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Learn to Say “No” to Your Players.

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On March 24, 2011 @ 1:45 am In GMing Advice | 18 Comments

What do you mean, "No"?It seems everywhere you go that someone is telling you to say “Yes” to your players. Saying “Yes” is more or less de rigueur these days, and you can’t use an area of effect ability without hitting three members of Baker’s cult of “Say ‘Yes’ or roll the dice.” Said too many times though, the simple “Yes” can turn even an excellent GM into a drooling bitter burnout, and it goes further than that. “Yes” waters down your game, stretches verisimilitude (haven’t heard that one in a while, eh?) and is a pitfall waiting to happen. There’s a place for “Yes” in every game, but given the current “say ‘yes’” culture, it’s easy to forget that there’s an equally important place for “No”.

When do you need to say “Yes” and when do you need to say “No”? Each has a place in your campaign and at your table and using the right one at the right time will make your job that much easier and your game that much better.  It’s a good rule of thumb that the right time to say “Yes” is whenever it’s not the right time to say “No” but there are specific instances where each is particularly useful.

It’s the right time for “No” when:

  • A player asks for is more work than you can currently handle – Biting off more than you can chew, even at a player’s request is a good way to become bitter, overworked, and burned out. Being realistic about your limitations and workload can keep your games and friendships running smoothly. Not doing so is a good way to bring your hobby crashing down on your head like a house of cards.
  • The request requires more work than the potential payoff – If your player asks you for an entire rewrite of a base system when an existing option would be close enough, or wants you to insert their custom backstory or setting which would be an awkward fit at best it’s a good time to say “No” In some cases, the right answer is “Next time” but that’s just a “No” in disguise.
  • It would ruin the mood and concept of your game – Of course, this assumes that you and your players are enjoying the current mood and concept of your game. If it’s time for a change, or you trust the player in question can handle the difficult element gracefully, like a well-timed comic relief character in a serious campaign, then by all means say “Yes”, but otherwise your answer should be “No” (or again, “Next time”).
  • It violates your setting – Save this “No” for gross violations, but if something a player is asking for literally sticks out like a sore thumb and requires a block and tackle to suspend disbelief, it’s OK to say “No” (or, surprise! “Next time.”)
  • It’s disruptive – Nothing about the “say ‘Yes’” culture makes or should make you a doormat. If a player is asking for something disruptive or obviously is just pushing something to be a jerk because they know you feel obligated to say “Yes”, it’s the perfect time for “No”, or ever “Shove it!” if you’re feeling bold.
  • the fun is at the expense of other players’ fun – Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a GM has to balance everyone’s table experience, which means that you can’t allow a request by a single player to outweigh the enjoyment of everyone else at the table.
  • You’d have to stray too far from your comfort zone – By all means, push your comfort zone, but don’t be afraid to say “No” when it’s pushed too far in a single go or when it’s too short notice.

It’s the right time for “Yes” when:

  • It will make your game more fun – All other things aside, you’re playing an RPG because it’s fun, so if something a player wants will make the game more fun, go for it.
  • A player has a good idea – Don’t begrudge your players their good ideas, not even if it prematurely offs a bad guy or circumvents an entire plot arc. You can always recycle the unused content.
  • It’s influential and reasonable – Players only have so many ways to influence the game world. If what they’re asking for makes sense, why not give it to them, even if it’s not exactly what you planned for. Again, this may require some recycling, and some improv too.
  • When you’ve got nothing better planned – If you’ve got a blank spot in your game and your player asks if there’s a thieves’ guild there, put a thieves’ guild there. They probably asked for a reason.
  • Because you asked for input – Sometimes it’s fun to hand a bit of narrative over to a player: “Who owns the biggest ship in the harbor?” Unless the response you get is completely unacceptable “Space Elvis, who single handedly piloted his ship, the Millennium Falcon from Mars to pose as the second coming of Christ” then it’s sort of a dick move to say “No”. You asked for it after all.
  • It’s not time to say “No” – As mentioned above, in general, if it’s not time to say “No”, it’s probably time to say “Yes.”

So saying “No” is as important as saying “Yes”, but they serve different functions. “No” is for preventing problems in your game, “Yes” is for embracing fun. Both are important tools and should be wielded carefully. But when uncertain, feel free to default to “Yes”. After all, you can always say “No” later.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Learn to Say “No” to Your Players."

#1 Comment By Clawfoot On March 24, 2011 @ 5:13 am

Perhaps it’s due to my years as being a Storyteller in a variety of large LARPs, but I’ve always felt that the most important word in a GM’s vocabulary is “no.” (The second most important is “yes,” of course.) But “no” has always been more important in my mind.

I don’t know why LARPs attract the kind of players that really need a strong hand to keep in line — maybe because they lend themselves to large games with players literally numbering in the dozens, so you’re bound to get more than your usual number of difficult players. But saying “no” was the best way to keep the game from dissolving into a giant mess, and it’s a habit I haven’t quite shaken yet.

