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It Really Is Okay to Just Say "No"

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Dice saying NOA popular (and relatively new from my old-timer point of view) GM meme goes something "Always say 'yes' or 'yes but'" with a strongly implied never say no. Personally, I think this is some of the worst GMing advice I've ever heard as there are times when saying anything but "no" is going to seriously hurt a game session or even a campaign.

For example, players who want to play characters who do not fit the campaign premise or the campaign's setting need to be firmly told "no" as allowing characters who do not fit the campaign is going to make the campaign less fun for the GM and probably less fun for at least some of the other players. As a GM you should not feel you are somehow obligated to accept every character concept a player comes up with or to change the campaign setting or premise to compromise with a player. If a character does not fit the campaign premise, the setting, the play style of the rest of the group, or uses rules that you as GM do not want to use, don't feel bad about rejecting the character outright. Do not feel an obligation to compromise with the player over a poorly fitting character concept unless such a compromise does not interfere with the campaign.

Another example, some things are simply impossible to do as they violate the "physics" of the campaign world. While a character running fast enough that time flows backward might be acceptable in a high-powered comic book superhero game, it's going to be simply not possible in the average fantasy or spy campaign. While this is an extreme example, I found over the years that players often come up with ideas that are just impossible -- and they need to be firmly told "no, you can't do that" when they do. Saying "yes" or even "yes, but" when something is actually impossible leads to all sorts of problems. A more reasonable example would be a character with a lot of skill in diplomacy trying to use a skill roll to talk an NPC enemy ruler into doing something that no one in their right mind would agree to (like turn control of the country's army over to the enemy PC). It doesn't matter how skilled one is in diplomacy, no sane person is going to agree to something like that unless he is under the influence of drugs, magic, blackmail, or the like so the character is effectively trying to do something that is simply not possible: no matter what they roll, the attempt should fail. Some cases where people see "broken rules" are really fine as the rule in question is only broken if the GM never says "no, that's impossible."

Saying "yes" or "yes but" when you can is a good idea. However, when "when you can" becomes "always", I've found it to be a very bad idea. Think before you say "yes" (or before you say "no" for that matter) -- don't let some "rule of good GMing" (that someone made up) force you to say "yes" when saying "yes" is actually a bad idea. This is even more true in old school games.


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12 comments:
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Ian Wyckoff said...
December 7, 2015 at 4:18 PM  

The advice to always say yes is really very odd. If it means, as a GM, be prepared to make fair rulings regarding any action the PCs can reasonably make, regardless of whether you have planned for it or there is a dedicated mechanic for it, then yes, that is obviously the GMs job. But if the advice is to cave into any desire of the PCs, I can't imagine a campaign like that surviving any length of time - there is just no challenge, no tangible reality to the thing.

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Paul Sheppard said...
December 7, 2015 at 10:36 PM  

I believe it originally was intended to remind GMs that it's ok if the players come up with a plan that they didn't prep for; a simple statement to avoid the railroad mindset. I don't believe it was meant as a be all and end all way to GM. If you always say no to PC ideas they will stop offering them, but at the same time there's logic and "reality" to be considered

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Marty Walser said...
December 8, 2015 at 12:09 PM  

You have improperly interpreted the "Yes, and..." advice. It is not intended to mean what you have stated here at all.

You've created convoluted examples that are not the intention of "Yes, and" improvisation.

The "Yes, and" advice is not intended to over-turn rules of the game world and let the PCs be super-human when they are not, or give them skills or equipment they do not have.

For example, you state:
"A more reasonable example would be a character with a lot of skill in diplomacy trying to use a skill roll to talk an NPC enemy ruler into doing something that no one in their right mind would agree to."

This is an excellent example of how you are misinterpreting the advice... and this is actually a PERFECT example of how "Yes, and" can be used effectively.

Player: "I'd like to convince King Arthur that Mordred should lead the army against this new evil."

Bad DM: "No, he'd never do that."

