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The Power of No

One of the worst pieces of GMing advice I ever gave myself was to always make sure the players were happy, even over my own happiness; to avoid saying No. This ridiculous piece of advice has lead to more campaign deaths in my career as a GM than I should admit. The thing is that saying yes to every idea or whim a player has isn’t a good idea. Sometimes we have to say No. No, so that we keep the stability of the campaign intact. No, so that the game remains fun for the majority of the group. No, so that we maintain safety.  We often discount the power of No, but let’s take a look at why it may just be the thing you need to make your game better.

What about say “yes, and…”?

Ok. Let’s get this out of the way right now.  There is this belief of many people who give GMing advice, myself included, that says that you should always listen to what a player does/says, say “yes, and…” and keep going. The idea is that “yes, and…” prevents shutting down players, and keeps everyone engaged and happy. That is true up to a point.

“Yes, and…” is an amazing improv tool, to be used during actual play. In play, it is a way to move a story forward and foster creativity for everyone at the table. I love “yes, and…”. Here is the thing that is missing—when it’s used in improvisational play, there is an assumption that all actors [players] are going to follow the theme of the story and are going to play well with others. This is why in improv theater, it looks magical. Those actors know the boundaries and know their fellow actors.  Under those constraints, “yes, and…” is an amazing tool, and I do highly encourage its use.

But there are a lot more parts of a game than just play. And in those cases “yes, and…” does not apply. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Power of No

I am a parent, like many of you may be. If you are not, let me tell you that there is real power in No. No stops kids from doing things that could get them hurt, and it stops them from doing things that will damage property—yours or someone else’s.

 No is used to protect things as well. It can and should be used to protect safety, to ensure fun for the majority of the table and the integrity of the campaign, for long-term stability. 

In RPGs, No is used to protect things as well. It can and should be used to protect safety, to ensure fun for the majority of the table and the integrity of the campaign, for long-term stability. That is not to say players are children, but rather that sometimes what is fun or a good idea for one player is not true for the group. And sometimes, you just have to remember what Spock says,

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

So Where is No Ok?

So going on the understanding that “yes, and…” is something you do during the playing of scenes, there are plenty of places where this does not apply, and you should not feel obligated to use it. So let’s talk about a few of those places:

Campaign Creation

When we are setting up our campaign collaboratively, we need to consider using a No from time to time. You don’t want to be heavy handed with this, but there are definitely times when you, as the GM, need to say no to a suggestion. The reason you want to do this is to keep the integrity and long-term stability of the campaign intact.

Most often this is going to be preventing the addition of some element in the game that is going to either mechanically destabilize the game, or some element that goes against the established tone and tropes of the game so much that it is jarring for others to engage the setting.

Examples:

You can totally say yes to these things if everyone at the table thinks it’s amazing and wants to play in that world. Say no when someone brings it up and everyone else either says “meh” or is uncomfortable with it.

Character Generation/Advancement

In my history of GMing, this is where I fail the most to say no, and where most of my campaigns break. These are the cases where the player wants something for their character. This is a hard one to often say no to because the character is the primary vehicle that the player has for enjoying the game, and as GM’s we try to allow as much autonomy in this area as possible. We then feel this obligation to say yes to their requests.

Examples:

I will be bold. In most cases just say no. I know it trumps player choice, but once one broken character gets into the game it will destabilize everything. It will have one of two effects: either everyone will be annoyed at the broken character and they will disengage from the game, or it will start an arms race—and every player will try to emulate the broken character so that the entire group breaks.

Group Formation

A cohesive party is a productive party. If you are into intra-party conflict and player squabbles, skip this one. For the rest of us get ready to brandish a few no’s. When the group is working out how they are a group and their group dynamics, don’t hesitate to drop a no if you think that something in the dynamic is going to cause the group to collapse.

Examples:

These issues fall into two categories that both need a no: they involve keeping secrets from players (keeping secrets from characters is a different thing..and can be just fine), and they involve creating atmospheres that make cooperation impossible. Neither of these will make for a productive group. So ready up a no-bomb, and preserve the peace.

