Don’t Always Never Say “No”

November 26, 2012

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…

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.

Yes, and…

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.

BUT…

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.”

Tags: ,






16 Responses to Don’t Always Never Say “No”

  1. Mudlock on November 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    “Yes, and…” isn’t enough.

    Also use “No, but…”

    And “Maybe; why?”

  2. valadil on November 26, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    I’ve held this attitude for a while. Personally, I prefer “yes, but.” I let the players try to do whatever they want to do, but the game world is not obliged to entertain their every whim. The wizard who thinks it would be cool to jump a 50 foot ravine gets a common sense check, then plummets to his death.

    Anyway, I prefer this because telling the players no is a permission thing. It’s telling them they’re not allowed to try to interact with the game world in a certain way. As a player I find that appalling. I’d rather be allowed to fail than to only be allowed to take actions that can succeed.

    For example, last time I played a caster the party got stuck at a toll on a bridge. We couldn’t afford to pay so I offered to use an illusion to change our copper coins to gold. The GM said no because the weight would be off and it wouldn’t work. Having his will inserted at that point in the game shut me down and I was disinterested in the game for the rest of the night. IMO what would have been a better response would be to let me cast the spell and then give me a check to see if I notice how off the coins feel. If it’s so obvious that their weight is off, I’m sure to notice. If it’s not so obvious (see if you can tell a dime from a penny for instance), maybe I could have convinced the toll takers the coins were gold.

    • Bearfoot on December 30, 2013 at 12:17 am

      But the flip side of that is when you never tell your players “No” they will always expect you to say yes.

      It’s like being a parent kind of. If you don’t set some sort of limits then they’ll walk all over you as much as you let them.

  3. Lord Byte on November 27, 2012 at 4:04 am

    What I do to say no without saying no is use an off-camera moment. Use what they’re asking and tell them it went nowhere, and just dress it in. (“Well you walk back all the way to town, but find no tracks whatsoever. It took you a few hours. In the meantime…”) I don’t roll a die, I don’t waste time on giving them the illusion of interaction. BUT the player still had his choice, his idea didn’t just get shot-down, it just got a side-note, an of camera moment that went nowhere.

  4. TheAngryDM on November 27, 2012 at 10:25 am

    What is most interesting to me in your coin example (the thing that has me banging my head against the wall, that is), is that the DM effectively halted the adventure. You have an obstacle (a toll booth), a conundrum (no money), and you figured a way around the obstacle (illusion spell). The trick only needs to work for a few minutes, just long enough for you to clear the gate.

    Sometimes, what other DMs do baffles me.

    But the point is well made. I am not saying you should not never say yes, either. I’m saying you should err on the side of saying yes, on the side of freedom, but sometimes, there are reasons to say no.

    For example, the coin trick would worry me only because the party could get together hundreds of gold coins, change them to platinum, and if wondrous or magical items are sold in the world, make themselves substantially more powerful. Hence my rule about: “what if the PCs did this every time?” Now, personally, I would prefer to deal with that in character. The PCs become known con artists. They can’t find people to deal with them. Eventually, rulers hire people to bring them down. That sort of thing.

    But I also can’t fault a DM who doesn’t want to see an entire campaign essentially turned into Fantasy Catch Me if You Can. Especially if the players just aren’t thinking through the long-term consequences and probably don’t want to become fugitives either. So, if a DM wants to nip it in the bud right then and there, I understand completely.

    I might let the PCs get away with the toll bridge situation, but the first time they try to pull it in a shop, I explain a few things about how merchants use scales and touchstones, especially if they deal in transactions of more than a few silver, and that you guys are very quickly going to get caught even if you do manage to pull off the fraudulent transaction and if you want to turn this into a game of money laundering and check fraud, I’ll play along, but I’d rather we didn’t.

  5. ChaosShard on November 27, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Thank you for this!

    I’ve been running with this philosophy (successfully, if I do say so myself) for some time now. Although I tend to run lower difficulty games, the same rules apply. I’ve played with DMs who use the mantra of “No, and you can suck it” and others who let players run roughshod over them. In the end, both are (at best) unfulfilling and at worst, group-wreckingly-awful. There are people who’s company I enjoy, but can’t game because of exactly this sort of binary thinking.

    As to Valadil’s coin trick, here’s what I probably would have done at that moment: “Ok, you can do that, but if he’s paying attention, he’ll probably notice the difference in weight.” Yeah, you can try that here, but you need to work for it. Some kind of cunning (or ridiculous) distraction could work, especially if the toll-taker isn’t familiar with illusions, and that’s more setting-dependent than anything.

    As far as future uses are concerned, the major exploits (like Angry mentioned: change Gold to Plat, acquire loot) are averted by scales to weigh coins, Detect Magic and so on. Since counterfeiters have existed as long as currency has, it’s perfectly reasonable, and something the players can be familiar with. Let’s not forget that the high end merchants will notice something amiss in a few minutes when that Platinum turns back to Gold. Assuming the merchant doesn’t just call the guards, he’ll send mercs or thieves to get their goods back.

