Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master

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.

10 thoughts on “Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master

  1. Brent Newhall

    It’s also important to recognize that A) There’s a huge difference between “challenging your players” and being “adversarial.” Gary kept creating new challenges for his players, but he wasn’t actively trying to kill them–he could do that any time. Even the Tomb of Horrors was designed to reward creative thinking (it says so in the introduction). And B) Gary was literally creating the game. He *had* to keep inventing new challenges for the players as they invented new ways to play and beat monsters with ease.

  2. Timothy A Park

    Well done! You captured succinctly what I struggle to get across. If you don’t mind I’ll throw out some thoughts your article prompted (in no particular order):

    My good friend and fellow gamer, Larry, is also a musician and sound engineer, he “says ‘yes'” a great deal, naturally. I suspect it is his experience with improvisation of another kind on stage. We’ve often talked about our gaming style being more like “a band jamming” than the more adversarial style that was common in the old days. “The module is the drummer, laying down a beat. I play bass, so I reinforce that rhythm and I can throw some emphasis in here and there. You pick up your guitar (character) and strum along a bit, but then you throw me a little progression that builds on the drums and bass, but also has a little three note ‘hook’ at the end that’s just a little out of place. A bit of a challenge, a bit of a question mark, something of a statement, and still within the rhythm and within the key of the tune. It doesn’t break the ‘rules of music’ at all. I can reinforce that, counter it, ignore it, expand it, add to it — all, some, none, whatever. Another instrument (character) can pick up on that with the same options. Half the fun of a live performance is experiencing what the (other) musicians do with the same old tune *this time*. Half the fun of jamming is someone picking a chord and seeing what grows from it.”

    We game like that. Sometimes it leans more to chance and accident, sometimes intent. The proportions change, and that’s what keeps it interesting. “Saying ‘yes'” is the first step in the whole thing being more of a conversation than a lecture. Even a debate is OK: real debates have rules and a certain etiquette. Saying “yes” as a referee moves one from “Godlike DM, ruler of destiny!” to “fellow participant”. A concept that also harks back to the environment in which D&D came to be. Yes, things were often adversarial. The competition between sides in chess, Napoleonics miniatures, micro-armor, and through the hex grid of many Avalon Hill and SPI games was *intense*. Which can be a very enjoyable thing too. Some referees/Game Masters/DMs — depending on the game — might work from that. But in other games the referee was just that: a referee. There to keep the game flowing and fair, adjudicating disputes, clarifying rules. The old, wise grognard who gently kept the lid on the kettle so things did not boil over. Who sometimes called in a “random event” that let a weaker player “discover” a division in reserve which was graciously accepted all around. Even if you were “out for blood”, the prospect of the game ending early and being left with “not enough time to do something else or start over” balanced against the referee giving the losing side a nudge.

    My DMing and other things was influenced by many people and things. Four years of education in literature with an idea of writing fiction someday certainly influenced things. Tolkien paired with that certainly did — not just the Lord of the Rings, but when a friendly professor (Tolkien was a “guilty pleasure” in my academic career; Lord of the Rings was *not* serious literature in my academic circles in 1980) “suggested” I find a book of literary criticism that included JRRT’s _Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics_ many things changed in my studies … and in my DMing. *Tolkien used the Beowulf Poet’s techniques in LOTR!* … and they work in RPGs too …. Not surprising when you think about it. “Yes, we have heard …” begins that epic poem … *the Poet said “Yes”…” and suddenly we aren’t passively listening to the skald: we’re invited to be skalds too, we share the lore (whether we actually do or not, doesn’t matter), the Poet’s Voice is now a peer, we’re included. When that poet delivered that poem, I would be most surprised if in a particular delivery connections to the present audience were not woven into the delivery. Homer did the same thing. Shakespeare and company likely did the same (knowing where their bread was buttered), Elton John reworked a song on the death of Lady Diana … and I get to make my adventure similarly responsive to the players present. (As Socrates said, “I am but a midwife …”)

    When I have had the privilege to teach and parent, one of the axioms is the phrase “roots and wings”, and sometimes seasoned with “the thing a rebellious child wants most is boundaries”. I want my students and children to explore things (wings). Part of the exploration is understanding the boundaries and consequences. I *need to say no*. Where the “no” comes from is key, however. If I’m simply tired and don’t want to bother? If I’m frustrated? If I do more than draw a line but throw in my displeasure, anger, and season that with shame “You should know better…” that’s adversarial and simply mean. “No” and “Yes” both come in many forms and can be delivered in many ways. I want to encourage exploration and minimize the worst consequences. (In a game where the most at risk is the character sheet, the consequences aren’t so dire, thankfully. That doesn’t mean I can be sloppy: watch a three year old: Play is serious business. So are our games. Our re-creation.)

