Why saying No is imporant when DMing

One again RPGChat generated an interesting discussion I’d like to explain here. It started when I griped that “Yes, And” and “Say Yes or Roll Dice” should be banished from RPGs. In retrospect, these both represent a valid playstyle that I’m sure people enjoy. However, I feel that the style of play opposed to these is under attack in this age of lightweight, shared narration games, with people writing all new, flashy shared narrative control games and forgetting the Game in Role  Playing Games, so I thought I would explain my perspective, so that perhaps some of you young, improve schooled whippersnappers would give it a try. Possibly even write some new, traditional games for me to play. Therefore I am going to outline why “Yes, And” is just one tool that a DM should use, and not be an absolute rule as it is in improve, while “Say Yes or Roll Dice”, as an absolute rule, is not conductive to my style of gaming.

Anyway, despite being young in years I tend to follow a very traditional game model when DMing. There is one DM and one to six players, sometimes more. I have a vague outline of what is going on in my game, usually a published adventure, from which I will base what will happen off of. Now, the players are going to suggest things I haven’t thought of, at which point I’ll improvise as best I can to keep things moving and consistent. Anyway, players are going to ask me things “Is there a bank in town, are there any footprints in the grass, can we follow that blood trail, does the Duke of Madeupian have blue eyes, and so on.

I am not going to say yes to all of these. Lets say I’m running a 1920s investigative adventure set in Arkham (Since I’m the most familiar with it). In this case, for the above questions I’d look at my notes, and see if there are footprints on the grass. I don’t just say yes and improve; I give them a clue that will lead them towards the murderer (Or inform them it rained since then, or give them a red herring, you get the idea). For example, if the players know that the killer has blue eyes, I’m going to have figured out which potential suspects are blue eyes ahead of time. So if the Duke isn’t the killer, I’m probably going to say No quite a lot, as if I said Yes, And then every suspect would have blue eyes, rendering me unable to use that as a method for letting them eliminate suspects. In fact, how can you ever eliminate suspects if I can’t say no?

Additionally what happens when players ask for ridiculous things? Can I invent gunpowder? Can I invent a steam engine? Can I make a flamethrower out of this insecticide sprayer I found in a D&D supplement? (Complete Adventurer I think? It was years ago), Can I have a Zeppelin? Of the proceeding, all but the question about the steam engine have all been asked within my game. Of those, the only one that I said yes to was the Zeppelin. Why did I say yes to it, and either said no, or would have said no to the others? Zeppelins are appropriate to a 1920s pulp-action-horror game. Gunpowder, steam engines and flame throwers are not appropriate for the magical fantasy settings in which the questions took place. I will say no to preserve the sprite and feel of the setting I am running, and I feel any good DM should do the same.

A final example, is that sometimes it is a better story to say no. For example, when Gimli asks to destroy the ring, Lord of the Rings would have been a pretty lame book if they’d hit it with a hammer, the end. Saying No, you have to do X, Y and Z first gave a much better story. It also allows Mr. Tolkien to keep using the rest of the campaign he had written, and before I hear any cried of railroading, I’m betting if he was a DM he was not expecting them to split the party and do three adventures at once. In my games I wasn’t expecting the players to use a zeppelin to go hire Louis Armstrong to play at their club, to give them a chance to answer some questions about a trumpet he was reported to have owned. Oddly enough the adventure didn’t account for that, so I let my players fly up to New York and talk with him. It was in character, in setting and there was no reason to say no, and I made up the consequences. Saying yes IS appropriate some of the time, even most of the time. But NO should be a tool in a DM’s toolbox.

Until next time, stay geeky,


Edit: Some people have taken this to mean ‘Say No unless I’d previously planned something’. Rather it should be taken as a “Say yes or no based on the DMs best judgment about what will make an interesting, fun game and challenge the players.” I didn’t have it anywhere in my notes that a player would have an airship, but I let him have it as I couldn’t think of a reason not to. Whereas in other cases I say no, as it would make a less fun game or break the premise I had in mind. So: Best judgment, not silly one line rules.

