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How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.

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.