When a player wants their character to try something unusual, you should never say no — even if what they want to do is bizarre, impossible or potentially fatal.
Instead, say “Yes, but it’s going to be tough,” and share useful information about the action they want to take.
If you’ve been GMing for awhile, you’ve almost certainly heard this advice before. It’s good advice, though, and I wish I’d heard it sooner than I did — and with some practical tips thrown in for good measure. That’s what I’m aiming for here.
Part of the appeal of RPGs is having freedom of action: the notion that within reason, you can try anything as a PC.
That “within reason” is important, and most players (as well as most GMs) have common-sense expectations about exactly what it means. Those expectations will vary from RPG to RPG and campaign to campaign.
In a straight-up modern game, for example, no one is going to be able to lift a car. If one of your players says, “I want to try and lift that car over my head,” you don’t need to say yes — it’s impossible, and trying is a waste of time.
Sticking with the same game, though (a modern campaign with no supernatural elements), if the same player said, “I want to dive under that moving car, grab onto the chassis and hang on as it speeds away,” you should say yes.
Why? Because while it’s highly improbable, that action isn’t impossible — and it sounds like a lot of fun to try.
Will it work? Probably not — and that’s where sharing useful information comes in. Let the player know a) that it’s going to be really, really tough to pull off, b) that their PC could get hurt (or killed) and c) what kinds of modifiers are involved.
Exactly how hard it is will vary according to your campaign, and whether or not to share the mechanical elements in detail depends on your group’s play style — but the core concept will remain the same.
This is, in essence, a miniature social contract, and it’s a very beneficial one.
By taking this approach, your players know that they can try oddball things without being shot down, and with an expectation that you’ll be fair in how you handle the situation. And you, as the GM, know that when your players do try something really off the wall (and they will), at very least they’ll be going into it with their eyes open.
What do you think of this advice? As a GM, do you adopt a different approach?
(Oh, and happy Valentine’s Day! For some more romance-oriented reading, check out last year’s Love is in the RPG.)
I agree! My default answer is “shure it’ll be X difficult.” Sometimes my answer is “You don’t think it’s a good idea because X, but you can still do it if you want to.” for situations with clear bad consequences that it seems they’re not fully thinking about “I want to try diplomacy with the horde of zombies!”
I’m with Rick on this one. When someone tries something difficult but potentially awesome (like the “hang on to a moving car” comment), I usually say, “Hey y’all, watch this!”.
In Texas at least, it carries the proper connotations of danger and coolness…
My response comes straight from Dogs in the Vineyard: Say yes or roll the dice.
Always give them a chance. Your players might surprise you. I once had a player want to jump up and grab a chandelier, swing over a line of enemies, and crash into the enemy leader on the other side. We figured out all sorts of modifiers, and came up with a situation that required him to roll a perfect 20 to make it. The entire table watched that roll in perfect silence. When it turned up 20, the entire room broke into cheers. An absolutely wonderful moment.
So when your player asks to do a crazy, near-impossible action, let the dice roll.
I fully agree, although I have recently decided that some boundary lines (such as lifting the car) are important, otherwise the sheer volume of difficult (or ridiculous) actions attempted becomes a problem. However, almost complete freedom of action for players is very important. We have a pretty standard method for dealing with unlikely situations, and that is to just add 0’s to the end.
For difficult actions, a player might have to roll under 10 on percentiles. For nearly impossible actions, a player might have to roll under 10 on thousandths dice. And we’ve had several attempts over the years to roll on 10,000ths dice (one of which actually succeeded…something about a mid-level cleric banishing a far more powerful demon using the innate goddess-power in one of his magic items…the item burnt out as a result of the success, but the demon also went away).
In certain cases, we might chain events to see where the failure point is. For example, a character might have a 50% chance of diving under the car before it drove away, then a 25% chance of grabbing the axle in time, and another check to determine how long he can hold on to it. I think that allows the players to feel like while their plan was a good one, they just couldn’t hold on as the car rounded a tight corner. It’s just better scenery to have someone flung into a stop sign from under a moving vehicle where they are nearly run over by 3 teenage girls in a Cabriolet instead of just saying ‘Sorry, you can’t do that.’
