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Using “And” Versus “But”

In our roles as GM’s we frequently are placed in positions—either by virtue of the die or system mechanics—or through our own doing, where something happens in a game and we qualify that statement with an “and” or a “but.” But have you put much thought into which fosters a certain type of response and why? For starters, let’s agree that they’re not mutually exclusive; you can use both in your games.

The Power of Improvisation

I read a powerful excerpt of Daniel Pink’s book on salesmanship, “To Sell Is Human [1].” In it he describes an exercise pulled straight from the school of improvisation: the power of using “and” to form a collaborative effort. But before we can discuss “and” let’s look at how we typically approach situations which is using “but.”

Imagine an exercise where two people build off each other’s statements. The only restriction is that they must start each statement with “Yes, but.” On the surface this seems somewhat benign but look at the results starting with a player.

See how this doesn’t really accomplish much? It’s almost cyclical. Now, obviously we don’t run our games this way, solely using “Yes, but” to describe every event. The intent is to show that “Yes, but” is inherently less inclusive; it can block options and consensus.

Now, as Daniel Pink describes, consider the same discussion using “Yes, and.”

See the difference? “Yes, and” is inherently more inclusive. It encourages collaboration, whereas “Yes, but” spins you around in circles.

So, when you’re posed a question as a GM and don’t know the answer consider starting your response with “Yes, and” to see what happens. There will still be times where you’ll say “No.” The intent isn’t to roll over for your players, just foster collaboration.

In Practice

I’m hard pressed to think of a better example of where these techniques could be used then in the new Fantasy Flight Games [2]‘ RPG, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire [3]. The die mechanic is so designed that on pretty much every roll not only do you succeed or fail but something happens, good or bad. The trick is deciphering the results in such a way to keep the flow of the game uninterrupted but also include the player’s in the decision-making process.

In the case of what the game calls an Advantage the GM (or the player) could default to using “Yes, and” to frame their responses, since an Advantage gives you other perks than you’d normally receive.

Conversely with a Threat result (which can even happen on a success) one can lean on “Yes, but” to frame the results.

In your own games try giving this a shot. Use the power of “Yes, and” to help build collaborative scenes and perhaps try to avoid the “Yes, but” except when absolutely necessary. Even in the second example above, we could have framed the Threat with a “Yes, and” with the same result but making it not seem less GM versus the player.

Is it semantics? No, I don’t think so, especially when including the players. Agree or disagree? Let us know below!

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Using “And” Versus “But”"

#1 Comment By Danilo On August 13, 2013 @ 2:04 am

This mechanism is the basis of FU: the Free Universal RPG.
The result of any dice roll is either NO AND, NO, NO BUT, YES BUT, YES or YES AND.

#2 Comment By Tom Pleasant On August 13, 2013 @ 5:45 am

FU is great, especially for one shots where you just want to keep the story going. It’s also free!


#3 Comment By randite On August 13, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

Another great example of this can be found in Cosmic Patrol. It specifically instructs Lead Narrators to take all changes to the scene with the reply “Yes, and…”. I’ve gotta say from experience that sense of inclusivity given from those two simple words really fuels creative collaboration.

Though as a word of caution that kind of uber-collaborative spirit can take games into some weird directions. The specific example used in Cosmic Patrol involved a hitchhiking space-whale. That’s great in gonzo, retro-scifi, but could totally ruin a more serious-toned game (if everyone’s not on the same page).

For those interested, my review of Cosmic Patrol can be found here —> [10]

#4 Comment By Razjah On August 13, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

I’ve found that most games with a margin of success have rules that encourage this type of play. But this is on of the most driftable ones I have read about.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 14, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

I realize that you’re working with specific source material that deals with and vs but, but how about if? As in “Yes, IF…” offering a tradeoff.

#6 Comment By Blackjack On August 15, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

The examples with “and” and “but” are very stilted. In one the GM’s being overly argumentative; in the other there’s no sense of challenge or dramatic tension. Most real-world situations where players and GMs need help better crafting a story together are going to fall well in the middle of those two extremes.