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?
There have been a number of articles and blog posts on the spectrum of results.
Ideally, I like a resolution mechanic that reflects this spectrum. The (unfortunately little-known) RPG Edge of Midnight had one such mechanic. The system had attributes (similar to D&D stats) and skills. For each contest, you roll 2d10, one for attribute and one for skill.
If both come up 10 (and that is a successful roll), you get a critical success. This is a Yes, And.
If both come up success (i.e., roll + attribute/skill > target number), you get a normal success. This is a Yes.
If one comes up success and the other a failure, you get a partial success. This is generally a Yes, But, but in some circumstances the GM might make it a No, But.
If both come up failure, you get a normal failure. This is a No.
If both come up 1 and are failures, you get a critical failure. This is a No, And.
Ever since I discovered that partial success mechanic, I’ve looked for other games where I can incorporate it. Unfortunately, while most games easily incorporate very high or very low results, they don’t easily incorporate close results.
Fate actually has a whole bit in its GM advice about how to incorporate Yes, But and No, But. Basically, failure is boring and frustrating. So, use “No, But” as the default. “No, you didn’t find the clue you were looking for, BUT you happened to glance out the window in time to see the Baron returning early.”
Have you checked out the FFG Star Wars games (or their Genysis generic system)? They have the “but” and “and” concepts baked directly into the die rolls. No extremes needed. You need their custom dice, but with a little work, you could hack it into almost any system really.
I have not checked out that game for 2 reasons.
1) I’m afraid I’ll grab the wrong dice bag and show up with dice for another system and be unable to play. I’ve done this at Fate games before, but fortunately, regular d6s can be used with Fate, so I was saved from my mistake.
2) I’d love to PLAY the game, but I’m usually the GM. I don’t know the Star Wars canon well enough to be able to accurately reflect the galaxy. I’ve seen all of the movies, but have consumed exactly zero of the “extended universe” materials. I’m not trying to be a purist in this aspect. I just don’t have time for the (approximately) 3.2 billion pages in all of the novels, graphic novels, and such. I also don’t get the channels where the TV shows are on, so I’m kind of out there. As GM, I feel I just couldn’t do the game justice because of lack of “world knowledge.”
I have heard great things about the game, though! I love the fact that this concept is baked into the mechanics of the system. That excites me.
1) Just bring all of your dice with you all of the time always. (Only slightly kidding.) When I ran Edge of the Empire I did forget my dice a couple times. Used the phone app in a pinch, but it’s never the same.
2) Fair. However, FFG released a generic version of the system. It’s called Genesys. It’s cheaper than the Star Wars books and you can get it in PDF format. So if you wanted to try hacking some of the narrative dice into a homebrew game, you could go that route…and I wasn’t considering that myself until I started commenting in this thread. Damnit. XD
The Genesys system sounds pretty cool. I may check that out! Thanks for the tip, Josh.
I agree that there have been plenty of articles along these lines, but I wanted to throw my paltry $0.02 into the mix for the fun of it. Thanks for breaking down the mechanic in Edge of Midnight. That actually sounds like a pretty good way of handling this kind of thing. I may have to try and track down a copy.
It’s always someone’s first time hearing about a concept! I was familiar with the concept as a writing tool, but it’s nice to be reminded of it every now and again. Never hurts to reiterate, as far as I’m concerned.
Agreed! Thanks for the upvote in my confidence, Josh. 🙂
Thanks for outlining this, Lugh. I also use all six of these variations regularly and believe all are important to a balanced game. I am tired of seeing so many articles about how “Yes, and” is supposedly the superior method. The notion that people should always be granted positive results in whatever they want and for whatever approach they take is childish. Sometimes falling short, whether by a little or a lot, is life.