    To me, that’s done and done. If the issue is pressed later on, it can be dealt with in the existing framework I’ve created. It’s logical enough to satisfy the questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ to prevent that arbitrary ruling feeling that players hate so much.

  6. TheAngryDM on November 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    And while I accept that it CAN be fixed in-character and in-world, you have to ask yourself and your group whether you want it to be…

    If the party (or some small subset of them) becomes a group of fugitive counterfeiters and magical con-artists actively evading enforcement while unable to do business in the civilized areas of the world without disguises, the entire focus of the campaign changes. Everything that has gone into the game up to that point and everything prepared for the future is invalidated.

    That is a HUGE decision. It is not one that should be made lightly, by the DM alone, or by one player who decides to pull a scam. Much as I am a fan of handling everything in character, there is a point where it is entirely valid to hit the pause button and say: “Folks, if you go through with this, everything changes…” and make sure EVERYONE is good with that, DM included.

    I’d rather take five minutes out of character to talk about the future than keep rolling blindly forward only to discover a campaign is irrevocably ruined and no one is enjoying it anymore.

    • Brantaylor on August 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

      This is a good point. I am a big proponent of handle it in character, but nobody at the table wants the story to change so much that it is no longer interesting. Personally, if I am out to DM a tale about a group of adventurers saving the land, devolving into counterfeiting and such is a completely different game that I would probably just end entirely. Nobody wants the game to just end… or at least I hope not. It is definitely ok to explain the future consequences of an action out of play before letting it get out of control.

  7. ChaosShard on November 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    “If the party (or some small subset of them) becomes a group of fugitive counterfeiters and magical con-artists actively evading enforcement while unable to do business in the civilized areas of the world without disguises, the entire focus of the campaign changes. Everything that has gone into the game up to that point and everything prepared for the future is invalidated.”

    That’s a perfect example. It’s really tough to make a call like this in a general way. I should have prefaced my comment with “If it were my group…” since they can deal with the one-off trick if I explain to them that it won’t work elsewhere. Other will behave-as one would expect-differently.

    While it’s rattling about in my skull, could it be possible that the general rule should not involve “Always say yes” but rather: First, know thy group?

  8. TheAngryDM on November 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Of course. And that’s part of what I tried to say in the end. But telling an inexperienced new DM “know your group” is useless without clarification. And worse, people often assume they know things they don’t know. All DMs think they know their group and yet, all DMs probably have at least one big blind spot where they don’t know their group half as well as they think. It is human nature.

    Given that, I’d start with “listen to your group” rather than “know your group.” In fact, “ask your group open-ended questions” is better than listen because some groups just don’t talk unless forced to and getting feedback can be hard.

    The truth is, being a good DM takes time and practice and its important not to get frustrated and it is important not to get into bad habits or believe there are universal rules.

    My general rules of thumb tend to be along the lines: “if you are afraid to tell your group that you did ‘X’ or why you did ‘X’, you are doing something wrong.” Because that means you know, on some level, you’re doing something that they would find upsetting. For example, if you are the sort of DM who fudges die rolls to keep the PCs alive or help them win, would you tell your players what you were up to? Would you do it in the open? If you wouldn’t, you know, on some level, you are doing your players a disservice.

    To put this another way, I am deeply suspicious of any simple, easy rule of thumb offered to anyone without a long pile of clarification and exceptions to go with it. I’ve been DMing long enough to know it is just never that simple.

  9. ChaosShard on November 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Good point. I strayed away from the original intent of the post. I blame work for that.

    I think the “ask your group open-ended questions” line is one of the best ideas I’ve read regarding DMing in a long, long time. It reminds me in part of DFRPG.

    The “Would you do this in the open?” test is an interesting one. I think I’ll try applying it consciously tonight and see what I find…

    This is why I harass you with questions, the answers are always excellent :)

  10. Kitastrophe on November 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Excellent piece. I’m a fairly new GM and I’m constantly challenged by a min/maxing rules lawyer (but in a good way, if you can imagine that) who wanted to be able to warn the other PCs when he was casting pyrotechnics so they wouldn’t be blinded. With his insane save DCs it would have been unbalancing unchecked, so I allowed it with the caveats that the PCs had to make a reflex save to hear him, and if they saved they took a penalty to AC and Attacks because they shut their eyes for a moment. It seems to be working out okay.

    I agree with you about the 1st commenter and the coins – I’d allow it, and then when the illusion fades you’d have one angry member of the city watch and things would get difficult indeed.

  11. Jess on November 30, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Angry DM,
    Thank you.

  12. [...] look at the oft said rule of “never say no.”  His particular take can be found HERE and I encourage you to read over it. There are a lot of things he covers I agree with, but I [...]

  13. Aaron Brazell on August 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Y’all are making me want to game again. Sigh.

  14. Glen Hallstrom on August 22, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Good point well presented. I just wonder how well the “don’t ever say no” philosophy would go over in Dungeon World games, where it’s built around the “don’t say no” idea.

    -SJ

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *