Always Say Yes, Never Say No

I was reminded today of the oft-repeated Old School gaming maxim, “Never say no.” That typically is a piece of advice to the Dungeon Master, who should always allow the players to try whatever batshit crazy stunt they want, no matter how far-fetched.

As long as they have an inkling of the consequences (assuming they should have any), it’s fair game. You do something stupid, you have a good chance of suffering bad consequences. You do something obviously suicidal, it’s not the DM’s job to talk you off the ledge. He’s there to help you step off, if that’s what you really want to do.

And then there was this the other day:

The cool thing about RPGs that I wish more people would know about is that you can just say “no I don’t think that happens” and no one can stop you in any way that matters.

I was thinking about this today after seeing some Bad Tweets about character death and after talking w/ @TheRpgAcademy on an #AcadecOnline panel this afternoon but no one can stop you from saying “no, what actually happens is…”

I wish I could remember who said it but an OLD episode of RPG Design Panelcast had a story of a character in a historical fiction game contracting some serious illness and the player looked the GM in the eyes and said “No, that doesn’t happen.”

I lived w/ that power move in my back pocket for literal years until recently in my IRL group when my character dove from a cliff to save his boyfriend. We rolled falling damage and it was A Lot. The GM said “this would kill you.” I said “That’s a bad story. That doesn’t happen.”

Oh sweet Incabulous, where to start?

First off, this is a further demonstration of the wisdom of the title of this post, although it now becomes obvious that it must needs extend not only to the DM, but also to the players. If the DM is encouraged, nay, required, to allow his players to do whatever crazy ass shit they want to do, then those same players must be similarly required to endure the consequences of their actions.

And that, I think, is the kernel of this entire thing. This is yet another example of someone who thinks that life shouldn’t have any consequences, no matter how many awful choices one makes. Which is complete and utter bullshit, whether in real life or in a game like D&D.

Now, there are absolutely “story games” whose rules give this sort of agency to the players. They aren’t as popular as they were seven or eight years ago, but they’re still out there, and apparently some people (like the individual quoted above) think the mechanics of such games should be (or, in this case, must be) applied to all RPGs.

Dungeons & Dragons, however, is not a story game in that sense. I wrote about this many years ago; while it is perfectly possible for a game of D&D or AD&D to have a story, such should not be the goal to the point that it overrides the mechanics of play, but rather the story is something which emerges as play goes on.

Traditionally, in A/D&D, the players and DM have an adversarial relationship. The DM designs encounters, and traps, and tricks, and monsters, and on and on and on which the players are supposed to overcome. This can be done through the straight mechanics of the game (combat, skill checks, etc.) or through clever seat-of-the-pants improvisation, but the relationship is clearly, “the DM makes the challenges, and the players overcome those challenges.”

It is from that overcoming that the story advances, and the true enjoyment of the game comes from overcoming those challenges in a way that provides a genuine threat of defeat. Without the certain knowledge that one’s character could die, the game becomes nothing more than a rote recitation of some predetermined script, with minor variations that are mere beats on an inexorable road towards an ending which cannot be avoided. Such is inevitably dull and boring, because there are no real stakes. The players in such a game literally cannot lose, and that makes for a dull game indeed.

I am reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit.” It’s a terrific episode, where a thug finds himself in a presumed paradise, but he cannot lose in anything he tries, and gets everything he wants. He thinks he’s in Heaven. Here’s the stunning ending (please do watch it, it’s not only great television, but a great example of my point):

“When you win every time, that’s not gambling. That’s charity.”

Exactly.

That said, the arrogance of the original poster is simply astounding. I present as Exhibit A the following quote from page 2 (!) of the AD&D Players Handbook (1978):

“Cooperate with the Dungeon Master and respect his decisions; if you disagree, present your viewpoint with deference to his position as game moderator. Be prepared to accept his decision as final and remember that not everything in the game will always go your way!”

Now, that’s from AD&D 1st Edition, of course. Modern players might be expecting something different. But, no; the 5th Edition Players Handbook (p. 6) says pretty much the same thing:

3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions. Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1.

Nothing in there about having narrative control over what happens to your character, nothing in there about being defiant when something bad happens, nothing in there about being a spoiled child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.

And finally, there is, of course, a factual error in the OP. When he says:

…no one can stop you in any way that matters.

There is indeed a way I, as DM, can stop you in the only way that matters. I can tell you to either accept my ruling as DM or get the hell away from my table. You play whatever game you want, but you don’t have the right to force your game on me and my other players.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

10 thoughts on “Always Say Yes, Never Say No

  1. The big problem with importing the “never say no” philosophy of improv theatre into gaming is that people generally don’t understand that the rule applies to both sides of the street. That it applies as much to the crafting of the offer as it does the gracious receipt of the offer.

    It is as much the responsibility of the individual making the offer to ensure that it can be used by the recipient as it is the recipient to make use of the offer and carry it on further. Any formal improv training doesn’t focus on how to respond to an offer, but rather on the techniques of how to craft a suitable offer.

    One of the big problems is that most people’s exposure to improv is with professional improv comedians/actors who craft offers that cause amusing problems for their equally highly skilled companions, who have the ability to take that idea and run with it. And return it later in the scene for beneficial results.

    Most gamers who hear the “never say no” motto are ignorant of the fact that the idea of improv is to continue and add depth to the scene, not to bend the scene to to their personal desires. They have no idea of how to craft an offer that is both readily acceptable to everyone at the table and which adds (instead of takes away) from the scene. For this reason the naked rule of “never say no” is one of the most dangerous pieces of advice you can give most gamers.

