One of the worst pieces of GMing advice I ever gave myself was to always make sure the players were happy, even over my own happiness; to avoid saying No. This ridiculous piece of advice has lead to more campaign deaths in my career as a GM than I should admit. The thing is that saying yes to every idea or whim a player has isn’t a good idea. Sometimes we have to say No. No, so that we keep the stability of the campaign intact. No, so that the game remains fun for the majority of the group. No, so that we maintain safety. We often discount the power of No, but let’s take a look at why it may just be the thing you need to make your game better.
What about say “yes, and…”?
Ok. Let’s get this out of the way right now. There is this belief of many people who give GMing advice, myself included, that says that you should always listen to what a player does/says, say “yes, and…” and keep going. The idea is that “yes, and…” prevents shutting down players, and keeps everyone engaged and happy. That is true up to a point.
“Yes, and…” is an amazing improv tool, to be used during actual play. In play, it is a way to move a story forward and foster creativity for everyone at the table. I love “yes, and…”. Here is the thing that is missing—when it’s used in improvisational play, there is an assumption that all actors [players] are going to follow the theme of the story and are going to play well with others. This is why in improv theater, it looks magical. Those actors know the boundaries and know their fellow actors. Under those constraints, “yes, and…” is an amazing tool, and I do highly encourage its use.
But there are a lot more parts of a game than just play. And in those cases “yes, and…” does not apply. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The Power of No
I am a parent, like many of you may be. If you are not, let me tell you that there is real power in No. No stops kids from doing things that could get them hurt, and it stops them from doing things that will damage property—yours or someone else’s.
In RPGs, No is used to protect things as well. It can and should be used to protect safety, to ensure fun for the majority of the table and the integrity of the campaign, for long-term stability. That is not to say players are children, but rather that sometimes what is fun or a good idea for one player is not true for the group. And sometimes, you just have to remember what Spock says,
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
So Where is No Ok?
So going on the understanding that “yes, and…” is something you do during the playing of scenes, there are plenty of places where this does not apply, and you should not feel obligated to use it. So let’s talk about a few of those places:
When we are setting up our campaign collaboratively, we need to consider using a No from time to time. You don’t want to be heavy handed with this, but there are definitely times when you, as the GM, need to say no to a suggestion. The reason you want to do this is to keep the integrity and long-term stability of the campaign intact.
Most often this is going to be preventing the addition of some element in the game that is going to either mechanically destabilize the game, or some element that goes against the established tone and tropes of the game so much that it is jarring for others to engage the setting.
- Adding Ninjas into a Dragonlance game.
- Including the Ultimate Book of Firearms into your Forgotten Realms game.
- The inclusion of divine powers into your hard sci-fi setting
You can totally say yes to these things if everyone at the table thinks it’s amazing and wants to play in that world. Say no when someone brings it up and everyone else either says “meh” or is uncomfortable with it.
In my history of GMing, this is where I fail the most to say no, and where most of my campaigns break. These are the cases where the player wants something for their character. This is a hard one to often say no to because the character is the primary vehicle that the player has for enjoying the game, and as GM’s we try to allow as much autonomy in this area as possible. We then feel this obligation to say yes to their requests.
- Wanting to play a Class out of a third party supplement (like a ninja in your Dragonlance game).
- A player taking the perfect storm of feats to show you how broken the game can become.
- The player asking if they can start the game with this one magic item.
I will be bold. In most cases just say no. I know it trumps player choice, but once one broken character gets into the game it will destabilize everything. It will have one of two effects: either everyone will be annoyed at the broken character and they will disengage from the game, or it will start an arms race—and every player will try to emulate the broken character so that the entire group breaks.
A cohesive party is a productive party. If you are into intra-party conflict and player squabbles, skip this one. For the rest of us get ready to brandish a few no’s. When the group is working out how they are a group and their group dynamics, don’t hesitate to drop a no if you think that something in the dynamic is going to cause the group to collapse.
- One player asks if they can be a traitor and be allied with the bad guys, unbeknownst to the rest of players.
- One player wants to have a secret from the other PLAYERS (key word being players).
- Two players have diametrically opposed alignments/beliefs, that can’t be reconciled.
These issues fall into two categories that both need a no: they involve keeping secrets from players (keeping secrets from characters is a different thing..and can be just fine), and they involve creating atmospheres that make cooperation impossible. Neither of these will make for a productive group. So ready up a no-bomb, and preserve the peace.
Chaotic Stupid Actions
There are times when players are either being funny or ridiculous and do something that will trigger an immediate or intermediate reaction that will stymie the game and possibly end the campaign. Often this is done under the shield of a certain alignment or belief system, and covered with “I was just playing in character”. No and no.
- A player just stabs the friendly King in the face because they are bored, to which the GM has no choice but to throw the castle full of guards at them.
- Shooting a fellow character over an in-game argument.
- The thief stealing from the party because “that’s what thieves do”.
Perhaps you don’t like stopping and rewinding things in your game to edit these things out. I didn’t either, like 50 dead campaigns ago. Today, I will just stop the game and talk it out to see if there is something else going on, and find a way to address it. But I have seen plenty of games descend into chaos due to one of these moves.
Up to this point, I have been a bit cheeky and ranty in my advice. Let me change my tone for this section.
Safety is nothing to joke about. We are all here to have a good time, to feel included, and to be comfortable physically and emotionally. If we are failing on any of those, something is seriously wrong. Our jobs as players, and a bit more GM’s as the de facto head of the game, is to insure safety for everyone in the game. When safety is broken, saying no is the best thing to do:
- One player is getting physically too close to another, who has not consented.
- A GM deciding that the guards sexually abuse one of the captured characters.
- Someone wants to play out a torture scene during an interrogation.
No. Stop the game, and address the problem. In this case, Spock is dead wrong. Safety is not a majority rule. If everyone but one person is fine with the torture scene, you don’t have it. GM’s, if you are in the wrong for an action and get called out, take it and apologize. It is not your game, it’s everyone’s game.
Your best bet is to deploy a safety tool like the X-card to facilitate addressing these proactively, and always make your decision based on what is safe for everyone.
The Power Of No
For all the advice I have given above (except for the Safety advice) you may say, that is fine in your game. That is totally cool. My point wasn’t to tell you what to say no to, but rather to give you an idea of areas in the game where actions can occur that destabilize games, and make good candidates for saying no. Hell, if you want Ninjas in your Dragonlance campaign, wielding firearms and mixed in with the Ultimate Handbook of Ninja Badness—and your group is into that—then assault Raistlin’s tower with your AK-47 toting Ninjas.
Rather my point in this article has been that sometimes we have to say no to things in the game for its long-term stability. After all, the goal of campaign play is to play session after session, developing a tale. But that won’t happen if the game destabilizes because you tried to make a player or players happy with a decision that you or the rest of the group were not comfortable with.
So what were some of the No’s you have said to preserve your games? What were some of the Yeses in your games that should have been No’s?