Preface: This article ends with the most amazing advice ever to be offered to DMs, especially new DMs, in the history of gaming. Because I’m that good. It should be in every f$&%ing GM Guide ever. So, stick it through to the end before you decide to post an angry comment about how awful I am for saying what I’m saying. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Sly, you’re an amazing guy and your website is loaded with great advice. I hope you don’t think I’m picking a fight with you just because I disagree with one thing you said. Actually, you’re just the most recent person to say it and I’ve finally decided to weigh in. I still love you. In a totally platonic, non-threatening way. Folks, if you read only two blogs filled with gaming advice this year, the second one should be Sly Flourish.
Also, a chandler is a dude who makes candles. In case it comes up.
All right. That’s out of the way. Let’s get this started…
If there is one piece of advice that raises my hackles more than any other, it is this: “A DM should NEVER say no. They should always say ‘yes, and…’ ”
Don’t get me wrong. Its not bad advice and I generally follow it myself. But it is haphazard, careless advice. It is outright dangerous advice to give a new DM. And, most of all, it is not universally applicable. The trouble is that the folks that give the advice rarely take the time to discuss it or to think about when it is may or may not be good advice. They just rattle it off as some universal rule of DMing.
As I said, the intention is good. If the players want to do something that the DM didn’t plan for or something different than what the adventure or campaign suggests should be the next step, the DM should not outright tell the players “no, you can’t do that” or “I didn’t plan for that.” The DM should use the players’ intentions as a stepping off point to take the game in a new direction.
Likewise, if a player wants his PC to attempt some action in the game that there is not a specific rule for, the DM should not just allow the player to try it, but build on it. This is precisely why the game is run by a DM instead of just a set of rules or a computer. Because the DM is able to override the rules and make come up with logical ways to make things work.
The “yes, and…” approach is not for every DM and it is not for every situation. And the folks who spout the “yes, and…” philosophy rarely take their own advice. They quote the pithy statement without going into real detail and a new DM who reads “never say no” and takes it to heart my find things quickly spiral out of control. Personally, I think the best advice is: “Being a good DM is about learning when to say no and when to say yes. And learning to say no without saying no.”
First of all, there are game balance issues to consider. If the party attempts some action that turns out to be highly efficient or effective, you can bet they are going to do it again and again. For example, in D&D 3.5, it was easy to build a character that was extremely effective at tripping or disarming an opponent, both of which were quite crippling in combat because of the economy of actions. A party with someone who had spent just one or two feats on tripping or disarming could render humanoid foes a trivial challenge. And this wasn’t even improvisation.
As a DM, before I allow any sort of improvised action, I always ask myself what things would be like if the PCs do it every time. If it is something that seems like it would be a game breaker, I’m very careful. Cool though an action may be, I don’t want to lose the sense of challenge in my game.
Of course, I could make something very difficult; Just because I allow a player to try something doesn’t mean I have to make it easy to succeed. Or I could balance the action with some sort of cost or consequence or risk. This is, after all, a valid application of “yes, and…” but it’s also tricky to do on the spot. An inexperienced DM shouldn’t feel forced to try this sort of balancing on the fly and should feel free to go back on a decision that turns out to break the game in an unexpected way.
Beyond that, not everyone puts the same weight on the sense of challenge that I do. In my game, victory is never assured and PCs can fail and, if they are not cautious, they can die. Forever. My players sometimes bemoan it because they do fail and die, but they also appreciate it because, when they win, they feel like they earned a victory against difficult odds. Some players do genuinely want a challenge. This is further complicated by the fact that players (and people in general) are bad at knowing what will actually make them happy. It always seems like fun, for instance, to play a game with all the cheat codes enabled or to pop open Garry’s Mod, but, for many people, it loses its luster quickly. It isn’t the same experience as a challenging game.
There are also times when a player wants something that should be (or seems like it should be) impossible or something that is well outside the scope of the world in which the story takes place. For example, you can let someone try to leap their 1st-level elf wizard over that fifty-foot ravine, you can let them roll the dice and plummet to death, or you can let them make the impossible leap, but it is just as valid to tell the player “your character knows that jump is probably impossible for them and if they try it, they will fall to their death.”
There is a point where coherence and verisimilitude become a consideration. The DM is the arbiter not just of the rules, but of the natural laws of the game world. What IS and what ISN’T possible? What can magic do? Can someone with a high enough Balance or Acrobatics skill walk on water? Can a high-level fighter throw a sword through a dragon’s skull at fifty paces?