-------

Good DM: "Tell me what your character would say to the King to convince him."

Player: "Your Highness, I know Mordred's scheming for the throne has led to your mistrust of him, but in this instance, we believe he has the interest of the kingdom at heart... [player continues with impassioned speech...]"

Several minutes of role playing ensue, where the King inevitably answers "No" to the PCs, but instead offers the alternative that the party accompany Mordred and a unit hand-picked specialized troops to disrupt the approaching evil army's march... and now you have a fun few session of guerrilla warfare that were inspired by an off-the-cuff moment of role playing.

You see, the point is not that the PCs always get their way. The point is that you allow the players the opportunity to present their ideas in character which can lead to awesome campaign moments through improvisation and role playing. The King still said "No" but you gave the player their "Yes" moment and something wonderful happened.

If you just say no all the time, the player will stop participating because you are not listening to his ideas. You have to give them the opportunity to move the plot in directions you may not have anticipated.

By just shutting them down, you've not only impacted their fun, but missed an amazing opportunity.

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Greg Salter said...
December 8, 2015 at 3:09 PM  

I'll second everything Marty Walser said. The advice comes down to working with players instead of shutting down. The end result could be the same, but one is interesting the other just convinces players to stop caring.

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Randall said...
December 8, 2015 at 4:06 PM  

Marty Walser: While this may have been the original purpose behind this advice, I see it used mainly my players to beat GMs over the head these days. I can't even say it is good advice for its intended purpose, as any GM advice that says to always do (or not do) something is by definition bad advice to my mind.

As I run sandbox campaigns that don't have any stories other than what the players decide to (try to) do (and have since 1975), I've never understood GMs who will not allow their players to try to do anything they want, but I would not advise such GMs to "always say 'yes'" but to simply generally allow players to try anything possible that they want to try -- no matter how likely to fail it is (although a good GM should generally warn them if the characters would both know it was likely to fail and that failure is likely to hurt). Refusing to allow players to even try is generally a bad idea, as is not allowing them to fail if that's what happens. Complete and utter failure should seldom mean the end of the adventure, normally it should just mean the players will have to have their characters try something else.

"Always say 'yes'", "fail forward," and the like are modern GMing ideas that seem very "off" -- at least as general advice -- to my "old school" mind.

Sadly, they seem more off when I see them abused. Players who expect/demand their GM to approve their character even when said character has nothing to do with the campaign's concept. Players who expect their GM to allow unrealistic results simply because the players thought up the idea and have mini-maxed the game system to the point they can't fail the die roll.

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JDJarvis said...
December 8, 2015 at 5:43 PM  

Characters should stay in concept for the campaign: It's okay to sat no to green wookies on Middle Earth and ninjas in ancient Greece.

When it comes to crazy ideas in play it's okay to let people fail at some things but other things really ruin the game: It's okay for the player to try to have his character try to leap across an alley and swing thru a window and kick a bad guy in the face... it's bad for the dame character to attack the queen in the throne room surrounded by guards during the first 5 minutes of the session while she is briefing the PCs on their mission.

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Marty Walser said...
December 8, 2015 at 10:48 PM  

Randall write: "While this may have been the original purpose behind this advice, I see it used mainly my players to beat GMs over the head these days."

You can't blame the advice because the players abuse its intent. That like saying, "Cars are useless because some people use them irresponsibly and therefore crash and hurt people."

You are blaming the advice for what is a GM and player abuse problem

You write: "I would not advise such GMs to "always say 'yes'" but to simply generally allow players to try anything possible that they want to try."

What you are missing is that those two statements ARE THE SAME. The "Say Yes" advice means exactly what you just stated -- Let the players try anything possible they want to try, no matter how likely it is to fail.

That is exactly the intent of the philosophy, so I think you may be misinterpreting its meaning just because you've heard about players that abuse it with a GM that does not grasp the full concept.

