In all roleplaying games, the power of a game master (GM) to say “yes” to player actions is quite literally the power to make gaming dreams come true. You don’t want to squash player dreams, do you?
In this is the sequel to “The Terrible Power of No” from the last issue, we will discuss some of the challenges GMs face by saying “yes”. Please read the previous article, The Terrible Power of NO if you have not already done so.
Never Say Never Again
As a GM, strive to let go of any preconceived notions of how the game should be played, how you would play the game, or how you think players should react to any scenario you introduce. Roleplaying is a collaborative gaming experience, and the GM is the facilitator and interpreter in-chief. Facilitators and interpreters do not force people to act in a particular way, they provide an interaction point, and they keep the game moving forward. Sounds simple, right? Sure, it’s very simple, but not necessarily easy.
Finding a Path to “Yes”
Strive to say “yes” to all but the most ludicrous requests. If you are cornered and forced to say “no”, gently explain why, and let the player ask questions to clarify, talking to the player outside of a session if necessary. Saying “yes” 99.9% of the time can be scary, but soon you will learn why it will all turn out OK. Here is a simple example: A player states, “I found ‘such and such’ in the game inventory, and I want it for my character.” The GMs first task is to carefully evaluate: is the thing mundane, are the players in an area where the thing exists, and do they have the resources or skill to acquire the thing? If so, then the answer is “yes”. See? Saying “yes” can be pretty easy. If the players do not meet the requirements to easily say “yes”, understand that “no” is still a curse word to be avoided. Instead, provide a path to “yes”, such as “The thing is not available here but you could obtain elsewhere…”
I can hear you thinking, “But what if the request is for something that is obscure, rare, overpowered, or I just do not want it in my game world?”. Rest assured– it is not the GM’s role to play Santa Claus. A GM reserves the right to make players work for their toys. Again, this is not an occasion for “no”, it is a chance for an adventure driven by player desire. From the a player perspective, this is something akin to seeing the movie you want to see instead of the movie your friend wants to see. It gives the player a chance to feel special, and do what they want to do. If the other players agree to help pursue the thing, then the hunt is on. After all, work builds character, and it will cause players to treasure the thing all the more when they finally obtain it… or… they may realize the consequences of pursuing the thing are too great and decide to adventure elsewhere.
If you are a GM that is skilled at improvising, you will probably feel comfortable letting the “path to yes” flow freely without taking a break to think too much. However, if thinking on the fly is not something you do well, by all means, call a short bathroom or food break for you to ponder the situation. A few minutes of thoughtfulness is always better than responding with a quick, “uhhh… no”, and over time, this practice will improve your ability to think quickly as a GM. If you take good notes, you can work out the details later, including how to weave the new adventure into whatever major story arc you are running (so players do not wander too far away from your story).
Unleashing the Interpretive Power of “Yes”
Everyone enjoys getting what they want in games, and in life, but both are unpredictable. We are often left with buyer’s remorse. To quote Mr. Spock, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting.” This is the hidden truth of the awesome interpretive power of saying “yes” as a GM. Accept the mantra that almost anything is possible, but YOU are in complete control of the relative difficulty of all activities.
If you do not want to give something away, then you do not have to, but recognize that saying “no” stifles the creative juices and desires of your players. Your task as GM is to say “yes”, and evaluate what the players will have to do to accomplish or acquire the thing. And then beyond that, interpret what the consequences of the thing might be. All actions have consequences, and the GM is still the god of consequences. The players might acquire new allies or enemies or be forced to sacrifice something of greater or equal value along the way. Feel comfortable saying yes, understanding that the details and consequences are still completely up to you.
Saying Yes, but Really Saying No
It can be easy to slip into a “yes, but” that is effectively a “no”. A “yes, but” is appropriate for pointing out an obvious consequence the player may have overlooked, but check yourself to make sure that you are not just fabricating additional consequences to justify blocking the player’s request. For example, if a player stated that they wanted to steal a crown off a king’s head in the middle of a public assembly, you should probably remind them that the guards swarming the palace would almost certainly ensure their quick demise, and the death or imprisonment of their allies. However, if a player wanted to steal the crown in general, this is an opportunity to try to find a path to “yes”, with everyone involved understanding that there could be very serious consequences in the game world.
Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes!
A collaborative gaming experience is a network of relationships, where everyone must learn to give and take. By letting go of “no”, and embracing “yes” you give players the freedom to play the way they want to play, and you opportunistically take their actions as fuel to weave a more fantastical, creative, and enjoyable gaming experience. So learn to say “yes” and dazzle your players with the ensuing awesomeness that unfolds!
And once again, a special thanks to my friends over at Earthbound Timelords for soliciting me to contribute a couple articles to their Dr. Who Fanzine! This article will be appearing in their next issue.