Recently The AngryDM, one of the people I follow on twitter (and you should too) took a stab at a more thorough 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 thought there was some wiggle room in there for me to give my take on the subject as well.
Generally the rule, as i’ve heard it, goes, “Whenever possible, as a DM, you should say “Yes,” to your players. I’ve usually heard it said, you should say “Yes, but” or “Yes, And” (which is also a general rule of improv). AngryDM makes the point in his article that there are certainly times when a good DM will and *should* say “No,” to a Player. I agree, but wanted to elaborate a bit on when I think is most appropriate.
Two Examples of an easy “No.”
If, when I am starting a new game, a player comes to be and says something along the lines of, “I’m thinking about playing a Evil PC, and I want to keep that from the other players. At a most inopportune moment i’ll reveal my true nature and through treachery try to kill/destroy the party,” then i’m going to say, “Uh, No,” and I’ll do it with very little thought of trying to find a way to say yes. To me this is just not an acceptable PC starting place. Most DM’s say “No,” in this regard all the time. I, for one, often set limits or restrictions on my players when starting a new game. Use this book, but not this one. You have to be Human, no Wizards, only Clerics of Pelor, etc. . . , because based on the story i’m wanting to tell, certain characters make more sense. (I’m also very much against non-standard PC races – Minotaur’s, Satyr’s and Centaur’s need not apply to my games).
Now, in the situation above I could say, “yes,” but at what cost? In the best case scenario for that player, his evil nature will stay a secret and then at the right moment he’ll turn on the others and destroy them. Yay! my entire campaign just ended! Or, the party will discover his true nature, and likely kill him or run him from the party. Yay! now he has to bring in a new PC. In this scenario which I put into the background or Mechanical group saying “No,” is easy.
Now, this is how I could make that work. I would say, how about you already did that? You already turned on your last group and it worked. You’ve since then come to regret that decision and will try even harder to make sure this current group stays safe. Then, later, I’d have an NPC with evidence of that PC’s treachery show up and put them into a very tough Role-Play situation with the party. That could be fun.
Another example: A Player wants to start off with a magical item. Let’s say his great-grandfather was a former adventurer and spent hours telling our young PC of his dashing deeds. Upon his death, he leaves behind a ring of some unknown power (Greater Invisibility) to our fresh Hero who will hope to uncover the rings true power as the adventure unfolds. This one sounds much more harmless, but let’s be real. If a Player wants to start off with a Ring of Greater Invisibility, then they want to use that ring. They’ve probably already thought of a few scenario’s that would put pressure on the DM to allow the Ring’s power to show itself to keep the young hero out of danger (and likely it’s something really dumb like stealing the Crown from the King’s head during court, or assassinating a judge during the trial of a recently captured anti-paladin). The PC is going to do things hoping that the DM will see fit to let the Ring’s power save him. And this will probably happen early and often. In that case, again i’m going to have no problem saying “No,” to them.
Now, this is how I might make that work. Same set up as the Player wanted, only upon his Great-Grandfather’s death the Ring is supposed to be sent to him but never arrives. Somewhere along the way it was taken by a former acquaintance who know’s of it’s real power. The young Hero might want to go seek out this person to claim his rightful inheritance. In that situation I still have the power of when to bring in the Ring (at a level-appropritate time, most likely) and can build a pretty suspenseful story arc around it full of NPC’s (former flames, rival’s, party members) that can make a very memorable campaign.
An Example of a “Yes, And”
Here is a situation that I would likely look for and find a way to say “Yes.” Let’s say that during some tense negotiations with a local Noble/Lord/Duke/King the party is trying to get access to their private hunting grounds. They have been tracking a creature believed to be a Werewolf that has taken refuge in those woods (let’s go full cliché and say that the village priest is the Werewolf) and they want to get him before he turns again. After an hour of real time at the table feeling out the NPC one of my Players may ask, “Does the Noble/Lord/Duke/King have any children?” Now, it’s very likely that during my creation of this NPC I didn’t decide that. Maybe I did (and if I did and I decided No, then I would stick with that) but more than likely I’ve not decided that. The fact that the Player asked that question means they have thought of a way to use that child in the story. Maybe they want to appeal to the Noble/Lord/Duke/King that how would he feel if his Son/Daughter was the next victim? Maybe he wants to see if the child might be an ally against their father? Who know’s, but either way it will probably create a better scene than what I already had planned and the Player will fill rewarded for asking. So, I’d easily say “Yes, and,” the and would probably be, “and the Son/Daughter is attending the gathering and appears to be watching your party with great interest.” Not tipping my hand, but letting the Party know that what ever they have planned might work. I’ve now but the story back into my Player’s hands and will see what they come up with.
That situation above is an extreme example. In most cases the questions will be, “is there a large rock in the field? Is there a Gnome in the crowd?, are there any street urchins following us?” In cases like this, a DM should often say “Yes,” unless there is a specfic reason to say “No.” You’ll be rewarding a player for asking, giving them the opportuntity to help create your story and help them have a “moment’ in the game that will make it all the more memorable to them and the rest of the party.
In conclusion, If a Player is asking a question that has a background or mechanical bent (race, class, feat, skill selection, alignment, hereditary item) that has a chance to break the game then say “No,” and don’t feel bad about it. If a Player is asking a question that has a current story bent then try to find a way to say, “Yes,” and then lean back and see what they come up with, often it will be better than what you had in mind.
Agree/Disagree? I’d love to get your comments and maybe some examples of when you said “Yes,” or “No,” and how it worked out in your game.
Michael – AKA Mumbles.