And not to be long-winded, but one other thing I occasionally let my players try is ‘burning attributes’ or items, usually on borderline rolls involving crafting or spellmaking (where I have noticed many players get very intense and involved). We use a system where every player’s ability scores have a percentile attached (like the old strength score in 2nd edition D&D) and that allows us to track the raising or lowering of abilities in smaller increments that just
+/- 1. If a player is creating a magic item (a pretty convoluted process for us), if he is at the final step and rolls poorly, he can ‘burn’ an appropriate attribute (or exp) to gain a bonus on his dice. This allows a pyhhric success, where yes they completed their pixie-inhabited magic sphere, but they also lost .25 off of their int, wis and chr as they had to imbue part of themselves into the work for it to succeed.
I find if you give players even a one in 10,000 chance of success, and they fail (often spectacularly), they are much happier than just being told ‘that’s impossible’. And even the failure often brings a lot of character into the game.
I would be surprised to find someone who would disagree with this advice!
For me I stopped using the words yes and no altogether and just go straight to the game mechanics. Want to lift a car in a modern game? Okay – you have no modifiers and must roll 10 natural 20s in a row. Make all of the first five but fail any of the second five and the car will land on your character most likely crushing him or her. The damage will be a d% times a d%.
If a player actually succeeded I’d explain the result, and the dice rolls, as divine intervention.
The reason I go straight to the mechanics is because with one group I realized that even when a no was reasonable some players would then spend the time trying to convince me how it was plausible for his or her character to do something. Like with the car example I would probably be told the old story of how in desperate situations mothers have lifted cars off of their newborn babies because of their incredible love for the child.
Do I think it is an urban legend? Yes, but now I have to argue with the player why I won’t let an attempt be made. Going straight to the mechanics I can just say “In game terms, those women rolled 10 natural 20s on a d20 all in a roll.”
I didn’t tell the player that I think that his or her logic is stupid, I just gave them an option that actually confirms what they see as the real argument: “My character can do anything I can think of.” All I’m doing is adding the caveat of “Yes, but your character is not guaranteed a success. Just the chance.”
I enjoy running cinematic games where style counts over substance. I like the idea, even in a non supernatural modern setting, that the PCs are a little bit more special than everyone else, movie stars if you will.
As a GM I give positive modifiers after all the negative modifiers if the PCs describe in Technicolour what they are exactly doing…
If someone told me that “I want to lift the car”, that’d be impossible, but if they said
“I squash my cigarette out with the heel of my boot, square my shoulders and in slo-mo with a heavy industrial soundtrack pumping walk to the car and flip it over with a loud yell”… I’d award positive modifiers. This results in some pretty cool moments for the players where everyone else sits in awe…
I call it the “WoW!” factor and find that once player get used to my style it does encourage roleplaying their characters to the max, even to the extent of non-action scenes.
LOL… don’t get me started on the cine-romance modifiers >=0p
I agree, but with one caveat: When saying ‘yes’ make sure it doesn’t turn into “Yes, but . . ” which is usually another way of saying ‘NO!’
As the GM, you need to stay a little distant from their request. Don’t make judgement calls like “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve EVER heard!” or “No way would your character do THAT!”
Rather it’s your job as the GM to lay out the unbiased facts: “OK, you can roll under the car with x difficulty, remember if you fail that roll by a certain amount you’re likely to get run over and take some damage. If you make it under then there’s a roll of y to grab on and hang on as the car accelerates. Every so often you’ll need to roll z to keep holding on. Remember you’ll be subject to the possibility of damage as you’re dragged along.”
Remind them of consequences, but don’t rule it out. It’s their call to decide if they’ll risk all that.
My standard answer to most off-the-wall player tactics is, “You can try.” My smirk is usually enough to make them second-guess the decision before they proceed. If they ask how difficult it might be or how it might turn out, I’m honest with them to the extent of their character’s knowledge. On the same token, if they decide to do something reckless anyway, I have no compunctions about letting bad things happen.
Now that I think about it, I use the exact same tone when I say, “You don’t find any traps…” I wonder why that is. 🙂
In my game sessions I’ve ran I like to allow players to try extravagant checks, but I am completely honest with them. I look at them face to face as a player, asked them something like this, “what might happen if you try to grab the under-pinning of a moving vehicle?” So far it has worked well for me in explaining a situation.
