I was thinking (for reasons no deeper than it popped into my head and I decided to pursue it) about what makes one GM's 'style' or approach different from another. When you've played in a game I've run, for example, how do you know you were in a Barking AlienTM session/campaign? Well, other than the fact that I was there and you could see me and...I digress. What makes my games 'special'? Top five answers are on the board. Survey says...
1) I'm out to challenge you, not 'get' you
If you aren't threatened with character death, bodily harm or the loss of your PC's possessions the game won't seem fulfilling and you won't feel like you triumphed when you win. Often there isn't a feeling of accomplishment if there isn't a threat of failure. At the same time, I run character and story driven games often based on subjects (Superheroes, Star Trek, Fairy Tales) where main character death is rare. Over time I've balanced this by always remembering that the PCs are the stars of the show but on occasion even big stars can't renegotiate their contracts.
2) If you (the player) bothered to mention it, I'll bother to include it
If a player tells me he really likes games with traps, I will put traps in the game here and there. If a player says his character is a member of a mysterious tribe from the Southern Jungles, most NPCs won't recognize his nationality or at best, may be be unfamiliar with it. If the group doesn't really get into political intrigue, I don't focus my campaign on nobles houses and trade alliances. This simple self-inflicted ruling is probably the single thing that makes me a popular GM in my circles. Players like to have a voice and are happy when the GM listens.
3) The answer is never no but it isn't always yes
If the players come up with a crazy, power stunt, barely rational plan to do something, I will never say they can't try it. I will also never say it is guaranteed to work. I will assign a difficulty and various modifiers based on the plausibilty defined by the genre and setting, how well thought out the plan is, how cool it sounds (based on how it would look on screen/in a comic book/animated by Gainax or GONZO, etc.), whether the situation has developed to the point where its going to be pretty hard to succeed regardless and numerous other factors. Then I make them roll. Often, depending on the idea, the scenario and the system, even if they fail or succeed, side effects may land in their favor or turn against them.
4) Something will explode
Usually something large. It is likely to self-destruct or overload and the outcome is usually avoidable but realized too late. Just this past year a Seperatist Cruiser, an ancient temple caught between cursed undead and local elemental forces and all of time and space blew the hell up in one game or another. Every campaign features, at minimum, one near-world shattering kaboom.
5) If I can't make you scream I'll make you laugh
I like my games to be memorable. If for some reason I'm having an off day and the 'Wow!' and 'Holy Crap!' factors are lower than normal, I'm not above switching gears and making this session a comedy episode. Most of my Star Trek sessions might be Journey to Babel or City on the Edge of Forever but every once in a while we need a Trouble with Tribbles to break the tension.
Do I manage to do all of these things in every session of every game I run? Maybe...I try to. These are the five key elements that are always on my mind when GMing. These things define my game style. To me the pursuit of the perfect game is one in which, a few weeks after a session, one of my players says,
"Damn that battle with the Brainiac/War World Merged Entity was tough. I was sure we were gonna buy it when the thing took out Guy Gardner and Captain Marvel and than injured three of the PCs with one blast. It was so cool that Captain Atom showed up to assist by draining the Entity's energy reserves. Leonard and I were just saying how much we both like Captain Atom. Oh, than we used this combination of Air Wave's ability to scramble computer systems and Warborn's physical attacks on the Brainiac CPU to disable him. Warborn? Oh that's Jack's character. In the end War World-iac blew up, destroying all his drone robots but sending Capt. Atom who-knows-where! Damn, the look on the Atom's face, I can just imagine it. Nearly laughed soda through my nose."*
*That all sorta happened. Sort of. Actually the above passage is how it should've gone but it didn't. Why? Well, because sometimes I don't hit all five key elements. More on that next time...