Saying No but Meaning Yes

I play in a RMC game where the GM is the type to look for any excuse to punish the characters. Examples from the last session are when we paid passage with a wagon caravan between cities but the player had never asked about paying for food, just travel so the GM sprung it upon us that on the first night everyone else had food and we didn’t. Another example was that we were caring for an NPC who was in a coma. We were travelling by wagon. I said to the GM “I will tend the patient on the journey”, being a lay healer this seemed a natural thing to do. Five days later the GM comes up with “You never said you were going to give him anything to drink.” What! As far as I am concerned “tending the patient” is a modern contraction of “Attended to the patient’s needs” and I took it as read that food and water are fairly basic needs.

But, that is the GMs style. Every time he tries to trip us up like this I create a little checklist and in all future interactions I run through it. I even upset him last time as I had explicitly written on my character sheet that my tin and copper coins were in a belt pouch, my bronze and silver were in a pouch around my neck but under my shirt and my gold was in a pouch at the bottom of my pack. He told me that I discovered my purse had been stolen and to rub out the coins on my character sheet, to which I replied “Which one?” Two can play at being pedantic.

For the most part it is the GMs job to say “Yes”. We are there to help the story unfold. If the characters have a plan that they have the skills to carry out and they make the skill rolls then the answer to their questions should normally be a “Yes”. Saying “No” to your players too often is a sure fire way to stagnate your game.

In a barroom brawl my players don’t even ask me if there is a bottle they can grab as a weapon, they just tell me that they grab a bottle. How does it advance the story if there is no bottle? On the other hand if the player goes for a bottle against unarmed hooligans they have just escalated the conflict significantly and it could have consequences.

Sometimes I will add in a condition. If you want to swing of the chandelier then I will tell you where they are if they are not in immediate reach. It is then your choice if you want to go ahead.

Sometimes we just need to say “No” because that is the way the world is. “Is the castle gate shut?” is a yes/no question and if the gate is not open it is quite definitely shut. That is simply narrative and you could be starting to build the challenge that the characters need to face, how to get into the castle when it is under lockdown.

Last post I was talking about improve skills. All GMs need decent improv skills to be able to whip up an NPC as needed or to adapt the challenge as the characters make their decisions.

The improve technique I want to talk about here is “No, because…” In improv theatre a flat No is considered ‘blocking’ it prevents the other improvisational actors from taking the scene forward. It is the same in rpgs. Just saying No to your players does not normally move the story forward but even if you keep it to yourself, as will frequently be the case, the ‘because’ creates a route by which the players can turn the No into a Yes of sorts.

Take the example of trying to question a villains lackey. The player wants to cast Charm Kind on the lackey and the as best friends want the lackey to help him sneak into the villains tower. You know that this will completely defeat the point of the adventure. The villain is a red herring and it is what the characters will discover on the way to him that will reveal the next stage of their quest.

So we are faced with a charmed lackey. Will he sneak the character into the tower? No, because his life would be forfeit if it was discovered that he had breached the security.

That seems fairly normal but in fact it gives the characters something they can work with. If all the inhabitants are in fear of their lives for disobeying an order that could be used in duping a different npc, who they can put in a position of believing that if they do not do what they characters demand that the villain will be so angry they will probably not survive.

During the GM prep time or when you are plotting you keep in mind ‘No, because’ you can apply it whenever you block a route or close of a course of action. The reasons are part of the story and should help make the world more coherent.

3 Replies to “Saying No but Meaning Yes”

  1. Good grief. That guy sounds like a dickhead. I want to slap him around, and I wasn’t even in his game.

    To be fair, though, running a good game is not easy. I was out of the gaming loop for several years, and I forgot how hard it was.

    I’m getting some of my GM skills back, but I’ve had to think about how these things work in a way that I never did before. I developed a whole raft of techniques over years of constant gaming (mostly with the same group, so my players and I developed together) that I didn’t even realize I was using…until I tried to do the thing again after years of atrophy and decay.

    You make a very good point about “no” answers. This is another thing I kind of instinctively do but hadn’t thought much about. Occasionally no is just no, but in my games there’s almost always a “because” or an “and” that accompanies it. Or the answer might be “yes, but don’t get upset at me when you die.” 🙂 A “no” answer shouldn’t be a dead end; it’s an opportunity for the GM and the players to engage with the setting and the character’s options in more detail.

    1. As the saying goes, he may be a dickhead, but he is my dickhead. I have been gaming with him since before we left school. One just has to remember work around his foibles. I am sure I have them too.

      1. This is great until you bring someone new into the game (which you might not often do…I remember you saying this is a fairly long term stable group). He sounds something like the guys I first played RM2 with…the group that killed you off when you hit fifth level. Some foibles are relatively harmless, while others have the potential to turn people off the hobby before they really begin to understand it.

        Like Ing I’m very much a “no because” GM. Sometimes there’s a firm no, but more often it’s a plot-developing answer.

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