  2. I agree 100%. Alexander Macris talks about the same thing in his book, ‘Arbiter of Worlds’.
    Gary Gygax has this in The Keep of the Borderlands as well.
    If there’s no chance of losing, there’s no reason to play.

  3. If things turn out badly in a way that isn’t fun, it’s okay for the referee to back the car up and start again earlier. Just don’t do it every session.

    But what counts as “not fun” varies from person to person so that isn’t as easy as it sounds. One player may love bringing in a new character each few sessions – which makes character death okay – while another might be devastated by a character death by bad die roll.

  4. I am going to read this article over with my children. I run a very unforgiving campaign at this point. My kids are veterans. When we invite other kids over to play, they warn them.

    “Dad has no mercy. The gods have given you all you need it is up to you to make it more.”

    I think this cuts right to the chase of the issues at hand between gaming generations. I have no issue with a narrative campaign. Not one bit. It is called high fantasy. Yes, characters can “die” but it will be in some epic fashion, more choreographed than ill fate alone.

    In that world Sir Bold charges into a pack of goblins, slaying them one by one, his sword hacking them to pieces and they stand no chance due to his absolute mastery of the blade.

    I don’t live in that world now. In my games “now” (dad was nice when they were young for sure, but they are rotten teenagers now so game on) Sir Bold rides into that pack of goblins, gets pulled off his mount by a stray bolt or slingshotted rock. The end result is, That night the goblins are eating horse meat and man meat while repurposing his armor.

    Do I think there is a place for “charity gaming”? Yes, I do. If that is what people want to spend their time doing, go right on ahead. I won’t enjoy it but some might. I don’t tell my kids my way is the right way of gaming. I tell them it is just my way. When they ask me why I tell them because I believe problem-solving with others requires adversity and sometimes forced alliances. That is what I think the world needs more of. Problem solvers, not self-created victims who give up in defeat at the first hint of difficulty.

  5. Excellent post.

    I’ve played all kinds of games, including narrative story games, and they’re all fun, but only if everyone is playing the same game. Sitting at an AD&D table and pulling a move like this person is describing is like sitting at a poker table and throwing in an Uno “Draw Four” card. It doesn’t work and causes problems for everyone at the table.

    Also, the good narrative games I’ve been in have not all been about how the players were successful. The best games I’ve been in have included players who knew that failure and tragedy make good stories.

  6. Nicely put. I agree with everything you said, with one exception. While every group and gm have different styles, I too began gaming in the 70s. And the only place I ever heard the “story vs sandbox” dichotomy was online debate. In practice, even if the adventure is “You’re shipwrecked, find a way off the island while killing bad guys and looting their stuff,” that’s still a story. The old man at the inn says, “I have this treasure map, give me 50 gp,” and the treasure hunt is the story. Remember Braunsteins? “Here’s the situation, what do you do now?” Even this illusory “sandbox” I read about online is still a story, and it consists of the elements that a gm chooses to populate the field with. Caravans, soldiers, bandits, monsters, war, I wrote or rolled it up and chose what to present. I as gm present the elements of a story. Players sometimes get to choose the order in which they encounter the elements, and may be able to skip some. But every gm I’ve ever played with has a story to tell, whether it’s “save the princess” or “wage war on enemy shipping with these letters of marque ” And that is how I read the game as presented in those hoary old manuals I love so much.

  7. Good post and comments.

    Since returning to gaming this January, I’ve found myself puzzled by the fierce debates over editions, and over this point in particular. Back in the day, I think the players in my group were all young and protective of their characters, but now I’m fully prepared for my characters to die.

    As others have pointed out, without challenge and adversity, what’s the point of playing an action-adventure RPG? And more to the point, is it right to play a game in which violence is used to achieve power, but where that logic only applies to players if it’s in their interest? Such an approach to gaming seems pretty unhealthy to me.

    A good game presumably must include luck as well as skill for it to continue to be enjoyable, and a good RPG adventure should include various solutions to problems – of which violence is one that should also involve high-stake risks for the PCs.

    So, sure, players should be free to attempt anything – but whether they succeed or not should depend on a degree of difficulty (from easy to completely impossible) determined by the GM in accordance with the accepted rules. People who can’t accept that give-and-take approach to gaming would probably be better off playing a computer game in cheat mode by themselves.

  8. So dude plays an RPG with established rules, implicitly agrees to be beholden to those rules by his continued presence in the game, then shucks them to avoid the consequences of poor play. Note that he’s okay with the situation right up until the falling damage is rolled, then suddenly it’s a “bad story” and “doesn’t happen.”

    He dives off a cliff and then tells the ground, “Nuh-uh, you missed!” as if everyone at the table had agreed to play cops & robbers instead of an RPG. Is this guy 5 years old or something?

    And if all that weren’t enough, he also thinks he’s some kind of revolutionary for throwing a tantrum and encourages others to cheat in the same manner.

  9. I’m always amazed by the presumptuousness of people like this. It’s one thing to deviate from the rules or canon, or to explore or avoid certain things (e.g. exploring transgenderism or avoiding rape scenes) if everybody at the game table, or the person writing the story, decides on that beforehand. It’s quite another to attempt to unilaterally change the rules.

    This genius jumped off the cliff without any kind of precautions like some sort of magical levitation or flight, or even just tying off a rope, and then he whines when his character suffers falling damage?

    Not to mention he’d probably cry ‘bigotry’ if you dared to reject his claims.

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