For some groups, the answer is a resounding: “Hell, yes, that is damned cool!” For others, the answer is: “that’s unrealistic.” And both answers are equally valid. Like writing a fiction book, running a game of D&D involves a tacit agreement that everyone will suspend their disbelief and allow some crazy, impossible things to happen (a fighter can totally fall fifty feet, lose ninety percent of his hit points, and jump back into the fight just as effectively as before the fall). But every person and every group of people has a different level of suspension of disbelief. And once it is crossed, the game becomes “just plain silly.”
Whatever the appropriate level of the suspension of disbelief for the group, the DM is gatekeeper of reality. Any question about what the PCs can and cannot do must be examined before it passes through the gate. And nothing should be allowed through lightly.
The DM’s job is also to serve the group rather than individual players. If one player wants to take the game in a different direction than everyone else, or push the bounds of reality in a way that other folks will dislike, it is important for the DM to act in the best interests of the group as a whole. Moreover, no player has the right to ruin another player fun. A DM should always have permission to forbid behavior that would allow one player to make other players unhappy or ruin their fun. This can even include forbidding evil alignments for the sake of party cohesion and teamwork.
Certain campaign themes and elements actually rely on the DMs ability to set boundaries and say no. Mystery games exploit the information gap between players and the DM. The PCs need to uncover and interpret information before they can fix a problem. And a complex mystery needs to be carefully constructed so as to be solvable. Rampant improvisation in mystery games (unless you are very skilled) leads to overly complex, bloated, and sometimes even unsolvable mysteries. Letting the PCs blunder down down dead ends and chase too many red herrings and false leads can lead to frustration and sometimes it is better to shut those actions down with a quick remark: “you question the chandler for several hours until you are certain he knows nothing of use.”
Horror games rely on powerlessness. The heroes are alone or isolated, or they have limited resources, or their foe is overwhelming, or the foe is incomprehensible. From survival horror to supernatural horror, the basic point of the game is that the heroes are facing something that has them at an extreme disadvantage. Perhaps things are even hopeless.
I could go on and on. There are many reasons a DM might say no and why it might be necessary or even preferable. The DM has a lot of responsibilities and the priorities are different at every game table. And the DM has to consider their own comfort level as well. Some DMs are not as comfortable or as skilled with improvisation. Newer DMs need to find their comfort level and discover the priorities that hold sway at their table with their players. They have to find their voice.
And that’s the problem with the “never say no; always say ‘yes, and…'” advice. It communicates to new and inexperienced DMs that if they ever say “no” they are doing something wrong and bad and ruining their game. It boils a complex issue down into a simple aphorism and imposes style considerations on DMs in the guise of a universal truth.
My proposal is to replace the bulls$&% “never say no” paragraph/sidebar with this:
“As a DM, you need to remember that there is a reason why you and your players are playing an RPG instead of a board game or video game or watching a movie. And you need to remember that there is a reason why the game is run by a human being with a brain. It is for the sake of freedom. No one at the table needs to be constrained by rules or a board or a computer program if they don’t want to be. A DM makes this possible because a DM can decide to change the rules, improvise new rules, change the world, invent entire story elements on the fly, and ensure that, whatever the players decide, there is something fun and interesting to experience.”
“As a DM, it is your job to facilitate that freedom. To embrace it. Because that is the reason you are all playing an RPG in the first place. If your players want to do something unexpected, unplanned, or outside of the scope of the rules, you should think very carefully before you say no. Every time you say no, you are taking some of the freedom out of the game. There are good reasons to do this, sometimes, but it is something you should never do lightly.”
“Sometimes, you will need to say no. There is no easy advice to give about when and why to say no. It comes down to what you are comfortable with and what the group wants. It is okay to say no if you do it with a reason. Remember, your players are trusting you to be fair and provide them with a great gaming experience. They are giving you the power to say no, but they are trusting you to use it to build a better world and a better game. If you say no, you should be willing and able to explain why you are saying no. Your players may not completely agree. Sometimes people disagree. But if you find yourself saying no and you can’t explain why, or you are afraid to tell your players the reason, you might be saying no for the wrong reasons. If you say no, ask yourself why you are saying no and ask yourself if you are willing to tell the players the reason if they ask. That is your best safeguard.”
“In time, you will come to understand your role as a DM and you will also come to understand what your players want and what they don’t want (which is sometimes very different from what they say they want and don’t want). You will also discover your own strengths and weaknesses and find your own comfort level and sense of style. You will, of course, become a more skilled DM with time and patience. Different groups want different things out of their game and that is perfectly fine. Part of the excitement of experiencing the game is discovering all of the amazing ways there are to play it and have fun. But at the core, there will always be the desire for freedom. That is what sets RPGs apart from every other game. And, as a DM, it will always be your job to facilitate that freedom. Otherwise, you’re no better than a computer.”
Of course, that’s hard to boil down to a single catchy phrase. How about: “don’t always never say no.”