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.)