It Really Is Okay to Just Say “No”

Dice saying NOA popular (and relatively new from my old-timer point of view) GM meme goes something “Always say ‘yes’ or ‘yes but'” with a strongly implied never say no. Personally, I think this is some of the worst GMing advice I’ve ever heard as there are times when saying anything but “no” is going to seriously hurt a game session or even a campaign.

For example, players who want to play characters who do not fit the campaign premise or the campaign’s setting need to be firmly told “no” as allowing characters who do not fit the campaign is going to make the campaign less fun for the GM and probably less fun for at least some of the other players. As a GM you should not feel you are somehow obligated to accept every character concept a player comes up with or to change the campaign setting or premise to compromise with a player. If a character does not fit the campaign premise, the setting, the play style of the rest of the group, or uses rules that you as GM do not want to use, don’t feel bad about rejecting the character outright. Do not feel an obligation to compromise with the player over a poorly fitting character concept unless such a compromise does not interfere with the campaign.

Another example, some things are simply impossible to do as they violate the “physics” of the campaign world. While a character running fast enough that time flows backward might be acceptable in a high-powered comic book superhero game, it’s going to be simply not possible in the average fantasy or spy campaign. While this is an extreme example, I found over the years that players often come up with ideas that are just impossible — and they need to be firmly told “no, you can’t do that” when they do. Saying “yes” or even “yes, but” when something is actually impossible leads to all sorts of problems. A more reasonable example would be a character with a lot of skill in diplomacy trying to use a skill roll to talk an NPC enemy ruler into doing something that no one in their right mind would agree to (like turn control of the country’s army over to the enemy PC). It doesn’t matter how skilled one is in diplomacy, no sane person is going to agree to something like that unless he is under the influence of drugs, magic, blackmail, or the like so the character is effectively trying to do something that is simply not possible: no matter what they roll, the attempt should fail. Some cases where people see “broken rules” are really fine as the rule in question is only broken if the GM never says “no, that’s impossible.”

Saying “yes” or “yes but” when you can is a good idea. However, when “when you can” becomes “always”, I’ve found it to be a very bad idea. Think before you say “yes” (or before you say “no” for that matter) — don’t let some “rule of good GMing” (that someone made up) force you to say “yes” when saying “yes” is actually a bad idea. This is even more true in old school games.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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Ian WyckoffPaul SheppardMarty WalserGreg SalterRandall Recent comment authors
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Ian Wyckoff
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The advice to always say yes is really very odd. If it means, as a GM, be prepared to make fair rulings regarding any action the PCs can reasonably make, regardless of whether you have planned for it or there is a dedicated mechanic for it, then yes, that is obviously the GMs job. But if the advice is to cave into any desire of the PCs, I can't imagine a campaign like that surviving any length of time – there is just no challenge, no tangible reality to the thing.

Paul Sheppard
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I believe it originally was intended to remind GMs that it's ok if the players come up with a plan that they didn't prep for; a simple statement to avoid the railroad mindset. I don't believe it was meant as a be all and end all way to GM. If you always say no to PC ideas they will stop offering them, but at the same time there's logic and "reality" to be considered

Marty Walser
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You have improperly interpreted the "Yes, and…" advice. It is not intended to mean what you have stated here at all. You've created convoluted examples that are not the intention of "Yes, and" improvisation. The "Yes, and" advice is not intended to over-turn rules of the game world and let the PCs be super-human when they are not, or give them skills or equipment they do not have. For example, you state:"A more reasonable example would be a character with a lot of skill in diplomacy trying to use a skill roll to talk an NPC enemy ruler into doing… Read more »

Greg Salter
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I'll second everything Marty Walser said. The advice comes down to working with players instead of shutting down. The end result could be the same, but one is interesting the other just convinces players to stop caring.

Randall
Guest

Marty Walser: While this may have been the original purpose behind this advice, I see it used mainly my players to beat GMs over the head these days. I can't even say it is good advice for its intended purpose, as any GM advice that says to always do (or not do) something is by definition bad advice to my mind. As I run sandbox campaigns that don't have any stories other than what the players decide to (try to) do (and have since 1975), I've never understood GMs who will not allow their players to try to do anything… Read more »

JDJarvis
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Characters should stay in concept for the campaign: It's okay to sat no to green wookies on Middle Earth and ninjas in ancient Greece. When it comes to crazy ideas in play it's okay to let people fail at some things but other things really ruin the game: It's okay for the player to try to have his character try to leap across an alley and swing thru a window and kick a bad guy in the face… it's bad for the dame character to attack the queen in the throne room surrounded by guards during the first 5 minutes… Read more »

Marty Walser
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Randall write: "While this may have been the original purpose behind this advice, I see it used mainly my players to beat GMs over the head these days." You can't blame the advice because the players abuse its intent. That like saying, "Cars are useless because some people use them irresponsibly and therefore crash and hurt people." You are blaming the advice for what is a GM and player abuse problem You write: "I would not advise such GMs to "always say 'yes'" but to simply generally allow players to try anything possible that they want to try." What you… Read more »

Randall
Guest

Marty Walser:You said "What you are missing is that those two statements ARE THE SAME. The "Say Yes" advice means exactly what you just stated — Let the players try anything possible they want to try, no matter how likely it is to fail." Your wording may mean the same as my wording in your context but my wording is specific enough that it cannot be as easily used by players to browbeat GMs into letting them succeed at everything they want to do, no matter how absurd in the context of the current situation in the game. My wording… Read more »

Ian Wyckoff
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Randall, I blame you completely for what is going on on google+ 😛

Randall
Guest

Ian: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Marty Walser
Guest

But Randall, nowhere in the advice does it really say "Always say Yes". That is an over simplification of the statement. The advice almost always reads Say "Yes, and… " or "Yes, but…" Semantically, that's not the same at all as "Always say yes."

Nuance is important.

Randall
Guest

Marty: Perhaps the advice published in narrative games does not say "Always say yes" but I'm not limiting my comments on this maxim to the way it is used in narrative game rules. I see a whole lot of "always say yes" in forums and blogs around the Internet and from a small but noticeable group of players offline.