Even now, in tabletop, when a player asks for something out of the ordinary, my initial instinct is to say “no,” but I’ve started making myself say “Let me think about it” instead. Unlike many people who say that as code for “no,” I actually do think about it, and more often than not I wind up allowing it.

I think my time as a Storyteller and my unwillingness to say “yes” (or even “no”) without giving it serious thought has made my games stronger. Yes, I’m perhaps a bit picky as to what I’ll allow in my games, but unless someone suggests something completely outrageous (like Space Elvis), I’ll at least consider allowing anything.

#2 Comment By sage On March 24, 2011 @ 10:46 am

I think you’re reading a bit more into “Say yes or roll the dice” than it’s intended to cover. The original wording is:

“Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes. If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing. Just plain go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there.”

Several of your examples aren’t “every moment of play” things. Custom backstories aren’t really something that happens in the moment of play – that’s setup stuff, between games or sessions.

I’d also suggest that you can read “roll dice” as “go to the rules.” Like, if the fighter says “I cast fireball” you don’t say yes or roll some random dice, you say “How’d you get that ability, I don’t see that in the rules?” Rolling the dice is one way of going to the rules, but so is saying “you don’t have that ability, that’s the other guy’s shtick.”

But I think maybe, for the game you’re aiming for, “say yes” isn’t the right approach at all. “Say yes” was written for Dogs, and applies to that game and some others (Burning Wheel, for example, quotes it directly). Your examples mention “your game” and “your setting,” which isn’t really what “Say yes” is for. “Say yes” is for collaborative games, particularly those where the rules help establish an aesthetic. So for Dogs, you can say yes or go to the rules because the rules help tell that kind of story. If you’re doing your own 4E game where, say, magic is rare, you can’t go the rules to establish setting, so “say yes” isn’t really the right tool anymore.

Thanks for a really interesting post, it made me think a lot about why “say yes” exists, and what games it’s for.

#3 Pingback By No at the gaming table. « The Githyanki Diaspora On March 24, 2011 @ 11:06 am

[...] by Learn to Say No to You Players over on Gnome [...]

#4 Comment By ColoQ On March 24, 2011 @ 11:24 am

I find that I personally have to say “no” more to adjudication of Magic / special abilities more than any other time. They key point this works to is “violates your setting.”

I am up front about the level of ‘realism’ I attempt to inject into my games. I reference movies like Willow, The Mummy, The Princess Bride, And Payback for the feel of the games I wish to achieve.

By way of example in D&D 3.5 Monks are almost broken in their capabilities. When we add in certain magical abilities (like haste): it gets silly. I get requests like “I want to run across this rope stretched 40 feet between two boats, use my immovable rods to climb 20 feet in a free climb, flip over the side of the other boat and then attack the mook in the same round.”

More often than not my response is “lets root this in realism” which means.. No, but…

#5 Comment By sage On March 24, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

@ColoQ – I think that’s an example of why “say yes” is for games that provide some element of style or aesthetics, and expect you to play by them. You can’t “say yes or roll the dice” because the game rules describe a different game from the one you’re playing. That’s totally cool! It just means that you can’t say yes or go to the rules, since the 3E rules tell you “yeah, you can do that, sure” but the game you want to run says “no, that’s a little out there.”

Playing D&D by the book, embracing all that weirdness, you could probably say yes or roll the dice. For your preferred style, you either have to say no, or have to use a different game where you can fall back on the rules.

#6 Comment By darthdadt On March 24, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

@ sage: well said.

The whole “say yes” gaming tribe is about collaborative gaming. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And if you as a GM are trying to be a hard nosed d&d dungeon master, it probably won’t work for you.

If you are ok with players inventing a chandelier in a room so their swashbuckler can swing around, say yes takes a lot of weight off of your shoulders.

#7 Comment By Judd On March 24, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

@darthdadt – Players narrating chandelier’s into existence is really not at all what the Vincent Baker quote above is talking about at all.

Say Yes, in that instance, is about when to roll the dice and when to not roll the dice in pretty specific instances, not about divvying up bits that are traditionally the GM’s job nor allowing a cowboy in your Pendragon game.

#8 Comment By sage On March 24, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

@Judd + @darthdadt – I’m not sure that’s what it’s about, but I’m not sure it isn’t either.

It’s not about saying: “So, there’s this chandelier hanging from the barn, and I swing from it…” That’s kind of a strawman, but it’s a very clear player invention, and one that isn’t covered by Say Yes. Here the player’s just flat out stated something is true about the world. Dogs and BW have pretty standard GM/Player responsibilities: Players say what their characters say, think, and do; GM says what everyone and everything else says, thinks, and does. Say Yes doesn’t change that, it just says that when a player says their character does something. you say yes or go to the rules.

I think Say Yes does cover: “We’re looking down from the balcony over the banquet hall? Well, I grab the chandelier and swing down on it…” I think that is kind of a say yes moment – the player hasn’t really deliberately invented anything, they’ve used the shared creative space. Maybe no one has said anything about a chandelier specifically, but that doesn’t really matter, if we all have about the same mental image of a banquet with lots of shiny stuff, which happens to include a chandelier.