Chaotic Stupid Actions

There are times when players are either being funny or ridiculous and do something that will trigger an immediate or intermediate reaction that will stymie the game and possibly end the campaign. Often this is done under the shield of a certain alignment or belief system, and covered with “I was just playing in character”. No and no.

Examples:

Perhaps you don’t like stopping and rewinding things in your game to edit these things out. I didn’t either, like 50 dead campaigns ago. Today, I will just stop the game and talk it out to see if there is something else going on, and find a way to address it. But I have seen plenty of games descend into chaos due to one of these moves.

Safety Issues

Up to this point, I have been a bit cheeky and ranty in my advice. Let me change my tone for this section.

Safety is nothing to joke about. We are all here to have a good time, to feel included, and to be comfortable physically and emotionally. If we are failing on any of those, something is seriously wrong. Our jobs as players, and a bit more GM’s as the de facto head of the game, is to insure safety for everyone in the game. When safety is broken, saying no is the best thing to do:

Examples:

No. Stop the game, and address the problem. In this case, Spock is dead wrong. Safety is not a majority rule. If everyone but one person is fine with the torture scene, you don’t have it. GM’s, if you are in the wrong for an action and get called out, take it and apologize. It is not your game, it’s everyone’s game.

Your best bet is to deploy a safety tool like the X-card to facilitate addressing these proactively, and always make your decision based on what is safe for everyone.  

The Power Of No

For all the advice I have given above (except for the Safety advice) you may say, that is fine in your game. That is totally cool. My point wasn’t to tell you what to say no to, but rather to give you an idea of areas in the game where actions can occur that destabilize games, and make good candidates for saying no. Hell, if you want Ninjas in your Dragonlance campaign, wielding firearms and mixed in with the Ultimate Handbook of Ninja Badness—and your group is into that—then assault Raistlin’s tower with your AK-47 toting Ninjas.

Rather my point in this article has been that sometimes we have to say no to things in the game for its long-term stability. After all, the goal of campaign play is to play session after session, developing a tale. But that won’t happen if the game destabilizes because you tried to make a player or players happy with a decision that you or the rest of the group were not comfortable with.

So what were some of the No’s you have said to preserve your games? What were some of the Yeses in your games that should have been No’s?

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "The Power of No"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 19, 2017 @ 6:51 am

No should always be a part of a GM vocabulary. Well said.

#2 Comment By Silveressa On May 19, 2017 @ 8:22 am

I agree “No” is definitely something that is necessary to keep characters, and campaigns from imploding at times, one of the main things to remember though, is to make sure your players can handle hearing the word “no” from the GM,

I’ve been in a few campaigns (as a player, and once as a GM) where the word “no” was often either treated with indignation and whining by the individual refused, and one in a Firefly game, where the player in question, after having his “nearly a reaver but not quite” character called “M.D.K (short for Murder Death Kill) vetoed, went ahead and made a “new character” that despite being different on paper and backstory, wound up being played (albeit with a degree of initial subtly) in the exact same manner as the original vetoed character.

It can often be helpful to let the group know ahead of time if they are unaccustomed to the “rule of no” that you plan to use it, and in the interests of preserving fun you would appreciate it if they would show enough maturity to respect your decision and not whine like children or otherwise attempt to subvert the game by doing it anyway in a more discreet manner and hoping no one will realize.

An upfront brief discussion helps prevent more problems down the road. Or at the very least, if by chance said subversive player happens to wind up having the rest of his fellow PC’s chuck his char out an airlock along with his tool box of trophy body parts, he can’t whine about the situation being “unfair”without looking like a complete jackass.

#3 Comment By MysticMoon On May 19, 2017 @ 9:18 am

I think the hard part about this whole subject is that there are no hard or fast rules. There were some parts I agreed with and other parts where I didn’t (I’ve had some extremely enjoyable campaigns happen because I allowed a player to add something unexpected to a setting), although I’m with you on the overall message. It depends so much on the personalities and play styles of all involved. In my opinion, the most important thing for any GM is to be consistent, which helps set expectations and gives the players a good idea about what is allowed and what is not. Being told no in arbitrary ways can just end up annoying the players.