    I had a young woman of 10 approach my blacksmith shop at a living history event a few years back. One of my smithing peers offered a children’s class and she was reluctant to take it, but clearly wanted to smith. Her reasons were very good. The childrens’ class was designed for 6-10 year olds and was as safe as Dan could possibly make it. There was interaction with the hot metal, but very controlled, the children couldn’t get closer than 24″ to the glowing steel at any time, it was beautifully interactive and incredibly safe … but “no hammers” as the young lady succinctly put it.

    “You’re right.” I agreed, to her Mother’s surprise. “To smith is to smite. That’s where the word comes from. If you aren’t smiting you aren’t a smith. And no way around hammers in that. … Usually you need to be a bit bigger to do this: no offense to you, young Lady, but it does take a certain amount of muscle and control to do this. That’s why Master Danr does things the way he does.

    “However … you do strike me as a bit … exceptional …. If an exceptional young woman were to present me with a hair pin (the project at the center of the children’s class) that met with my approval, I think I could find a hammer that might suit her stature. Sometime after 11 tomorrow morning? It’ll be moving into the heat of the day and I could use some help. And, of course, an exceptional young lady would have the approval of her parents, and their presence ….

    “Understand that you would help me. No favors here. And obedience in my shop to my directions is the first rule. But … if I saw a hairpin of … quality … that young lady might be useful. And she might learn some things. And she would definitely swing a hammer.”

    There were a few “no”s, but I still said “Yes.” And there was a very fine hairpin in my hand the next day. And for a couple of hours I managed the fire and held while she struck, and she forged an S hook. And when her brother teased her from afar, a brother smith growled “I don’t see you with a hammer in your hand, lad.” and later, with much approval “That’s how a girl hits.” as he examined her work. And we had a sister smith.

    So the woman playing the Dragonborn Paladin mutters some frustration about being the only one in the party without Darkvision. I know she likes cats. The strange Wizardess they encounter has many cats in her home and one takes a liking to the Dragonborn, somewhat amusingly. In the intervening week she shared some of the Dragonborn’s backstory with me (in my sandbox campaign, if a character is from elsewhere than the core region I frequently say “I know about this land. Where you come from? It’s a big world, I don’t know everything. Go ask your character, you tell me what they tell you about their homeland.”). She describes in a couple dozen lines an interesting land with a culture loosely based on classical Roman and Egyptian civilizations. Her deity is Sekhmet — cat headed, of course — and very appropriate for a paladin as it turns out. And lions and dragons are important creatures in that land, symbols of power and more. So the next week … the cat seems to be more a familiar … and with it around the Dragonborn Paladin seems to have a kind of Blindsight out to 10′ … just enough to manage a fight in the dark ….

    I like how we jam.

    “Yes! We have heard ….”

  3. wickedmurph

    One of the things I’ve found that has improved my DMing monumentally is that I don’t really think or respond in terms of yes/no at all anymore. I respond in terms of “anticipated results” and “scale of difficulty”.

    One of the fundamental problems that lots of people have with D&D is that they aren’t communicating expected results of actions with each other or with the DM, so the results that occur either aren’t what they expected or aren’t in line with what they were actually trying to do.

    So for me, if a player asks “can I grab the dragon’s tail?”, I’ll respond, “the tail is moving pretty fast and is quite spikey. You think you could grab it, but it would hurt and it’ll be pretty difficult to do. Are you trying to stop the tail or get up onto the dragon, or what?”

    Once they explain what they have in mind, I can come up with some possible courses of action that would allow them to do that, and give them information about relative (likely) difficulty. This is stuff that the CHARACTER would be able to evaluate but that the player might not be able to make good decisions on.

    So getting away from yes/no and more into what/how hard, I’ve been able to run games more smoothly, with better communication and more alignment between what the players are trying to accomplish and what I’m describing.

  4. Lawrence Cohen

    I hate dungeon masters who do that–fortunately, I very rarely encountered one.

    As a DM myself now, I try my best to NOT let the players get themselves killed off too easily. Yeah, if they’re stupid enough to jump off a cliff, yeah, they die. But I don’t go out of my way to get them killed.

    I find the hardest thing is to get monsters at such a level that it’s HARD to kill them, or at least, a CHALLENGE. The other problem I have is, giving away too much information. There are times when the players have all the clues, and are too dimwitted to put it together, that I practically want to SCREAM the answer at them!!!


    I prefer to play than DM.


Leave a Reply