So is say yes about inventing things? No, not directly. It’s orthogonal, but related.

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 24, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

Whatever the origin and original intent of Baker’s “Say Yes…”, it’s not easy to deny it’s impact on the gaming community as a whole and that the broader effects of it aren’t as tightly focused as the original idea.

#10 Comment By bankuei On March 24, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

Chiming in, that’s a pretty big misreading of Say Yes or Roll the Dice.

DitV is a game where the PCs are coming into town to uncover the dirty sins of the people and put things right. The game tells you to reveal a lot, to have people straight up say what their problems are, and, if the players press a character who has something to hide – either give it to them or use the dice to make it a conflict. “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”

The other rule, that is also in there, and not as quotable, is the rule of the hardest critic: at any point when a player wants to use a Trait or ability, or undertake an action as a Raise- it has to be good enough that everyone at the table is ok with it- otherwise it’s veto’d by whomever is the hardest critic.

It’s a very specific way of saying no, but you’ll notice that it’s about refining and strengthening the vision of the setting – the exact problems you’re talking about in the article.

Bringing the idea of Say Yes or Roll the Dice out broadly again- it’s basically saying, “Don’t block the players in the point of the game – either let them do it or use the rules accordingly”.

It’s become a popular idea because there’s a lot of games that suffer because (broadly) GM blocking legit choices, and choices that fit with the point of the game or (specifically) investigation games where the players get frustrated because they’re being blocked every which way with no clue how to proceed.

#11 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 24, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

As if anyone will read down ten comments to see this, but I’ll go on record as saying the Baker comment is a joke, people. While I feel (as I said above) that his idea has been taken and run with, often without the original context or intent, creating a lot of people chanting “Say Yes or…” who mean something entirely different than what was intended, Baker himself or the way he wrote or intended the rule in question isn’t what this is really about in any case.

#12 Comment By sage On March 24, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – I have no problems being in the cult of Baker :)

The really interesting point I take away here is the Say Yes has become so common, it’s getting used way out of where it’s meant for. I’m just not sure that countering that with how to say no is really the right response.

#13 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 24, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

@sage – I think the prevalence of “Say Yes” (Not “Say Yes or Roll…” just “Say Yes”) comes from a bunch of different sources. There’s backlash against old school rat bastard GMs for starters, and then at least half a dozen “Say Yes” centered philosophies, each slightly different from different games. “Say Yes or roll…” is certainly the currently most popular, hence why I poked at it a bit, but I think it’s so easily misinterpreted both because it gives the impression it’s fully understood from just it’s name, and second because it looks like it falls into place neatly with all the others.

So, the correct answer to “Say Yes or…” is easily and commonly misinterpreted is most certainly not “start saying no”, but the correct answer to “I feel like I have to say Yes to everything because it’s everywhere.” may just be.

There was a response article almost as soon as mine came out that discusses the root of many of the “Say No” situations I point out above and gives good advice on how to fix the underlying issue. If you haven’t already seen it and clicked through it’s at the bottom of the comments thread and worth a read.

#14 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2011-03-25 On March 25, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

[...] Learn to Say “No” to Your Players [...]

#15 Pingback By No, Hell No, And Never Darken My Door Again | Lizard's Gaming and Geekery Site On March 26, 2011 @ 8:19 am

[...] = "F0F0F0"; google_color_url = "008000"; I just wanted to add a quick link to/support of this article over on Gnome Stew, where the virtues of, and reasons for, saying no are nicely spelled out. Damn skippy! For too [...]

#16 Comment By Redcrow On March 31, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

I probably use both “Yes” and “No” with equal frequency and have never felt obligated to use one more than the other. Something I might say “Yes” to in one game could easily be a resounding “No” in a different game. Its really just something I take on a case-by-case (and game-by-game) basis.

I will say that I am usually a bit more careful with saying “No”, though. Unless the player’s request is really ridiculous or outlandish and even if my first reaction is to say “No”, I will try to take a few moments to consider the request (and any possible ramifications) before rendering my verdict. Sometimes even if I say “No”, I may be able to offer some sort of alternative as a compromise, which is at least a “Not that. But maybe this?”.

#17 Comment By antonatsis On April 12, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

the only time i say no is when the players ask for something that is either way to random and weird that doesn’t fit in my world or when what he wants to do is directly against the character(you cant have someone that acts in a set numbers or rules all of his life just change in a moment this an rpg not real life you are the creator of your character random swifts in personality cant happen)the rest of the times i just put a difficulty rating that is unreachable OR i just give what the player wants BUT i always say this to my players the world is dynamic everything you do has a reaction its an action-reaction rule and this works most of the time surprisingly i mean its cool to do weird stunts but if you do something wrong the consequences will be there and you will have to face them even if it means your character’s death

#18 Comment By Volcarthe On April 14, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

I tend to fall into the more insidious style that lends itself to games like Paranoia:

Pretend to think quietly on the subject,
sit back with an evil smile,
and say “i’ll allow you to -try- it if you want.”

for some reason my players stop thinking an idea is a good one when i agree with them… ¬_¬


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