really cool. Don’t Boy Scout badges usually come in different colors? It might be fun to color-code the badges based on categories; eg, Story First and Tactics are probably in one category, Maps and Tinker in another.

  2. Josh says:

    That rule you referenced from Dungeon Magazine is from Ray Winninger’s “Dungeoncraft” series, and it’s an amazing resource for GMs. You can still find the whole series online at

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