In writing fiction, a popular concept to make things harder on your main character is a concept called, “Yes, but; No, and.” At a high level, you present a character with a challenge and then ask the ever-important question of, “Did the character succeed?” If the answer is “yes” on the first challenge, you have a very short story. However, if you answer, “Yes, but…,” and add a complication to the story, the tale continues and becomes much more interesting. To really crank up the tension and pressure on the character, the answer could be, “No, and…,” which means that the character failed and something else went haywire in the scene to make things even worse.
Obviously, these are things that can happen in fiction, and if you’re constantly making things worse for your PCs, you might find yourself without a gaming group after doing this too much. These two answers can be done, but I recommend doing so sparingly.
Let’s Flip It Around
In RPGs, I encourage GMs to flip these answers around to continue the story and narrative in a more positive manner. These answers can be given as results of die rolls, decisions by the players, character actions, questions around activities, declarative moves, and many other things. By flipping the “Yes, but; No, and” concept into “Yes, and; No, but” you open doors for forward progress in your collaborative storytelling efforts. Let’s dive into this flip of the concept.
In this case, the character succeeds, and something even more beneficial than a “simple” success happens as well. It could be the case that the barbarian charges the stuck (or locked/barred) door in an attempt to get it open and the player rolled well enough to not only bust down the door, but send shards flying into the shocked Bad Guys on the other side who were preparing an ambush. Now, instead of the party being the target of the surprise attack, they can go on the offensive against the startled Bad Guys. In some games (depending on style of gameplay, rules in the book, and or simple GM fiat), the GM might declare that the magically juiced-up barbarian smashes through the worm-eaten wood and the same results happen.
Let’s take the same scenario where the barbarian is busting down the door. However, the dice aren’t quite as generous to the PC this time around. Instead of having the plot stall out because of a single roll against a single door (As a side note: I’ve seen entire campaign ideas abandoned because of a rigid GM and a series of poor dice rolls that prevented the party from moving forward), let’s shift the momentum of the story. There are several outcomes I can envision off the top of my head for this circumstance. The barbarian could have jarred the door loose from the hinges, but the door is now cantered in the frame and stuck (though not as badly as before, so a second attempt is more likely to succeed.) The barbarian could have succeeded in getting through the door, but in such a clumsy manner that she lands, sprawled out on the floor, at the feet of the Bad Guys who are well-prepared for their ambush. Time for initiative with the barbarian away from the safety of the group and face-down in a horrific situation!
Sometimes a simple “Yes” or “No” is the best option. If the success is squarely over the target number, but not excessively so, then just having the character do what they had planned is just fine. Likewise, if the die roll is below the target, but not to excess (and not a “barely missed), there’s no need to pile on the poor PC who is now dejectedly staring down at her dice. Save the “Yes, And” and “No, But” moments for when they truly matter. They’re like a spice in the stew of gaming. You want them in there to enhance the core ingredients (e.g.: story), but not there to take over or overwhelm the main course.
Have You Done This?
Are there any other author-type people out there? If so, have you heard of these concepts? Have you applied them (in any fashion) to your game? How about alternative takes on these ideas? What steps do you take to continue the story regardless of what the dice dictate? What ya got?