Whether you play Dr. Who, Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Pathfinder or any other tabletop RPG, game masters (GM) too often restrain and hinder the creativity and enjoyment of their players with one simple, dreadfully powerful word. “No”.
When players ask to perform some action in a game world, what should a GM say? Certainly every roleplaying game has core rules, and acceptable modes of conduct between players and game masters, but in any game where the rules are not completely rigid, there is a grey area that needs interpretation. To be clear, we are not talking about players who simply do not know the rules, nor are we talking about players who know the rules but consistently try to break them. So should a GM say, “yes”, or “no” to a player’s requested action? First, let’s take a moment to examine these two words more carefully.
What it Means to Say “Yes”
When a GM says “yes”, it is an acknowledgment of a player’s desires. These desires might include how the player believes their character might interact with the game world, or how they believe an obstacle should be handled, even if the core rules do not provide guidance for how the request should be interpreted. From the GM’s perspective, saying “yes” to requests is NOT the same as giving players everything they want. It will always be a GM’s role to interpret actions, but flatly denying requests should be avoided. It is important to recognize the nuance of interpretation in contrast to adjudication. Running a roleplaying game is not the same as refereeing a sporting event.
Playing a roleplaying game strictly “by the rules”, or more specifically, by a GM’s unspoken authoritarian rules, can often lead to relatively simplistic, redundant, and uncreative gameplay. By contrast, imagination and creativity are hard work! If a player suggests something outside the norm, they are not making an outlandish request to spite their GM (we hope), they are working hard to create a more immersive and enjoyable gaming experience for everyone at the table. They are helping the GM to keep the game fresh, keep the players interested, and above all, to help everyone have fun. To deny a player’s creative labor is to prevent something truly wondrous from coming into being.
What it Means to Say “No”
When a GM says “no” it is not just a denial of a requested player action, it is quite literally not allowing a player to play the game. People do not attend gaming sessions to have GMs tell them what to do. People attend because they want to play, and every person is unique. They will not think like the GM, and they will not react to any situation in quite the way the GM expects them to. And you can almost certainly guarantee that players will not enjoy playing the way an authoritarian GM wants them to play. If a GM holds on too tightly, is too rigid, is too closed off to allow player creativity, the lifeblood of the fantasy experience will be slowly choked away. Enough rejection from a GM will drain the fun out of any game, and players will eventually leave in the hopes of finding something ‘fun’ to do. Sure, it can be scary for a GM to let go, but they might be surprised by what can accomplish with the interpretative power of “yes”.
With Great Risk, Comes Great Reward
As a GM, the most memorable sessions of my home campaigns almost all happened off script. Improvisation can be hard, and many GMs struggle with letting go, and allowing a group wander off the railroad tracks of a carefully-crafted campaign story arc.
My advice for GMs? Take a short break, take a deep breath, and BAMF on. Focus less on the endless implications of going off the rails, lest you fall into analysis paralysis. A GM should stay in the moment, take lots of notes, and focus on interpreting how the game world would react to each player action as it comes. You can figure out all the other crazy implications of player creativity after the session is over.
Try to say “yes” as often as possible, and look forward to a more robust gaming experience for everyone involved. It can be difficult, at times, but we will discuss the challenges of saying “yes” more closely in the sequel to this piece, “The Awesome Interpretive Power of YES”.
And 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, and the follow up article should be appearing in the issue after that.