Published in: on January 11, 2013 at 2:47 am  Comments (12)  
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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Saying yes isn’t the same as going with everything they want, or that you are never saying No. The way I understand it, saying yes and or yes but is right there with No, but not a definitive No.

    More often than not the No will come to keep the game’s identity, to preserve its theme, style and coherence, furthermore it is meant as a tool to bring the awesome player ideas into the game instead of closing the world around the DM prep alone.

    If the idea fits the game like a glove, then yes is the answer, if it derails the game from what the group is interested and considers fun, or attacks one of the pillars of the experience, then No is the answer, but giving alternatives or reasons might show them why that is not going into the game but keeps them invested into creating.

    Have always been old school myself but have been learning to say yes.

    • Thank you for your comments. I’ve heard “Say Yes or Roll Dice” used as an absolute many times before. My point, possibly poorly made (I need to start editing these things like I do school papers, I guess) is that it shouldn’t be an absolute. I think mapping out a town in entirety then answering yes or no based on those notes is a perfectly valid play-style (I’ve heard this called a ‘simulationist’ playstyle and I would love to be organized enough to do it). Saying yes when your instincts and reasoning tell you to, and no when they tell you to is also a valid playstyle, and I wanted to advocate that.

      I do agree that I find myself growing more experienced and more confident in being able to improve things I didn’t anticipate beforehand.

  2. Railroading is pretty much bashed all over the in the internet, but it is also a valid playstyle that work for some, I even have had fun games with it!

    In your case it is just a different kind of play and one I used to apply in my games as well, I like to call it plotdriven or storydriven, it can be very successful and my major problem with it was that I liked to prep too much and it used to take a lot of my time.

    The truth is there is not magic or perfect way at all, right now I would make a sketch of a city, place what I consider important and make sure I see that not everything is set in stone, because I want the players to have what they consider familiar or useful more easily available.

    This can be easily considered when you prep but don’t put a given temple on town, or a source of knowledge like a library, a wizard tower and the like. Usually we will forget things, lately I am just sketching what i consider essential and leaving the rest up to the game, where I apply “Yes and” to incorporate those elements.

    Saves me time when preparing and gives the players enough space to come up with cool stuff.

    • As I’ve moved to shorter adventures that might only have a couple pages of written material I’ve become more and more willing to add things to the setting. However, Boston isn’t going to have a giant wizards tower in it any time soon, no matter how much saying ‘no’ creates a wall.

      • Soudns good! I mostly GM fantasy games so used to the theme hehehe.

  3. I always say yes and no when it benefits the story. I have never thought “yes and” was an absolute in gaming. If I talk with players and GM’s about the subject there is invariably a few that think that it is absolute. I just remind them that the best GM and player is one that can move the story towards fun. For me absolutes of any kind do not make it fun.

    • Glad to hear I’m no the only one who thinks this.

    • Only absolute on the table for me is: everyone is there to have fun. ;)

  4. I think saying no, is important. Sometimes the thing is about fitting the game to the entire audience, and that means that “No, you cannot play a ninja in my Ars Magica game..” because SOME of the audience wants Mythic Europe, and only that.

    • Right. This was bought up on IRC as the ‘No Lesbian Stripper Ninja’s in medieval Europe rule’ (I’m paraphrasing).

  5. Sometimes if you get somebody trying to get too many things not allowed, well, it is probably the case that they’re in the wrong game. I’ve run Call of Cthulhu for different groups and there are sometimes players who want to “level up” or “get stuff” or resent that their sanity is always going down.

    Well, that’s Cthulhu. Duh.

    • Usually there isn’t too much stuff, but there are small things; X wasn’t invented yet isn’t uncommon. It is a good point that sometimes a group just doesn’t work for a specific game though.

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