If a character gets mangled by a couple of goodyear tires, he shouldn’t become angry at the DM for not explaining what COULD happen.
The great thing about RPG is that no matter what genre you play in… it is fantasy. This makes for poor fantasy:
PC1: “I can’t believe the rope broke. I try to jump it.”
GM: “You can’t, it’s too far.”
This is much better:
PC1: “I can’t believe the rope broke. I try to jump it.”
GM: There will be X modifiers and you need to make these rolls… Ready to go?”
PC1 makes his first two rolls to jump, nimbly make his way to spring off a nearby foot hold and botches the landing. As he begins to fall into the sprawling abyss…
PC2: “I reach out and grab him and make a
strength test to hold him!”
GM: “Agility check on you to see if you catch him and strength check on you both!”
Bounding off a side cropping in the wall after jumping the chasm, PC1 makes a daring leap and starts to fall short. PC2 reaches out and grabs him and as he catches, PC3 grabs onto PC2’s ankles as they all work together to pull each other to the top. PC1 now owes PC2 and 3 a trip to the fridge to get a soda and another slice of pizza so they can chill and take a break. They can now talk in between bites about how cool that was and how PC1 almost bought it.
Your second play by play assumes a desire for cinematic fantasy. Just because all play is fiction (and in one sense, any fiction is fantasy), doesn’t mean that all play must have the same degree of fantasy.
I also have to say that in my experience, this kind of “gee lets try something else to save him” actually damages the game as people stretch reality more and more to try and save a character. Far better to accept that the character failed (and possibly died).
I have often pointed out that many game situations are “roll until you fail,” often tracking and climbing situations. But the opposite, “roll until you succeed,” is also possible, and just as harmfull.
Now if the rules structure is clear, there might be several opportunities to salvage a failed roll, but it’s best if the sequence is clear, and also finite.
“Now if the rules structure is clear, there might be several opportunities to salvage a failed roll, but itâ€™s best if the sequence is clear, and also finite”.
Interesting. As a GM and a player (GMs love me for this) I don’t regard a “failed” dice roll as a failure in the strictest sense of the word. Rather I look on it as ‘something went wrong’, I might be “the fastest draw in the West but there is always someone faster” kinda thing. Hope that makes sense.
It is an ego cushion, but there is a logic behind it, no matter how good you are at something, there is always the chance of failure.
This is what makes rolling the dice so much fun (and why the idea of diceless gaming doesn’t really appeal to me), I don’t know for 100% that what I’m doing is going to be a success and the times I remember most fondly are times when I’ve made a result by the skin of my dice despite overwhelming odds, huge modifiers and a sceptical GM.
In a similar vein as a GM and player I take PC death as something that happens.
I do trust the GM and my fellow gamers to protect my back so to speak, but if it is a characters time to die then so be it, I just hope that’ll it be a bit more heroic than getting hit by a car.
As a GM I ensure that any character that dies does so heroically and dramatically. With the chasm example I might be harsh if this was at the end of the adventure, after all how many times has someone fallen to their death just before doing battle with the evil lord?
This is both cinematic and real, adding to the tension reminding the PCs that success is never assured and yes, they could all die.
I think the â€œgee lets try something else to save himâ€ approach has to be called on merit frankly (No pun intended!), PCs should have as many chances to be saved as is logical and fair but certainly the sequence should be finite otherwise the whole thing becomes slightly absurd, turning it into a game of “keep up” with the PC as the ball!
“But semantically, â€œYes, butâ€¦â€ is just fine. Make sure what follows the â€œbutâ€¦â€ is a realistic assessment of the situation, and then let the player give it a shot”.
Personally Martin I really hate discussing game mechanics in game, I can appreciate the POV of talking the player through it but… for whatever reason I find it breaks the flow of the action, and there is always the danger of losing players interest through number crunching. As a GM I might give an average modifier for the entire sequence to allow PCs to gauge the likelihood of its success but otherwise I let PC common sense dictate whether or not they should try it… whilst making sceptical faces >=0)
Thats a really good rule Martin, thanks for the link… reckon I’ll incorporate it.