It also does not preclude the GM from warning the player that what they are attempting may well be impossible, but even an impossible task may be redirected with a "Yes, but" suggestion from the GM toward a course of action that may be difficult, but not impossible using the player's suggestion as a starting point (i.e. - like convincing the King in my counter example).

You write "Sadly, they seem more off when I see them abused. Players who expect/demand their GM to approve their character even when said character has nothing to do with the campaign's concept (1). Players who expect their GM to allow unrealistic results simply because the players thought up the idea and have mini-maxed the game system to the point they can't fail the die roll. (2)"

These have nothing to do with the "Say Yes" philosophy and are a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of its intent.

1) I and others have already addressed this in the comments. There is absolutely nothing in the "Say Yes" philosophy that says you have to approve genre breaking character concepts. No one has ever said a GM "has to say yes to anything the player posits". But as I have illustrated with examples, there are ways that you can take the player's request into consideration even when you say "No" (or rather "Yes, but..."). You redirect their request toward something that would *not* break the campaign, but you can still say "No" because that's not what it's about.

But again, as others have noted, "Say Yes" really has nothing to do with pre-campaign player decisions like race, class or background, but about narrative action within a scene once the game has begun.

Anyone that says, "'Say Yes' means you have to let me play an Elf in an Elf-less world" is full of $#!t and doesn't know what they're talking about.

2) This second example also has nothing to do with the "Say Yes" philosophy. First, "Say Yes" is about scene narrative, not mechanics, so it has no bearing in this example. It doesn't say "If the player can roll high enough because of his min-maxed skill, he automatically succeeds gets his way [no matter how ridiculous the scenario is]."

That's a straw man, because it's not what "Say Yes" is about in any game or advice I've read. This is a pure misunderstanding of the meaning If you can give me an example of where this kind of advice appears in a game that uses this narrative style, I will mea culpa, but I'm dead certain this is *not* what "Say Yes" means.

"Say Yes" is not "the PCs can do whatever they damn well please". That makes no sense. No one would ever play a game like that, because that's not a game but fantasy wish-fulfillment. They'd be happier writing bad fan fiction where they can Mary Sue to their heart's content.

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Randall said...
December 9, 2015 at 9:35 AM  

Marty Walser:You said "What you are missing is that those two statements ARE THE SAME. The "Say Yes" advice means exactly what you just stated -- Let the players try anything possible they want to try, no matter how likely it is to fail."

Your wording may mean the same as my wording in your context but my wording is specific enough that it cannot be as easily used by players to browbeat GMs into letting them succeed at everything they want to do, no matter how absurd in the context of the current situation in the game. My wording focuses on the issue in a way that is much harder to misinterpret than "Always say yes". While you may never see it used that way, I see it used that way quite a bit on message boards, blog comments, and unfortunately from players in games I have observed.

AS I do not play narrative RPGs (the stress stuff I have little interest in), I don't know if any have used the phrase the way I am "misusing it". However, I do know that outside of that specific context, I see players and commenters use "Always say yes" type statements to attempt to justify the things I talked about in my post. "A GM should generally allow players to try anything possible that they want to try" may not be as soundbite worthy as "Always say yes" but it is harder for a GM to misunderstand and much harder for players to abuse.

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Ian Wyckoff said...
December 9, 2015 at 12:34 PM  

Randall, I blame you completely for what is going on on google+ :P

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Randall said...
December 9, 2015 at 1:19 PM  

Ian: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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Marty Walser said...
December 9, 2015 at 9:01 PM  

But Randall, nowhere in the advice does it really say "Always say Yes". That is an over simplification of the statement. The advice almost always reads Say "Yes, and... " or "Yes, but..." Semantically, that's not the same at all as "Always say yes."

Nuance is important.

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Randall said...
December 9, 2015 at 10:01 PM  

Marty: Perhaps the advice published in narrative games does not say "Always say yes" but I'm not limiting my comments on this maxim to the way it is used in narrative game rules. I see a whole lot of "always say yes" in forums and blogs around the Internet and from a small but noticeable group of players offline.

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