GM Advice: Letting Go of “No”

If you’ve been game mastering for a while, the word “no” can start to feel like a comfortable old friend.  After all, you spend your sessions riding herd on players, who often have the impulse control of Ritalin-deprived, sugar-soaked 10-year-olds…or maybe that’s just my group.  In any case, it is easy to just say no when players ask for some seemingly outlandish thing: “No, you can’t kill all those goblins with a bench.” “No, the sword you found  is not a fabulous relic.” “No, you can’t eat the last slice of pizza.”  Fine, that last one can stay.  But otherwise, as GMs we need to stop relying on “no” and start working with “yes”.

This doesn’t mean we let the players do whatever they want, because that way madness lies.  But we can harness the power of “yes” for our own nefarious purposes with the addition of two simple words:

Yes, and…” – “Yes, and…” is probably one of the few rules of improv acting.  Basically its function is to stop actors from blocking the ideas of fellow actors.  So if an actor makes a suggestion, instead of countering that suggestions, you would accept it (yes) and build on it (and).  The same thing can be done when you are GMing.  If a player offers an idea (“Can I tip this soup cauldron on the goblin cook?” for example), instead of saying no you say, “Yes, and not only do you scald the goblin cook with his own soup, but the rest of the goblins are infuriated by the loss of their delicious dog soup.”  Whether that means anything in game terms is up to you.  It could just be a nice bit of flavour, or the goblins could have some sort of attack bonus for a round because they are so angry.  As well, there is now soup everywhere; maybe that makes the floor slippery, and some checks are needed for both goblins and adventurers to keep their footing.  Either way, saying yes and building on it leads to a more exciting scenario compared to saying “no” (“Can I tip this soup cauldron on the goblin cook?” “No.” “Oh. Okay, I guess I’ll swing my sword at him.  Does a 16 hit?”).  And wouldn’t you rather have your players excited? (Yes, and…)

Yes, but…” – “But” serves much the same function as “and”, but allows you to control the direction things take.  Whereas “and” takes the player right where he/she wants to go and then some, “but” allows you to give the player what they want, but with a twist or consequence they didn’t anticipate. So continuing with our example, “Yes, but…whatever is in the soup isn’t quite dead yet, and it takes a bite at you as you tip over the cauldron.”  The player still gets to do what they want, but there is a consequence they couldn’t foresee.

Used that way, “yes, and…” and “yes, but…” are fairly interchangeable.  Where “but” really comes into its own is when the player fails at something, which is essentially the dice saying  “no”.  Instead of that, let the dice say “yes, but…” instead.  Consider the following:

Player: “My fighter is going to jump off the roof onto the fleeing carriage!” *rolls* Does a 12  make it?

GM: (Option 1) “No, you needed a 15.  Your fighter hits the ground and takes 8 points of damage.  The carriage speeds off.”

GM: (Option 2) “Yes, but just barely. Instead of landing safely on the roof, you slide off the other side and are hanging from a luggage strap.  You can see the ground rushing by beneath your feet, and over your shoulder you hear the familiar ‘click’ of a crossbow cocking…”

Which of those two options is more exciting?  Which would you rather hear, as a player?  “Yes, but…” allowed the player to get the result that he/she wanted, but still suffer a consequence for a failure on the dice.  No the character will have to spend a tense round dangling from the side of a speeding carriage and hoping the driver’s aim is really bad.  Most important, the action keeps going instead of stopping dead with the failed die roll.

I’m not saying you never say no to your players again.  But I am suggesting that “no” shouldn’t be the first tool you pull out of your GM toolbox.  Maybe let it sit for a while, and get used to the feel of “yes, and…” and “yes, but…”.  I think you’ll find those tools get the job done better.

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2 thoughts on “GM Advice: Letting Go of “No”

  1. Since you were kind enough to mention my daughter Terri da Silva’s breast cancer here, I wanted you to be among the first to hear the good news we got today. After her first round of chemo, her oncologist reports that all the metastases, the tumours in her lymph nodes and leg bones, ARE GONE, and that the original tumours in her breast have all shrunk by at least 50%, and the largest one shrank by more than 75%. She is still, and will always be, a Stage 4 cancer patient…but for the moment, she has kicked cancer’s ass. She will not, after all, need mastectomy or radiation, just a lifetime of very careful chemo. She and her husband attribute all this change (which stunned her doctors) to her positive attitude and lifestyle: to saying “Yes” rather than “No” as you say above. See her splendid blog http://www.gracefulwomanwarrior.com for details. Thank you very much for helping to bring attention to Terri and her blog: I’m quite sure it helped. And thanks to all who took a moment to throw Terri a prayer or a few bucks for her huge medical bills.
    Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased. Please share my joy!

    • I will definitely spread this great news, Spider! And thanks for letting me know personally; I have nothing but the best wishes for you and yours. I’ll post the good news in tomorrow’s blog!

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