#4 Comment By Blackjack On May 19, 2017 @ 11:48 am

“Don’t say no,” is one of those simplistic rules that gets used far too widely beyond its original meaning. Like the retailing maxim, “The customer is always right,” it came out of a particular context. In the case of retail it was a counterpoint to the growing philosophy 100 years ago of, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” It was an argument that fair dealing is important and businesses should deliver real value to their customers, not simply look for opportunities to rip them off.

In gaming, “Don’t say no,” arose as a counterpoint to the problem of railroading. Around 30 years ago (when I first heard it) there was a growing awareness in the FRPG community that too many adventures were designed with a single critical path. If the players didn’t do things in exactly the right order, the story would stall or fail. GMs frustrated by players doing “wrong” things would often just say no out of frustration. Then, they’d add elements into the game, like impenetrable obstacles or unbeatable foes, to keep the players on track. Hence, “railroading”.

A better maxim than “Don’t say no,” is “Determine difficulty, alternatives, and consequences.” Yeah, that’s a mouthful, which is one reason why people stick with “Don’t say no.” 😉 But the point is that when a player proposes doing something you (the GM) didn’t think of, rather than just say No, think it out.

For example, when the party stands at the lip of a yawning chasm between them and their goal, it’s natural for a player to ask, “Can we jump across?” Saying “No” might be a fairly accurate shorthand, but I always try to answer in terms of difficulty and consequences, hinting at alternatives. “It’s 20 feet across. You can tell that even with a running start you’re quite likely to fall and be seriously injured or die.” The players’ next ideas may include chancing the jump, scouting for a safer crossing, looking for items to help (ropes? grappling hooks?), using a spell (Jump? Feather Fall?), or something else entirely. By answering in terms of difficulty, alternatives, and consequences this obstacle that could have been a railroad becomes a challenge the party can use its creativity and character abilities to solve. That is what “Don’t say no” means!

#5 Comment By Konflyto On May 19, 2017 @ 5:41 pm

Exactly how i feel about it! Amazing article, Phil. Keep up the good work, and good gaming!
=]

#6 Comment By Twinkleberry On May 21, 2017 @ 5:10 am

You mentioned the X-Card there at the end, but I want to emphasize its use. It really does go a long way to addressing these problems.

For those interested: [5]
I suggest reading through the entire document.

#7 Comment By Tiorn On May 21, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

Instead of the “don’t say no” approach, I have preferred the “say yes as often as possible” path. I still have the option to say no, if needed. It doesn’t take away from the eagerness to say yes. I’ve encouraged players to think outside the box. If that means blowing up my storyline, so be it. But I’m not going to let them destroy my storyline with something totally illogical either.

#8 Pingback By Gnomecast #15 – The Power of No | Gnome Stew On May 25, 2017 @ 10:51 am

[…] Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. Today we have Phil, and myself, Ang, and we’re going to discuss Phil’s recent article, The Power of No. […]

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#10 Comment By Skylar H. On September 16, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

I was a player in a campaign with a newbie DM who was always eager to say “yes-” a little too eager. It was normally a good thing, but it didn’t take long for the campaign to get to the point where my level 3 Druid could turn into a kraken and later, a blue dragon, and we were fighting armies in full-scale battles without any sense of stakes or challenge. All of that could have been avoided if he had just known to say “No, you can NOT turn into a kraken just because the sketch-artist party member drew one for you.”
He scrapped that campaign and started fresh, and what we have now is better than anything that came before it. It’s still zany and unpredictable, but the lesson we all learned from that first campaign was that sometimes, you have to know when to draw the line. Even in a tabletop RPG, boundaries need to exist for the good of the experience. We had to learn that the hard way, but we all came out the better for it.

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[…] The Power Of No, by Phil Vecchione […]