As the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to battle players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gygax created something to foil them. When players started listening at doors, He created ear seekers. When they collected too many magic items, he invented magic-item saving throws. When players boasted about their invincible characters, he created Tomb of Horrors.
Until D&D, games were adversarial, so the DM-versus-player model felt natural to the first D&D players. Gary and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by his style of play, but other dungeon masters too the style too far. Too many DMs played to defeat the players and their characters.
For decades, most tales of bad D&D games started with DMs abusing their power, punishing players so the DM could “win.”
Thankfully, role-playing matured. Gamers began to see the dungeon masters as something between a neutral facilitator and collaborator sharing an equal role in a shared storytelling.
This spirit of collaboration tells DMs to say yes.
The notion of saying yes comes from improvisational comedy. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”
As a DM, saying yes accepts the players as collaborators. If they want to attempt a battlefield stunt, say yes and make it exciting. If they have a character idea, say yes and make it special. If they want to visit the school of magic in a town without one, invent a secret school that was there all along.
Sly Flourish’s analysis of his dungeon master survey took thousands of bits of DM advice and distilled the 7 most-common nuggets. Number 6: “Say yes.”
The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Book touts the benefits of saying yes. “As often as possible, take what the players give you and build on it. If they do something unexpected, run with it. Take it and weave it back into your story.
“When you say yes, you open more possibilities.”
Say yes has helped my DMing, because my first reaction tends to be no. I used to say no a lot. “No” let me keep the game safely on the track I planned. But saying no cost opportunities to improve the game. Now I say yes, unless I have a damn good reason.
Role-playing games are new, so we feel tempted to borrow techniques from older mediums. Older media once followed the same pattern of borrowing. During the dawn of filmmaking, directors staged movies like plays, by setting a single, stationary camera in front of the actors. When filmmakers stopped shooting movies as plays, cinema leaped forward.
Often, game-mastering advice borrows suggestions meant for fiction writing—or for improv. Some of it still works, but some no longer applies to a game. In improv, performers always say yes. In gaming, yes can take a game in the wrong direction.
I chased all the DM advice about saying yes that I could find, and I the recommendation always came with strings attached. You should say yes—except when you should say no.
Saying yes can conflict with some of a dungeon master’s responsibilities:
- Posing challenges
- Protecting the game world
- Giving each player a contribution
In those conflicts, DMs must balance the merits of yes against against their other duties.
Despite the exceptions, saying yes remains powerful because it challenges DMs like me to defy our first impulse. Saying no always feels safe and easy, but yes often leads to a better game.