Please your players, reward roleplaying and creativity, and keep game pace moving along by saying yes to player plans, actions, and ideas.
This is a classic tip mentioned in Roleplaying Tips Issue #303, Roll Dice Or Say Yes and I’ve seen various wise websites post this advice over the years as well.
There are a couple of nuances to saying yes I’d like to talk about today. Some game masters might be worried their players will take advantage of them. Others could be concerned their games might not be challenging enough if everything is always working out in the players’ favour.
You don’t need to agree to everything. Make sure a yes answer makes sense, doesn’t ruin your plans, or derails the campaign.
Making sense: If the situation doesn’t make sense to you, pause and hash things out. If only one player or part of the group is up to speed with the discussion, make sure you have agreement from everyone, where applicable, before saying yes. A forceful player might be trying to drive something through and take advantage of your good nature, while leaving his friends in the dust. It also has to be consistent with previous rulings or game details, and not break sense of disbelief.
Ruining plans: Always assume your plans are moot in their first contact with the PCs. However, sometimes saying no can rescue a lot of prep work, or corral precious game time that might otherwise be wasted pursuing unproductive ends for the party. This is general advice, as sandbox play, improv GMing, and other factors might put zero importance on your plans. However, I won’t hesitate to say no if I think it’s best for the game and the group, and I take that stewardship role seriously.
Campaign derailment: Sometimes saying no saves the PCs’ bacon, and you should say no using the same criteria you employ to fudge dice rolls behind the screen to help the PCs out (if you fudge rolls, that is). I won’t say no just to protect a villain’s bad tactics, or to pursue some specific end-scene or encounter set-up I think would be cool.
This is a major point, actually, so let’s pause on it for a sec. You will have great ideas, expectations, and visions tied to specific outcomes, decisions, or set-ups during the game. Perhaps you want the PCs to use a specific entrance to trigger a magnificent cascade of events, or you want the villain to escape, or you imagine how great it would be if the characters offended the Great Druid because you have a killer side-plot idea.
Your ideas will often be great. And it will be tough letting them go. But you must. Please do use the GMing tools in your toolbelt to influence or guide the PCs towards desired results, but you can’t control the characters or the players. If the players feel that, no matter what they do, consequences and events are preordained, they’ll lose interest or get rowly.
This is age-old advice, but in our moments of inspiration, we all still fall prey. For example, something that angers me as a player is when a certain type of encounter will trigger regardless of our actions, but the GM sets up the illusion that we have a choice. The group will talk about our choices, make plans, wrestle over tactics, and then, regardless and unbeknownst to us, the result is inevitable. In that case, I prefer the GM to just let us know. Roleplaying aside, it would have saved so much game time, saved us a lot of energy, and made that bit of gameplay meaningful.
Giving control over to your group is tough. Many authors say how tough it is to give up a phrase or section they are proud of or excited about, but if it doesn’t serve the book, it must be cut. Stephen King mentions this. He cuts 10% from his first draft. Then he’ll cut another 10%. It’s painful, but it must be done.
So, say yes even if it means postponing or averting your desires or cool ideas.
Say yes, but
Another tactic is to allow success but with a condition or string attached. This can be abused, so be careful, as too many uses of “yes, but” cancels the positive effects of saying yes at all.
An ideal condition or string generates interesting tactical considerations for the PCs. It validates the players’ idea or request, but gives them something extra to mull over or factor in.
“Yes, your plan will work, but you might not have enough time after crossing the chasm to get your rope and pitons back.”
On rare occasions, you can create dilemmas where all choices are yes, but each has a downside and there’s no clear winner. This can generate excellent roleplaying and party discussion, but I caution that you use this rarely unless difficult choices is the theme of your game.
Say yes, but get there quick
Now we come to the main point of this post. My GMing advice is, if you’re going to say yes, then figure this out right away and get to yes quickly.
This is a skill you might need to learn. It took me a few tries at it, because you need to think ahead a bit, first to determine if the likely outcome is yes, and second, what trouble could lie behind that answer. If the coast is clear, then you will serve your players and the game better by getting to yes fast.
This often applies to situations where you are going to say yes anyway, so why bother saying no to a bunch of player ideas somewhat arbitrarily until the magic moment arrives when you give an idea your approval? Why make the players pitch ten ideas to you, and then you choose idea eleven.
We are critical, analytical creatures. We can find a problem with anything. We can especially find holes in PC plans and ideas, because we’re all working with a limited set of information. We’re not actually there, in the game world, trying to do things. So, GMs can always find reasons why something might not work and poke a hole in a plan or idea.
“Can we jump the chasm?”
“No, it’s too wide.”
“Can we find a narrow point up or down along the chasm and jump it?”
“No, the chasm is too long.”
“Can we tie a rope and climb across?”
“No, this side is barren, there’s nothing to tie a rope to.”
“Can we climb down this side and then up the other?”
“No, the chasm is too deep. And there’s lava at the bottom.”
The GM senses now the PCs are running out of options. He better say yes soon, else the PCs will be stuck.
“Is there a tree on the other side? Can we attach a rope to an arrow, embed it in the tree, and while two of us hold the rope the others climb across. Then, we carry over a second rope, so the last two can just swing across the chasm?”
Sometimes problem solving is fun. But a scene like the above, which I have actually GM’d, is painful. I should have just said yes to the first request. I knew the PCs had to cross anyway, so why not just let them cross with the first reasonable idea?
Say yes and add friction
You might have legitimate concerns over letting poor ideas slip through or of sending signals that the easy train has just come to town. Mitigate this, carefully, with friction before saying yes:
- Ask for additional explanation or details. “Talk me through this, and try not to leave out any details.”
- “Yes, but…”
- “There are a couple things that might cause your ideas to fall flat – this thing and that thing – what can you do to solve those problems?”
- “Are you sure that’s what you want to do? Double-dog, no dice fudging, no take-backs, you’re ready to do this thing?”
- “Thanks for the run-down on your plan, Frank. The group is all agreed then that’s what you’re all going to do? Great, let’s start. From the top, Bill, tell me how the group executes the plan.” (This one is evil, and catches players who aren’t paying attention.)
As cautioned before, adding friction can counteract the benefits of saying yes to keep the game flowing along well. It also cancels somewhat the benefits of getting to yes fast. Adding a little friction helps generate extra challenge or hesitation, when needed though, so it’s a valuable tool in your toolbox.
Is this the hill you want to die on?
A friend at work told me his wife once asked him in the middle of a heated discussion whether this was the hill he wanted to die on. Now that’s funny. It’s also a wise temperature check. Ultimately, the point of this tip is to not waste time squabbling over details or issues when you’re going to say yes anyway. It’s also about saying yes often because it’s too easy to find holes in any reasonable idea or plan, just as in real life, but that doesn’t meant something wouldn’t work or isn’t available or isn’t possible.
So, say yes. Get there fast. And if you find yourself balking or arguing over trivial details, ask yourself, is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the issue you want to ruin game pacing, momentum, fun, or progress on?